WHO ARE THE BACKSTREET BOYS?
“I never heard of 'em,” says a clueless dude as he helps construct the sets for Teen's May cover. “Are they famous or something?” Everyone just blinks at him, all of us wondering if this guy is yanking our chains. Then the photographer's rocker-guy assistant, who is anything but a Backstreet fan in his heavy metal leather-and-spiked jewelry and waist-length hair, kills the moment: “Man, what planet do you live on?”
Until five minutes ago, I would have offered a hundred bucks to find anyone who could honestly claim Backstreet ignorance. As the pop pioneers in the boy-band phenomenon, you'd truly have to live in an adobe in Iraq to not have at least heard of the Orlando five. And I'm not saying you gotta like 'em, I'm just saying there's no ignoring 'em. For every thousand letters the Teen offices receive with BSB drawings, praise, collages and adoring love sonnets, there are Korn fans writing in who'd sooner wear orthodontic headgear to the prom then get into the BSB harmonizing groove. To each her own.
Whoever's your favorite, there is no denying Backstreet's enormous presence in music. Black & Blue, the band's third multiplatinum CD following Millennium and its pop-apocalyptic debut, Backstreet Boys, tops the guys' total record sales at 63 million worldwide. After a short debate, the Teen staff agreed that for any true BSB fan, the ultimate story would be spending a day with the guys, topped with a backstage pass to a show on their sold-out world tour. The guys agreed, and asked us to meet up with them in Chicago. Fasten your seat belt.
LUNCH, CAMERA, ACTION
“How'd the Dairy Queen get pregnant? Burger King showed her his Whopper.” AJ McLean, who arrives first, shares his cleanest joke, and I giggle to be polite. We're sitting at a table in a chandelier-and-linen-elegant ballroom at a hoity-toity hotel where the shoot is about to happen. AJ's drinking fruit juice while he waits for his turn in the stylist's chair. He's witty and fly in an alluring, urban way. I take a seat next to him, setting my barely-touched cheese croissant on the table. Meeting the Backstreet Boys isn't everyday. Could you eat if you had to talk with these guys?
Teen: Most of the questions I have are random because I figured you might be sick of talking about being a Backstreet Boy.
AJ: You mean you don't want to know my favorite color?
Teen: You know your fans have already memorized that jive. Since they dream about you, I wanted to ask each of you about your own dream lives. Will you share your last vivid dream?
AJ: That one I can't say. But there has been a recurring dream that's been going on since the group started. We're at an award show, like the AMAs or the Grammys, and we're nominated for, like, 10 awards, and we're so happy. We close the show by performing, Brian and I start the song, and Brian forgets the words. We just don't sing. We just all freeze. Then, like 10 people in suits come down onto the stage and take our awards from us, rip up our record contract and the entire auditorium leaves. Like, this is a big joke. And we're all sitting there, all of us, by ourselves in this empty auditorium like it's over.
Teen: That's a validation dream. Fear of failure. I can't believe you just shared that.
AJ: You're welcome. Hello, Keh-vahn…
Kevin Richardson arrives. He's taller than he looks in pictures and so good looking that it's almost gross. Like a better-looking cousin of Tom Cruise. “Kevin, can I have a few minutes with you?” Before he can answer, a publicist whirls in to announce that Kevin has to go to wardrobe. But good news: Howie is in the house and is waiting in the stylist's chair.
HAIR, MAKEUP, NIGHTMARES
“We don't talk about makeup,” says Scott McMahan, the groomer for the guys and the man behind their matured makeovers preceding the Black & Blue release. “It's show business, but we really only cover things like dark circles [under the eyes] because they've been on the road and they got three hours of sleep. None of them like it. Nick hates it.” I tell him I think the guys are better looking now than they were in the beginning of the BSB pop bomb. “I came on board just after Millennium was released, and what I noticed was that they kind of looked like what every other boy band was looking like,” says Scott. “They were dressed alike, were very clean and had very chiseled facial hair. They were overstyled, and what I think is sexy is a very relaxed look, something that's manly and kind of uncared for. They look more accessible now, more real.”
Enter Howie, who plops into Scott's styling chair like it's a beanbag. I extend my hand, “Hi! I'm from Teen.”
“Hello 'From Teen,” I'm Howie.”
No exaggeration, Howie is adorable. I want to adopt him and his perfect latte-colored skin, big, friendly eyes and unruly Puerto Rican curls that he says he hates. But since I just dorked out, I backpedal. “Are you going to be trouble, Howie?” He smiles. He's so cute.
