"The show always must go on," Aaron Carter said, describing his mantra on E! True Hollywood Story as he explained how his opioid addiction started with painkillers prescribed to help him power through a broken jaw he suffered in a fight.
But then, as Carter would be the first to admit now, the show unraveled. His jaw healed, but he didn't stop taking the pills. "Everybody thought, Oh my god, he has AIDS, he's a crackhead, he's a meth head," Carter recalled. "That's when I realized, either you get your s--t together or you make the decision to slowly die."
Of course, realizing he had a problem was only part of the battle.
For several years now, the singer and reality TV star has been getting far more attention for what he's been going through off stage than for music or any other career move he has in the works. But that's been a troubling pattern for the 31-year-old, ever since he followed older brother Nick Carter into the limelight back in the '90s and found fame to be a mixed blessing.
As both Aaron and Nick know all too well by now, there's no such thing anymore as becoming a celebrity for a little while. Commercial popularity can wane, enough to make the money dry up, but the interest in what you're up to—be it well-meaning or morbid—is always there. The fascination, coupled with Carter's tendency to be startlingly candid and self-effacing when asked the right questions, has led to a conflicted give-and-take between Aaron and the spotlight over the years.
The brothers' relationship has suffered for it—Nick obtained a temporary restraining order against Aaron in September, alleging Aaron had made threatening remarks—and Aaron's overall health has remained fragile. He was spent a night in the hospital earlier this month, purportedly for exhaustion, a couple months after revealing on The Doctors that he had been diagnosed with multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia, acute anxiety and manic depression.
For years Carter has courted controversy in a speak-before-you-think way, going on ill-advised Twitters rant or making outlandish claims about Michael Jackson "passing down the torch" to him—but he has also dealt with some very real issues, including money troubles, substance abuse, depression and the ongoing battle to stay relevant in show business, in the public eye.
For the record, he didn't mean Jackson had passed the pop music torch to him.
He knew Jackson before the pop legend died in 2009, and when they spoke "it was just talking about how I feel and how he feels," Carter explained to Cosmopolitan.com in November 2015. "Not really telling me what to do, because Michael didn't even know what to do sometimes. He was confused, he dealt with a lot of anxiety, he dealt with a lot of judgment and people bashing him. And I'm dealing with the same stuff too. All because—why? All because I said Michael passed the torch to me? It's a metaphor. It doesn't mean I want to put his shoes on and start moonwalking. I'm not Michael Jackson. I'm Aaron Carter. Come on, we lost Michael Jackson because of these kinds of pressures."
Asked what sort of pressures, he said, "I deal with the anxiety of relationship stuff, family stuff, the pressures of my career, and what I'm doing with my life, and evolving as an artist. And the pressures of people talking behind my back and thinking I'm still a 12-year-old-looking Aaron Carter, but I'm 28 years old now, and I've changed, I look different. And people judge me for it. Like, come on, people. Stop. The fact that the world out there is based on superficialities...People need to wake up."
Carter burst onto the scene when he was barely 10 years old, opening solo for the Backstreet Boys in 1997 with a cover of The Jets' "Crush on You" and quickly securing a record deal of his own. His self-titled debut album did alright, but his 2000 album Aaron's Party (Come Get It) went triple platinum, selling more 3 million copies.
"I don't think I had a voice," he recalled last year on an episode of Oprah: Where Are They Now. "I think I was terrible but they did ['Crush on You'] as a joke and then I just wanted to get good."
The tween pop star performed on Nickelodeon, and then made his acting debut as a guest star on Disney Channel's smash-hit Lizzie McGuire, where he met future girlfriend Hilary Duff. He made his Broadway debut in 2001, starring in Seussical the Musical, and at 13 his third album, Oh Aaron, also went platinum.
Maintaining that level of success, especially when it first comes at such a young age, is a tough task for anyone, and the pieces started to fall out of place for Aaron as he got a little older.
In 2003, his parents, Bob and Jane Carter, divorced, and "it screwed me up for awhile," Aaron admitted. Also that year, the Carters sued boy band impresario and Aaron's former manager Lou Pearlman for allegedly not paying their youngest son all the royalties he was due from his debut album. Bob Carter told Aaron that his mother, who was then his manager, had also mishandled some of his money (which she denied, but both Nick and Aaron would end up estranged from her for years).
