The Backstreet Boys' Year in Hell

The high life and high price of teen superstardom.

Backstreet Boys: A.J. McLean, Brian Littrell, Howie Dorough, Nick Carter and Kevin Richardson attend the Press Conference to Promote the Backstreet Boys New Album 'Millennium' on May 17th, 1999 at Studio 54 in New York City. Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage/Getty

There is fame, and there is teen-idol fame. The Backstreet Boys are well-acquainted with the latter, which transcends autograph seeking and enters a surreal realm where girls will offer up their own internal organs on the black market for, say, one of Kevin's used Kleenex.

"They try to bribe us with money to get backstage," says Q, the Boys' longtime bodyguard and possibly the most beleaguered security man on earth. "They'll say, 'My dad can get you a deal on a car.'" He sighs. "Little girls will have a tape recorder, saying they're from newspapers or Fox Kids." In hotels, continues Q, "they come upstairs acting like housekeeping, or they call every single room in the hotel until they get the guys."

The Backstreet Boys love their female fans, God knows they do. They say this repeatedly. It is those fans who are primarily responsible for the success of 1997's 27 million-selling', five-singles-spawnin' album Backstreet Boys. When the girls spaz out, trembling and crying at autograph signings, it is the Boys who patiently, kindly talk them down. "I'll say, 'I'm human, it's no big deal,'" says Brian Littrell.

One need not be Phi Beta Kappa to understand the group's appeal. The Boys' frothy pop and dreamy ballads tell the girls the very words they can't extract from bepimpled boyfriends: "I'll never break your heart, I'll never make you cry." However, what the Boys – Littrell, Howie Dorough, Kevin Richardson, A.J. McLean and Nick Carter – could really use is a few male fans. Gay men they've got. ("They're cool," clarifies Dorough. "They know we all, you know, date girls.") There are also the reluctant dads and boyfriends in the audience. ("They try to act tough, but we see them bob their heads," says Q.) But the Backstreet Boys want something more.

With the coming of its new album, Millennium, the Orlando band hopes, finally, to be taken seriously. "I wish people would realize that we have the goods and we're legit," says Richardson heatedly. He is presiding over a barbecue at his house. His band mates mill around nearby."We're talented, and we're not some flash in the pan. We've been together for six years." There is another, more insidious misconception that surrounds the Boys. Because the group has sold the aforementioned 27 million records and has toured the globe countless times, it would be natural to assume that each of the Backstreet Boys has himself a Mount Kilimanjaro-size pile of cash.

Not so. "The truth is that we haven't got that much money," Carter says evenly. Indeed. Last May, the group filed a lawsuit against its former manager, Lou Pearlman, and others in his company. Calling themselves "indentured servants," the Boys accused Pearlman and Co. of keeping some $10 million in recording and touring revenues since 1993. The Boys, meanwhile, received $300,000. Total.

The ensuing court battle involved a squad of twenty lawyers, as well as judges in three different states. In the midst of it, Littrell endured open-heart surgery. "1998 was our most successful year," says Richardson. He pauses. "It was also the hardest year of my life."

Let's unravel this by starting in 1993, when the Backstreet Boys formed under the tutelage of Pearlman, head of the Orlando-based Trans Continental, a collective of companies that includes charter planes, a travel agency and Chippendales dancers. In the early Nineties, Pearlman took notice of New Kids on the Block, the world's most successful act, and heard the distant strains of – can you hear it? – Ka-ching.

He set out to recruit a boy band of his own – and in what better town than Orlando, which was crawling with young hopefuls auditioning like mad to sing and dance in the various theme parks? McLean, Carter and Dorough were the first to sign on. Richardson, a transplant from Lexington, Kentucky, followed; finally, Richardson's cousin Littrell was called in from Kentucky to complete the lineup.

Their first gig: Sea World. School assemblies and family package tours followed, and then came opening slots for REO Speedwagon and the Village People. The Backstreet Boys' first single, "We've Got It Goin' On," proved otherwise when it peaked at Number Sixty-nine on the charts and sank.

"At the time that we released our album," says Carter, adjusting his Fubu hat, "Snoop was big, Nirvana was really big, so we were at the wrong end of the cycle."

