"So many people, even my friends in high school, were like, it's never going to amount to anything. It's just lost hope and fleeting dreams. And thankfully they were wrong," A.J. McLean of the Backstreet Boys told The Huffington Post during an interview to promote the band's new documentary, "Show 'Em What You're Made Of." After selling more than 130 million albums worldwide and becoming the best-selling boy band in history, those high school friends, including Ryan Gosling, were certainly wrong.
You might have been an avid fan of the group while growing up -- learning their songs during piano class and having the Burger King action figures of the band from when they did a Marvel comic, for instance -- but probably haven't given too too much thought to the Backstreet Boys since. If that's the case, the documentary is a surprisingly satisfying deep look into the band's early days and current status. Funny stories and pictures are shared, the trivia is often crazy (the band watched porn together) and relationship dynamics you really should have picked up on as a tween obsessive seem to be presented honestly for the camera. The documentary, directed by Stephen Kijak, isn't just a weak nostalgia trip, but legitimately compelling. Backstreet's back, all right?
HuffPost spoke to both McLean and Kevin Richardson, the oldest member of the band -- who joined after working as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and Aladdin at Disney World -- both of whom explained some key moments from the Backstreet Boys past. Ahead, eight stories you've never fully heard before about the boy band that was larger than life:
As you should remember, Gosling used to be a Mouseketeer. (Looking back at those early tapes with Justin Timberlake, it's certainly hard to see him later beating a man to a pulp in "Drive.") Gosling -- along with other Mouseketeers -- used to live in the same rent-controlled building as McLean, who invited Gosling to be in McLean's new band one day on the basketball court.
"Basically, when I first moved to central Florida from south Florida, where I was born and raised, I was living in this apartment complex along with Britney Spears, Ryan Gosling and two other Mouseketeers," McLean said. "My apartment was literally adjacent to a racquetball-slash-basketball court, so I was out there everyday after school shooting hoops. Ryan and I became friends just playing basketball together. Literally right around that time is when I went through the audition process and I was the very first Backstreet Boy to ever be put in the group -- which was actually in 1992."
McLean said he jokingly suggested to Gosling that the actor join their group. "He just kind of nodded and was like, 'Huh,'" McLean recalled.
Gosling would later tell Celebuzz in 2013 that he thought this new boy band would be too much like New Kids on the Block. In the end, Gosling admitted he was wrong not to join the group.
"It would have been very very different if Ryan Gosling was in the Backstreet Boys I would have to say," McLean added. Gosling started his own band in the late 2000s, Dead Man's Bones, which actually ended up being pretty good.
The Backstreet Boys original founder, Lou Pearlman, would have the boys over to his house to hang out on a regular basis. According to McLean and Richardson, this house had things that particularly appeal to young kids, such as the original Darth Vader and C-3PO behind glass, Shaq's first basketball shoes, a vintage Coca-Cola machine, a Yoo-hoo machine and a pool table. "Hanging over at Lou's was like going to Disney Land. He had every freaking toy you could imagine," McLean said. Richardson mentioned big life events were enjoyed over at the house too. "When one of us would have a birthday party it would always be at Lou's house."
One of these big life events was watching porn, where Howie Dorough saw a girl kissing a girl for the first time.
"That was just kind of what young boys would do," McLean said. "One night all five of us were just -- Lou was on a phone call or something -- and the five of us were going through the laser disc shit and we found a porno, popped it on and it was just hilarious. We all just sat there and were watching it. That was Howie's first time seeing a girl kiss a girl. It was almost like being in a fraternity. That was like a frat party minus the drinking and the chicks. It was just fun, you know."
"Occasionally, we would sneak into Lou's stuff," Richardson added. "Back then you didn't have DVDs, you had laser-discs. They look like a big LP record and you'd put them in and occasionally one of the guys would throw in a pornographic film and we'd all be like, 'Ooooohh.' But for the most part it was just good clean fun over there. We had a blast."
In 2007, a Vanity Fair investigative article deemed Pearlman to have a "passion for boys" and referenced how Pearlman showed teenagers pornographic material. According to the piece, McLean's mother said that Nick Carter had an event at the house that made Carter particularly uncomfortable. HuffPost did not bring up this instance with the Backstreet Boys, but McLean did have this to say about Lou's house:
Staying at Lou's house was a sanctuary. After rehearsals we'd all go over there and have Subway or pizza and watch movies ... shoot pool. For a short period of time, Kevin was living there. And you know, Kevin really looked up to Lou like a father figure. Kevin lost his father. It was a lot of fun for the time that we had there. I have no regrets. I have no resentment. I believe there are no mistakes in this world. Even the most catastrophic things that have happened in the entire world I hate to say it, but everything happens for a reason and sometimes we'll never understand that reason.
A few of the Backstreet Boys shared the same apartment for awhile, where they'd all hang out and play video games. One time a game of "Mario Kart" got particularly heated between Carter and McLean.
