Tragic Details About AJ McLean

The following article contains references to substance misuse, suicide, and mental illness.

Few bands encapsulate the late '90s zeitgeist like the Backstreet Boys. They were some of the seminal teen idols to usher in the millennium, all baggy jeans and — as Lisa Simpson would put it — non-threatening boys. Their snappy songs and faux philosophizing (is "tell me why" not the existential question on all our lips?) led to the group amassing millions of fans the world over. There's no denying that much of this appeal lay in their unforgettable image, with AJ McLean perhaps bearing the most iconic persona of the quintet. With his trademark goatee and sideburns, hefty tattoos, and signature white vest/open shirt combo, McLean typified the strange limbo between the '90s and the dawn of the Y2K aesthetic.

His quirky image and catchy vocalizations aside, McLean has endured considerable tragedy, both in his childhood and during his boy band heyday. But throughout his multiple hardships, he has made room for self-improvement. Moreover, he has devoted time to his own fans who have struggled as he did. In 2013, for instance, he called out bullying against the LGBTQ community and vowed to back initiatives to prevent teen suicide, citing his heartbreak over the deaths of two fans. "There were actually two Backstreet Boys fans that were bullied so much on Twitter that they took their own lives," the pro-LGBTQ activist told Mic. "To hear about all this negative, negative, negative really just upset me."

McLean is back, alright; everybody, prepare to weep as we run through tragic details about AJ McLean.

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AJ McLean's parents divorced when he was a child

When AJ McLean was four years old, his parents divorced and he and his mom, Denise, moved in with his grandmother, Ursula. Speaking to Britain's The People in 1998, he acknowledged that his mom and grandparents provided him with the security he so sorely needed during this painful period of his life. "Without them who knows how I would have turned out," he conceded. "I sure don't think I would be where I am now."

Although his grandparents and mom loved and supported him throughout his tough childhood, McLean nevertheless grew up believing that he was to blame for his parents' divorce. "For the past 35 years, I have blamed myself," he wrote on Instagram, "lost my self-esteem and created a horrible path for myself surrounding myself with toxic people, toxic relationships, and the most toxic one was my relationship with myself." This difficult upbringing led to McLean becoming desperate for attention; as he told The People, he attributed this need for validation to not having a father figure growing up.

Accordingly, he found refuge in the performing arts and began appearing in children's theater shows from the age of 6. His mom, who would go on to be his manager, took note of his passion and apparent drive for a better life. And in time, McLean realized that he was not to blame for the acrimony between his parents.

Growing up, AJ McLean never knew his father

When his parents split, AJ McLean would not see his father again for many years. The elder McLean made no attempt to contact his son. Subsequently, this absence led to the youngster believing that he didn't have a dad. "He never wrote and I never got any birthday cards or gifts," the singer told The People. "I would watch the other kids play basketball or baseball with their dads but I never had that."

But in 1998, when McLean was 20, he found a letter addressed to a "Robert McLean" of Orlando in his grandparents' house. Curious, he decided to drive to Orlando to check out the address on the letter. It was there that he was reunited with his father, who recognized him immediately. "He gave me a big hug and started crying," McLean said. "It was really weird and emotional seeing him." The two had a heart-to-heart in which Robert said that he never kept in touch because he assumed his son wanted nothing to do with him, though he did follow the Backstreet Boys and had bought their album.

However, this reunion was merely fleeting and their relationship soon soured again, partly due to McLean not getting along with his dad's new wife. In 2023, he told Page Six that he had recently reconnected with his father. The singer revealed that he underwent intensive trauma therapy, which helped him understand why his dad left.

McLean's 20-year struggle with substance misuse

In 2001, 23-year-old AJ McLean made headlines when he entered a 30-day rehab program for substance misuse. His bandmate, Kevin Richardson, told ABC News that he was worried McLean was self-medicating to treat his ongoing depression.

