Comeback Kid at Heart

updated 10/22/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/22/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

With its endless driveway, white columns and manicured garden, Joey Fatone's Orlando mansion looks stately enough from the outside. But step through the door and happy chaos reigns. Fatone's 6-year-old daughter Briahna sings as she zips in a toy car down a bowling lane-length hallway to the kitchen, where her grandparents Phyllis and Joe Fatone Sr. are serving up grilled chicken and pasta. Hannah Montana blares from a giant flat-screen TV across from the table. Fatone's 1-year-old nephew Declan squeals with delight as dogs Bailey and Skyler bark in vain for a piece of meat. Toys are everywhere—and most of them are Joey's. There's a drum set in the formal living room, arcade games in the upstairs hallway, an entire room devoted to Superman memorabilia (he's been a fan since childhood) and a seven-car garage that houses his very own KITT, the souped-up car from Knight Rider. "It's authentic!" he boasts. "I bought it at an auction."

Fatone himself sits at the kitchen table, just happy to be home. It's been a huge year for the former 'N Sync star, now 30. From post-boy-band obscurity, he waltzed back into the spotlight, first as the crowd-beloved runner-up on last season's Dancing with the Stars—only self-described "big kid" Fatone would dream up a Star Wars tango with light sabers—and then as host of NBC's karaoke game show The Singing Bee, a summer hit that launched its fall season Oct. 2. He also hosted Emmys coverage for TV Guide Channel and will be on the red carpet for the Golden Globes and Oscars. It's not the kind of heady fame he experienced as a member of 'N Sync—a group that sold more than 42 million albums worldwide—but he is enjoying success more the second time around. "It was always go-go-go-go when I was with the group, and you never had a chance to enjoy it," Fatone says. "Here, I'm actually letting it sink in."

One constant in his life has been his wife. Fatone, the son of an acting coach and an office manager, was born in Brooklyn, but the family moved to Orlando when he was 13. It was there he met Kelly, now 30, and they became high school sweethearts. Once he began traveling with 'N Sync at age 19, success took a toll on their relationship. "We've had ups and downs, me and her," says Fatone, who was besieged by female fans during his band days. "We've been together 14 years, but we've broken up, gotten back together just like any couple does." Since the 2001 birth of Briahna and their wedding in 2004, they've gotten more in sync themselves—and they've weathered the stress his reclaimed fame and long absences from home have put on the family. "Communication is the key," Joey says. "We don't let things get to our heads. We really talk."

Fatone's nightclub visits with the Dancing gang, including his professional partner Kym Johnson, raised some eyebrows. Even their own daughter had questions. "Everything was Joey and Kym, Joey and Kym," says Kelly. "So Briahna was like, 'Mom, is Kym going to be my stepmom?'" But once she'd explained the difference between performance and real life to her daughter, Kelly, who runs her own event planning business, wasn't worried about her husband. Joey says he is naturally "a very flirtatious person" but isn't tempted to stray. "Either you're a jealous person or you're not," says Kelly. "We've been together for so long that I have an 'open door' policy. I say, 'If something looks better to you, then there's the door.'" During Fatone's teen idol days, girls camped out on his parents' front lawn and threw themselves at him on tour. Meanwhile, "I'd sit on the bus and be like, 'If they only knew you,'" Kelly says, laughing. "It's funny. People go, 'Oh my God, that girl is all over him,' and I'm like, 'If that made her night, great. Doesn't bother me.'" She was even fine with his visiting strip clubs back in the day, albeit still a little skeeved out. "It's the only place we could be left alone and have a meal uninterrupted," he says in defense. "Eww!" she replies. "You ate there?!" Being married to Joey, she concludes, "you don't take yourself, or life, too seriously." What they do take seriously is their daughter's happiness. During his four months on Dancing, the then kindergartner "was crying three, four times a day for him," Kelly says. "A couple of times she said, 'I want him to be kicked off the show so he can come home.'" So as soon as the school year ended, Kelly and Briahna joined Joey for much of this summer's Dancing cross-country tour. "We try to stay as close as we can together," says Joey. The taping schedule for Singing Bee is far more family friendly: He taped 10 episodes over three weeks in L.A. in September and headed Down Under for two weeks this month to tape an Australian version. Although they've considered buying a smaller place in L.A., Orlando is home. "Look around," he says, pointing to his parents. "Free babysitting!

When the members of 'N Sync said bye, bye, bye to each other in 2002, Briahna was a baby. Fatone looked for projects (including stage runs of Rent and Little Shop of Horrors and a supporting role in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding) that would enable him to stay close to home and help take care of his little girl. "Joey said, 'I don't get these memories back,'" says Kelly. The family rule on work was "nothing where he left home for more than a week. If it was longer, we went with him." But Fatone, who got his start performing at Orlando's Universal Studios after high school (where he met future 'N Sync bandmate Chris Kirkpatrick), says he didn't sweat his exit from the spotlight. When it comes to fame, "I go with the flow," he says. "I've always had my feet on the ground." And money was no problem, given 'N Sync's huge earnings. Although he doesn't want to give numbers, "I'm well off," he says, noting that he earned "enough to have some time off, put my kid through college and buy her some shiny white sneakers for school."

As close as the couple grew, it was Briahna who persuaded her parents to get hitched. "She had been a flower girl and she was wondering what weddings were all about," says Kelly. "We said, 'When two people love each other, they get married,' and she said, 'Are you and Daddy married?' And I said no. She said, 'Don't you love my dad? Why aren't you married?'" Joey jokes that he had been "on the 10-year plan." But he said "I do" at their 2004 wedding on Long Island, sporting a Superman symbol on the back of his vest. The reception featured a Ferris wheel and bumper cars for their 250 guests. "I did the potato sack slide in my wedding gown!" says Kelly.

"They are so perfect for each other because they like the same things, but she'll be the one to calm him down," says Joey's pal and 'N Sync bandmate Lance Bass. "She's the one who takes things seriously that need to be serious." That's not to say they don't have their squabbles. "You have your 'I hate you' or you start arguing about where you want to go eat—simple things," says Fatone. But he's been with Kelly long enough to know she's the girl for him. During their off-and-on years, "I tried to see other people, but for some reason, the grass wasn't greener on the other side of the fence. I'd come back and crawl on my knees with my tail between my legs. I enjoyed being with her."

Aside from an encyclopedic knowledge of '80s music (Briahna "knows all the words to '80s songs" on Singing Bee, Kelly boasts), their common interests now include living a healthier lifestyle. Fatone dropped 30 lbs. during Dancing, thanks to the rehearsal regimen and a NutriSystem diet. (He says he's gained back 10 lbs. since: "I'm about 216 right now and I want to get down to 200.") And Kelly is slimmer too, down 30 lbs. since January. "She did it hard core," says Fatone. "A lot of dieting and working out. I'm very proud of her." As for Kelly's impression of her husband's new physique: "Awesome!" she says. But while Joey may be trying to cut back on his video-game addiction to spend more time in the gym, he's not about to grow up entirely. "The thing that sums up our relationship? The first time we kissed we banged teeth," says Kelly. "It's just a comedy routine and we get through it laughing."

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