If you are of a certain age (re: old enough to rent a car, too young to remember the first Bush administration), then you probably remember swiping on your root beer-flavored Chapstick, lining up a few extra butterfly clips in your hair, and turning to the latest issue of YM magazine to see Danielle Fishel and Lance Bass’s prom photos. Along with Britney and Justin, Katie Holmes and Chris Klein, or Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prinze, Jr., the two were one of the ur-couples of the late 1990s and early aughts, and with good reason: Fishel was well-known as an American sweetheart for her role as the free-spirited, amazingly coiffed Topanga in Boy Meets World, while Bass stole hearts as the deep-voiced, spiky-haired cutie in NSYNC.
But as we would discover two decades later, more was going on with those cute prom photos than met the eye. Bass, who had grown up in the church, was struggling with his sexuality and the feelings of guilt and shame that come with being a sex symbol with a secret in the spotlight; Fishel was unaware of this and had planned to use her Prom Night to lose her virginity to Bass. Though they didn’t realize it at the time, their relationship would later become the basis of what will be a millennial sex comedy classic: an as-yet-unnamed movie, with a script penned by Lauren Lapkus and Mary Holland, which will likely feature tons of scrunchies, Nineties pop star cameos, and perhaps a Very Special Disney Episode moment or two.
“The writers have so aptly titled it an un-romcom, and that’s kind of what our relationship was,” says Fishel. “It was definitely a love-filled relationship. I loved Lance. I still love Lance. It just wasn’t romantic love, but I didn’t know that at the time.”
Rolling Stone got in touch with Fishel and Bass over Zoom to chat Nineties tabloid gossip, Britney Spears, what it’s like for Justin Timberlake to be your wingman, and how they really feel about their former bandmates/castmates.
RS: Let’s just start from the very, very beginning. How did you two actually meet? What’s the origin story here?
Danielle Fishel: TGIF, the famous block of shows in the Nineties that was on ABC from 8:00 PM to 10:00 PM, was doing a special live night where the episodes were all taped, but in between the episodes, they were going live to this special location, and all of the cast members from all the different shows were there. They needed one specific point person to host, and I was that person. I don’t know why they asked me, but I was one of the only girls, certainly on Boy Meets World, and they said, “Listen, we’re trying to get a boy band. We know that those are very popular. We’re trying to get a boy band, and we’re just trying to decide between Backstreet Boys and NSYNC.” I was very much an NSYNC fan. And I said, “NSYNC. Definitely get NSYNC.” They agreed to be the band, and I was kind of hosting their little segment, and we had all this downtime as you do when you’re rehearsing for something, especially something that’s going to be live, and we just got to spend a lot of time together talking. It was really, I remember, me, Justin [Timberlake] and Lance, the three of us as being kind of three amigos and spending time together.
Lance Bass: I grew up on TGIF, so I was super excited to do anything that was familiar because we had just kind of started our career in America at that time, so to be able to be on ABC and TGIF was so huge for us. We were like, “Oh my gosh, people are going to know who we are.” Of course, I loved me some Danielle Fishel. I had a big old crush on her, so when I saw that she was going to be there, I was super excited.
Danielle Fishel: That’s so cute. I never knew that backstory.
RS: Lance, my understanding is that Justin was kind of your wingman. He went off and got Danielle’s number. Was that a typical role for him in those days?
Lance Bass: Yeah, Justin’s always had swagger, for sure. Me, not so much, for multiple reasons. I was straight off out of Mississippi, very conservative background, and I had no idea what it was like to ask someone out or to go on dates, really, so I needed that wingman, and he just fit that role perfectly.
Danielle Fishel: Yeah, he did.
RS: I would be remiss as a Boy Meets World super fan if I did not ask, had you ever actually dated any of your co-stars at that point before you started dating Lance?
DF: No. Not at all. The only co-star on Boy Meets World I dated was Matthew Lawrence and that was significantly later. We were like 17. Matthew Lawrence joined the show in the later seasons, and Matthew Lawrence is the only cast member I ever dated.
RS: You said on the podcast [Boy Meets Pod, which she cohosts with Rider Strong and Will Friedle] that you had a big crush on Rider.
Danielle Fishel: Oh yeah, I did. I had a crush on Rider, and I have my diary from that first and second season, and it’s like, “P.S. I love Rider” on every page.
RS: Did you ever, at any point, have any suspicions that Lance was gay?
