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When the Backstreet Boys dropped their latest album’s title track, “In a World Like This,” they did something special with the video: They ended it with a victorious moment in LGBT history, as an older lesbian couple finally celebrated their right to marry.
We caught up with self-proclaimed “fag hag” AJ McLean, a founding member of one of the biggest-selling boy bands in history, to chat about how his queer friends (and “Same Love” rapper Macklemore) inspired that video, doing Marilyn Monroe in the nude for an upcoming book and the time the band performed with men they thought were women.
The video for the album’s first single, “In a World Like This,” celebrates marriage equality. Why was it important to take that stance with that music video?
It stemmed from me personally. I have a lot of gay friends and two of my best friends have been together for almost 10 years. And living in California, it’s been so friggin’ frustrating to me that they could not get it right; they couldn’t pass the bill. Then, literally, right after we dropped the video, they actually passed the bill (allowing LGBT people to get married) in California, and I was just ecstatic. I just love the fact that people love each other, no matter if they’re the same sex or not. I think everybody’s equal, period.
I had just seen the Macklemore video for “Same Love” and that really inspired me. Knowing what the subject was about for “In a World Like This” – about love conquering all – we had talked with the director about basically having different moments in history that really were very impactful. We had done the first two, and then we were like, “What’s the last one gonna be?” I was like, “Why don’t we do something about same-sex marriage? We have a huge gay following and it’s a huge deal.” The guys were all on board and we made it happen. I was so happy about it.
When were the Backstreet Boys first aware they had a gay following?
We did a show years ago in Ybor City in Tampa and Divine Brown – the girl who messed around with Hugh Grant back in the day (laughs) – was hosting a drag show. We actually had no idea. We were all really young. Kevin (Richardson) was obviously older, so he had been around all his gays at Disney (when he worked there before Backstreet Boys) and he had been around drag queens before Nick (Carter) and me. We were in our trailer and we were watching these guys changing. We thought these were chicks – and all of a sudden they were taking off their clothes and I’m like, “Wait, that girl’s got, like, pecs. And oh, that’s a penis.” I was like, “What the hell is going on?”
We did three or four songs, the crowd went nuts and I was standing next to this 6-foot-6 drag queen who gave me a hug and a kiss. I was beside myself, and that was when we first knew that we had a big gay following. I was just like, “Wow, this is kind of friggin’ crazy.” Thinking back on it, I’ve been in this business since I was 3 and I grew up in musical theater, so I was raised and surrounded by gay men and gay women. I was hardly around anyone straight.
It’s amazing you’re straight, actually.
It kind of is. Everyone always says, “When you look at a boy band, one of them has to be gay.” No, they don’t. Instead of me being gay, I’m the fag hag.
What do you think of all the interest and hope from fans that there is a gay member in the Backstreet Boys?
I think it’s awesome. It’s great. I’ve worn a dress at my wedding. I’ve worn 6-inch Louboutins. I’ve got no fear and no shame. There’s one guy named Matt and he’s a big, big Nick Carter fan. He’s this older gentleman from Tampa and he’s gay, and he’s been following us during this whole tour from China to Japan and now through the U.S. I think he really hopes that Nick might have a little bit of gay.
What’s the verdict on that?
I don’t think he does. I’m gonna say no.
You’ve performed at G-A-Y in London recently, and you’ve done San Francisco Pride in the past. Who’s louder: a bunch of screaming girls or a bunch of screaming gays?
If we did a full arena with the LGBT community, I bet you they’d be louder. When we did G-A-Y, there was about 2,200 people crammed into this little club, and they went buck wild. I feed off of a crowd anyway, but it was just so cool to sing a love song and grab this guy’s hand. He about melted.
You really rock a tutu, AJ. After wearing one for a series of photos, have you considered a side career as a drag queen?
I thought about it. I thought it might be fun to do a music video where I’m a drag queen, but I got a thing with my facial hair. I don’t like to shave. Also, I might be the ugliest drag queen you’ve ever seen.
