Cover Story

Sexy Beast

Music! Movies! Gift-wrapped manhoods! On the eve of the Grammys, EW gets serious and silly with Justin Timberlake, the boy-band graduate who has turned out to be the real deal

Justin Timberlake | JUSTIN TIME With the music industry desperate for superstars, Timberlake burst through with the monster hit FutureSex/LoveSounds . Add in movies — and his ''D---…
Image credit: MARTIN SCHOELLER
JUSTIN TIME With the music industry desperate for superstars, Timberlake burst through with the monster hit FutureSex/LoveSounds. Add in movies — and his ''D--- in a Box'' — and a pop culture force is born

Justin Timberlake's cheek is glistening with another man's perspiration. And he couldn't be happier about it.

''There's nothing like some Will Forte sweat on your face!'' laughs the 26-year-old singer, who is lying under the comedian on a couch at Saturday Night Live's New York studio this December afternoon. With Maya Rudolph, the pair have been blocking out a sketch called ''Old Friends,'' which concludes with Timberlake and Forte shot by a sniper. Hence their prone position on the couch, and the sketch-comedian perspiration dripping onto pop-superstar face.

''People would pay a lot of money for that sweat,'' Forte faux-boasts to Timberlake.

''You should sell it on eBay,'' Rudolph concurs.

She's joking. Clearly, the only sweat worth its Internet-auction salt around here belongs to Justin Timberlake, this week's SNL host and musical guest. For this is Timberlake's time. He seems omnipresent in the culture, his celebrity status comfortably eclipsing even the megastardom he enjoyed at the height of 'N Sync's success. He's at Sundance with a new movie. He imitates Prince at the Golden Globes. And then, of course, he's the story du jour for the tabloid press and entertainment news shows, which have drooled endlessly over Timberlake's split with longtime girlfriend Cameron Diaz and his subsequent rumored ''links'' to a tranche of comely female celebrities including Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel.

But all this — the breakup, the alleged flirting, the awards ceremony high jinks — is merely the sideshow to his emergence as a genuine pop culture talent, the one real deal to survive the boy-band craze. On his second solo CD, last year's FutureSex/LoveSounds, Timberlake went for a whole new sound, a sonic departure from both 'N Sync and his first solo album, Justified. The result was massive success: two No. 1 singles so far; the introduction of the phrase ''bringing sexy back'' to the idiom; four Grammy nominations, including a coveted Album of the Year nod; and the fifth-best-selling album of 2006, shifting 2.4 million copies. While releases by OutKast, Pink, and Diddy underperformed sales-wise, Timberlake proved himself a rare beast — an established artist whose new release matched the commercial hopes of a music business in dire need of superstars.

''He is hugely important to the industry,'' says Barry Weiss, president and CEO of Jive Records, who has known Timberlake for nearly a decade. ''In the past three to five years it's become more and more difficult for American artists to sell overseas. He's one of the few that successfully sells in every country around the world.''

As if all that weren't enough, 2007 will also see the proper debut of ''Justin Timberlake, Actor,'' with at least three films boasting his thespian talents: Black Snake Moan (which opens Feb. 23), Shrek the Third (out May 18), and the Nick Cassavetes-directed Alpha Dog. The latter was released on Jan. 12 and garnered Timberlake a slew of positive reviews.

''If he wasn't so good, the movie would fall flat on its face,'' says Cassavetes. ''You know, this kid's going to be the biggest star that ever hit anywhere.''

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