Danielle Fishel: No, I really did not, and we’ve talked about it a little bit. Chris Kirkpatrick would say, “You know your boyfriend’s gay, right?” At the time, I thought of it as making a joke, and I didn’t quite understand the joke because I was like, “No, he’s not, and I don’t really know why you’re saying that. He’s my boyfriend.” But no, I didn’t really ever, I was never suspicious. It wasn’t until he broke up with me, and then my mom was the first person who said to me, “Can I ask you a question?” because I called her all upset when Lance broke up with me, and I was like, “I’m devastated. He broke up with me, and I don’t know why. He said it was the distance and that it wasn’t really working.” I thought we were doing really well, making it work with the distance. When I had times off from Boy Meets World, sometimes I would fly to meet them wherever they were, and then I’d go on tour for a few days and ride on the tour buses, and when he had days off, he’d come to LA and stay with me, and I thought we were really doing a pretty good job of making it work, so the excuse didn’t feel real. It felt like there was something more, but I didn’t know what it was, and I just assumed it was something I did wrong.
And my mom said in that conversation, “Danielle, I’m going to ask you a personal question.” She said, “Were you and Lance ever intimate?” And I said, “No, we weren’t.” And she said, “Okay.” She said, “Do you think there’s any possibility that Lance might be gay?” And I was like, “No. No, I don’t. I don’t think there’s any possibility that he’s gay. I think you’re just trying to make me feel better that this isn’t about me, and I appreciate that, mom, but no, I don’t think that’s what it was,” And then we hung up the phone, and then I was like, is there any possibility? And then I started thinking about all the opportunities that we had that maybe something physical could have or should have happened at that point in our relationship. I never really thought that it was weird because I was a real late bloomer, and I had not had a whole lot of experience. It was always in the back of my mind that Lance was going to be the person I was going to spend the rest of my life with, so I wanted to lose my virginity to Lance, but I also wasn’t in a rush to do it. We’d kissed and stuff like that, but that was all it was. In hindsight, thinking about it after my mom brought it up, I was like, “I guess you’re right. I guess maybe in other situations, most people would’ve pushed that, and he did not.”
RS: How did that make you feel at the time, the realization that he might have been gay, and how did it make you feel after he publicly came out in 2006?
Danielle Fishel: At that point, he had already come out to me privately. It was maybe within a year after that. We broke up in June of ’99, and that December, we all went to Hawaii together, all the NSYNC guys, all of us who were still really good friends. Lance and I stayed friends, but it was still really hard for me. I went to that Hawaii trip thinking, “gosh, I hope there’s a possibility we get back together,” and he made it very clear on that trip, not by being mean to me or anything, but just very clear that he was not trying to spend any alone time with me. I fully was like, okay, that was the closure I needed. I can now move on. That following year, I started hearing from other people that Lance had, in some way, let them know that he was gay. And I was like, okay, that is making more sense, and then that October, I went to a Halloween party at his house, and he pulled me aside. He said, “Danielle, I have to talk to you about something. I just wanted to let you know that I’m gay.” And I said, “Yeah, I think I know that now. I’ve heard that. I’m not totally surprised, and it doesn’t change anything. I love you. We had an amazing relationship. I love our friendship. Thank you for trusting me enough that you would tell me, and thank you for also telling me privately and not waiting until I found out with everyone else.”
RS: As a teenage girl, though, you’re already dealing with such a mishmash of insecurities and just general neurosis. Did you feel at any point it was a reflection on you at all?
Danielle Fishel: What’s funny is that no, I didn’t at all. I think it wasn’t until a lot later, when I could read comments on the internet where people were like, “Oh, Danielle turned him gay,” that thought even entered my mind. That was the first time I had that thought like, “Oh, wow. People actually think this was something that someone could do to someone.” I remember thinking that was really stupid. I never once even thought that it could have been related to me. I think if I had any sort of teenage neurosis about it, it was more about the feeling of, “Should I feel bad about possibly having been lied to? Was I lied to? Was I in a relationship with someone who lied to me?” And I thought about that for a little bit. And I was like, “No, that is not the relationship we had. Lance loved me. And I know Lance loves me. He still loves me. And I still love him.” I know that Lance really believed that our relationship had enough of the qualities that it could have lasted, that it would have worked, and so I didn’t ever feel like him telling me he was gay was any sort of reflection on me.