Teen: Are you tired of talking about yourself yet?
Howie: You know what? I like talking to myself. I've gotten used to talking to myself.
Teen: Of course you would! Do you ever want to tell people, 'Hey, can't we just talk about politics or Napster or, who cares? Even…gardening?'
Howie: I know [fans] want to know everything about us, but after a while it's boring. There's nothing else [to tell]. I'm starting to make up stuff. One time, me and Nicky were in London, and there was this woman sitting next to us. We're like, 'We're a missionary group.' We said that we found each other through church, and Billy, our head of security, was our ballet instructor.
Teen: Can you remember your dreams?
Howie: Yes, I have a recurring dream. There are paparazzi that are constantly trying to take pictures of me when I'm in bed. I'm always trying to flex and pose 'cause I'm thinking, 'Well, God, they're catching me here, and my stomach is probably hanging over the side and everything.' It's like they're hiding in my room, like in the corners and stuff. Or, they'll just come right up in front of my bed, I have [the dream] about four, five times a year.
Howie is telling me about the new fish tank at his house, complete with a live lobster, when Nick Carter shows up for wardrobe. I'm distracted because he starts stripping right there in front of me. Within minutes, it's nearly nude Nick in his boxers, and I wonder how much money a hard-core BSB fan would pay to trade places with me. Nick walks up near Howie, and to the mirror, pushes his gut out as far as he can. Then he cups and jiggles hi, uh, tire, with both hands saying: “Yeah, baby! How's that?” I say, “That's a gut, all right,” trying not to look south. He ignores me and again jiggles his stomach for Howie's amusement.
NAKED BOYS, NAKED BOYS
“The guys aren't modest around me at all,” says wardrobe stylist Brandy St. John, as we wait for Nick to put some clothes on. “Nick is really playful. But they all walk in, throw off their clothes and say, 'OK, what am I wearing?' They're like family.” When Nick finally pulls on a pair of pants and a shirt, he takes a seat. He's holding some CDs: Jodeci, Limp Bizkit, Godsmack, Incubus.
Teen: I know you like gross humor, so tell me what you'd do for $100 million.
Nick: I'm thinking…for $100 million? I'd suck the toe-crust from Howie's feet!
Howie: I don't have crust.
Nick: Mention he's got crust. [His cell phone rings.] Can I answer this? [He answers.] No, dawg. Listen, you gotta get me a tape so I can play it for the guys. No. No. Lemme call you back. I'm doing an interview right now. Yeah. I'll call you back. Yup. [He puts away the phone and looks at me.]
Nick: [to Howie] What would you do for $100 million?
Howie: I'd eat a hairy steak.
Teen: Nick? Hi again. Will you share your last vivid dream?
Nick: I had a dream that we won a Grammy.
Teen: Would that be a pinnacle award?
Nick: In my dreams it is.
TIME FOR CLOSE-UPS
Nick-time is cut short because the sets are built, the lights are set and it's time for the guys to step in front of the camera. As the photographer and Teen's creative director tell the guys where to stand, I notice that there's not a whisper of egoism between them. You'd think there would be issues about who's in front or who gets to stand in the center but there isn't. At all. The guys are pros, and it's a truly glamorous experience to watch the shoot from the sidelines. All at once, Nick stops the action to put on Limp Bizkit's Chocolate Starfish and the Hotdog Flavored Water. It's punk, and the guys seem sort of stiff as the camera clicks and flashes at a steady pace. Finally, Kevin asks: “Can we put on something funkier?” Nick jumps up and replaces Fred Durst with Jodeci. It's like R & B magic, and the guys relax and start joking around. After a few hours the shoot is over. The guys step down from the set and scatter to various areas of the enormous ballroom. I find Brian Littrell and we take a seat by a buffet of brownies, cookies and fruit in fancy pastry bowls. He's got this mellow vibe that is immediately comforting, like's he's not going to ever judge anyone or say anything mean. Before I get to the questions that I asked the other guys, he asks me where I'm from, how old I am, how it's goin' for me today. Celebs don't usually go there. It's endearing, and I'm taken a bit off guard.
Teen: You're described in many of your press clips as the most normal guy in the group, and now I know it's true.
Brian: I'm just like everybody else, and the Backstreet Boys is my job. It's just what I do for a living. I make music. It's good to know that we're touching peoples' lives through music.
Teen: What do you talk about when you're not talking BSB business?