Undaunted, Pearlman recruited former New Kids manager Johnny Wright and dispatched the band to Europe, where teen pop springs eternal. The Boys promptly became huge in Germany, and the rest of Europe soon followed. For two years, they toured nonstop.

America was still unmoved. "We'd leave Europe," says Littrell, digging into some corn bread, "where there were, like, 2,000 people at the airport, to..." He makes cricket noises.

During the Boys' lean years, Pearlman claims, he poured some $3 million into their career, just in time for the musical pendulum in the States to swing back to pop, thanks to the Spice Girls and Hanson. After three years in the field, the Boys were pumped. They swooped down on America with "Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)." The sweetly infectious tune (and its pec-static video) soon hit Number One.

Four singles and the majority of $200 million in revenue later, the Boys began to chafe under their agreement with Pearlman. "I swear, in one year we had to have done five tours," says Carter. "The contracts weren't fair," says Richardson. "And we were kept on the road, and before you know it, two or three years and millions of dollars go by."

Feeling hosed, the band began to falter a bit in performance, while the competition in the pop market heated up. The Boys' five jaws dropped when, in a surreal turn of events, they discovered that'N Sync, their main competition (at 6 million records and counting), were managed by none other than... Lou Pearlman. "That hurt our feelings," says Richardson. "Because for a while it was like, 'We're a family.' Then all of a sudden, 'It's business, guys, sorry.' We have nothing against... that group, personally. It was [Pearlman's] not being honest."

Now you know the drama; Let's meet the players.

Brian Littrell "I've been through a lot at a young age," says Littrell, 23, lining up a shot at a beloved Orlando driving range. Indeed he has, and it all began with a phone call from his cousin Kevin Richardson six years ago. Littrell was a nice churchgoing boy from Lexington who worked after school at the local Long John Silver's. Littrell also sang in the choir and at the occasional funeral ("a song called 'Heaven,' mostly") and planned to attend Cincinnati Bible College. Then he got the call.

"I guess the guys liked me, because two weeks later. I'm performing in front of 5,000 people," he recalls in that rolling Kentucky accent: Ah guess the gahz... Littrell, who is courtly and charmingly low-key, has the smooth voice that you hear taking a lot of the band's leads.

While the grinding teen-pop lifestyle has turned many a young talent into a broken. Leif Garrett-esque nightmare, that was the least of Littrell's worries last May, when he had open-heart surgery to correct a heart defect he had had since birth.

"After six years of a schedule that was pretty much horrendous," says his mother, Jackie, "he went for his annual checkup and the doctors noticed that his heart was getting quite large, like one for a 300-pound linebacker."

"I delayed surgery twice because of the tours," says Littrell, smiling ruefully. "I mean, the saddest thing is that I scheduled open-heart surgery around my work schedule. It was like nobody really cared or felt that it was important, because the career was moving on."

He stares out over the range. "It's not worth all that to me," he says quietly. "To be a star and not have my health? Sorry, but it's not worth it." He strides over and pulls up his shirt to reveal a thick, red, five-inch scar with two still-healing puncture marks near the bottom where breathing tubes went into his lungs. "Now I have a manly scar down the middle of my chest," he says.

Littrell doesn't remember anything that occurred right before the surgery – not when the nurses shaved him, nor when his family gathered around him. "My mom and my girlfriend said I was real cheerful, and then they wheeled in a transfer bed and said, 'Are you ready to go?' And then – I just busted out bawling."

He hits another ball, which sails off into the hazy Florida sun. "Eight weeks to the day of my surgery, I was onstage performing," he says. Physically, he had healed, but emotionally, he wasn't ready. "I was sixty-five percent, really. My mind-set wasn't there. But the show must go on." And so it did, with oxygen tanks at the ready backstage, which Littrell relied on for the first week or so.

It was around this time that he had an epiphany about what is important in his life. "Music is my love, but it's my job," he says. "There's things that used to be taken for granted that aren't now: time with your family, time to enjoy the fruits of your labor."

Which he is doing with relish – new Beemer, new house. Littrell heads to his home, in a nearby gated community. He is currently spiffing the place up, with the help of his girlfriend, a pretty blond actress named Leigh Anne. As he nears the place, she calls him to say that fans have been taking his mail out of the mailbox. Ladies! This is a federal offense!