RS: Lance, did you ever want to come out while you were in NSYNC or have a conversation about potentially coming out with anyone in the band?
Lance Bass: No, never. I was scared shitless to even talk about it. Just the way that the whole world perceived gay people kept me in the closet, and especially being in a business like the music industry, which is very homophobic, there was no way I wanted to tell a single soul. I thought that I could live a whole life just ignoring the fact that I was gay. I grew up in a church where you pray the gay away, and you can’t be gay, but the lesson you learn is yes, you might, might have gay feelings, but you just cannot act on it. As long as you don’t act on it, that means you’re not gay. My whole teenage life, I knew that was going to be my path: yes, I knew I was gay, but I would be able to hide it and suppress it because that’s what I’m supposed to do. I will meet an amazing woman, the love of my life, and I’ll be able to get married and have kids and have this little secret my whole life. That’s what you kind of fool yourself into believing, or that’s what everyone tells you as a kid. But then, you get older, and you start realizing, “Well, that just kind of sounds like bullshit to me. I don’t feel like that is right.” And then you just start going down the path of finally accepting yourself and realizing that you should be living for yourself and not anyone else.
RS: What was your awareness of your own sexuality at the time that you were dating Danielle? She mentioned that occasionally, Chris Kirkpatrick would make jibes about your sexuality at the time or call you her gay boyfriend, so were there conversations about it within the band?
Lance Bass: No, the only time they ever mentioned to me anything gay, it was on the set of “It’s Going To Be Me.” I remember I was in my dressing room, and Chris comes in, and he just looks at me. He goes, “Are you gay?” and I freaked out because it was the first time anyone had asked me that, and this was 2001 or 2000, and I just freaked out. I’m like, “No. What? No. What are you talk? No, I’m not gay.” And it scared me so much because then that’s when I finally knew that the guys were talking about me behind my back, but just like the rest of my life, I just kind of ignored it. I freaked out internally, but I just ignored it and pretended that never happened.
RS: Have you since talked to other Nineties pop stars who were closeted at the time, like Ricky Martin, about what it was like to navigate your sexuality during that era?
Lance Bass: Not really. No, I’ve never talked to Ricky about it or really anyone. Jonathan Knight [from New Kids on the Block] and I are pretty close, and we’ve had talks about it, but nothing about how hard it was to go through that. With John, I think it was a little easier, especially in the public eye, because in the early Nineties, and late Eighties, no one was talking about people being gay, really. If you said that you were straight, you were straight. It didn’t matter if you were flamboyant or whatever, people just accepted you for what you told them. People weren’t really trying to pry into your private life and out you. We didn’t have blogs and social media to try to out every single person and take a picture of them with their hand on someone’s shoulder. For the most part, I was able to get away with it easily, too, because, again, [there was not as much] social media, and we could disappear, and we knew the places we could go that no one was going to be taking pictures inside. I had a pretty easy ride to be able to hide it.
RS: What about Perez [Hilton, who often posted about Bass’s sexuality prior to him coming out]? Have you heard from Perez at all? Has he expressed any contrition to you about the way he treated you?
Lance Bass: Yeah. I’ve run into him a couple of times in the last decade, and there was one time he was crying, and he was just like, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to do that to you.” I just called BS because I think the next day he wrote something else horrible about me, so I’m glad that he doesn’t exist anymore.
RS: You don’t really buy his about-face?
Lance Bass: Oh gosh, no. I think he was horrible to the LGBT community and really, really set a tone for the hatred for our community that still lasts today.
RS: Why did you guys want to adapt this story into a film? Who do you see as the audience other than people like me who will watch it immediately?
Lance Bass: Well, the timing is great because nostalgia is at an all-time high right now. People are obsessed with the Nineties, which I never thought that decade would ever be cool. And with the success of Kissing Booth and movies like that, I think this new generation and then our generation can really come together and have a fun story because this prom story is very relatable today. So many people have that same prom story where they took their gay boyfriend and finally came out. It’s kind of a rite of passage. I want to see what that looks like today in today’s world using our story.
Danielle Fishel: It’s also such a story of how expectations can either propel you forward in a different way than you ever expected or really ruin an evening. There are so many expectations you put on prom: you think something’s going to happen, and prom was that for me. Prom was going to be the night that I lost my virginity to Lance. It was not something Lance and I were on the same page about, it was just in my mind that that’s what you did, and we had been together for almost a year. I was convinced we were going to be together forever. We were going to get married and have a family, and I went into that night with that expectation, and I think Lance knew I was going into it with that expectation, and he didn’t know how to handle what his game plan was.