Brian: My wife and I chat about whose house we're going to visit next when we have time off, when can we get to my mother-in-laws' to have dinner, when can I get home to see my family in Kentucky.
Teen: That's really sweet. How do you sleep?
Brian: I sleep pretty well. I'm a light sleeper, like my dad.
Teen: Can you describe a recent or recurring dream you've had?
Brian: A recurring dream I have is that I'm on the basketball floor running down the side of the court, dribbling the ball, and I just pass it off and break to the basket. The guy that I pass it to turns around and he passes it right back to me. I see the basketball coming right at my face, and I wake myself up because I reach to grab the ball and I realize that there's nothing there.
Teen: Any theories on what it means?
Brian: I feel like the ball's always in my court. It's kind of an analogy of my life.
Truthfully, I could hang out and talk with Brian about his new wife, their new home and his affinity for diamonds all day, but the elusive Kevin walks by on his way to yet another buffet table to help himself to a bottled water. I have to excuse myself from Brian's company, and approach Mr. Richardson.
KENTUCKY BLUE EYES
“Hi Kevin, me again.” I sound like a geek. “Can I have some time with you now?” I am looking at a seriously beautiful human being. This guy should audition for movies he's so striking. “Of course,” he says stoically, and gestures toward a nearby table. With impressively perfect posture, he sits and just stares at me, a veteran interviewee poised to answer question. He barely blinks, and the blue eyes are no joke. I fumble over my own words, giggle self-consciously and position the tape recorder between us. I'm not attracted to him, he's just that pretty.
Teen: You've been a group for eight years now. What's an inane question that you just cannot answer anymore?
Kevin: The one that's frustrating is when people ask 'What's the craziest thing a fan's ever done?' because I can never remember. But, 'How did you guys get together?' or 'What's your favorite color?' are frustrating. I like talking more about the music.
Teen: Let's talk about it then. Do you see recording an album, traveling on tour, all of it as actual work?
Kevin: It's something that I love to do so it's a hobby that just happens to be music, and it's also my work. When it turns into work for me is when we're talking about money and lawyers. When it's not work is when I'm just creating and I lose track of time. That's fun.
Teen: I've asked all the guys if they remember their dreams. Do you?
Kevin: I dreamed that my teeth have fallen out a couple of times.
Teen: Classic stress dream. Do the settings where you're losing teeth ever change?
Kevin: I dreamed my jaw was shaking, shivering, and people were pointing at me going, 'What's wrong with him?' I was holding my jaw and it was hurting really bad and I woke up and I was grinding my teeth. And I dream sometimes that we're performing and the crowd doesn't like us.
Teen: Each of you have revealing, fame-related recurring dreams.
Kevin: The only time we ever got booed off a stage was a in a club in Miami. It was because the announcer screwed up and said that there was going to be a booty contest, and all of a sudden the lights come up and we're there. I was like, 'Let's sing something a cappella - at least we'll get their respect.' We had to prove to people that we really sing. They stopped booing and the girls were trying to work their way up to the stage. That was in '93 or '94.
After I say my goodbyes to the guys and their entourage of bodyguards, publicists, managers and stylists, I shove into a cab with the other Teen editors, the photographer and his rocker-guy assistant. When we arrive at the stadium, we're escorted backstage. There are so many people! Everyone's wearing special badges or laminates on their clothes to prove their backstage coolness. Girls' faces are painted black and blue, and their T-shirts are collaged in I LOVE BRIAN! or BSB FOREVER! The fans are into it.
Suddenly, the lights go down and the stadium becomes an instant eardrum torture chamber of screaming girls, all waving blue glowsticks. Some fans have these twirly hand-thingees that light up with “Kiss me, Nick!” when spun really fast. The guys rise up out of the stage, singing “The Call” in an explosion of pyrotechnics and smoke. The place is freaking out, and I feel like I'm going deaf.
For over an hour, the guys serenade more than 15,000 fanatical girls from 3 years old to 30. They are so adored – flowers, stuffed animals and love letters are hurled at the guys so frequently that there is a hired crew to run onstage and remove the gifts throughout the show. The concert is of epic proportion, and even a boy-band basher would have to admit that the Boys don't put on a modest show. Not even close.
As I watch from a spits-distance away as the guys sing “Shape of my Heart” under the glamour of golden stage lights, I think about how yesterday they were these wildly famous celebrities. After today, they're just Kevin, Brian, Nick, Howie and AJ, regular guys who sometimes can't sleep, worry about their futures and have dreams and desires like you and me. I also know what kind of skivvies Nick wears. HA!