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Looking Back: She is the Backstreet Boys' Backstreet Girl (December 1, 1999)

The Backstreet Boys fly in on cable-suspended surfboards in front of 20,000 screaming fans.

TIMES | Bill Serne

The Backstreet Boys fly in on cable-suspended surfboards in front of 20,000 screaming fans. TIMES | Bill Serne

This story appeared in the pages of the St. Petersburg Times on December 1, 1999. What follows is the text of the original story, interspersed with photos of the event taken by Times staff photographer Bill Serne.

BACKSTREET GIRL

By Dave Scheiber, Times staff writer

Mindi Abair, St. Petersburg native and saxophonist extraordinaire, is making her mark as the lone woman on the Boys' stage.

TIMES | Bill Serne

Weekend revelers are spilling into the bustling French Quarter, but on this sunny Saturday afternoon, Bourbon has dropped a notch as the hottest street in the city.

Backstreet has it beat.

Still, the Boys are not the ones who have just been spotted here in the land of jazz and jambalaya. They are safe in their suites blocks away at the plush Windsor Court, relaxing before their sold-out evening show, while young girls scour the lobby for the five pop idols who make up the mega-star Backstreet Boys.

TIMES | Bill Serne

It is a different member of their musical entourage who has been seen on the sidewalk. Someone in a red pickup truck at a traffic light has picked her out of the crowd and shouts a greeting.

She is tall and attractive, with wavy blond hair, white retro-rim glasses and an air of friendly confidence. She is right at home in a town defined by music because that's what has defined her life, too.

She is the Backstreet Girl.

TIMES | Bill Serne

Her name is Mindi Abair, a saxophonist extraordinaire trained at Boston's elite Berklee College of Music; the lone female member of the Backstreet Boys' ace, six-player road band; a St. Petersburg native whose father was a standout touring sax player in his own right; and a versatile musician with her sights set high as a singer-songwriter.

Instantly, Abair recognizes the person in the pickup: He is T.L., the Boys' sound man, who will soon be at a massive mixing board, pumping the soothing Backstreet harmonies above ear-piercing, girlish screams at the New Orleans Sports Arena.

They share a few laughs until the light changes. Then Abair moves on, happily taking in the sights of one more record-shattering stop on the Backstreet Boys' Millennium tour, which sold out its initial wave of 770,000 tickets nationwide in one day this summer and is set to roll into Tampa's Ice Palace on Thursday and Friday.

TIMES | Bill Serne

"You're playing to 20,000 people a night, and the screaming doesn't stop," she says with a laugh. "I actually have in-ear monitors, which are crucial. The first couple of nights I didn't have them, because they were still molding them. My ears would be ringing the whole next day _ not from the music, but from the screaming. The music is just loud because it has to get through the screams. It's hysterical."

In addition to the gale-force shrieks, there are blasts of pyrotechnics, spaceships and cool, cable-suspended surfboards on which the Boys fly in.

¬¬

TIMES | Bill Serne

Then there are the delirious fans who toss onstage an endless array of items they have heard that the Boys like or simply might like: golf balls, boxes of macaroni and cheese, teddy bears, stuffed bunny rabbits, pillows embroidered with cell-phone numbers, cell phones themselves, big hats, jewelry, alien dolls, Quarter Pounders, not to mention all the adoring notes and snapshots of themselves.

"The guys in the band were saying, "We can't wait to see you in your first show,' " says Abair, who describes her age as "Generation X." "I said, "Come on, I've played before 30,000 people before, it can't be that bad.' They said, "No, you're going to freak out.'

TIMES | Bill Serne

"So the first show arrives, and the pyro goes off, and they start pulling girls out of the audience, because they're crying and collapsing. And I just stood there, frozen. I couldn't believe it! The whole night long I was dodging teddy bears and stuffed bunnies. I looked over to the keyboard player, and he goes, "Heh, heh. Told you so.' It's surreal."

+ + +

Being part of the high-tech, heartthrob spectacle was the furthest thing from Abair's mind in May.

She had made a stellar name for herself as the featured saxophonist on major tours with jazz guitarist/vocalist Jonathan Butler, actor/singer Adam Sandler, jazz keyboardist Bobby Lyle and composer John Tesh. Now she was home in L.A., set to push her debut CD, Mindi Abair, as a singer-songwriter.

TIMES | Bill Serne

That's when the call came. It was evening, and the Boys' vocal coach at the time, Doc Holiday, was on the line. He had gotten her name from the band's new musical director/drummer, William "Bubba" Bryant, who had heard of Abair from a drummer who knew her. Holiday raced to her house before catching a flight to Europe and watched bits of Abair's tour videos with Sandler and Butler. He hired her on the spot. Three days later, Abair was on a plane to Belgium and the ride of a lifetime.

Abair quickly became an integral part of the show. Not only does she help power the music with her alto and soprano sax work, including a soulful sax-piano duet with one of the Boys, but she also handles percussion and keyboard.

TIMES | Bill Serne

Now young female fans are starting to connect with her. Signs pop up at shows like, "Go Mindi" and "Girl Power!" She receives e-mails on her Web site (http://www.mindiabair.com) from mothers seeking advice about saxophones for their daughters, and from daughters inspired by her to play the instrument. Fans ask for her autograph and bring her gifts.