McLean partly attributes his substance misuse struggles to the pitfalls of fame itself. When he found stardom, he started hanging around people who were using drugs. Desperate to fit in, he began spiraling into substance misuse. "The addict told me ... 'You're a piece of crap, you're worse than them, so you might as well stoop to their level because that's all your self-worth is,'" he revealed on "Diving Deep." After missing a show due to partying all night, he was confronted by Richardson, and the pair exchanged some harsh words. Richardson said that he would never trust McLean again, which deeply triggered him and led him to announce that he was quitting the band.

In 2003, he revealed to Oprah that he'd overdosed twice, but was in recovery. He has had numerous relapses since then, but in 2020 he told People that the turning point for him seeking help was a poignant interaction with his daughter. "My youngest daughter Lyric said to me that night, 'You don't smell like my daddy,'" he said. "And when she said that to me, that was it. Enough said. I felt disgusting." In 2023, he announced that he had been sober for two years.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

He has struggled with anxiety attacks and self-esteem issues

At school, AJ McLean was severely bullied by other kids, who perceived him as different due to his interest in the arts. "I was really into dancing, singing, and acting but the guys would say, 'What's your problem, man, why don't you play basketball like a normal guy?'" he recalled to The People. "I tried not to take too much notice but it was upsetting." These experiences led to him suffering from low self-esteem throughout his life. He has also had long-term issues with depression and began suffering from anxiety attacks around the time he first entered rehab in 2001.

In a 2000 interview with Rolling Stone, he conceded that he had trouble regulating his emotions, and would engage in self-destructive behaviors when he felt low. He cited an incident following a bad breakup in which he destroyed a radio with a baseball bat when one of his band's songs came on the air. "When I get stressed out, I get really violent toward myself and just say, 'Screw the group! To hell with everything!'" he admitted. "There have been times when I wake up like that and think, 'I don't want to do this anymore.'"

These days, McLean is in a much better place in regard to his self-image. In 2023, he underwent intensive outpatient treatment for depression, anxiety, and deep-rooted trauma. "I have self-worth," he told E! that year, adding that he's "much happier than I'd ever been."

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

AJ was devastated by his grandmother's death

AJ McLean's worsening substance misuse issues in 2001 were partly attributed to the death of his beloved grandmother, Ursula, that year. Considering that his grandmother raised him, along with his mom, McLean struggled to come to terms with the loss. At the time, his bandmates released a statement expressing their concern for his wellbeing in the wake of the bereavement. "I think when [A.J.'s grandmother] passed away, that just sent it over the edge," Kevin Richardson told MTV.

Since Ursula's death, McLean has been frequently paying tribute to her in his own special ways. In 2005, the Backstreet Boys dedicated their song, "Never Gone," to Ursula, as well as other loved ones lost by the band. "I lost both of my grandparents; Nick, his grandmother; and Howie, his sister," McLean told CBS News. "We've all experienced great losses, so this song really touches us personally." And in a poignant gesture, when McLean released his own nail polish line in 2021, he named one of the shades "Ursula" after his grandmother, as her favorite color was turquoise.

Famed for his penchant for a McDonald's breakfast, the singer also credits Ursula's home cooking with inspiring his love of bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwiches, which his grandma dubbed "The McLean." "Every morning if I asked for a McLean, I knew what I was getting," he told Yahoo! Life, poignantly revealing that he's been searching for a sandwich that emulates his grandmother's specialty ever since.

The singer was scammed out of millions

In 1992, talent manager Lou Pearlman orchestrated the formation of the Backstreet Boys after putting out an ad for potential boyband members in an Orlando newspaper. In the documentary "The Boy Band Con," AJ McLean said that Pearlman charmed him into believing everything he said, no matter how outlandish.

But soon enough, the band members learned that something was wrong, as they struggled to afford basic necessities despite the enormity of their fame. "We were on super grueling tour schedules," McLean told The Irish Times. "We were not spending any time with family. And that wasn't showing up in our bank accounts. Something wasn't right. Then you'd look at your bank balance. Brian was the one that realized." They discovered that Pearlman had been scamming them out of millions of dollars via his expansive Ponzi scheme, which had amassed a whopping $300 million. After suing Pearlman for $10 million in 1998, the band pursued legal action against the mogul on several subsequent occasions. In 2008, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison, where he died in 2016 at age 62.

