Hangin' Tough: New Kids on the Block's number one fan for 21 years

Laurie Panico and NKOTB's Danny Wood last year at the House of Blues-
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Thu, Oct 6, 2011 2:49 PM EDT

There are two sides to every break-up. Laurie Panico remembers it this way: "I was devastated. There was no closure. It wasn't expected at all, so I was heart-broken."

Jonathan Knight, one of five members of the boyband New Kids on the Block, tells a different story. His reasoning for the band break-up in 1994, had something to do with falling out of love with the fans. "Sometimes, back then, it got real scary," Knight told People Magazine. "Especially at airports-the most I got were some scratches, but those crowds could get out of control."

A bad breakup -between fans and boyband-should end there. But you know what they say about setting someone free, if they come back it's meant to be.

"Eventually my wounds healed," Laurie said on the phone yesterday. "I didn't get into anyone else but went on with my life. When Joe came out with his 'Stay the Same' album in '99, I went to his CD signing but I got the feeling they all didn't want to be remembered as part of that boy band. So when I heard rumors of reunion I was like a school girl again." That was in 2008. This week they announced plans for another tour, with protégés the Backstreet Boys, for next year. Laurie plans to see multiple shows, and hopefully get some face time. "If I get an opportunity to hang with the guys I will," she says.

I found Laurie Panico by pulling up old articles about die-hard fans. She's quoted in a 2000 article in the Boston Herald, about an NKOTB fan convention at the Newton Marriott. ("Because of the logistics of moving people around, we are limiting the convention to 200 people," said organizer Laurie Panico of the NK Fan Connection.) In another article that same year, she's included in a round-up of ironic fan club members of campy 80's icons.

But there is nothing ironic about her relationship with the New Kids. They are her acquaintances-she's met them several times albeit in managed fan settings and exchanged tweets with Donnie. And more importantly they foster her community. "I've become friends with about 50 to 70 fans since the reunion. And about 10 or 15 are people I regularly talk to and hang out with," says the 38 year-old Boston native.

Back in '89, when Laurie was a 17 year-old senior at Arlington High School, it wasn't cool to be New Kids fan. "It was a heavy metal school. I had to keep my New Kids thing on the DL."

It was the year of Hangin' Tough and the peak of their celebrity but their fan-base was significantly younger. "My best friend's little sister was a die-hard fan and I thought it would be a good way to bond with her since I didn't have any siblings." Laurie took it upon herself over spring vacation to read every article about the band. "When I heard Hangin' Tough live, I was hooked."

It's never just about the music, though. "I think it was reading their story and finding out that were also from Boston, and that I was same age as them."

There it is: the seedling of the escape fantasy that makes the female mind, in particular, run wild. "In the beginning there was the boyfriend dream," she says. "Since we were from the same area, I imagined running into them and having them just be swept away by me. Then you come back into reality. Now I seriously doubt it would happen." Then she adds: "But should it happen I wouldn't turn it away."

In 2002, a team of psychiatrists coined the term "Celebrity Worship Syndrome" to describe an addictive obsession with a public figure. "Information about the celebrity, or any little thing from their life, is like a fix the worshipper must have - they are almost compelled to learn more, read more, know more. And it's nonending," psychologist Abby Aronowitz, Ph.D told CBS news. The fixation and the inability to quiet it can turn a fan into a stalker. Aronowitz blames "the whole Hollywood spin machine" for "purposely setting us up to admire and even covet something we can never have." But sometimes, celebrities themselves--especially former child stars-- become victims of the same spin machine. And the experiences of fan and star become related.

Last week, Butch Patrick, who played Eddie Munster in the '60s sitcom, announced his romantic relationship with his biggest fan. A devotee of his work since childhood, she'd weathered his career failures and in middle-age the pair have fallen in love.

