Here's the story/ Of a lovely lady/ Who was bringing up one very wealthy boy ... Or so it would seem. The mother of Backstreet bad boy A.J. McLean has just released a matronly memoir on the plastic-Camelot ascent of the boy band to beat all boy bands throughout the mid-'90s, and she is clearly -- if weakly -- insistent that her aim is true. The Backstreet Boys machine, a behemoth of Floridian entrepreneurial vulgarity, was not so well-oiled, she purports. Mired in amateurish management and money-grubbing, the whole thing spun both her and her son into a panic that would end up landing the younger McLean -- he of the nasty drug/drink habit and suspicious facial hair -- squarely in rehab.
Simple enough, really. A.J. is not the first pop pundit to slip into excess in the face of millions of dollars riding on him. Nor will he be the last. But the story is thicker than that -- larger than life, if you will. Denise McLean's low-rent tome is inciting predictable cries for both quality control and libel suits, specifically from Backstreet Boys' former management partner, Donna Wright. Cue stage-mom catfight. Raise your hand if you didn't think it would come to this. Anyone?
For now, let's hear Denise McLean's side of the story.
"I actually had written the original manuscript about five years ago, when I was still employed with the Boys, while I was recuperating from surgery," she recalls from her Central Florida home. "I was really just bored. So I had kept journals of the first years when we were touring Germany, so I said, y'know, I should really try to put some of this down on paper, primarily to give back to the other parents."
"I had originally meant to do like a diary-type book, to just tell people, 'This is what happened.' This was before Alex went into rehab. None of that had happened yet. So, long story short, I had to shelve the book when some family issues arose with my family's health problems.
"Then once my son went into rehab, it came back up that this is the reason to tell the story of how all of that kind of thing happened and what led up to it. Part of it was a cleansing experience for me. I think I just needed to get closure to all of these things that had happened. The other part was to get the message out there to single parents, kind of a reality-check thing."
The book in question, difficultly titled "Backstreet Mom," stumbles through several years of history with predictable maternal concern. Bad influences are noted, foul mouths admonished, and the story of one of Florida's largest, most successful jokes is cast through the eyes of a soccer mom. Business be damned, this story is personal. Too personal, even, considering that publicly A.J. was only comfortable admitting to alcohol abuse as his demon. Denise told the real story: the drug addiction and the lifestyle to match. Thanks, Mom.
"There were girls in the lobby, girls in the stairwells. Girls running up and down the hallways in desperate search of the boys," writes McLean. "Oftentimes, girls would reserve rooms in the same hotel as the boys. The girls who couldn't afford that camped out in the lobby. Sometimes they would even sleep outside the front of the hotels. Oddly enough, this did not seem to bother the hotel management."
Fans fast became a plague in Denise's memoir, so much so that she didn't feel that she could protect her son enough. (Imagine if your mom was on the road with you and your jet-setting boy band, wet rag included.) In fact, this mother's excessive coddling, resulting in an insistence that she be completely involved in everything Backstreet, becomes the unintended subversive story line throughout the book -- a book that, for the sake of embarrassment alone, should probably not have even been written.
"There are, of course, rumors running around that this one didn't like this or this one didn't like that, and my son heard a couple of things, but nobody's picked up the phone and called me," defends Mom. "It's like everything else. When you do something like this, and you tell your side of the story, you're going to have people that don't like what you have to say. But what I've always said is that everything in that book is truth -- from something I saw personally or something that my son confided in me. None of it is hearsay. So, if they have a problem with that, then they can come to me and talk about it."
If you haven't yet started to realize the creepy vibe, try McLean's unpublished "Halloween in Tokyo" memory on for size:
"We told the boys, 'We're gonna have a contest. You have to go trick-or-treating. You have to make a costume from what you can find in your rooms!'" remembers McLean, laughing. "I don't know if you've ever been to Tokyo, but there's not much there. Somewhere in my archives there's actually videotape of it. Howie [Dorough] came out dressed in his pajamas, and he pasted slippers all over himself. He became Slipperman! My son wrapped sheets around himself like a toga -- and some other things that I can't mention!"