There have also been rumors that Pearlman may have been a sexual predator who preyed on the boys he managed. In 2007, McLean's mom, Denise, told Vanity Fair that she believed there was some truth to the rumors. "I kind of thought that there might have been some strange things going on," she conceded. "But you just didn't know." However, there is no evidence that Pearlman abused McLean.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

The traumatic way AJ McLean was told of his stepfather's death

During an episode of the "Pretty Messed Up" podcast, which focused on loss and grief, AJ McLean opened up about the traumatic way in which he learned of his stepfather, Tony Solis', death in 2021. He recalled the last time he saw his stepfather alive, which was during a family meal in Vegas; although Solis had struggled with poor health in the past, having suffered a stroke and survived cancer, there were no signs that he was near death when McLean last saw him.

But when the musician flew back home, he got an unpleasant surprise in the middle of the night when the family alarm went off, indicating that someone had broken into his house. "I'm freaking out," he recalled on the podcast. "I don't have any kind of weapon except a baseball bat ... I crept out of my bedroom and I see this black silhouette at the bottom of my stairs." However, he realized that it was his brother who had broken into the house. "You know when you can just tell something is wrong? ... He looked me in the eye, he almost couldn't even say it, and he said, 'Your stepdad passed away...' He had a massive heart attack."

Later in the podcast, he revealed that the most painful aspect of the tragedy was witnessing his mother's severe distress at the loss of her husband, as well as having to tell his young daughters the sad news.

AJ McLean tried to help Aaron Carter before his untimely death

In 2022, fans were shocked by the news of Aaron Carter's heartbreaking death at the age of just 34. In 2017, AJ McLean told TMZ that he was hoping to have a heart-to-heart with Aaron, whom he had befriended through his brother and fellow Backstreet Boy Nick Carter, in the wake of the star's struggles with substance misuse. "I've been down that road," he said. "I've come out the other end ... I am definitely worried about him. I love him like he's my little brother." He added that "jails, and institutions, or death" were Aaron's only options if he didn't seek help.

Appearing in the 2023 documentary "Aaron Carter: The Little Prince of Pop" (via People), McLean revealed that Aaron did reach out to him asking for help in 2017. "I said, 'Look, if you get on a plane, come out to L.A., I will make sure you get into treatment.' And he showed up," he said. "I was shocked, but I was happy, and he checked into a treatment center in Malibu." Unfortunately, when McLean checked in on Aaron two days later, he was nowhere to be found; the singer had checked himself out of the facility.

In the wake of Aaron's death, McLean supported Nick at a concert in London, which was paused to honor the late star. McLean was filmed hugging Nick, who was in tears following a poignant tribute by Kevin Richardson.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

After 11 years, AJ McLean split from his wife

In December 2011, AJ McLean tied the knot with girlfriend Rochelle Deanna Karidis in an epic goth wedding. But in April 2023, the couple announced that they were temporarily separating after 11 years of marriage. Sources who chatted to People claimed that Karidis initiated the separation due to trust issues, though McLean was apparently hopeful of patching things up with his wife. The couple had reportedly been living apart months before their trial separation.

During an appearance on "Sex, Lies, and Spray Tans" (via People), McLean admitted that both he and Karidis had been going through troubled periods in their lives when they first crossed paths; these issues worsened after they got married due to unresolved trauma. "I came with baggage, she came with baggage, she had trauma, I had trauma," he divulged. "I wasn't sober or ready to get sober. She was dealing with her own s*** ... It was just a constant push-pull: She would sweep her feelings under the rug or I would dive into a bottle."

Chatting to Us Weekly, McLean said that despite the couple's ups and downs, he was determined to be a good father to his children, something which Karidis had praised him for. "My wife's always told me, even in my dark times, the one thing I've always been good at is being a father," he said. "I never wanted to be a bad father." The pair were undergoing couple's therapy as of November 2023.