The world's best-selling boy band didn't exactly have its most organic start. Rather than it being the story of five lifelong friends who came together to make music, the Backstreet Boys' official origins lie in an ad placed in the Orlando Sentinel in 1992. After blimp entrepreneur (yes, you read that right) and Art Garfunkel's cousin Lou Pearlman became fascinated with the success of the New Kids on the Block, he decided to start Trans Continental Records and began a $3 million talent search for five unknown performers. A.J. McLean was the first to audition, in Pearlman's living room. In January of 1993, an open casting call took place in Pearlman's blimp hangar in Kissimmee, Fla. and eventually Nick Carter, Howie Dorough and Kevin Richardson were added to the mix. A hunt for the fifth member proved to be tough, until Richardson remembered a ringer in the family back home in Kentucky.
"I saw two people, and it was pretty bad," the elder statesman of the group told Rolling Stone in 1999. "It just made me sad. And I said, ‘You know what? I have a cousin who can sing his butt off.'" So a call was made to Brian Littrell, who had plans to attend Cincinnati Bible College, and an audition was done over the phone. "I guess the guys liked me, because two weeks later. I'm performing in front of 5,000 people," he told the magazine.
Before Littrell joined the group, his spot was offered to future star Ryan Gosling. At the time, Gosling had just landed his gig on Disney Channel's popular revival of The Mickey Mouse Club, alongside fellow stars-in-the-making Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera, and he was living in the same apartment complex as McLean. With the hunt for that elusive fifth member still going strong, McLean approached his neighbor about joining. "They were just forming that band, so he was saying how big they were going to be – and he had a poster of them in his house. We were like, 'It's never going to happen,'" Gosling told Celebuzz in 2013. "'Didn't they already do that with New Kids? You're a little late.' Cut to… I was wrong."
According to McLean, after he initially passed on the offer, Gosling did reach back out to express some interest, only for his call to go unanswered. "Ryan, I am so sorry that I didn't call you back. If we ever want a sixth Backstreet Boy member I'm gonna call you. You can sing," McClean told Gosling via TMZ after the story broke. "He can sing his ass off. He's not only a great actor and a handsome man."
Before being discovered by Pearlman, four of the five BSB guys had already made some inroads in the industry. Richardson was working at Walk Disney World, where he performed as Aladdin. Dorough had made appearances in the films Parenthood and Cop and a Half. McLean landed a role in a Nickelodeon production Hi Honey, I'm Home before being cut from the show after the pilot for being too tall, and was also appeared on the network's Welcome Freshman and GUTS. And Carter had a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance in Edward Scissorhands as a child playing on a Slip 'N Slide.
Their very first performance as a group took place in 1993, entertaining high school seniors celebrating Grad Nite at Sea World. And the footage of the performance must be seen to be believed. They would spend the rest of that summer performing at shopping malls, restaurants, and charity galas while Pearlman tried to land them a record deal.
Oh, and if you've ever wondered where, exactly, their name came from? Pearlman's inspiration came from Orlando's Backstreet Market, an outdoor flea market near International Drive, which was also a teen hangout.
Before their relationship with Pearlman soured, the guys spent quite a bit of time at the house of the man whom they referred to as Big Poppa. "Hanging over at Lou's was like going to Disney Land. He had every freaking toy you could imagine," McLean said in the band's 2015 documentary, Backstreet Boys: Show 'Em What You're Made Of. And it was there that the quintet bonded in typical teenage boy fashion: by raiding their manager's stash of adult videos.
"That was just kind of what young boys would do," McLean added. "One night, all five of us were just—Lou was on a phone call or something—and the five of us were going through the laser disc shit and we found a porno, popped it on and it was just hilarious. We all just sat there and were watching it. That was Howie's first time seeing a girl kiss a girl. It was almost like being in a fraternity. That was like a frat party minus the drinking and the chicks. It was just fun, you know."
Littrell had already overcome two major diagnoses in his young life before joining BSB—a staph infection at age five that doctors said he'd never recover from, followed by a bacterial infection that doctors felt would leave him in a vegetative state—and in 1998, he was hit with another when he was forced to undergo open-heart surgery to repair a cardiac defect he'd had since birth. "After six years of a schedule that was pretty much horrendous," his mother, Jackie, told Rolling Stone. "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," he told the magazine "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."
"Eight weeks to the day of my surgery, I was onstage performing," he added. "I was sixty-five percent, really. My mind-set wasn't there. But the show must go on." To make sure of that, oxygen tanks were kept on the ready backstage. Littrell relied on them for that full first week back.
The band's success wasn't overnight—they first struck big in Europe before finally breaking out in the States in 1997 once the Spice Girls and Hanson made pop music en vogue following the twin grunge and gangsta rap crazes—but by 1998, they were on the brink of superstardom. And they'd also realized that Big Poppa was robbing them blind. Not only had Pearlman and former NKOTB manager Johnny Wright (who was now helping steer the BSB ship) launched their chief competitor NSYNC behind their backs, but they'd discovered that, from 1993 to 1997, Trans Continental had made about $10 million in revenue, while the band only received $300,000. Total.