"I think Nick got mad and threw the remote at AJ and they just locked up and started rolling around the floor," Richardson said. "And it was really funny they were both really young. Nobody got really injured or anything, but I think maybe they scuffed up their faces a little bit. Some carpet burn, something like that. But no real injuries occurred."
According to Richardson, the fight went on for a couple minutes and there was no clear winner. It was mostly all in good fun. "Yeah, we broke them up. We let them go for a little bit and laughed at them, then me and Brian broke them up. We were like brothers so we had a lot a lot of passion for what we do," he said. "Sometimes it gets heated, but at the same time we all love each other."
On the Backstreet Boys Cruise in 2014, Nick Carter actually played a fan in "Mario Kart" and said he used to play it all the time. There was no fist fight after this round.
Pearlman ended up going to jail for running a huge Ponzi scheme, but before his empire collapsed, he was exploiting the Backstreet Boys throughout their early days. The band would sell out stadiums and receive relatively no money for their performances.
"Obviously, most of us all were all really young. Nick and I were still in school, so you know, X amount of dollars -- even if it was $100 -- is a lot to a 14-, 15-year-old back in the day," McLean said. "I don't exactly recall the exact amount that it was, but we were on a weekly per diem that we were living on, just for like food during rehearsals. I was living on the McDonald's diet for the better portion of probably six or seven years of our career."
In the Vanity Fair article about Pearlman, specific numbers are given for how much Pearlman was paying them throughout their rise:
Almost from the moment Pearlman achieved his first real success in the music industry, in 1997, the foundations of his little empire began to quake. It started when one of the Backstreet Boys, Brian Littrell, couldn't understand why he was seeing so little income from their nonstop touring and European record sales; Littrell hired attorneys who calculated that, while Pearlman had taken in several million dollars in revenue since 1993, the five singers had received barely $300,000, about $12,000 per member each year. Littrell sued, and in May 1998, his bandmates joined the litigation; during discovery they learned that, among other things, Pearlman was paid as the sixth member of the band.
Richardson told HuffPost that $12,000 a year seemed correct. "Lou was very good at [cough] keeping us happy when we were off the road," he said. "He'd call us all and say, 'Hey, I'm picking you up, let's go have dinner.' There wasn't a lot of expenses, we didn't have a lot of living expenses because we were traveling and working so much."
Much of the insult the Backstreet Boys felt was that Lou was splitting his time with new projects. "That on top of the fact that NSYNC learned from our mistakes, in a sense that when they were working for Lou," McLean explained. "Lou was not 1/6th of them like he was with us. So anything, anything we made, Lou made the same exact amount. And Brian obviously was the catalyst for the lawsuit and it really made his stomach turn upside down."
Talking about when they realized Pearlman had done this to them, McLean said, "I've kind of compared it to if your parents are married for 20 plus years and your dad just comes home one day and sits you all down and says, 'Oh, by the way, I've been having affairs with hookers for the last 20 years.'"
The Backstreet Boys maintained a clean-cut image, but McLean was known as the wild one. What wasn't exactly known at the time was that McLean was starting to experiment with drug use during the band's height, even being visibly high on cocaine during "The Call" music video, perhaps explaining the sunglasses at night look.
"We knew that the video shoot was going to be only a night shoot and I had just gotten dinner and I had a few glasses of wine and I went back to my room to kind of just laid down for a little bit," he said. "I definitely wasn't drunk or even tipsy, I was just tired because I knew that my solo call time was like 3:30 in the morning. So I got back from dinner around 9 p.m. and I was exhausted and my buddy was like 'Well, I've got something that will be a little pick me up.'"
At first he was worried that the cocaine would kill him instantly. The '80s college basketball star, Len Bias, who was drafted second in the NBA Draft and then died of a cocaine overdose just days later, was on the singer's mind.
"I was in total fear of doing this because I was thinking what if I do it once and I fucking drop dead," McLean said. "And I did it and I liked it and I did a couple bumps off of my room key. Then I was up ... I went to the video shoot. I was in the makeup chair. I was just a chatterbox and I confided in my makeup artist, 'Dude, I'm on fucking coke right now. I'm freaking out. I don't know what to do.'"
McLean said he didn't tell anyone else in the band, however, and still managed to shoot the video without any problems. "Fortunately, for the video we are not lip syncing, we're not dancing, we're just kind of acting," he said. "So, I pulled it off and nobody ever knew. No one was ever wiser. But unfortunately after that night, my body had gotten a taste of something new and I was hooked."
By now, McLean's closest friend was starting to worry about him, but the party continued on.
"At that point I had kind of, I wouldn't say partial ownership, but like VIP status at a strip club back in Orlando," McLean said. "I knew all the girls and I basically had them come over to the bowling alley after they got off work and we just had topless bowling. We drank heavily and did a lot of drugs and my best friend just sat there and watched and was just mortified. Because this was one of the first times he'd ever really seen me party. And obviously I had offered him stuff and he was like, 'No I'm good,' which is why we've been best friends for almost 20 years. He's stood by me through all the hardships."