You’d have to shave your legs too, you know.
Oh, trust me, I’ve shaved my legs before. My poor wife hates me because she’s like, “You have better legs than most women I know.”
See, you’d be the perfect queen.
And I can walk in heels. I was a little wobbly at first. I was like a baby calf, but then I figured it out. I don’t see how women walk heel to toe in friggin’ heels, so, for me, I walk toe to heel. It’s weird. I walk like a stork, but at least I’m not falling down.
What inspired the Tyler Shields drag photo shoot?
Tyler and I have been friends with each other for about eight years. We’re always trying to push the envelope with each other and push each other to the next level. Once Tyler said he was gonna marry my wife and I, I was like, “You know, I’m gonna wear a dress in our wedding.”
We went to downtown L.A., I was in the full outfit with the hat and the heels, and he’s like, “You look too pretty. I want you to look all cracked out.” So we sat down on the curb – there’s a homeless guy pissing in the corner – and we took about 15 shots and that’s about it.
There’s gonna be more. You’re gonna see a lot more of me than you probably ever wanted to. Tyler is doing a coffee table book. It’s due out at the end of this year and it’s called “The Dirty Side of Glamour.” You just might see me completely naked in nothing but heels.
Well, you gotta one-up the Jonas Brothers and their shirtless pics with some full frontal, right?
There’s no frontal, but you will see my little nonexistent ass. I’m in some very interesting poses a la the old Marilyn Monroe pinup look. It’s pretty funny.
You’ve been outspoken about bullying and the suicides that have resulted in the LGBT community by making an It Gets Better video. A song on the new album, “Madeline,” was inspired by someone who was bullied into suicide, too. What do you hope fans who are or who’ve been bullied gain from that song?
I just hope that it shows that there are mean people in this world that will never understand or even try to understand what you’re going through, but there is always going to be more people who do. Unfortunately, people that get bullied as much as some of these fans of ours have, or many of these young gay teens that got bulled into committing suicide, there comes a point where it starts on the other end – it starts on the bully side. You don’t have to like what someone’s gender is and you don’t have to like what they believe in. And if you don’t, don’t say anything. Just shut the fuck up. Let them do their thing.
I just hope the bullying stops. I hope that these young teens, or even full-grown gay men and gay women that are still struggling with bullying and still struggling with being looked down upon, know that you can do this as long as you surround yourself with the right people and believe in yourself and stay true to who you are.
When you see other boy bands who’ve risen to the top in the last few years, does it remind you of the early days of the Backstreet Boys?
Oh, absolutely. We obviously miss certain parts of our career, and there are certain parts we don’t miss, but I think we wouldn’t be the men that we are today or the band that we are today had we not gone through all the shit we’ve been through, both highs and lows. It’s definitely cool to sit back and watch One Direction, The Wanted, Big Time Rush, Jonas and all these different groups. There are a lot of similarities, from the songs to the music titles to the producers that they work with to image. Everything. It’s like looking in a mirror. The only difference is 90 percent of the new boy bands don’t dance, and not all of them play instruments. But that doesn’t take away from their natural talent. They all sound great, they all look great and obviously they’ve got a bunch of screaming girls going buck wild for ’em. It is very reminiscent of us in our early days.
Do you prefer where you’re at now in your career?
I do. We all have a newfound respect for each other. And we still act like a bunch of friggin’ twatsicles. I mean, I’m 35 years old and I just bought a friggin’ remote control car just to race around backstage. So we’re still kids at heart. We’ll always have that little piece of youth for the rest of our lives.
Also, being fathers now, we don’t want to be all chiseled and old. We still play jokes on each other. There’s an app called Burner where you can basically text someone from a fake number and really fuck with them. Nick really got me good talking about this fucking fan that I had slept with 10 years ago who has a kid that’s mine. I was having a friggin’ panic attack and sure enough, he came and knocked on the door and he’s like, “I’m that fan.” I’m like, “You son of a bitch.”