Littrell filed suit first, claiming Pearlamn hadn't been truthful about their earnings. McLean, Richardson and Dorough soon joined the lawsuit, which resulted in a handful of settlements and severed the group's relationship with the man who put them together for good. However, the terms left Pearlman getting one-sixth of everything they made. "It's ridiculous," Littrell told Rolling Stone in 2000. "He's doing no work."
In 2014, six years after Pearlman was sentenced to 25 years in prison after being accused of running one of the largest and longest-running Ponzi schemes in history, bilking people out of over $300 million—as well as some darker, and unsubstantiated, claims that he was also a pedophile, preying on the boys he recruited for his many musical endeavors—they returned to court with a claim that he still owed them $3,451,456.04. They eventually received a settlement of $99,000 cash, 34 audio tape reels, 26 CDs, seven studio mastering audio tapes, six sealed posters, three audio cassettes, and one VHS tapes. The recordings included some unreleased mixes, demos and original materials.
While it's true that BSB and NSYNC were rivals on the charts, the idea that the guys hated Justin Timberlake and Co. wasn't entirely accurate. Their issue lay more with Pearlman and his deceit. "It's not ‘N Sync itself but where ‘N Sync comes from that digs me, digs me, digs me – and gets me, still to this day," Richardson told Rolling Stone in 2000. "Mr. Pearlman was always speaking loyalty and preaching loyalty, saying, ‘I love you guys; you're like my sons.'I'd lost my father to cancer. So I looked at Lou like a father figure. But I was naïve, and he's a liar. We'll always remember him for helping us get started. But we'll also remember him for screwing us blind and building another group behind our backs."
"If anything, it might've been a healthy rivalry, but there was never any competition. There was never any, you know, ‘You guys suck!'" McLean told Us Weekly in 2016, making it clear that there were no real hard feelings between the two groups who both got bilked by their creator.
After their U.S. breakthrough in 1997, everyone wanted a piece of the Backstreet Boys. So, a year later, it was no surprise when Donatella Versace called Richardson and his band mates with an invitation to attend her fashion show in Milan. More surprising? After he and Dorough jetted out to Italy, he wound up walking the runway! "That night at dinner, I'm sittin' next to Naomi Campbell, with Donatella on the other side of me," he told Rolling Stone, adding that the following night, for his birthday, Versace and Kate Moss serenaded him with a cake.
In 2000, comic book fan Carter met the late, great Stan Lee through his manager and pitched him on a six-issue series featuring the BSB as superheroes called "Cyber Crusaders." Lee was interested in Carter's concept, and the two got to work on translating the latter's idea into one single issue, called Backstreet Project, which was published in August of that year. The book was available for purchase at BSB concerts and online stores through 2001, with Burger King putting action figures based on the characters in their Burger King Big Kids Meals. A series of webisodes were also released, but none of the BSB actually voices any of the characters.
After a sold-out show on the Black and Blue Tour in Boston, Mass. on September 10, 2001, Littrell's wife Leighanne and set carpenter Daniel Lee were due to return to Los Angeles on American Airlines Flight 11 the following morning. Lee was returning home to see his wife, who was due to give birth to their second child. That night, Leighanne canceled her flight, deciding she wanted to spend more time with her husband, but Lee boarded as planned. Tragically, Lee was among the 92 people killed with the plane was hijacked and crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The following night, the group proceeded with their scheduled tour stop in Toronto, observing a moment of silence in honor of Lee and the rest of the attack's victims, before pledging to donate $1 from each ticket sold that night to the Clear Channel relief fund.
The first rankle in the BSB ranks came in 2002, when the group decided they weren't getting enough support from their new management company, The Firm, after it expanded—thanks to, they believed, the BSB's success. "They've built a huge, very powerful company, and they're good people,'' Richardson told The New York Times at the time. ''But this past year, some bad decisions were made and some bad advice given.''
So, the group decided to leave. Well, almost all of them. Carter shocked the group by choosing to remain put, placing his solo career in their hands. With the youngest member at work on his own album, the guys got to work on an album without him, though those demos never amounted to anything. Now or Never, Carter's debut solo album dropped that October, debuting at only No. 17. Since then, each of Carter's band mates have made their own attempts at solo material, all to limited success.
In 2002, the Boys were in court yet again, this time suing record label Zomba Recording Corp. for $75 million, claiming breach of contract. They alleged that the label had focused on Carter's solo effort at the expense of the group as a whole, promoting his album on their official website, while delaying the release of their fourth album and holding up a money-making tour. They sought to be released from their contract, though that never happened. Their subsequent releases were still under Jive, an imprint of Zomba.
While the Backstreet Boys fame was growing, McLean was struggling. He'd developed a pretty nasty drug and alcohol habit, entering into rehab in 2001 (and again in 2002) following an intervention from his band mates. "[A.J.] came to us yesterday and said, 'Guys, I need help,'" Littrell told MTV News. "I looked at him in the eyes and said, 'I'm proud of you.' That's the first time he said it to any of us: 'Guys, I have a problem, and I wanna better myself and better the group and better our situation.'" Tour dates had to be rescheduled for his first stint in rehab.