Lance Bass: I finally knew I couldn’t ignore it anymore. And then, finally, it became a reality, all in that one night. It just became a full-on reality where I knew, “Wow, I can’t do this. I have to be honest with myself. I have to be honest with everyone else, but I’m not ready, to be honest with anyone else,” so I knew I’d have to end it right there because I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I think the thing that would hurt me the most was knowing that I would lose my best friend. I was going to lose a lot of my other best friends, the guys in the group, all that. I just felt like, when this relationship ended, that it was going to ruin a lot of my relationships because I didn’t know if they were going to be like, “Wait, that means he’s gay. He’s a hundred percent gay,” or, “how could he be such an asshole? How could he break up with the best thing he ever had?” So, either way, it was just a lose-lose situation for me, and it was not a fun time.
RS: In exploring your relationship, are any parts that you guys are nervous or uncomfortable about revisiting?
Lance Bass: At this point, I am an open book. I went from being the most hidden person in the world to someone who speaks too much and reveals l too much. I think that’s just because I was so used to holding everything in that it’s hard for me to keep a secret anymore because I just don’t want to lie to anyone else. I think with this, I think the more raw you can get with it and the real you can get, even embarrassing things are great to watch because someone watching that can be like, “Oh my gosh, I felt that same way. I went through the same thing. I don’t feel so alone now because someone else went through the same exact experience.”
RS: Who would you both cast as yourselves?
Lance Bass: Oh Lord. There’s no one that I’ve actually looked at and been like, oh, that’d actually be a great 18-year-old Lance. I think it’ll be fun to cast, but I have no one in mind. Do you, Danielle?
Danielle Fishel: I have someone in mind.
Lance Bass: Who, who, who?
Danielle Fishel: Okay, I’ve literally not told anybody this, and I have no idea if she can act. But there is a girl on TikTok. This girl, her name is trinnittyy__ I don’t know if it’s two underscores, whatever. Anyway, she’s-
Lance Bass: I can totally see that, yeah.
Danielle Fishel: Isn’t she great? I love her. I follow her. I think she’s amazing. Follow her. I want to put her on tape because if she can act, I’ve found my Danielle.
RS: I’m trying to think of somebody for you, Lance, but I don’t have enough knowledge of Gen Z. Maybe Jacob Elordi. I don’t know.
Lance Bass: I don’t know. I wish… Is it Taylor Zakhar [Perez, from Kissing Booth 2]? I wish I looked like him. It would be fun. We look exactly opposite from each other.
RS: Lance, you told Andy Cohen that you came out to Britney the night of her first wedding. What do you make of the fact that she just said she won’t be performing again?
Lance Bass: I want her to do whatever she feels comfortable with for sure. And yes, right now, I’m sure she’s not thinking about performing and being on set anywhere, but I know Britney, and she loves performing. She loves being an entertainer, and I see her back on that stage at some point. I don’t know if it’s anytime soon, but we all want her to make new music. We got a little tease with Elton John, so we want a full album. If she tours with it or not doesn’t matter. We just want the music. Give us some music, girl. We’re all supporting her.
RS: Do you have any insight into how she’s doing?
Lance Bass: Yeah, she’s doing great. Lots of friends that are around her. In fact, we’re supposed to be meeting up because we’re going to hang with the kiddos at some point, but she seems super happy. She’s just dealing with coming down from this traumatic experience the last 10 years of her life, and I think that takes a lot of getting used to, and probably I’m sure, going into therapy or whatever you have to do, to really get your thoughts straight about what had gone down. She’s got a lot of trauma to deal with.
RS: I talk a lot with my friends about how messed up celebrity culture was at the time that you guys were being widely covered, especially body image issues. What do you think was the hardest thing about growing up in the public eye in the late Nineties, and early 2000s?
Lance Bass: It’s definitely harder for the ladies for sure. I was always the fat one in NSYNC, which I was like, okay. I’d always be like, am I? “Oh yeah, he’s the chubby one in NSYNC.” I would get that. But other than that, there was no magazine of me in my bikini on the beach and people circling places like, look at this, but the girls, they go through a whole different experience, and I’m sure it’s tough to see people sexualizing you like that.
