AJ McLean will never forget the day his bandmate Brian Littrell’s son, Baylee, started wearing nail polish.
“Years ago, Leighanne came to me and said, ‘Do you see this? This is because of you,’ because Baylee was painting his nails black,” the Backstreet Boys singer recalls. “I was like, ‘Yes!’ And Kevin’s sons, Mason and Max, are both doing their nails, which is awesome.”
Seeing the younger generation embrace what was once commonly considered a female beauty habit brings joy to McLean, given the resistance he often faced rocking nail polish back in the late-nineties.
Today, he’s thrilled to be one of the few male celebrities with a nail polish line, Ava Dean Beauty, and proud to be raising his children (Ava, eight, and Lyric, four) in a home where gender has no boundaries when it comes to style, fashion or anything else.
“It’s funny because Ava was very tomboyish when she was younger and now, she’s full on princess – although she’s also into crop-tops and baggy pants because she loves hip hop,” McLean, 43, says. “And Lyric’s always been a girly girl, but she just wants to be like her big sister. If one gets their nails done, the other has to … and I’m usually the one doing it!”
While manicures have become one of the musician’s favourite ways to bond with his daughters, his love for painted nails dates back to his youth and is symbolic of his lifelong efforts to express himself freely.
That’s exactly what McLean, a long-time ally to the LGBTQ community, does in the music video for his new single, “Love Song Love”. The video aims to support the trans community amid the struggles they continue facing, including U.S. legislation proposals that would enable discriminatory acts such as banning trans girls from female sports teams.
In the video, which McLean co-directed with René Elizondo, the musician enjoys dress ups, manicures and bubble baths with models, Nahla Wyld and Carmen Carrera, who are both trans.
The fun and freedom depicted in the video came naturally to McLean, who grew up surrounded by the LGBTQ community and was never fazed by gender or sexuality preferences.
“My first acting teacher when I was 6 or 7, Nona Lloyd, was gay. I saw my first pair of boobs when I was modelling at four. I was enamoured, but at the same time, there was this unity, so I just never saw gender as a divide. Even at the beginning of Backstreet’s career, there were transgender, gay, lesbian people around. It never bothered me.”
“I don’t get it when people think it’s sacrilegious or disgusting. That’s ignorance and people being scared. It’s like, ‘Do you really have an issue with that gay couple or is it your own sh** you’re uncomfortable with? If you never have to deal with that couple, why do you care?’”
Through his best friend Mark, McLean’s seen how heartbreaking it can be facing such resistance. “He knew he was gay when he was 8 years old. His first crush was Harrison Ford as Han Solo! He got acceptance from one side of the family and didn’t from the other. That was really hard for him.”
Today, Mark’s happily married and Ava and Lyric think nothing of their loved “Guncle Mark” and “Guncle Tom” being “husband and husband.”
Nor are they fussed when McLean wears skirts or dresses. “I wore a dress to my wedding!” says McLean, who hands his Instagram over to transgender and non-binary personalities once a week, with “Grey’s Anatomy” star Alex Blue Davis taking over last Thursday. “My wife’s diehard Greek Orthodox side of the family didn’t like that, but it’s okay. They all love me now and get that it’s my artistic expression. People ask, ‘What about your wife?’ but she’s 100,000,000% behind me. She’s like, ‘You’re comfortable with this, so I support it.’”
Meanwhile, McLean’s bandmates rarely raise an eyebrow. “The fellas have always known I’m in my own lane. Nothing shocks them anymore. It’s more shocking when I go the other way and am more subdued or ‘normal.’ If I’m not wearing nail polish, they’re like, ‘Are you okay?’”
These days, McLean doesn’t feel himself without painted nails, recalling how strange it felt having polish free nails (to avoid distracting judges) on “Dancing with the Stars”. “The day after being booted off, I got my nails done. God, it felt good!”
So good that McLean teamed up with friend Josh Naranjo to launch Ava Dean Beauty. The vegan, cruelty free and 10 free range features four colours – ‘Ro Ro Red,’ named after wife Rochelle, a pinky purple ‘Lyric Dean’, a periwinkle blue ‘Ava Jaymes’ and a black ‘Alexander James.’
Launching a business isn’t the only way McLean’s stayed busy since the pandemic slammed the Backstreet Boys’ DNA World Tour to a halt. He has launched podcast, “Pretty Messed Up”, is working on a clothing line and will follow up “Love Song Love” with two EPs.
And, while he’s unsure whether the Backstreet Boys’ planned Canadian concerts will go ahead, the quintet’s commencing their first Christmas album in May. There’s also talk of returning to Las Vegas for another residency. “I’ve suggested our 30th anniversary, which would allow time for life to return to normal – or the new normal.”
Whenever the band hit the stage, McLean plans to be in killer shape – the efforts he’s putting into his body showing during shirtless scenes of the “Love Song Love” video.
“Lockdown’s been great, firstly, for my sobriety. I started AA Zoom meetings and haven’t missed a day. I’ve also found a new passion for mountain biking. And I’ve been grain free, gluten free and sugar free for six months. We’re planning our first vacation in July and I want to be beach ready. When Backstreet’s back on the road, I’ll be in the most ridiculous shape of my life!”
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