Recalling how he had to shoot an episode of MTV's Cribs an hour after finding out his parents were divorcing, Carter said on Where Are They Now? years later, "A lot of money was coming in. We had the biggest estate in all of the Florida Keys. I had to show all the cameras my life that I was losing, and nobody ever knew it."
Meanwhile, his parents' split sent him spiraling into a depression and a cycle of self-destructive behavior.
"With everything that was happening, I started losing all my money. I went broke," he said.
Carter also broke up with Duff in 2003 after two years of dating off and on—and then news that he had simultaneously dated Lindsay Lohan for part of that time was an unforgivable offense to some starry-eyed fans, who immediately took sides between the actresses. (Not only did their tween fans not get over it, Carter didn't either—he kept the memory of those Disney-fueled days alive on social media.)
In 2005 a photograph of Aaron smoking pot ended up on the cover of the National Enquirer, courtesy of a friend with a camera. He was 15.
"And one of my best friends did that to me," Aaron recalled to Cosmo. "It was really detrimental, and it really hurt me. And yeah, I did smoke weed. I mean, yeah, I still do. Like, so what? I'm gonna keep it real with people. I've been through a lot of stuff...I felt like, 'Oh my god, I can't trust anybody.'"
When he was 18, "I took a big fraction of my trust fund, and I went to Guitar Center and spent a million dollars in one hour," he told Esquire last year.
Asked about his experiences as a young artist being managed (or mismanaged) by adults, he said that his intention was to help others learn from his own experiences.
"I want to make sure that I epitomize being a performer at such a young age, and then growing up and being able to transcend anything negative or anything bad, or even anything good," he told Cosmo. "That's what the message is to all of the younger kids: OK, you might get a taste of fame, but what happens when you get a taste of fame, you get a taste of money, and then boom, all of a sudden it drops down? Those true, defining moments happen. And that's what happened with me."
He added, "...From 15, 16, 17, [I was] kind of being reckless, or partying, being young, stupid, and then 18 years old, [I was] like, "OK, I'm 18 years old, I have no manager, I have nothing, I have nobody, my parents didn't teach me how to run my career—what am I gonna do?" Am I gonna try to figure it out? Am I going to try to be normal or something? What's normal? I'm never going to be normal. This is my normal. What I do is my normal."
He embarked on his Remix Tour in 2005, and the following year he and his siblings starred in E!'s House of Carters. The through-line for Aaron, at least, has always been music, and he's never stopped working, but the lucrative deals dried up as he headed into his 20s, leading to him moving in with Nick for awhile.
Aaron competed on Dancing With the Stars in 2009, finishing in fifth place (Nick would follow in his footsteps in 2015, finishing second). But it was after that brief resurgence into the prime-time spotlight, DWTS being one of the biggest shows on TV, that life started to spiral out of control again.
Doing DWTS had indeed gotten his hopes up as far as getting attention from a major label.
"All this hype, all this stuff—I hired Johnny Wright to be my manager, and he started having other producers and writers come in and work with me, working on my project," Carter said. "Then he started having record label people come in, the big guys, the heavy hitters...and they just were not interested in me.
"They had no interest in me," he reiterated. "They didn't want to touch me, they didn't want to do anything. The guys didn't even damn near want to look at me, like, they would just walk past me in the compound."
"Nothing ever came to fruition," Carter continued. "I started getting really heavy into drinking. I was telling people, ‘I'm on a very bad path right now, I need help.' I called my mother. She took me down to her house. The next day I was at Betty Ford Center."
He checked into rehab at the famed Rancho Mirage, Calif., facility in 2011.
In 2012, however, tragedy would strike the entire Carter family when Aaron's sister Leslie Carter died of an accidental drug overdose at 25.
"I actually reached out to her two weeks before that and I said, 'I'm going to get you the money to go to rehab,'" Carter said. "She wanted it and her phone got cut off for two weeks, and she got really bad into it. I think out of all the experiences and all the things that happened with my sister's passing, I just learned that life means so much to me and more than just money and fame."
