Now that Justin Bieber squired Selena Gomez to the Vanity Fair bash post-Oscars and gave a controversial interview to Rolling Stone in which he riffs on sex, rape, abortion, politics and the health care system, I check in with my favorite teen idol, Damon Pampolina of The Party and All New Mickey Mouse Club fame, for his inside insight.
The heartthrob, 35, comes clean about his decade-long relationship with Mouseketeer Brandy Brown, the truth about dating fans, why Justin dating Selena could be a dicey move, the dark side of being a teen idol, his run-in with Britney Spears and why celebs shouldn’t complain about being role models.
But that’s not all. Find out why he’s pleased his wife had no idea he was a star and how fatherhood has changed his life. Plus: the Mouseketeer perk he still enjoys today, and how YOU can get him to host your party. (Swoon!)
Psst: Just as fans adored the Texas native who expressed a fondness for family back in the day, they will be pleased with the responsible, level-headed, smart, personable married man and doting dad he’s become.
Beginning in 1989, Damon set hearts aflutter with his smoldering looks, Southern charm, wise-cracking wit, stellar acting and musical chops. Years before Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and Ryan Gosling joined the All New Mickey Mouse Club, he became a teen magazine staple along with The Party’s Chasen Hampton, Albert Fields, Tiffini Hale and Deedee Magno, who could be found every day at 5:30 p.m. on the Disney Channel variety show. The multicultural music group enjoyed a string of hits including Summer Vacation, I Found Love, That’s Why and In My Dreams, released five albums, and opened for Color Me Badd and Vanilla Ice.
For Damon, what strikes a chord in the Justin Bieber tale is the way he attempts to maintain the mystery surrounding his relationship with Selena Gomez by slamming his computer shut when their photo is spotted on his desktop during the Rolling Stone interview. (Justin has since dropped the act: the young lovebirds stayed in the penthouse suite at The St. Regis Monarch Beach in Dana Point, Calif., on Saturday, and got cuddly at the Vanity Fair bash post-Oscars on Sunday.)
It hits close to home: Damon and fellow Mouseketeer Brandy Brown’s romance began at age 12 and endured for a decade.
“We were first loves,” he tells me. “I will never forget that time in my life. It started at the Mickey Mouse Club at 12 and lasted for many years. There were breaks due to travel and tough times to keep the relationship together. We were living together in New York while she was on a soap opera at the age of 18 till I was 21. Living in New York was one of the best times of my life.”
He continues, “It was an amazing situation. That young love that is so fun and it’s going on while this amazing opportunity is happening in your life. It was stressful at times, but you have to do the right thing. It was pretty special and I wouldn’t change a thing about my youth or that time in my life.”
Still, it was never publicly acknowledged until after their time on the show was up.
For a male teen idol, disclosing a relationship can be disastrous.
“I had to learn the hard way, but there is an obligation,” he says. “There’s a fantasy and a position that the celebrities are in at that age that they have an obligation to their fans to keep the dream and keep the hope alive … that there is a possible chance that they will get to meet that celebrity, and then possibly date them. That’s all part of that dynamic – from the Jonas Brothers to any type of male figure. There is a fantasy there, there is the dream that is all part of the worshipping of that idol, that they have hopes of just maybe they would be able to meet that person and possibly date them. “
He continues, “You’ve gotta be respectful. It’s part of it, like the publicity and the paparazzi are part of it. Whether you want it or not, it’s there. You have the opportunity to have financial success, but it doesn’t turn off when you walk off the stage. You’re living that lifestyle 24/7.”
Because keeping budding love lives under wraps is a must for male teen idols, he was coached to answer and deflect prying questions.
“It was tough at times,” Damon says. “Teen magazines would ask in interviews ‘would you ever date a fan?’ I had to make sure that we answered that correctly, and not to say that we ever wouldn’t, but of course, you wanted to answer realistically. We had a great team, and our publicist would help us out with stuff like that. ‘Would you ever date a fan?’ Make sure you say the right thing.”
He adds, “That’s what’s so cute about Bieber and Gomez. I mean, the poor boy is 16 years old. I mean, he’s 16 years old with raging hormones, do you really think he’s not dating? Hundreds of thousands of women are desiring this young man, but he’s not dating anyone, in his position? It’s ridiculous.”
Despite the fact that many years have passed and technology has altered fame, Damon believes the teen idol trail remains the same.