"This isn't the first time," he sighs. He walks into his house as his Chihuahua, Lil' Tyke, pingpongs joyfully around the hallway. Littrell's house is airy and comfortable, backed by a tranquil pool surrounded by flowers. He proudly gives a tour, including his dark-blue office, stuffed with gold records, and the bedroom. (Attention, fan Web sites: It has light blue walls, a white bedspread and a Jacuzzi encircled by candles in the bathroom.)

"I'm trying to figure out ways to hang my hat at the end of the day," he says. "One day I hope to have a pop-gospel hour. Maybe I don't want to have a solo career one day, maybe I do. I've had a lot of people say they want to work with me when I'm finished with the group. And I look them in the face and say, 'I can't tell you if I'll ever be ready.' " He smiles. " 'But if I am, I'll call you.'"

A.J. McLean is pointing out his tattoos. "I have ten," he says. "Each one has a meaning. I started with this one over here on my arm, which says A.J. in tribal markings. The final one will be angel wings, and it's pretty much gonna cover my shoulder blades. Next I want to get one on my stomach – my lucky number, which is sixty-nine." Now, hold on a minute. McLean, 21, is the rebel of the group, but it's not what you think. Sixty-nine is his lucky number. McLean speaks very intensely, occasionally exhaling a plume of Marlboro Light. He has on a white hat, blue tank top, giant tan pants. Cologne clings to him lightly. Today, McLean is steering his gray Ford Expedition to his favorite place: McDonald's. "Yeah, can I get two bacon, egg and cheese biscuits and one sausage, egg and cheese McMuffin," he hollers into the drive-through. "And hash browns."

"I've noticed lately that people have been recognizing me, and I assumed it was my tattoos." He laughs. "It's my damn goatee. They're like, 'Do you do that to yourself or have someone else do it?' I do it myself. I spend about a half-hour every single morning sculpting it." He strokes his chin, which sports a truly awe-inspiring design, kind of a Mondrian without the colors.

McLean, whose deep, rough-edged voice anchors the band's harmonies, has always thrived on attention. He loves to be recognized, loves to go on the band's Web sites and talk to fans. In the seventh grade, he moved from Kissimmee, Florida ("Really, really wack – we didn't get President's Day off from school, but we got Rodeo Day"), to Orlando and landed a role in a Nickelodeon show the very first week he arrived. He has also appeared in some seventy plays. "I grew up in the musical theater," he says, mowing through his McBiscuits. "I always pushed myself. To this day, I take my crap seriously. If, God forbid, something happened to me where I could not perform, I would rather die, basically."

McLean is very close to his mother, who manages his career. His father left when he was four. Two years ago, McLean spotted his dad's return address on a child-support notice. He drove out and knocked on the door. "He's like, 'Alex?' I was like, 'Dad?'" They embraced, crying. McLean looked around his house, incredulous: "There's Backstreet Boys crap all over the walls."

Since the emotional reunion, things have cooled a bit. "He remarried, and his wife is pushing him down my throat," says McLean, driving his rig into a carwash. "If he would do things in moderation, maybe we could get a father-son relationship back. But being so damn pushy, I just don't want to do it." He sighs, exasperated. "He calls me every day, he drives me nuts. I don't really answer his phone calls."

As we drive to McLean's house, he shows me a picture of his girlfriend, an aspiring singer. "She's me with boobs, basically," he says, pointing to a photo of a sexy brunette. "Very cool, very down to earth."

"My house is like The Jetsons," he says as he opens the door to a new, gray-shingled abode. "Red-velvet chairs, red rug, a black-and-white zebra chair. I'm not your ordinary type of Joe Schmo." Indeed, his house is a riot of color, notably the red-velvet pool table. Two black-and-white Shih Tzu puppies, Panda and Bear, frolic in the kitchen.

It's the picture of domesticity, for McLean confines his raunchiness to the stage. "I would like to show a different side of me, do a solo show like R.Kelly or Keith Sweat," he says. "In our show, we each do a solo song. My song is 'Lay Down Beside Me.' It sounds sexual, but it's not. The chorus is, 'If you lay down beside me/You can get all inside me/I can get all inside you, too.' But when you think about it, a guy can obviously get inside a girl, but a girl can't get inside a guy."

