As he prepares to attend a remembrance ceremony to mark the two-year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, on Tuesday night, Lance Bass is still distraught thinking about the mindless tragedy, which killed 49 people. The LGBT hot spot was one of the first places where Bass was able to celebrate his sexuality, and reaching a point where he could bring himself to do so was no easy feat.
In fact, in a new interview with ET, the 39-year-old musician -- who confirmed he was gay in 2006 -- is sharing the extent to which he struggled with his identity up to that point, and how his bandmates’ love lives triggered a battle with depression that he’s still facing to this day.
“When I started with *NSYNC, I was 16 years old, so I didn’t fret over being gay because I was still young, so could hide it easily,” he says. “It was when I was 19, 20 and everyone started having serious relationships that I really started feeling depression for the first time. All the guys had girlfriends and we’d get a couple of days off and [they would be with] girlfriends and I was the only one who didn’t have anyone. That’s when it started getting really scary because I was like, ‘I can’t keep this ruse up much longer.’”
“Then rumors started because I hadn’t had a girlfriend, so I would date people just for the optics of it -- so people would think of me in a certain way,” Bass continues. “Which was horrible for that person and for myself -- having a relationship built on a huge lie is a horrible thing. I thought, ‘My life sucks.’ It was like one side of my life [my career] was going great and I should be happy, but the thing that really matters -- love -- I couldn’t have.”
Growing up in conservative Mississippi, Bass says he knew he was gay as young as five, but had no one to look to for guidance.
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Finding fame with *NSYNC (created by late music mogul Lou Pearlman following the success of his first boy band, the Backstreet Boys) Bass kept his sexuality a secret because he feared going public would hinder the group’s success, and subsequently, his bandmates’ futures. However, hiding such a significant part of his identity tore him up inside and it’s only with hindsight that he now realizes how bad his state of mind became.
“At the time I was just a dumb teenager who didn’t know what was going on,” he says. “Looking back, I realize how lonely and sad I was. I put my entire life into my work because as long I was busy, it took my mind off [the sadness.]”
While Bass never felt so low that he contemplated ending his life, he knows all to well the feelings which lead an alarming number of LGBT youth to decide they can’t go on, and now works with organizations like The Trevor Project to help struggling teens emerge from such darkness.
His own light at the end of the tunnel came when he revealed his sexuality for the first time by sharing a kiss with the guy who would become his first boyfriend. “It was freaky because it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, now someone knows and it’s up to them to keep that secret. I can’t control that.’ It was a very overwhelming moment because I knew it was a point of no return.”
“It was during *NSYNC’s hiatus and I was still scared as I didn’t want anyone to know because I didn’t want it to affect any of the guys’ careers,” he adds. “It was a secret I was always going to take to the grave. But during that time off when I didn’t focus on work, I was able to think about my feelings, meet people and have a relationship and that’s when I started really understanding [myself.] I thought I was gay my whole life, but the older you get you’re like, ‘Well, as long as I don’t act on it, it’s fine.’ You trick yourself into thinking you can hide it, but once I kissed a guy I was like, ‘All right. I’m 100% gay and this feels right.’”
It was a few more years before Bass finally went public with his sexuality, tired of continually denying rumors and lying. However, the interview, which ran on the cover of People in 2006, had such an “insane” 24-hour turnaround that although Bass left voice messages and sent emails, he wasn’t able to connect with many of his loved ones before the issue was published, meaning some people “woke up to the news.” Several friends couldn’t forgive Bass for not confiding in them earlier, seeing the secret as a “lie” and ending their friendships.
It was a different story with his “Bye Bye Bye” bandmates -- Joey Fatone, JC Chasez, Chris Kirkpatrick and Justin Timberlake.
“Joey knew way before anyone because that same first boyfriend was sitting in my lap in my office one day and Joey walked in,” Bass recalls. “Normal guys don’t just sit on other guys’ laps! I was like ‘Surprise!’ and he was like, ‘Oh please, I don’t care.’ And, the rest of the guys [took the news] fine. They were the easiest to tell. They’re my best friends … my brothers. They completely knew. So, it was not a surprise to them at all.”
With the weight of his secret lifted, Bass recalls the ecstatic feeling of walking into a gay nightclub, openly gay, for the first time. “Coming from hiding a huge part of yourself for your entire life and being so lonely about it, to ripping the Band-Aid off and being around people just like [me] was incredible,” says Bass, who met Michael Turchin a few years later and tied the knot with him in 2014. “It gave me so much hope that I was going to be really happy.”
One of those clubs that Bass started frequenting was Pulse nightclub. Reflecting on the tragic shooting two years on, Bass says he panicked when he heard the devastating news. “I immediately thought I was going to know someone who was there. After frantically calling all my friends, thank god, no one I knew was hurt.”
Still, the horrific massacre hit “too close to home,” prompting Bass to begin working with the onePULSE Foundation, which provides grants to survivors and families of victims of the tragedy. The organization is hosting Tuesday's remembrance ceremony. Bass' latest efforts include partnering with Crowdrise by GoFundMe for a fundraiser running throughout June (Pride Month), where contributors have the chance to fly to Los Angeles, California, to dine at Bass’ favorite restaurant, Pump, then become his sous chef during his Facebook Live cooking series, #LanceEats at Chef'd headquarters.
“Cooking is a huge passion of mine and a lot of people don’t know that, but in my family, everything revolves around food,” explains Bass, who previously teamed up with his mom, Diane, to compete in Fox’s My Kitchen Rules. “It’s always an experience and a memory, so I wanted to do something fun, which I’m passionate about and allows me to connect with fans in a fun, unique way.”
Blessed in ways he unlikely imagined as a struggling teen, he admits that behind the glamour, he still struggles with depression. And while these days it’s no longer concealing his sexuality that ignites low moments, he still has many of them.
“This business is what triggers me now,” he says. “It’s a horrible industry to be in because 99% of everything you do is a failure and you’re told, ‘No,’ all the time. It’s very rare you get to celebrate huge successes. You have to be a strong person and let things roll off your shoulders, which is really hard.”
“People always see the best parts and it looks like a fabulous life, but I’m human and I go through all of it, from happiness to depression,” he continues. “I’ve had depression for a long time and I still have bouts of it, for sure. It’s in my makeup. I get days where I feel like nothing’s right, then I have to go, ‘Wait a minute,’ and start thinking about all the good things in my life. That’s how I turn it around.”
*To contribute to Bass’ onePULSE Foundation fundraiser and be in to win a trip for two to Los Angeles and become his sous chef for a day, visit Crowdrise.