"What's sexy to you?" asked a disembodied voice playing over a speaker in a barrel-shaped theater in Hollywood, straining to be heard over the sound of a thousand camera shutters clicking at once.
"Mmm, sexy," the voice of Justin Timberlake answered, his words echoing. "It's not the clothes. It's the way you wear them. Sexy is a state of mind. It's about that attitude attitude attitude."
Timberlake, in the flesh, was sitting dead still on top of a speaker box while the previously recorded interview played on, his silver argyle Vans splayed apart and his head hung low under a slim black hoodie. He sat that way for several minutes, a pop Buddha preaching the dharma of bringing sexy back, motionless as people moved lights all around him and B-boy dancers polished the floor with their chests. Then in a blink, he was sitting next to a reporter on a bleacher with his arm on his shoulder.
"I'm stressed as hell," Timberlake said. "How was your flight? When did you get in?"
Aw shucks, Mr. Timberlaaa ...
Oh. The performer had just as quickly gotten up and was standing by the runway.
The singer-designer was stressed. He was watching models rehearse for the first fashion show of a collection called William Rast, a year-old collaboration between Timberlake and Trace Ayala, his best friend since childhood. He was aware of the critical trouncing delivered to other celebrities who have attempted to commercialize their personal style with a fashion line.
"I don't want to look like a celebrity who is cashing in on celebrity," Timberlake said. "That's my fear."
Although Ayala designed the clothes, it was Timberlake who was making the fashion show a production, selecting the music, conceiving the set, taping the fake red-carpet interview as a sly statement on the hyped nature of celebrity collections — it would play as other celebrity guests took their seats — and personally casting the dancers and models.
Monday afternoon last week, the day before the show, several of the models were moping or chomping on gum, unable to manage a fairly uncomplicated routine that required one turn and one half-turn. One stomped down the runway like a Clydesdale, comically attempting the signature march of Gisele Bundchen. Timberlake made a bug-eye face, then pretended to stumble across the room.
As most music-conscious people have heard, Timberlake is bringing sexy back; that is, his contagious single of that title has dominated global pop charts since September, and it has even been used as a punch line by US Vice President Al Gore, when he appeared on the Video Music Awards and said he had heeded Timberlake's call.
Critics have praised the album with the single, FutureSex/LoveSounds, the second solo album by Timberlake, formerly "the cute one" in the boy band 'N Sync. In another step toward his transformation into an adult act, Timberlake has taken on serious acting roles, including a part in Nick Cassavetes' crime drama Alpha Dog.
And now he wants to expand his claim on sexiness to fashion, with a runway show he and Ayala named "Street Sexy." Showing restraint, Timberlake did not plan to play his hit until the finale of an after-party concert following the fashion show. He seemed well aware that its popularity is in danger of becoming oppressive.
"At least I didn't bring Lycra back," he said.