Backstreet Boy AJ McLean on Aging, Fame and His New TV Series ‘The Fashion Hero: A New Kind of Beautiful’
Backstreet Boys member AJ McLean, 45, hosts the new Paramount+ series 'The Fashion Hero: A New Kind of Beautiful,' which aims to challenge unrealistic standards in the beauty and fashion industries. Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images for On Our Sleeves
At age 45, AJ McLean, best known as one-fifth of the legendary Backstreet Boys, is constantly challenging himself. And, as he noted during a recent interview in Toronto, the challenge starts on the inside. “That’s not selfish. That is selfless. To put myself first when, for years, I put everybody else first and I catered to everyone, being codependent and people pleasing.
“I finally have come to a point where … my responsibility is to make sure I’m okay. And if I’m okay, then I can be okay for you. But if I’m not okay, how can I be okay for you? I’m 45 and I’m still learning. I’m going to continue to keep learning and growing for the rest of my life.”
McLean speaks with confidence, one that years of being on the public stage has afforded him. Besides going on tour with the band, and launching his nail polish line, Ava Dean Beauty, he is the host of the new Paramount+ series, The Fashion Hero: A New Kind of Beautiful.
The reality competition series, which is streaming now, sees 22 diverse contestants compete in a bid to change “the unrealistic standards in the beauty and fashion industry” while “empowering real people to become role models for this generation.” Three of the contestants are from Canada.
In Toronto to promote the show, McLean explained that he finds perfection boring, and that The Fashion Hero is really “about self-discovery and about battling your demons … to watch their journeys was life changing, even for me, and very humanizing.”
Just as McLean looked inward in his own personal self-care challenge, he shared his belief that beauty starts on the inside by being comfortable in your own skin, and how social media can distort reality.
“It’s this kind of false sense of security that’s instant, like this is how you’re supposed to dress, this is how you’re supposed to look … guys, to be sexy, have to have a six pack, girls have to have blond hair, blue eyes, paper thin. That’s not true. That’s unrealistic.”
He said that the average person might be struggling with their weight, or may have acne, or are going bald. “I went bald, and I’ve had hair surgeries now and these types of things to help me feel comfortable about myself. But these people are still beautiful.”
McLean shared multi-time Grammy-winning rapper and singer Lizzo as a prime example of, “a beautiful woman, curvy or not, she owns it. And that’s the kind of positivity we need out in the world is to own it own who you are and don’t let anybody tell you who you should be … you’re beautiful just the way you are.”
As Long as You Love Yourself
McLean is undoubtedly comfortable in his own skin, even the way he presents himself to the world now. He’s dressed in a simple oversized T-shirt and pierced jeans, a hat and accessorized with heavy silver chains, bracelets and a nose ring.
Curious, I asked him about this sense of confidence and what’s the driving factor behind it. He candidly explained, “I think for me, a lot of it was fear based before of that uncertainty like, ‘Oh my God, is somebody gonna say something about what I’m wearing today or, or how I look?’ And then there was a moment where it’s like, ‘You know what, I just want to be free. I just want to be me. And if you don’t like it, you don’t like it.'”
He added, “If you’re comfortable no matter what you’re wearing, or how you present yourself, you’re going to rock confidence because you’re comfortable within yourself.”
This wisdom, however, came with both age and experience. The Backstreet Boys have been in the public eye since they launched their careers in 1995 and McLean said that this way of looking at the world and this confidence was instilled over time.
“There was definitely a phase when I detached from the cookie-cutter look of being all dressed the same. And then it was, you know, getting my first tattoo, dyeing my hair hot pink, getting piercings, doing things that I thought made me feel more confident, or made me feel like the real me,” McLean explained. “I can say this now, there’s not a whole lot I can do to shock anybody anymore. And I’m not trying to shock anybody … a lot of it back then for me was that shock value. It was me trying to turn heads. But now, I just do it because I love it and it makes me happy.”
McLean feels most confident on stage, describing it as his “little bubble of ‘I’m impenetrable. Nobody can judge me.’”
The real challenge for him comes from distinguishing between his on-stage and off-stage persona. “My biggest struggle was when I walked off that stage, turning that off and being okay with the person that I am not as a Backstreet Boy. There’s AJ, and then there’s Alex [his given name]. And that attributed to a lot of my drugs and alcohol abuse, not being able to separate the two.
“I love myself more today than I ever have in my entire life. But there’s still room to grow. I’m still learning and it’s a journey. I have good days and bad days, just like anybody else. I don’t always wake up with a smile on my face. And that’s okay. But by the end of the day, I am smiling.”
Larger Than Life
McLean described today’s youth generation as “very much a sponge” and laughed as he recalled a video in which two young girls, around 12 or 13, are asked about the Backstreet Boys and reply, “It doesn’t matter, they’re elderly.” He said, “I’m not gonna lie, that stung a little bit. I do hope to meet this young lady someday and just stare at her and say … ’It’s okay if I’m elderly.’”
He explained that today’s youth generation is “constantly changing. People latch onto something that’s hot in the moment, and then they move on. But is that you being your true self or is that you just trying to fit in with the latest trend? Because that’s not genuine. Genuine is [to] find what your lane is and live in your lane. That is where you’ll be truly happy.”
The enduring legacy of the Backstreet Boys, meanwhile, is simply a marvel. There are not many bands or groups from their generation who have successfully continued after three decades, still going on tour and selling out shows. McLean attributes this to the music and the support of their fans. And they plan to continue, as McLean quips, “No matter how many knee surgeries or hip replacements have to happen.
“I would say [we’re] the tightest, happiest we’ve ever been now, in 30 years, since the beginning when we were hungry and young and trying to get this thing off the ground. Where we are today — fathers, husbands — we respect each other differently now.”
McLean adds that the group still has a number of goals that they’re striving to reach.
“So we’re still growing as a band,” he added. “At some point, the dancing will stop. That’s just nature and life. But until then, we’re gonna keep on doing it.”
The Fashion Hero: A New Kind of Beautiful is streaming now on Paramount+. Click here for more information.