Danielle Fishel: I was out of the public eye for the most part by the time paparazzi even started. Boy Meets World ended in 2000, and really, paparazzi stuff didn’t start until ’99, 2000. I’m really glad that I was never a major target for that stuff because I wouldn’t have done well with it. Even now, the few times I have been in a spot where there have been paparazzi, I don’t respond well. I fully panic. I get scared. And then, I’m angry. They’re trying to talk to me, and they want an interview and my heart’s racing, and I’m frustrated that they just jumped out and really scared me.
RS: You guys are both so strongly associated with groups — Danielle with the Boy Meets World cast, Lance with NSYNC. Is it weird for you guys to just constantly be facing questions about, do you talk to this person? Do you talk to that person? What’s your relationship with that person?
Danielle Fishel: Yes, especially when you’re talking about relationships from your childhood. It is really crazy to me that, literally, anyone thinks that there’s anything wrong or weird about not talking to somebody any more. And that if you don’t talk to someone anymore, it’s because there has to be beef. Do you know how many people I don’t talk to anymore that have been very important to me in my life? And not because there’s beef, but because you lose touch with people. It is a weird part of celebrity culture.
Lance Bass: It’s true. I think the number one question I’m asked is about the other NSYNC guys. And everyone thinks it’s so funny — they’re like, “Really? You still talk to Justin?” I’m like, “Well, of course, we talk. We’re family. We went through something that bonded us for life,” but we were teenagers at the time, and we all grow into other people, and we kind of grow apart, and there are times where I won’t talk to some of the guys for six months, but we pick up right when we talk the next time again. I think it either pisses people off that, “Oh, you don’t talk to them daily? I can’t believe that,” or it’s like, “Wow, I can’t believe that y’all still talk after all these years.” But yes, but no, we’re all good. We still love each other.
RS: What did you think of Justin’s dancing in the DC concert, the Beat Your Feet dance that went viral a couple of months ago?
Lance Bass: It’s so funny. He has joined TikTok now, which is one of my favorite platforms, so I immediately made sure that he knew the rules of TikTok. I was like, “1) Here they call me Guncle Lance. And 2) Any dance videos, you have to have me approve first,” so any dance things now he has to go through me before he ever posts anything. We’ve always been one to razz each other about everything. I just posted TikTok a couple of days ago where we found footage of us on Jay Leno, and Leno was like, “So which one of y’all’s the biggest liar?” And immediately, the guys were like, “Lance,” without even pausing, and you could just see on my face like, “oh shit,” because I know what they’re talking about.
RS: How do you think your relationship with Danielle would’ve been different if it had been conducted today? How would the movie have been different?
Lance Bass: I don’t think it would go down well at all because I think people just know too much about you, and they could figure things out. Even if it’s just a rumor, rumors are true to half the people. I think this generation doesn’t want to be lied to, especially about being gay. Right now, everyone thinks that it’s not a career killer anymore and that if you’re faking this relationship for the public, you’re just doing this for your career, and that’s just icky, and I don’t want to support you for that. I think just people can see through a fake relationship, especially when it comes to being gay, and I think people would be very disappointed to find out that you were hiding something like that and doing this for publicity.
RS: Well, were you doing it for publicity?
Lance Bass: No. God, no. I really thought I was in love. This was the exact relationship that I was praying for. I was going to find the perfect girl. We were going to be so close, best friends, totally attracted to her, and I knew this was going to be the one. It was the perfect person for me. I wanted to make it work. I desperately wanted this to work, but then when it came to the mechanics of sex, it did not work, and I thought when I finally got to that point that it would, but it did not.
RS: I guess my last question for you guys is, what are your dream Nineties, 2000s cameos for this movie?
Lance Bass: Well, I don’t want Danielle and me in there being like, oh, we’re… I want us to be removed from that, but it would be fun to play around with because there are adults in this film also, but playing those adults and using people like Pink, Britney Spears, whoever from that generation that was huge at that moment, would be kind of fun. The younger generation might not even know who they are now, but the parents watching this will definitely get a kick out of being like, oh my gosh, that’s Mandy Moore, that’s Pink, that’s Christine Aguilera, that’s some of the Backstreet Boys.
Danielle Fishel: Mandy Moore’s a good one.
Lance Bass: Yeah. It would be fun to do little Easter eggs in the film.