AJ McLean was just five when he discovered a life-changing love for dance – dabbling in tap, hip hop, contemporary, ballet and jazz, while dreaming of one day strutting his stuff alongside Michael Jackson.
“Dance is something I wanted to do even more than singing growing up,” he tells ET Canada. “I danced for eight years and my dream was to be a backup dancer for Michael Jackson or Janet Jackson. That was my goal. I sang and acted on the side because I was doing musical theatre, but dancing was my number one passion.”
Life took a different turn at 14-years-old, when McLean joined the Backstreet Boys, a gig which “gifted” him the opportunity to combine multiple talents – whether singing on albums, dancing on tour or acting in music videos.
Now, 35 years on from his first ballet lesson, McLean, 42, will rest his award-winning vocals and bring dance back to the forefront as he makes his debut on “Dancing with the Stars”, jiving to Canadian musician The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” on Monday.
And, while his dance partner has not been confirmed (with fans guessing Cheryl Burke,) the two have rapidly formed a tightknit bond. “My reaction when I met her was, ‘Okay, that makes sense. I get it,’” he teases. “And, hers was, ‘Yay, yay, yay, yay!’ She was very happy. I was very happy because she’s an awesome performer. We’re already finishing each other’s sentences. We’re both talkers and both passionate about what we do, so it takes stress off me knowing there’s such a comfort level between us. I feel like I’ve known her all my life.”
Genuinely-close bonds are key in many successful “DWTS” partnerships given the intense amount of time, effort and intimacy required through the competition. Furthermore, many contestants experience powerful emotional journeys on the series, with celebrities previously having explored deeply-personal issues including grief and health setbacks through their performances.
McLean says he has already opened up immensely to his partner about his own obstacles. “We’ve talked very candidly,” he says. “I just surpassed nine months sober and am in a great headspace. I feel fantastic. It’s all about health, happiness and serenity for me right now, and it’s been nice to talk to a complete stranger and create that bond we need on and off the dancefloor.”
“I would absolutely embrace that,” he says. “We’ve talked about it with production. It’s a big part of my life, and will continue to be a big part of my life. It’s a daily struggle and a daily reprieve to take time out for myself, to keep myself right.”
“If I do get the privilege of exploring that through dance, [hopefully I can] help another addict and show that we’re human, too. We all make mistakes. We made a mistake, but we’re not a mistake. If I can inspire somebody who’s struggling to take that first step into a meeting or [admit] they have a problem, then I’ve done what I set out to do – pass along the message of Alcoholics Anonymous and help another addict.”
As for what songs might help bring such a performance to life, the “Night Visions” singer hasn’t thought that far ahead, but there are several tracks he associates with his sobriety.
“It’s not a danceable song, but Chris Stapleton’s ‘Drunkard’s Prayer’ is very relatable,” he says. “It hits home for me, lyrically. It’s spot-on every feeling I’ve ever felt when I was active in my disease.”
“Also, songs like, ‘Hallelujah,’” he continues. “It’s not related to drinking or drugs, but any time I was in a dark place, I listened to that song. I was driven towards it. It has a special place in my heart, to always remind me where I don’t want to go back to.”
Part of what helps motivate McLean to maintain a healthy body and mind is his family – wife of eight years, Rochelle Deanna McLean, and , 7-year-old Ava and 3-year-old Lyric. The dance-loving cuties have inherited their dad’s moves – Lyric was , while Ava has participated in dance contests and is preparing for her first solo.
The girls are partly why McLean was so eager to join “Dancing with the Stars”’ 29th season, which is filming under strict health and safety protocols due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I want to show my girls that whatever’s put in front of you – if you believe in yourself and try hard, you can accomplish whatever you put your mind to,” says McLean, who has shed 15 pounds with the help of trainer, Bobby Strom, in recent months. “I want to prove that to myself and to my girls, because this is something I’ve never done in my life. I’ve never ballroom danced, and everyone who says it should be easy for me is sadly incorrect because I have to reprogram everything I’ve known for 30+ years to become a ballroom dancer!”
While McLean’s anxious about only having four days to learn each dance after week one, he has been making the most of the fortnight he’s had to prepare for his debut jive. Feeling “every emotion that’s ever been felt, all at the same time” as Monday nears – including nerves – he has mastered his moves “backwards and forwards,” but still has work to do.
“I need to stop thinking and start performing because there’s a difference,” says the “Dead 7″ star, who is being mentored by bandmate and “DWTS” alum, Nick Carter, who was runner-up in 2015. “When we’re in pre-tour rehearsals, nobody’s smiling or enjoying themselves because we’re so focused on learning the choreography. But I’ve told my partner, ‘Trust me when I tell you the minute those lights turn on and that track starts, something happens in me and I just turn it on.’”
“That’s what I’m going to do,” he continues. “I’m going to leave it all on the dancefloor and if I make mistakes, that’s okay. I’m going to do the best I can and apply the same energy I do to a Backstreet show to every performance, whether it’s a jive, salsa or rumba. I want to bring the same energy I do on the regular with my fellas!”