AJ McLean on "Love Song Love," Fatherhood, and His Decades-Long Affinity for Painted Nails

We sit down for a manicure with the "rebellious" Backstreet Boy you could never put in a box.

AJ McLean gave me a manicure.

There was a time when the Backstreet Boy would have thought twice about sitting down in public, proudly pulling out his nail polish kit and discussing his love for painting his nails and wearing dresses. "This one's a cross between the Chanel red and the common big apple red a lot of nail polish brands do," he enthuses, expertly applying the Ro Ro Red shade (named after his wife Rochelle) from his nail polish line, Ava Dean Beauty, which launched online last fall.

The 43-year-old is known for expressing himself. He's been painting his nails for 20+ years, changed into a gothic black gown at his 2011 wedding to makeup artist Rochelle, and in his new video for "Love Song Love," enjoys manicures, bubble baths and shimmying through a life-size dollhouse in lacy tops and feather boas. The track is the latest in McLean's solo endeavors, which have included his 2010 album, Have It All, and forays into country music. He's now "coming home" to pop, R&B, soul and funk, starting with "Love Song Love," a feel-good bop which will be stuck in your head after one play and have you dancing in your car, much to the detriment of your freshly painted nails.

Starring alongside models Nahla Wyld and Carmen Carrera, who are both trans, McLean says the video is a celebration of self-acceptance and inclusivity. But while his version of defying gender expectations has always felt natural to the boy bander, it hasn't always been embraced or encouraged.

When he started painting his nails, during the group's late-nineties Millennium peak, a common reaction was, "Boys don't wear nail polish," or that only hard-edged rockstars could get away with it, McLean says. However, nail polish became a way of setting himself apart from his bandmates.

AJ McClean Nail Polish
Getty Images

"I've always been the rebellious one. If you tell us to wear red, I'll wear blue. I don't like people telling me what to look like, and early in our career, we were constantly told to look unified. We could wear different colors, but of the same Tommy Hilfiger suit. Once I started wearing polish, then got into makeup, I became more comfortable with my feminine side, if you want to call it that. It didn't demasculinize me. I just felt, 'This is who I am.'"

McLean believes that ease stemmed from growing up surrounded by the LGBTQ+ community while doing musical theatre.But as comfortable as he felt wearing nail polish or eyeliner, societal backlash wasn't the only factor influencing how much he indulged in such beauty habits. Male pop stars, particularly his boy band peers, were often expected to look, act and even love a certain way. *NSYNC's Lance Bass told ET in 2018 that he experienced depression while struggling to hide his sexuality during the group's heyday. The "stigma" of being gay meanwhile prevented New Kids on the Block's Jonathan Knight from coming out to his best friend, let alone fans, according to a 2016 interview with ET.

"There were strict guidelines back in the day." McLean says. "[Late Backstreet Boys creator] Lou Pearlman told us, 'You may have girlfriends, but to the fans, you don't. They may not like you anymore.' We were young and didn't know we had a say, or that fans just want us to be happy."

While McLean never had to hide his sexual identity, he frequently suppressed his natural style.

"I was wearing dresses when I was a kid. It's always been part of me, but I wasn't able to express it, because I'd have to think about the other guys and our brand," McLean says. "Moms and dads were paying for their daughters and sons to see us and some probably went, 'I don't want you dressing like that one.'"

If that ever upset him, McLean doesn't show it. As he completes my base coat and stresses the importance of waiting a few minutes for it to dry, he proudly recalls how the opposite scenario also occurred, with young male fans wearing nail polish as a result of his influence. As thrilled as that made him feel, he still felt constraints when it came to self-expression.

AJ McClean Nail Polish
McLean paints his daughter Ava's nails, with polish from her namesake collection. He wears the "Alexander James" shade of black, his eponymous color, the "daddy" of the line. Courtesy Ava Dean Beauty

"There were moments I wanted to wear something or speak out, but kept my mouth shut because I didn't want to upset anyone. I was codependent and people-pleasing back then. I wanted to ensure everybody else was good, even if I wasn't 100% happy. It was hard because when you're in a group, you're trying to find out who you are. Then you're thrust into this crazy world and have to grow up fast, but there was no time to discover ourselves. Every time I did discover something that felt like, 'Wow, this is me,' I was too scared to say anything because I didn't want to rock the boat. I definitely don't feel that way anymore."

"I'm going to be me, whether you like it or not."

