Backstreet Boy AJ McLean is back in Montreal and feeling the love

McLean now co-owns Montreal TV production company Beauty World Search and is considering moving to (or at least getting a place in) the city.

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AJ McLean has a thing for Montreal — and why wouldn’t he? The city was the first place in North America that really went wild for his band Backstreet Boys, and the boy band remains remarkably popular here nearly 30 years later.

McLean, one of the founding members of Backstreet Boys, was back in Montreal this week to announce he is partnering with Montreal TV production company Beauty World Search. The company was founded by Montrealer Caroline Bernier, and the Backstreet Boy is now a co-owner.

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Beauty World Search produces the reality TV series The Fashion Hero: A New Kind of Beautiful, which is hosted by McLean.

In an interview Thursday in the lobby of the William Gray Hotel in Old Montreal, McLean said it’s pretty cool to be working so closely with a Montreal company given his long history with the city.

AJ McLean of the backstreet boys is smiling at the camera with his hands together.
“There’s a deeper connection here than a lot of places,” McLean said of Montreal. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

“It’s just funny to me how everything kind of comes full circle,” he said. “Caroline being from Montreal; a Montreal-based company; (Laval-based investment firm) White Haven, which is an amazing company and that’s invested and has really helped fund everything, that has really gotten this project off of the ground for Caroline; my publicist is from Montreal. There’s just a lot of Montreal surrounding me now. So, I’m starting to think I’ll need to move to Montreal or at least get a place in Montreal.”

Mix 96 — now Virgin Radio — was one of the first stations in North America to play the early Backstreet Boys single We’ve Got It Goin’ On. It was big in Montreal, but hardly made a dent in the charts in the U.S. Soon enough, it was Backstreet Boys fever here. Anyone around back then surely remembers their wild appearances at the MusiquePlus studios, with huge crowds of screaming kids outside. McLean certainly remembers those days.

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“People know that we started in Europe first, for the better part of two years, before America knew who we were or gave a tiny rat’s butt,” said McLean. “Once things blew up in France, then France translated to Quebec, then it trickled down to the U.S. and upstate New York. Our first performance here was in 1996 at the balloon festival (in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu), 85,000 people and we were shocked. Everyone knew our music and they were all excited. There’s a deeper connection here than a lot of places. There’s just something about the music scene here, the pop culture here.”

Nick Carter squats and extends his arms as his bandmates sit during an interview at MusiquePlus
The Backstreet Boys appear at MusiquePlus on June 19, 2005 to promote a new album. Fans were in a frenzy and singer Nick Carter at one point jokingly motioned for them to calm down. Photo by Gordon Beck /Montreal Gazette files

Thanks to songs like Quit Playing Games (with My Heart), Everybody (Backstreet’s Back), and As Long As You Love Me, Backstreet Boys were huge in the late ’90s right across North America. That was their heyday, but they’re still touring, and even if they’re not topping the charts any more, the fans are still there.

“We just finished up the DNA world tour in May, and we’re taking a well-needed break now — 217 shows, 44 countries, three million people,” McLean said. “In April of this year, we celebrated 30 years together and we are gearing up for something massive in 2025 that’s a secret.”

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McLean admits that when they started out, the Backstreet Boys had no notion that they’d be celebrating their 30th anniversary together.

“We had wanted it, but groups like us don’t last generally,” he said. “To me, that’s a testament to the music first and foremost and then a close second, the fans.”

Bernier, who has worked for decades in the industry of beauty pageants, created the reality show The Fashion Hero six years ago because she wanted a show that could celebrate diversity, to showcase the kind of people you don’t normally see in fashion shows. The second season, hosted by McLean, is available on the streaming service Paramount+ Canada. The third season will shoot next spring in Croatia.

AJ McLean and Caroline Bernir, a man and a woman, are posing looking directly at a camera in this portrait shot.
“I hopped on a Zoom with … Caroline, and within 10 minutes of her giving me the rundown and explaining what the show was about, I said ‘OK, where do I sign?’” McLean said. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

“A friend of mine mentioned the idea of hosting a TV show and when I heard the title, I thought it sounded like America’s Next Top Model and I was like – ‘I don’t know if that’s something I’d be into,’” said McLean. “I hopped on a Zoom with the show’s creator, Caroline, and within 10 minutes of her giving me the rundown and explaining what the show was about, I said ‘OK, where do I sign?’ This is inspiring. We need shows like this. In the very toxic social-media-based existence we live in today, with online bullying and anti-gay (sentiment) and racism, we need a show like this. We need something that can show that we can break the stigma of the fashion world and break the stigma of toxicity. Just spread positivity and self-care and self-love, and that’s what the show is about.”

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