"We're betting on A.J. to come back. We want him to, because we don't feel that the Backstreet Boys are the Backstreet Boys without A.J. ... [But] if he needs more time — if we have to possibly revisit the idea of continuing on tour and us kind of covering for him, we might have to do that at that time," Dorough said. "His life, his health is more important than this."
McLean returned to rehab in 2011, citing "personal reasons." "With 2011 being a busy year for Backstreet, I want to be healthy and at my best," he said in a statement. "Thank you for all of your support and respecting my family and friends' privacy during this time. I'll see you really soon."
And in 2018, he opened up about his continuing struggles, telling People, "Look, I have no shame in saying, I've relapsed over the past year. It's no secret that this is a disease, and that it's a daily struggle."
After a lengthy hiatus in which McLean tended to his health and the band mended its various personnel issues following Carter's stab at a solo career, their comeback album Never Gone was released in June 2005. So fans were shocked when, a year and one world tour later, Richardson announced that he was leaving the group to pursue other interests. "Earlier this year, after much soul searching, Kevin Richardson came to us and told us that he had decided to leave the group and pursue other interests. He gave his blessing to continue the music without him," the group's statement read. "We have no intention of replacing Kevin, and the door will always be open for him to return to the Backstreet Boys. We wish him the all the best in his future endeavors."
They would go on to record two albums without Richardson, starting work on the first, Unbreakable, two days after his departure was announced. Six years later, following a joint tour with New Kids on the Block, the group announced that Richardson was rejoining them permanently, immediately getting to work on a new album.
While McLean's struggles with addiction had been well-documented over the years, band mate Carter was struggling in silence. He finally opened up about his decade-long battle with drug and alcohol addiction in 2009, telling People that a 2008 cardiomyopathy diagnosis (a weakening of the heart muscle that can require transplant or lead to death) was finally the thing that scared him straight. "I don't want to die," he told the publication. "I don't want to be that person people read about and think, 'That's sad that he couldn't stop it and killed himself.'"
"During the height of my problems, I did Ecstasy, cocaine and drank a large bottle of vodka a night," he wrote in his 2013 memoir Facing the Music and Living to Talk About It. As he wrote, his biggest regret was the levels of Ecstasy he was consuming. "The amount I did caused changes to my brain that are responsible for my bouts of depression now," he explained.
In 2016, he faced a sobriety slip-up when he was arrested following a bar brawl in Key West, Fla. According to court documents, the bartender refused to serve Carter due to "high levels of intoxication." He was expecting the birth of his first child at the time.
Arguably the highest-profile BSB romance was Carter's 2003-04 relationship with Paris Hilton. And it's the one that he lays a lot of the blame for his partying ways. In his memoir, he admitted, "Paris was the worst person in the world for me to hook up with." As he tells it, she "fed my worst impulses as far as partying," adding, "I could've ended up a tragedy."
At San Diego Comic-Con 2015, carter revealed that he would be directing and starring in a film he'd written entitled Dead 7. The film, which focused on a band of gunslingers during a post-apocalyptic zombie plague, saw Carter and his bandmates McLean and Dorough team up with fellow boy-banders, including NSYNC's Joey Fatone and Chris Kirkpatrick, 98 Degrees' Jeff Timmons, and O-Town's Erik-Michael Estrada, Trevor Penick, Jacob Underwood, and Dan Miller. In the end, Carter didn't, but he did manage to get his wife Lauren Kitt-Carter in a role and the film debuted on Syfy in April 2016. Aside from the film's cheesy meeting of the boy-band minds, Carter, McLean, Dorough, Fatone, Kirkpatrick, Timmons and Estrada all collaborated on the theme song, "In the End," which was released online for free.
In late 2017, Carter was hit with serious allegations from former DREAM singer Melissa Schuman, who alleged on her website that the singer raped her in the '90s. "I am shocked and saddened by Ms. Schuman's accusations. Melissa never expressed to me while we were together or at any time since that anything we did was not consensual," he responded to the claims. "We went on to record a song and perform together, and I was always respectful and supportive of Melissa both personally and professionally. This is the first that I am hearing about these accusations, nearly two decades later. It is contrary to my nature and everything I hold dear to intentionally cause someone discomfort or harm."
In July of 2018, the Los Angeles District Attorney took a sexual assault case involving Carter, which had been reported to the Santa Monica PD in February of that year and reportedly occurred in 2003, under review. Months later, they declined to press charges. Per court documents obtained by E! News in September, the DA's Office wrote, "The reporting party alleged that in 2003, she was the victim of a sexual assault perpetrated by the suspect in his apartment. The victim was 18 years old at the time of the assault. The statute of limitations expired in 2013. Therefore, an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence is not warranted and the matter is declined."
With over 100 million records sold worldwide, the Backstreet Boys stand as the best-selling boy band of all time. Additionally, they are the first group since English band Sade to have each of their first nine albums reach the top 10 on the Billboard 200, and are the only boy band to do so. And when DNA debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, they became the first boy band to top the U.S. charts in three different decades.