“You need to be careful with who sees you doing what,” he says. “What is expected of you doesn’t change. No matter how much time lapsed, from Elvis to Bieber to us to New Kids, you name it. 15, 16 …. Those fans are still expecting a certain thing from you. There is a responsibility there to play that role the right way, which means you’ve gotta be single and available, if that’s the position and the path you choose in the music industry.”
He adds, “You have to keep that sex symbol thing up until you feel that you are absolutely fed up with it, and you want to take a different path, but it’s tough to change that midstride. We already perceive Bieber a certain way, could you imagine him growing a beard and getting grunged out and all rockered out? It would be like ‘wait a minute man.’”
He maintains that Rolling Stone’s adult line of questioning put Justin in a bad place.
“We all want to know ‘is that little boy still a virgin?’ Be honest. That’s what we want to know. I do think Rolling Stone had a responsibility in interviewing a 16-year-old pop star, though. Look man, keep it cool. What does Justin Bieber know about world peace, world hunger and abortion? It’s ridiculous. I think it should’ve stayed: ‘How’s your relationship with your mom? What are your plans for your future with your music? Do you feel you’re going to have longevity in this business when your voice changes and you mature?’ It’s still touchy stuff, but things I feel he would be able to answer on his level.”
Although celebs protest that they’re just entertainers and not role models, Damon sees it differently.
“There is a responsibility there that you are a role model to hundreds of thousands, possibly millions on Bieber’s level, to those young kids that look up to you. They want to bust him so bad. You’ve gotta be careful because they’re looking for it. I don’t agree with people who say ‘I’m not a role model.’ It’s like ‘look, that’s part of it. You have the opportunity for this kind of financial success, and you don’t make that kind of money because of no hour-and-a-half onstage.’ You have that opportunity to make that kind of money because of the lifestyle you have to lead and the responsibility of the celebrity-ism that comes with it.”
According to Damon, not only do teen idols need to hide their love lives, but they also must disguise rebellious behavior.
“We were drinking at 17, 18,” he confesses. “We had to be careful that that wasn’t seen, especially with the Disney background. Oh my God! And nothing too irresponsible, nothing that other teens out there are not doing, but we had a responsibility as being role models and Disney figures to keep stuff clean, and don’t even comment on the fact if you were sexually active or not. We didn’t even want to dive into that. Well, we did, but they tried to keep us from getting into that. [laughs]”
He adds, “The bottom line is that you’re human. You’re a 16-year-old boy. You’ve got hormones racing. All your buddies that are your age may be dabbling in alcohol, which is something that 90, 95 percent of boys at Justin’s age are going to be doing. You just have that spotlight on you, man, that magnifying glass, and they’re watching every move you make, and your career depends on that next move you do make. You’ve gotta be careful. That pressure can be huge. We’ve seen so many people stumble. So many stars trip and fall many times.”
With the support system Justin has in place, Damon doesn’t envision him rebelling on a large scale, but he and his pals in The Party made mischief.
“We did it in our own way,” he says. “As soon as we got into the group, it was tattoos and piercings — the first thing that a teen wants to do. Mine was my actions — acting out, like a young kid. Not destroying, but messing up hotel rooms, sneaking away from our guardians when we were under 18 to go to fans’ houses. We’d get our own hotel rooms from our guardians so that we could go off and have peace and quiet, or do whatever we wanted to do as far as intimacy was concerned. It was a way of trying to keep your peace of mind, that ‘hey, I’m still human. I’m a 16, 17-year-old boy. Give me a break.’ That was the way that we acted out. And, now that I look back, it was innocent. It was nothing in regards to heavy drug use or crashing cars. It was rebelling against the system. They kept it so tight on us.”
Because everyone in the group was under 18, each of the five members had a guardian with them at all times. Damon’s mom was typically on hand, and if not, he was placed in the care of a choreographer or other staffer, while Chasen had an older friend supervising him.
“Whoever that guardian was would be with you in that hotel room, so you were constantly watched,” Damon says. “You had to be slick and good if you wanted to break away and be deviant. [laughs]”
He continues, “I pulled it off a couple times. There was a swimsuit model in Toronto, Canada, and she was much older than I was at the time. Of course, I was maybe 16 wanting to be with her. My mom was on tour with me, and I snuck away to a stair well in the hotel with her, and through my mom trying to find where I was, she somehow sniffed it out and found me in a stairwell making out with this swimsuit model, and boy, was that extremely embarrassing. I didn’t get in trouble, but we were under the microscope from our guardians and the road staff. Our manager, when you think about it, we’re that manager’s responsibility because we’re under 18. God forbid something would happen, that would be lawsuit city and who knows what else would happen.”