These days the line between fan and celebrity are blurrier than ever. Stars are savvier about the power of their audience. Devotion means longevity-just look at Clay Aiken. Communication is easier through Twitter and Facebook. In the case of Brett Michaels and other VH1 soldiers, fans are objects of desire--at least for TV's sake.

For a band like NOKTB, who've gone from arenas to strip malls, fan interaction is their bread and butter. And the original devotion that may have scared the singers as young men is what earns them a living today. And it's not a bad job.

For the past two years, Laurie's spent her vacation with all five band-members on an "NKOTB" cruise bound for the Bahamas. "They're just hanging out on the ship and if you don't bum rush them, they'll come over and say hi." The cruise is packed with women in their mid 30's, though Laurie notes a few husbands came along last year. The package includes a full length concert, a Q&A, and a game show event. "Then each of them do their own thing. Joey played piano, Donnie hosted his radio show live from the deck and Danny did a health seminar."

When she mentions Danny's health seminar I snicker. But Laurie isn't laughing. Although she'd rather talk music than whole grains, she supports each of their interests. They're people and they're allowed to change and develop new passions. In this way, she's got the healthier attitude. Fickle fans use celebrities like clothing-- momentary signifiers designed to gain entry into a social circle. If the star loses his cool, the fan doesn't need him anymore, and their devotion turns to derision. Lifer fans allow their beloved to try and fail and try again. From afar, Laurie's is a healthy long-term relationship. But in their presence, it's more like a drug high. Nauseating and then euphoric.

Six years after launching her fan newsletter "The Fab Five", and two years after the band breakup, Laurie met her first New Kid. "I waited with a few fans in a car outside Joey's house. Boston fans knew where all the houses were and Joey's was particularly fan-friendly with a cul-de-sac where you could park your car." At two in the morning, he came home, parked his car and then posed for pictures with the 7 young women perched outside his residence. "He was really nice, asking people how long they'd been outside. When it came time to take a picture with him, he said something to me and I blanked out. I just couldn't speak, I couldn't think, I just clammed up."

The next year, when she landed an interview with him through a fan club she worked on, her reaction was even stronger. "I was going to vomit," she remembers. "I actually prayed it wouldn't happen because I felt so sick. Then I asked him five questions, I don't even remember what they were and I can't even believe I got through it."

While the momentary interaction is paralyzing, the aftermath is unmatchable. That may be why she still chases the high -- taking fan field trips to Donnie's brother's restaurant in Boston, visiting him on set of his 2009 movie. But on a daily basis, Laurie insists her lifestyle and interests are diverse. A marketing administrator for an electric company, she's recently gone back to college for a public relations degree. Her experience developing fan newsletters, Twitter campaigns and networking communities can't be underestimated. While not all her friends are fans, the ones that are create an abundance of extracurricular opportunities. Next Sunday she'll participate in a Boston area softball charity game to raise money for breast cancer. Batting4Betty is being thrown in honor of NKOTB singer Danny Wood's mother by another fan, though Laurie is helping with promotion. "Danny can't come but he told us to ask his brother and father through Twitter."

A true fan develops a thick skin for rejection. But that makes the moments of acceptance much richer. "I was able to reserve a meet and greet ticket in 2008," she remembers. "Before the show ten of us got a group picture with the band. We walk in and there's Jonathan and Donnie with open arms saying 'thank you for coming back' and offering hugs. I don't think they knew my name but they may recognize me. Donnie is really good with faces."

With the upcoming tour, the challenge of meeting the band will be harder, since Backstreet fans will also be competing for the opportunity. "It will take work, but just a hug from the guys makes it worth it."

Recently, Laurie started seeing someone. He understands her concerts and cruise tours of duty as "girls night out" type of events. And really, her teenage fantasies have dwindled with age. But over time, and through the mutual moments of being misunderstood, her love for the band has gotten stronger. "They're in my heart, and they're going to stay there," says Laurie. Donnie in particular.

"If everything in the skies aligned right for us to be together, then, yeah, the boyfriend would get an email saying buh-bye." First love dies last.