Don't mention it.
In the milquetoast tell-all, McLean makes direct jabs at Donna Wright, a feisty character who many argue was the soul of the whole WrightStuff Manage-ment operation that broke the Boys, prior to her split with husband Johnny.
"Every time Donna was out on the road with the boys, ugly incidents occurred," says McLean. "Her battles with record-company reps had become famous," she writes, intermittently sprinkling accusations of alcohol abuse, and, at worst, thinly veiled attempts to steal her son. Wright's daughter and McLean's son were romantically linked (and even still talk today, according to Wright), and McLean developed a bad taste for all things Wright. Rumors of a procreative foible are duly glazed over.
"The only reason it's not libelous -- my lawyers have it right now -- is she did not use the word 'abortion,'" fumes Wright. "She said, 'Thank God there's no baby.' What are people supposed to think? Every girl that's been in A.J.'s life, the biggest problem has always been the mother." She adds, tellingly: "I think Denise would rather have A.J. as a husband."
Meanwhile, Wright plans to raise the stakes with her own book. She's even been courted by Howard Stern, but has, until now, refused comment, hoping to avert additional book sales for McLean. Somehow, McLean's book has landed her A-list gigs on the media circuit, from "Good Morning America to Oprah." In our conversation, McLean is a bit bitter that coverage isn't focused on her book, but rather the real celebrities at hand.
"It was interesting, only because -- I have to be honest with you -- they pulled kind of a quickie on us. It was originally supposed to be just Alex and I on the show, and we were supposed to be talking about the book. And we knew they were going to be asking him about his drug and alcohol situation, and that was fine. We heard the night before we were going on "Oprah" that Kevin [Richardson] was in town. And Kevin was quite a catalyst in getting Alex clean, and we thought, 'Well, that's pretty cool that they're bringing Kevin on the show.' Then they brought all the boys and at that point it turned into, of course, "The Backstreet Show." It wasn't "The Alex and His Mom Show" anymore."
But Wright's claws are out now, inciting her to contact Orlando Weekly to help stop the buck. "She was out for me. Denise McLean wanted to be me," says Wright. "Jane Carter [Nick's mother] was the same way, but at least she stood up for me. She said, 'Donna did all the work for three years, then Lou [Pearlman] and Johnny stepped in.' That brought tears to my eyes."
It should be noted that Jane Carter is currently being sued by her younger son, pop star Aaron Carter, for money mismanagement.
Perhaps it should also be noted that divorced women can sometimes be a little bit tragic in their attempts at reclaiming relevance following the honeymoon's end -- Wright divorced Johnny somewhere in the middle of the Backstreet Boys' ascent. But these two (or three) people have made entire careers out of children's -- their own or others' -- talent and/or gullibility. The tragedy is nearly Greek in scope, only with more of a TV-movie appeal, now that they stand Stepford, staring each other down in public-laundry airing.
"Nobody knows what a struggle it is for a woman in this business. You have to be more masculine than feminine," says Wright. "I am a bitch -- what, because I fought for those kids? I felt like a tomboy. I did what I did, and I did my job. Denise McLean did nothing for those boys except destroy them in the media. She was mean and nasty to the media."
And so the battle wages on, Wright even intimating that she might make an appearance at McLean's Barnes & Noble book-signing (3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 17, East Colonial Drive), wielding books about how to raise children. Orlando's hit machine may just be getting interesting again -- only this time without the music. McLean does hint that the Backstreet Boys are due for a spring album and summer tour, fingers crossed. This time things will be different, though.
"I think, more than cynical, I'm a lot more savvy about how things work," says McLean, who has continued her manipulations, all the way to the nadir of creating "Johnny No Name" two years ago, A.J.'s evil-twin performing alter ego.
"My nature has always been that I give people the benefit of the doubt until they're proven wrong. But after my exposure to the industry, I changed that around to 'I don't trust you, until you're proven right.'"