McLean said by that point he felt like a "god." He had also attracted a lot of hangers-on and leeches trying to get him to keep on partying since he could fund everything. To try and not make his drug use a problem for the rest of the band, however, McLean would mostly just party by himself in whatever hotel they were staying in while on tour.
"I think the craziest rock star thing that I would do would be maybe streaking down the hallway of a hotel. I got locked out of my room twice naked. That would be the extent of my rockstarness," he said. "But believe it or not, I did a lot of my partying alone, as sad as it is to say. Because even though it was a bad way to live, I didn't want to be out in public and I didn't want to embarrass myself or the group or put myself in harm's way. Obviously, looking back on it, I could have done a hell of a lot more, but I'm glad that I didn't, because I'd either be dead, institutionalized, or in jail.
Nick Carter was almost a decade younger than the oldest member of the band, Kevin Richardson, and about a half a decade younger than Brian Littrell. The two would kind of good cop/bad cop parent him, and as Littrell was the former of those two roles, Carter really latched on to him as someone to look up to -- a "big brother" and "father figure" according to McLean.
"Those two were two peas in a pod. They were Frick and Frack, which fans had nicknamed them," McLean said. "They were inseparable. Basketball. Video games. If you didn't know where Brian was, just ask for where Nick is. That's how it was for years. And I think because of what Nick's gone through with his family and losing parents in the sense that they divorced and just all the stuff he's been through with his family over the years. He looked up to Brian."
"Brian and Nick have a special relationship," Richardson added. "Nick idolized Brian in the group. When we were first starting out, when we were really young they bonded. They were inseparable. They were real tight in the beginning. Brian is a really good athlete, he's a great basketball player. Brian used to play hoops all the time, whatever country we were in. If we had any time off they'd be like, 'All right, we're leaving the hotel, we'll find a gym and play basketball,' and that's what they did. And a lot of times Nick's mother and father were not out on the road with him even though they were supposed to be and we basically parented Nick."
In "Show 'Em What You're Made Of," Carter gets in a fight with Littrell, saying he's no longer afraid of him and that he's a "dick." This fight actually went on for much longer than is shown in the movie, but in the end, Carter came around and admited that he always thought of Littrell as Michael Jordan and himself as Scottie Pippen. It seemed as if Carter almost needed Littrell in his life at this point as a parent figure and mentor. But as Littrell started growing up -- he got married -- the changes made things difficult for Carter.
"Brian was growing up as all of us do and starting his own life, I think it really really broke Nick's heart," McLean explained. "Because then it was all about Brian and Leighanne [Littrell's wife] and it wasn't Brian and Nick anymore. It wasn't that Frick and Frack relationship anymore. And I think that really started this downward spiral for Nick as far as the relationship between him and Brian. And for years after that I think Nick was always intimidated a little bit by Brian."
Fans would follow the Backstreet Boys venue to venue, and learned all of the group's tricks for trying to escape fans' attempts to get as close to the band as possible.
"There are moments where we'd come back from the show and we would normally do a 'quick out' from the venue," Richardson said. "That's when as soon as we leave the stage, we run and we jump in a van before the band even stops playing. The final drumbeat and the lights go out, we've already left the venue. So we go straight to the hotel and a lot of times we'd have police escorts and stuff like that."
Richardson explained how fans had left early from the concert knowing the Backstreet Boys would do the same. Sometimes, they'd even make it up to their hotel rooms.
"Well, a knock was at my door and I thought it was our wardrobe person so, I have a towel wrapped around me and I got my clothes in a bag, so I open the door to hand them the bag, and it was like five fans," Richardson said. "Somehow they had got on our floor. They were like [Richardson makes screaming noise]. And I was like, 'Okay, that is not our wardrobe assistant.'"
In an interview with MTV Buzzworthy, the band was asked about the weirdest or craziest fan moment. Brian Littrell responded, "Some fan stuck a knife under Nick Carter’s hotel room to see if he was in there!" McLean elaborated, "Some girl slipped a note under his door, and he went to reach for it and all of a sudden a knife slipped in!"
Another time a fan stowed away in their bus and offered the band something she really shouldn't have, as Littrell explained in that MTV interview:
After performing in Hamburg, Germany, we had these two women sneak in to our tour bus. Our manager was looking for his bag, he reached for his backpack and felt something weird and it was the girl’s knee! We drove a couple hundred miles with them hiding there!
McLean also chimed in for this one: "The [same] German girl that stowed away on the bus," he said, "she gave us two gold rings that turned out to be her parents' wedding rings!"
The Backstreet Boys certainly loved and love their fans, but talking with them, you certainly get the sense that maybe, just a few times, it was just a bit too much.
"There were always fans getting on the floors and knocking on our doors throughout the night," Richardson told HuffPost. "Especially in Spain and America, there'd be like 10,000 to 15,000 fans outside the hotel, singing our songs all night, through the night. I mean, I'm talking until 5 a.m., they were singing, serenading us under our hotel windows as we were in our room. And that, that was beautiful and amazing and at the same time it was really weird."