He heads into the kitchen, throws a bag on the counter. It's the remaining sausage McMuffin. "For later," he says.

Howie Dorough speaks softly, because he's in church – specifically, the Catholic church in downtown Orlando that he grew up attending. "I was baptized here," he says. "I sang in the choir. I had my first Communion here. Hopefully I'll get married here."

Sweet-natured Dorough, 25, tries to attend church every Sunday: "My mom's Puerto Rican, and my dad's Irish-American. There's no more Catholic that you can get."

The Orlando native has been in the business since he was six, doing commercials for theme parks and the like. He took jazz, tap and ballet classes, and got his big break as a Lollipop Guild Munchkin in a local production of The Wizard of Oz. Dorough would bump into A.J. during his rounds of theater auditions. "I was so close to getting so many things, like the Mickey Mouse Club and Menudo," he says. "I was always used to performing in front of people."

Good thing, because audiences were tough in the Boys' early days on the junior high school auditorium circuit. "The guys would heckle us," moans Dorough. "We'd say, 'You think you can do better, come on up here.' We'd sing a cappella and we'd have them sing along with us. When it was their turn, we'd just drop out, let them sing by themselves. It embarrassed the heck out of them."

Unlike some of his band mates, Dorough does not live in a gated community, so his house gets a fair amount of visitors. "My parents are very cool about it," he says, shifting around in his pew. "They'll let them in and take pictures with them." Dorough plans to buy his parents' house for them. He's also dabbling in real estate, developing condos on the east coast of Florida. "I'm trying to be smart about the money we're earning," he says.

As Dorough is talking, Q the bodyguard is discreetly making his way over to his charge. Q leans in close.

"Your car's being ticketed," he says in a low voice. "If you want to get out of your ticket, write this to "Kristina with a K." He hands the incredulous Dorough a piece of paper. "I'm dead serious," says Q. "The cop is out there waiting for you. You're welcome."

"He's really going to let me out of this?" asks Dorough.

"Kristina with a K," replies Q.

Nick Carter, proud new homeowner at the age of nineteen, bustles around his Tampa house, tidying up. He Windexes the counters and shoves a box of Cookie Crisp cereal in the pantry. Nick is tall (six feet one inch) and, surprisingly for the group heartthrob, pretty shy.

Four pugs have the run of the place (what is it with the little dogs?), cheerfully peeing on the rug. Nick embarks on a house tour: a gleaming black Prowler in the garage, a five-by-five-foot TV courtesy of his record company, a white dining room with pastel chairs and a glass case filled with Beanie Babies. The room that he has spent the most work on is undoubtedly the bedroom. Is that a neon glow coming from underneath the door?

The white bed is flanked by round neon sculptures, reflected by the mirror behind the bed. To the right is a six-foot, clear-plastic palm tree, filled with water and tiny orange bubbles. To the left is an abstract neon figure. "Kind of Miami Vice," says Carter.

Carter says he's a "modern-day hermit. A lot of people don't recognize me, and I don't care." He dearly loves to play video games. Lately he's been kicking it old-school with some antiquated Nintendos he found. Carter is the youngest of the group. "When we recorded the last album," he says, "I was going through a ... transitional stage. I wasn't impressed with my voice. So I'm really happy with what's come out on this album."

Like Howie and A.J., Nick had a showbiz background: some Phantom of the Opera here, some amateur talent competitions there. He was offered a contract in the Mickey Mouse Club, but then the Boys came a-knocking. Carter was thirteen.

The reason for the band's success, says Carter, is that "each one of us is extremely talented. A lot of groups might utilize one or two of the group's voices for the lead vocals. We use every single one."

Carter leans forward. He has a question: "Is there any way that you might be able to not name the actual place that I live?" Carter has already had to move once. The other day, somehow, a girl got his phone number. "I said hello, and she said, 'Ohmigod, is this Nick?' I said, 'How did you get this number?' She goes, 'I can't reveal my sources.' No matter what you do, somehow they get ahold of it." He shakes his head. "It's crazy," he whispers.