Indeed, coping with the stress of constantly being watched, pleasing fans and staying relevant can be trying.
“That pressure can be extremely tough,” Damon says. “It comes down to the team and the people you have around you to help you with that. That’s the one thing I do have to give Justin – it seems like he’s got great people around him. His mother seems to be right on with her comments and what she says. Commenting that ‘I don’t want yes men around him, I don’t want to create a little diva.’ Usher is a mature mentor for him that has been down that road many times. That’s gotta be great, because the pressure can be immense.”
The Party ultimately ended in 1993. Damon went on to appear in a Saturn commercial, star on MTV’s Undressed and reteam with Albert to perform as hip hop duo NDecent Proposal. He met Britney with Chasen (who returned to The Mickey Mouse Club to host following The Party days) when she opened for *NSYNC.
“She was a total doll — a southern belle with a lot of talent,” Damon says.
Looking back, he describes the peak as “the best all-natural high in the world. You have a passion for something, and people are responding to it on a large and positive scale. It is an amazing high.”
And the valley?
“I have gotten through all the low points with the support of my family and true friends,” Damon says. “You have to be at peace with yourself and have a strong grip on reality to power through that change. Another strength I have found is the amazing ‘comebacks’ like Robert Downey Jr. and Mickey Rourke. Hearing their stories inspires the hell out me.”
Flash forward to 2011, and he’s living in Texas with his wife Jennifer and their 15-month-old son Roman Valentino Pampolina.
Remarkably, she didn’t know he was a star — and he’s happier that way.
“My wife did not know about my past when we met,” he says. “She found out about it later on in the relationship. I can say she truly is my rock and loves me for exactly who I am 100 percent.”
Of fatherhood, he says, “Roman is my inspiration to live life to the fullest and give every bit of myself to whatever job or project I am doing. What an amazing thing to bring life in this world.”
One topic of conversation the couple discusses frequently is whether they will let little Roman get into showbiz.
“If he has a solid – and, of course, we will be able to judge – if he has a direct passion for entertainment or for performing or for playing an instrument, it will be supported 100 percent,” Damon says. “It has to genuinely come from him, so that means if he wants to become a painter or if he wants to be a veterinarian, the same support is there. Nothing will be pushed, but if he starts falling in that direction and it’s genuine and the talent is truly there, it will be supported 100 percent. That’s the dynamic of life. I couldn’t keep him from that, even with all the woes, worries, concerns and obstacles that come with that.”
Hm, what woes, worries, concerns and obstacles?
“Too much fame and success too young; growing up too fast … What will you do when the spotlight becomes much more dim? How will you be able to handle that?” he says. “Of course, all those concerns for my own son would definitely play a role. I’d be worried. That’s the thing – for Bieber, it’s so much, so fast. You want longevity for him, but if we look at the track record in the history of music, the odds are against him. It doesn’t mean his talent can’t prevail; it means it’s a brutal business and a brutal position to be in. The public is harsh, man. They love to build up and tear down. Those would be my concerns for my own son.”
While Damon is actively seeking a regular sitcom gig (cast him! I will watch every night!), he can be found DJing, MCing and hosting private events through PRP Entertainment, a business he co-owns with his father.
“I’ve been doing it off and on throughout my teens, and even when I was in The Party. It’s a passion and a love I have attached to music, and then in the past two years, I’ve taken it back on full-time. Being based in Houston, it was a no-brainer to team up with my dad and do that. It’s great. A lot of our events are usually on the weekends, so my weekdays are open for catching appointments and auditions. It’s pretty cool.”
For Damon, the party’s not over yet, and the perks also remain (minus complimentary Disney park access).
“There’s an immense amount of respect that comes from being attached to that show, especially with the careers that have spun off from it,” he says. “As I’ve gotten involved in the business and sought out my representation that I used to be with years ago in NYC, there’s a respect from having that background. They know that training camp was huge. To my knowledge, a five-day-a-week variety show has not been attempted since. That part of it, for me, is a great honor, and still cool to be a part of. There’s still people out there who have the curiosity about our past, and want to know what we’re up to and all that. That is flattering, and gives support, and pushes us to keep going. As we mature and grow as artists, we’re hoping that support is still there because it was such a big part of a lot of people’s childhoods.”
Here’s my retro pic with Damon:
For more on Damon Pampolina (and Justin Bieber), pick up the OK! on newsstands now. The cover line is “Kendra exclusive: How I Lost 10 Lbs. in 2 Weeks.” Live in the Houston area? You, too, can witness Damon’s skills in action by booking him for your next event through PRP Entertainment.