"I've already gotten so much support," Bass (in L.A. July 25) says of the reaction to his coming out. "I'm so glad it's 2006."
He was "The Shy One." And during the bubblegum pop craze that began in the late '90s, Lance Bass – along with his 'N Sync bandmates Joey Fatone, Chris Kirkpatrick, JC Chasez and Justin Timberlake – was a pinup boy for millions of adoring fans. But as the group rode the boy band wave – their 2000 smash, No Strings Attached, sold a record-breaking 2.4 million copies in its first week – the Mississippi-bred, Southern Baptist-reared Bass felt burdened by hiding the truth he says he has known "from childhood on": He's gay.
"I knew that I was in this popular band, and I had four other guys' careers in my hand, and I knew that if I ever acted on it or even said [that I was gay], it would overpower everything," says Bass, confident and relaxed as he spoke about his sexual orientation for the first time in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE's Marisa Laudadio. "I didn't know: Could that be the end of 'N Sync? So I had that weight on me of like, 'Wow, if I ever let anyone know, it's bad.' So I just never did."
Now, after years of keeping his personal life private, the 27-year-old Bass – the son of Diane, 55, a middle-school teacher, and Jim, 56, who works in real estate – is publicly revealing what he first shared with his friends, then his shocked family. "He took years to really think about how he was going to tell everyone," says his close buddy Fatone, 29. "I back him up 100 percent." Adds Bass's longtime pal, actress Christina Applegate: "I've always accepted him as who he is. It's about his own serenity at this point."