Kevin Richardson, on the other hand, definitely has to move. It's a shame, because he has spent two years renovating his Orlando home, and it's a beaut – a symphony of gleaming woods and deep colors. "I like wood," says Richardson. "Wood is very grounding." He walks out to the pool, to his favorite spot: a group of wooden benches. "It's kind of sad I have to move," he says glumly – but, you see, he has been discovered. "People come by when they're on vacation."

Richardson is having the Boys over for a barbecue later, so he takes a load off by the pool. At twenty-seven, he is the oldest of the group and the one who frequently takes charge. Hazel-eyed and intense, Richardson grew up on a farm outside of Lexington, where the family raised their own cows and pigs. Richardson's mom, Ann, recalls that her son got the performance bug early, at the camp that his father ran. "He began to do little skits and sing when the camp had its show-time nights," she remembers, "and the girls would start hollering."

Kevin also cultivated his love of singing in his church choir. After he graduated from high school, he played keyboards and sang in a band called Paradise, which did covers of Bobby Brown and Journey tunes. One day his father suggested that he explore the career opportunities in Orlando. Richardson and a buddy left that night, packing up an old El Camino and heading out. "We had, like, $400 between the both of us," he says.

Richardson became a guide at the MGM Studios and got himself an agent. He coveted a job in one of the Disney shows: "Say, the dancers and singers at the Beauty and the Beast show – you could make really good money." Eventually he landed a gig as a Ninja Turtle.

When Richardson's dad got sick with cancer, the singer moved back home for a year. After he died, says Richardson, "something was just calling me back down to Orlando." One night he was working at a party as an "atmosphere dancer." Let him explain: "It was a convention, and I was hyping the crowd, trying to get little old ladies to get up and dance and stuff." At the party, he met a woman who directed him to the Backstreet Boys audition. "I definitely think the whole thing was fate," he says. The band, now four guys, continued to audition people. "I saw two people, and it was pretty bad," he says.

"It just made me sad. And I said, 'You know what? I have a cousin who can sing his butt off.'" He called Brian, and the band was set.

In addition to his singing career, Richardson does the occasional modeling. Last year he and his band mates got a call from Donatella Versace to attend her fashion show in Milan. He and Howie couldn't get there fast enough. Richardson ended up walking the runway. "That night at dinner," he drawls, "I'm sittin' next to Naomi Campbell, with Donatella on the other side of me." The next night was his birthday, so Versace and Kate Moss serenaded him with a cake.

The boys have arrived at Richardson's pad. They grab plates and load up on barbecue while Carter talks about Eminem's record.

"You got it with you?" asks Richardson. "Let's check it out. I heard he was a lunatic."

"He is," enthuses Carter. "He talks about killing his wife. Details. Chopping her up, putting her in a bag. You gotta hear this track, man. You're gonna freak out."

They defer listening and instead gather around the kitchen table to discuss Millennium, which they helped write. "There are a lot more acoustics on this album," says McLean.

"It's a bit edgier, harder," says Dorough.

"It's a step in the right direction, but it's not too extreme," says Littrell. "It's going to differentiate us from everybody that came out after us, if you know what I mean." His favorite song is called "The Perfect Fan," which he wrote about his mother and which is backed by his high school choir. "She bawled like a baby when she heard it," he says.

Their world tour starts this summer in Europe. "We've got David Bowie's set designer," says Richardson. They are also pumped about a video for the first single, "I Want It That Way."

"We want to do a very pricey video, a very classy video," says McLean. "A three- or four-day shoot, the best possible director."

Yes, the Boys are filled with a fresh enthusiasm. "Ever since we've been with our new management, since January 1st of this year, we are very happy," says McLean. "A weight has been lifted off our shoulders," says Richardson of their new handlers. "They have our health and our sanity in mind, as well as our success."

After the tour, the Boys will take some time off. "We're not planning on splitting up," McLean chimes in. "We are planning on doing something solo eventually." He cites New Edition, whose members spun off occasionally though the group never broke up.

But for now, they are rarin' to tour – and to enjoy life. "I remember [former New Kid] Jordan Knight telling me, 'It's all a blur,' " says Dorough as his band mates bob their heads in agreement. "At the time, I couldn't even imagine that happening. It was all very fresh, and I loved every single thing that happened." He laughs. "Now I understand what he was talking about."