A turning point came as the band began finding independence from Pearlman, the music mogul who capitalized on the success of the Backstreet Boys by creating rival band *NSYNC and then, continuing to iterate on the formula, O-Town and LFO. Pearlman legally made himself a "sixth" member of Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, allowing him extra profits, in addition to management fees. Lawsuits followed and both bands parted ways with Lou, who was later sentenced to 25 years in prison for fraud and passed away behind bars in 2016. Around that period, McLean and his bandmates (Kevin Richardson, Nick Carter, Howie Dorough and Brian Littrell) made a "conscious decision" to dress and speak how they wished. "I remember Kevin wore a skirt to an event. People were like, 'Why is this guy wearing a skirt?'"

McLean continued pushing the boundaries with his style. "That was my scapegoat," he reflects. "I developed this persona that was a f—king rebel and went, 'I'm going to be me, whether you like it or not.'"

That's exactly what McLean has done since and he's thrilled that pop stars today are given more leeway when it comes to the strictures of 'conventional' dressing. He cites Harry Styles' "phenomenal" Vogue cover, on which he wore a Gucci gown. "I'm jealous he beat me to the punch!"

Like McLean, Styles is another ex-boy band heartthrob who loves a painted nail (recall the turquoise-and-black tips he paired with a sheer top at the 2019 Met Gala). Rappers Bad Bunny and A$AP Rocky also enjoy nail art, as well as pop-punk artist Machine Gun Kelly, who has also launched his own line. Outside of music, Brad Pitt and Zac Efron have also been snapped with painted nails.

"Masculinity has become more gender-fluid. It's great because if you go back to Boy George, David Bowie, Elton John — I'm sure they got blowback, but they were comfortable with who they were, which is what's important. Kurt Cobain wore a skirt and dress and you couldn't be more 'man's man' than him."

AJ McClean Nail Polish
Courtesy Leena Tailor

As McLean's brush hovers inches from my hand, I wonder if there's a reason he chose his red shade for me. In my mind, he uncovered my deep love for all things red during a pre-interview Google. But alas, it turns out he just finished a bottle of the Lyric Dean pink shade while painting his daughters' (Ava, 8, and Lyric, 4) nails, so Ro Ro Red was the next best option. The line also includes a matte black, Alexander James, named for AJ himself.

As he continues carefully painting, he notes that while freedom of expression and sexuality has progressed, there's a long road ahead. He's particularly troubled by the struggles faced by the transgender community amid what's being called a "record-breaking year for anti-transgender legislation." One proposed bill in Florida would prohibit trans girls from joining female sports teams, and allow schools to demand proof of a student's biological sex.

It's why he's using his platform to elevate, celebrate and give a voice to transgender and non-binary communities, whether it's through his song, album artwork, or weekly Instagram takeovers (he recently passed the mic to Lucas Silveira, host of Vice show Shine; musician Ryan Cassata). And Carrera and Wyld star in the "Love Song Love" video; the single is from the first of two EPs McLean plans to release this year, followed by an album in 2022.

McLean says working on the video was "liberating."

"Nahla and Carmen are amazing humans. They fight for what's right and I want to help. I want to show my love for the LGBTQ community, show I'm comfortable with who I am, and show we can all live on the same planet and just love."

It's a message echoed throughout the California home McLean shares with Rochelle, Ava and Lyric. "If either of my kids woke up tomorrow and said, 'I want to be a boy,' I'd support that. We're a color-blind, gender-blind household and my daughters are open-minded." And that includes his personal style. "People ask if it confuses them that I wear skirts to the beach, but they don't think anything of it. They let me be me and never ask, 'Dad, what are you doing?' They've inspired me more to be myself."

His daughters, you may have gathered, are the inspiration behind Ava Dean Beauty, which includes four shades of vegan, cruelty-free, 10-free polish, named for each member of the family, plus a top coat ($13 apiece). The brand honors the mani-pedi sessions McLean has cherished with the two. "It's become this cool bond between my girls and I. We have nail parties and they do my nails. They're pretty good!"

And he's no slouch, either. Even the slight gaps are intentional. "My goal is to not get it on your skin and I didn't bring my swabs with me today, so I was extra-careful not to go over the edges," he says. A conscientious nail artist I'd certainly visit again.

While he could have launched nail polish years ago, McLean says he previously lacked the focus needed for business ventures. It wasn't until his entrepreneurial friend Josh Naranjo raised the idea that the two co-founded Ava Dean Beauty. Having worked as McLean's security guard on the road with the Backstreet Boys, Naranjo knew how special McLean's mani-pedi dates with Ava and Lyric were. "Now, Josh is trying new colors and sending me photos. I never thought I'd see the day!"

But the day has come, and being a role model of self-expression is all he could've asked for.

"I'm comfortable with my sexuality, my feminine side, my masculine side. I want the world to see it's okay to be yourself and that clothing, jewelry, hair, nail polish doesn't define you. You define you."

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