Nick did not attend Leslie's funeral, a decision that drew attention to the still fractured relationships within the family. He and Aaron have been by turns fiercely close and protective of each other and at times seemingly on the outs.
"My family has always had a complicated dynamic," Nick told TMZ at the time. "There are so many emotions for me surrounding the loss of my sister. I am trying to stay healthy, positive, and focused."
Aaron landed a role in The Fantasticks off-Broadway, reveling in the pressure of being the production's marquee name. "It was difficult because I had to go and I had to learn to be the man," he told Esquire. "I had this whole ensemble that wanted me to the be the star of the show and fill the house up."
He embarked on his After Party Tour in June 2013, but lingering debts continued to plague him and, in November 2013, he made the decision to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy—his way of finally achieving a clean financial slate.
"I spent my whole adulthood, basically, with all of these taxes from when I was a kid, when I made a lot of money [and wasn't in control of my finances]," he told Cosmopolitan.com. "So I decided to [file for] bankruptcy. And it took me a long time to make that decision, because I didn't want to be humiliated. I ended up being humiliated anyway, but people are so ignorant that they don't even know what a chapter 7 is.
"Do you know what a chapter 7 is? A chapter 7 is a full discharge. Meaning I don't have to pay a single cent. My credit score is like a 750. I got my life back, because I deserved it. I've been put through a lot of different things and tested in many ways. Having a tax lien for $4 million—what record company is going to want to sign Aaron Carter when they incur a debt of $4 million? So I was blacklisted, boycotted, no one wanted to work with me."
At the time of that interview, during which he said he'd been producing music and "making beats" for the past 10 years, whether folks knew it or not, he was about to go hang out with Deadmau5 (after going to watch Nick dance in the DWTS final). Carter said that, after he posted his own remix of Deadmau5's "The Veldt" and the Internet didn't take kindly to him not initially crediting the EDM star, Deadmau5 reached out to him to offer him his expertise.
Carter also decided to stop waiting for the mainstream to re-notice him, and in April 2016 he unleashed his new single "Fool's Gold" ("about love, a current love-type situation I've been going through recently," he told Esquire) via his own label, Rakkaus Records.
"Sooner or Later" followed in January 2017, and in February he released the EP LøVë, his first album since 2002.
"I want some credibility," he told Entertainment Tonight in April 2016. "Everything makes me want to prove something. Every obstacle that I'm put through, I'm turning into a positive."
He went back on tour and was in his element, doing a medley of old hits, such as "I Want Candy" and "Aaron's Party," but also showcasing his new stuff like "Fool's Gold," which he characterized as "EDM-dub-trap."
In May 2017, however, Carter family patriarch Bob Carter died unexpectedly at the age of 65. "My heart is broken, We are so hurt we lost you poppa way too soon. You were never human to me, you were always my real life super hero," Aaron wrote on Instagram.
And while Carter went back on the road, with then-girlfriend Madison Parker in tow, it doesn't feel as if life has been the same for the singer since.
He has said that working out and therapy—"talking about stuff and not being afraid to be real with yourself"—helped him cope with his chronic anxiety. But he also told ET in 2016 that, despite the sojourn to rehab, he still smoked weed and drank wine. He said, "I'm not going to abuse things. It's just how I'm gonna do my life."
"The misconceptions are that I'm a meth head, or I'm a crackhead, or I'm a drug addict, or I'm this or that," Carter said, noting that people tended to assume he was so skinny because he was abusing drugs.
In July 2017, during a tour stop in Georgia, Aaron was arrested for alleged DUI and both he and Madison were busted for alleged possession of marijuana and drug-related items.
Afterward Aaron lamented that he was targeted by the cops because he was a celebrity. He's said to have been cooperative with authorities and he was released from custody after posting bail. A rep for the artist said that Carter was a longtime card-carrying medical marijuana user to treat his anxiety and that evidence would prove he didn't commit any crime.
Before he went back onstage a couple nights later, Carter tweeted, "I will NOT continue to tolerate such lies about me regarding drug use with alleged meth, heroine, crack - it's not funny! This body shaming must end now! It's amazing how many of you who can hide behind your screens and type it, but wouldn't say it to my face," the singer tweeted. "Ending this with the fact that there are so many bullies out there and this male body shaming must continue to be addressed."