"Some of the fans give us cookies or cake, or they'll give us little necklaces they've made," she says. "I've gotten a bunch of bracelets with my name on them. It's very sweet. But we all know it's not really about us. This is all about the Boys."

TIMES | Bill Serne

Abair has developed a comfortable rapport with the group, A.J. McLean, Brian Littrell, Howie Dorough, Kevin Richardson and Nick Carter. She and her bandmates, and a troupe of 10 dancers, have gone bowling with the Boys. There have been raging watergun fights. On the Fourth of July, everyone spent the day at a sprawling Italian villa. They swam, waterskied and were treated to private fireworks. And paparazzi caught it all for a German tabloid.

TIMES | Bill Serne

A caravan of five buses transports the Boys, the band and the dancers. Often, the Boys get a craving for their fast food of choice, McDonald's. So all the buses pull into the parking lot and everyone piles into the restaurant. "We'll walk in, and the girl behind the counter will start screaming, "Oh my God! Oh my God!' I'm like, "Can I just get some fries, here?' "

The bond fans feel for the Boys never ceases to amaze Abair: "I've seen girls who have followed us from the first date in Europe to the last one, and now are showing up in America! I wouldn't be here today if I'd have followed a band around Europe for three months. My parents would have killed me."

+ + +

It is almost 4 p.m. and time to leave the Inter-Continental Hotel for sound check. Abair adds a layer of lipstick in her hotel room, even though she knows she will be made over again before the show.

"When I go to a show, it's like glitter-mania," she says. "The guys don't care, but it's a girl's dream."

She strides through the spacious lobby, free of fans because most are still camped out at the Windsor Court. In moments, Abair steps onto the jet-black bus that transports the Backstreet Band.

TIMES | Bill Serne

The players are all on board. Other than Bryant, a Los Angeles resident, they are Floridians. Dennis Gallo (guitar/keyboard), Guy Walker (guitar), and Louie Vigilante (bass) are from Orlando, where most of the Backstreet Boys live as well. Tom Smith (keyboard) comes from Fort Myers.

The group has become a close-knit family, and Abair is an outgoing, popular member of it. "The only thing we can agree on is that we all like her; other than that, we hate each other," Smith says with mock disdain.

The bus arrives and pulls into a special area fenced off from the public. Band members file into a private entrance of the arena and follow the signs to their dressing room. Their white stage outfits hang on a rack in the corner. There are vegetable and fruit plates, bowls of M&Ms (all colors) and chocolate kisses, Snapple and soda. Someone has brought Abair a big Rugrats Angelica doll, whose glasses and pulled-up pigtails match a Mindi stage look.

TIMES | Bill Serne

At Abair's makeup table, tour assistants have assembled her growing collection of stuffed bunny rabbits from fans. A bottle of Tejava sugarless ice tea awaits by her chair in a bucket of ice.

By 5 p.m., the band moves into the cavernous arena for sound check. The stage is in the round, and each player stands on a circular platform, with plenty of room for the Backstreet Boys and the dancers to cavort around them. The sound check is only for the band; the Boys will arrive shortly and head straight for their well-guarded dressing rooms.

TIMES | Bill Serne

TIMES | Bill Serne

The stage literally shakes as the band blasts through Larger Than Life, while yellow-jacketed security guards huddle in a corner, awaiting the flood of young girls, many with moms in tow. In less than 30 minutes, the doors will open in advance of warm-up acts Mandy Moore and E.Y.C.

The Boys take the stage at 8 p.m., and from that point on, the night is a scream-a-thon. For two hours, they knock the crowd dead with every move and smooth vocal turn. The band rocks the place, with Abair wailing in the spotlight on countless sax breaks.

TIMES | Bill Serne

TIMES | Bill Serne

As the airtight unit pounds out the final musical interlude from I Want It That Way, the Boys are dashing _ each followed by a personal security guard _ through a concrete corridor beneath the stands to their awaiting getaway bus.

Twenty minutes later, the Backstreet Band heads for its bus. Several hundred young fans are cordoned off nearby. They see Abair and scream.

She smiles and approaches them. Young hands reach out to touch her, shake her hand, hug her. A little boy throws his arms around her neck and kisses her. Fans hand her stuffed animals and T-shirts.

TIMES | Bill Serne

"Are the Backstreet Boys nice?" a preteen girl, with her mom, asks earnestly.

"Verrrrry nice," Abair responds gently.

Then she turns for the bus, ready for another ride in the rising career of the Backstreet Girl.

TIMES | Bill Serne

TIMES | Bill Serne

TIMES | Bill Serne

TIMES | Bill Serne

TIMES | Bill Serne

TIMES | Bill Serne

TIMES | Bill Serne

To order reprints, license or download any Times image from this gallery, or to see other Backstreet Boys photos, please visit the Times image archive.

Jeremy King

Twitter: @JeremyK63182742

e-mail: [email protected]

Looking Back: She is the Backstreet Boys' Backstreet Girl (December 1, 1999) 03/09/17 [Last modified: Thursday, March 9, 2017 8:45am]
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