ORLANDO, Fla. — Backstreet Boys member and Florida native AJ McLean will compete for the Mirrorball Trophy during Season 29 of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” which airs on Sept. 14.
McLean said nothing can prepare you for “Dancing with the Stars,” but his time in Orlando and South Florida — he was born in West Palm Beach but moved to Kissimmee at a young age to pursue an acting and singing career — helped him understand the entertainment industry.
“That’s where everything really started for me as far as acting, theater, dancing and singing,” he said, noting his 30-plus years of dance experience includes ballet, jazz, tap, contemporary and, once he joined the Backstreet Boys in 1993, urban.
McLean surmises being a part of the group gives him an edge, but it also has its downsides.
“I think it’s like 60-40: 60 advantage, 40 disadvantage because … I’ve done a certain style for my entire life, so I have to reprogram my brain to a style of dance that I’ve never ever done,” the 42-year-old said. “The one upside that I am bringing to the table is I can retain things quickly.”
Another benefit: He’s been able to reach out to his friend, fellow BSB member and former DWTS contestant Nick Carter for advice. Carter initially “terrified” McLean, but then reassured him that if anybody could win, it was McLean. He also offered this tip: Go in with no expectations.
“That’s the key, I think, to going the distance in this competition is to literally have zero expectations,” McLean said. “If you go in with a cockiness or you go in with too much confidence, I think that’s going to hinder you because then you think you’ve got it in the bag and that’s not how this works. … From what (Carter) told me, this is a journey. It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint, so pace yourself.”
While learning has been easy, it’s the foundation and specifics of ballroom dancing that have proven a challenge for McLean.
“Every little thing matters … from the way your hand is positioned to your shoulders being back to pointing your toes to how far apart your legs are,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
McLean has also struggled with learning to lead his partner. While he worked with female dancers in the past, especially during the Backstreet Boys’ Las Vegas residency, he never had to lead.
“I’m not comfortable yet (leading),” he said. “Right now, it’s just let’s just put the steps on me, then we’ll start being really meticulous with all the details, and hopefully by then, when I’m comfortable, is when I can finally take my partner and actually lead her.”
The celebrity-professional dancer pairings won’t be revealed until the season premiere, but the celebs competing this year include “Tiger King” star Carole Baskin (who founded Big Cat Rescue in Tampa), Disney Channel alum Skai Jackson, rapper Nelly, “Bachelorette” star Kaitlyn Bristowe, actor Jesse Metcalf, Super Bowl champ Vernon Davis, “Cheer” coach Monica Aldama, actress Anne Heche, “One Day at a Time” actress Justina Machado, “The Real” co-host Jeannie Mai, NBA great Charles Oakley, “Catfish” host Nev Schulman, “Selling Sunset” real estate agent/actress Chrishell Stause and ice skater Johnny Weir. Though he couldn’t divulge his partner’s name, McLean said they’re working well together.
“If you have a disconnect, you’re never going to make it far,” he said. “You really have to become one with your partner and have that synergy. So far, my partner and I are just really, really hitting it off.”
His friends and family — especially his wife, Rochelle, and dancer daughters 7-year-old Ava and 3-year-old Lyric — were excited to hear McLean would compete in the upcoming season.
“I’m doing this for my kids, and I’m doing this for my family. And I’m doing this for myself,” McLean said. “I just want to set a good example. … and I just want to show them that this is something that daddy’s never done before, but I’m just gonna leave it all on the dance floor. I’m gonna give 150% every single Monday night and leave it up to the fans to vote.”
McLean knew months ago that he would be on “DWTS,” so he took that time to prepare. He’s been working with his trainer Bobby Strom for the past six months to avoid gaining the “quarantine 15.” His diet is currently grain-free, gluten-free and sugar-free, though he indulges in the occasional Taco Bell or McDonald’s. And he’s been sober for the past nine months.
“I feel like I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in, and I can only imagine what kind of shape I’ll be in if I do make it to the finale,” McLean said. “It’s a lot of using parts of my body that I’ve never used before, but I think it’s more of a mental state of mind that you have to get yourself into. The one thing that my partner and I have talked about is I just need to let go of anything I know, of anything I’ve learned, and just listen.”
McLean had been approached a few times to join the show and couldn’t participate because of scheduling conflicts. But as the world slowed down amid the coronavirus pandemic, the stars aligned.
“Because of the state of the world, there’s not a lot going on, but people want to see positive TV, see inspirational things, things that bring you joy when you’re stuck at home, and shows like ‘Dancing with the Stars’ do that,” he said, noting he’s been a fan of the show for years.
During quarantine and the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been other silver linings for McLean, who should have been on tour.
“I get to be home with my family. … I get to focus on my sobriety and focus on my recovery,” he said, mentioning that he and his sober friends have been doing Zoom calls once a day since March 19. “To be able to really focus on myself right now and my health and my peace of mind and my sobriety, it’s just been an absolute blessing.”
McLean has been working on a solo record that returns to his roots of R&B, funk and soul. He’s also partnered with HeyKube, a company that launched a Kickstarter campaign to create a smart Rubik’s Cube.
“I’m a huge tech nerd,” McLean said. “I could never figure out a Rubik’s Cube back in the day. I was one of those guys that would take the tape off and rearrange the colors to try to impress my friends. This device, it literally shows you how to solve the cube step by step.”
And while he’s been preparing for “Dancing with the Stars,” McLean watched his oldest daughter, Ava, achieve an accomplishment of her own.
“She’s doing her first-ever solo. She’s always wanted to do a solo. And now, because she’s that good, she got her wish,” McLean said. “I just saw her first rehearsal, and I teared up a little bit … I couldn’t be prouder.”
Watch the Season 29 premiere of “Dancing with the Stars” at 8 p.m. Sept. 14 on ABC. For updates on McLean, go to ajmclean.com.
©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)