They were still in first gear when the Backstreet Boys moved into overdrive. They watched patiently as 'N Sync proved unsinkable. Now 98[Degrees] may have finally caught fire themselves.

By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
Updated August 13, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

The hotties of 98[Degrees] have come a long way in the last two years. For one thing, they’re four years older.

”When we first signed with Motown, they suggested we [lie about] our ages,” Nick Lachey explains, en route to a Houston venue where 98[Degrees] will headline the latest stop on All That Music & More, Nickelodeon’s 38-city teen-pop concert tour. ”But we were so stupid,” adds Justin Jeffre. ”We kept getting confused.” The plan, says Jeff Timmons, ”lasted about a week.”

Two years since 98[Degrees] began confessing their true ages — Timmons and Jeffre are now 26, brothers Nick and Drew Lachey are 25 and 23, respectively — the group is looking anything but stupid. Their new single, the marriage-minded ballad ”I Do (Cherish You),” has inflamed the passions of the pubescent girls who worship at the altar of MTV’s Total Request Live and sparked the chart life of 98[Degrees] and Rising, an album that, though double-platinum, has still only flirted with the top 10. If these heartbreakers are just now breathing down the necks of more established boy bands ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, Nick Lachey thinks he knows why: ”We learned the hard way it’s better to be ourselves.”

Here’s who they are: four unerringly polite, unmistakably white, middle-class hunksters from Cincinnati, who formed 98[Degrees] in ’95. In the crazy-quilt tradition of BSB and ‘N Sync, there’s a personality (and pecs) for every taste. Timmons has an aw-shucks-I’m-homecoming-king handsome diffidence; Jeffre’s a charming every-girl’s-best-friend kind of guy; Nick, a muscleman nicknamed Quadzilla by his group-mates, has a Ricky Martinesque appeal; and Drew could be everyone’s younger brother — if everyone’s younger brother were cut like Adonis.

But two years ago, the squeaky-clean image of 98[Degrees] was all wrong — at least according to Motown. ”They told us they wanted us to move to New York,” says Timmons. ”When we said we didn’t want to, they said, ‘Don’t move, and your record won’t come out.’ So we get to New York, and they had this idea that we were country bumpkins, so they wanted us to hang with an urban crowd, get a lot of urban gear. You have a certain amount of faith that the record company knows what they’re talking about, so we’re like, ‘Okay, maybe this is artist development.’ ”

Rightly anticipating the late-’90s reemergence of blue-eyed soul, Motown’s then president, Andre Harrell, admits to the tampering. ”I wanted them to understand [black] culture and not just mimic it,” he says. ”Great artists are like a ball of clay. I knew they were away from home in another cultural universe, but I knew that at the end of the day, they were going to have a piece of important information.”

While the group collaborated with producers on their self-titled debut album, Motown, deeming them not ”flavorful enough,” asked them to move from Manhattan’s Upper West Side to Brooklyn and join the choir of a Harlem church. ”We go through the yellow pages, find a church, and drive to Spanish Harlem,” remembers Drew. ”And there’s yellow police tape all over the building next door. The pastor gets up and says, ‘We want to pray for the people who died last night in the illegal gambling hall.’ We’re like, ‘What are we doing here?’ ”

98[Degrees] were feeling equally uncomfortable in the studio, where they were asked to record a song with lyrics so explicit they’re too embarrassed even now to state the title. “It’s racy,” says Timmons. “Very racy,” says Drew. “Very, very, very racy,” adds Timmons. “It would’ve been a career killer.” (The song, which has never seen the light of day, is called “Can I Touch You There?”)

By November ’97, when Harrell, now president of Sean “Puffy” Combs’ Bad Boy Entertainment, was replaced by film producer (New Jack City) and record-biz neophyte George Jackson, 98[Degrees] were having a meltdown. “George said, ‘Tell me your feelings about the label,’ and I broke down and started crying,” Timmons recalls. “I told him about the identity crisis I was having because of the things they wanted us to become that we weren’t.” Jackson promised the group more control over their second album, but there wasn’t much to be done about their first, released four months earlier in the same wave of teen-pop success that brought the Backstreet Boys their first hit, “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart).” Though a nonstarter on the album charts, 98[Degrees]’s eponymous debut produced one hit single, “Invisible Man.” But then, says Drew, “there wasn’t another single, no plan, nothing.”

Disappointed, the group headed to Asia and Europe to peddle 98[Degrees] to the lucrative international market, and recorded the Grammy-nominated hit “True to Your Heart” with Stevie Wonder for Disney’s Mulan soundtrack. Early in ’98, work began on 98[Degrees] and Rising, an album they coproduced and for which they cowrote five songs (although not the disc’s three hit singles “I Do,” “Because of You,” and “The Hardest Thing”). Since the album’s October ’98 release, 98[Degrees] have gotten caught in the same corporate merger—the marriage of the PolyGram and Universal music groups—that has left so many recording artists either label-less or deeply discontented. Helped by Rising’s success, the group smoothly slide-stepped from Motown—which was owned by PolyGram—to Universal Records. “Motown was entering the third management change in three years,” says Harrell. “98[Degrees] took advantage of the merger to get with a system that was more organized.”

That “organization” is evident when 98[Degrees] land in Houston, midway through their cross-country concert trek. The group that only recently drove in an RV to low-paying gigs at cheerleading camps arrives in top 10 touring style: From two luxe buses, replete with sleeping bunks, spill forth five backup-band members, a security team (headed by a friend from high school), two dancers (one of whom, another friend from high school, is the group’s choreographer), a road manager, and enough costume changes to make Menudo jealous. The fans who are paying for it all flank the buses, banging on the windows; these are the girls who take 98[Degrees] at their word when they gush from the stage, “We love each and every one of you.”

Sure, roll your eyes. But remember: The guys spouting these sappy sentiments still make decisions by playing rock-paper-scissors, they get dizzily starstruck by Jennifer Lopez and Bruce Willis, and they thank God—literally—for their good fortune. Though they admit to being homesick after two years on the road, they’re not ready to return to Ohio just yet. Standing backstage in his boxers as a wardrobe woman steams his fatigues—the kind of pampering he would not necessarily get at home—Jeffre knows it’s no time for 98[Degrees] to chill. “The record company came to us and said ‘Slow down,’ because they don’t want us to have a nervous breakdown. But it’s been a long time leading up to this point. Now is our time, and we realize it.”