A few weeks later, Aaron wrote an open letter revealing that he was bisexual, stating, "when I was around 13-years-old I started to find boys and girls attractive." When he was 17, he had his first "experience" with a guy "that I had an attraction to who I also worked with and grew up with."
His letter was met with a wave of largely supportive feedback from fans and empathetic souls who applauded him for speaking his truth.
"I've been nothing but supportive of Aaron and his career and I'm happy for him that he's having the courage to live his truth," Parker told E! News in a statement. "Breaking up is never easy for anyone, but it is my hope that we can move on from this point as peacefully and respectfully as possible. I wish him all the best."
Back when he was talking to Cosmpolitan.com in 2015, he said he felt certain "pressures" to do with love.
Asked what he meant, Aaron said, "I'd rather just not talk about it. Love is, like, a weird subject for me right now." He said he just wanted to "love and be loved," but it was a struggle.
"Maybe [the struggle is] more so the person that I'm with understanding me a little better," Carter said. "Understanding how I am. You know what I mean? Because I'm a really hard person to be with."
Losing his dad, his arrest, the breakup, the rigors of being on the road, the rumors... The stresses were piling up. In September 2017, Carter tweeted that he had totaled his BMW in an accident, suffering a broken nose and cuts to his arms and legs.
"I never meant to get into an accident as severe as this," he tweeted afterward. "I've ran into people before and honestly nothing compares to what happened today." An hour later, he tweeeted again, "Everything is fine... Let's get back to my music."
To his followers, he added, "Thank you for all the support and love. Means a lot. Accidents happen. I'm just happy both of us were ok."
In the 24 hours following the accident, an anonymous caller reported to authorities that Carter had recently tried to buy a gun and had made threats of harm against his family and others, prompting police to make a welfare check at his Florida residence.
Police visited two more times after the caller claimed Carter need a psych evaluation, having refused medical treatment after his accident, and then that he had addiction issues and had threatened to harm people.
The welfare reports don't indicate that the police were able to speak with Carter during any of their visits.
Police were called back to Carter's house on Sept. 6, 2017, after receiving a call about a suicide threat. Again, they did not make contact with Carter, but nothing seemed amiss at the house. A couple weeks later, he entered treatment to, as his rep explained, "improve his health and work on his overall wellness."
In February 2018, Carter shared on The Real that he had put on 45 pounds after losing an unhealthy amount of weight and was feeling "cautiously optimistic" about his future.
"I learned a lot of things from last year," he said. "It was a very exhilarating year, full of good things, good times and then trials and tribulations. My dad passed away last year...I kind of went on a downward spiral."
Toward the end of the summer of 2018 Aaron gushed on social media about the new love in his life, Lina Valentina, writing, "No one has understood me and shown the love this woman has for me EVER."
Most recently, he tweeted that he would be helping mom Jane through a sobriety setback—and for now anyway, he plans to keep the family business behind closed doors.
"It's time to stop airing our family problems and issues in the public in public eye," he wrote. "I hope some day we can all be adult enough to talk to each other instead of through law Ayers and courts. #Family."
Asked he handled negative attention, such as the hateful comments celebrities are inevitably treated to on social media, Carter admitted to Esquire in 2016 that being an entertainer did make him predisposed to wanting to please everyone—and it was a bummer even when "somebody that has two followers" says something nasty.
But that's also why he shares so much with the world, he said, on Twitter and elsewhere, including on stage.
It bothered him when haters dumped on him, "but as a man, I'm like, you know what, I'm going to focus now on what I have to do and what my message is," Carter said. "And I am going to show the world a little bit of what I deal with, because that's what I deal with. I deal with hate and I deal with love. And I deal with naysayers and people who believe in me. And people who are fans of me and have little blip of me in their mind from a certain time period, and still think that I'm a little boy.
"But the thing is, I missed out on being able to show them any proper transition with me with music because of all the unfortunate things that happened. At least I can hopefully say in the future that it made me a better man, maybe a smarter man."
(Originally published Sept. 7, 2017, at 2:09 p.m. PT)