'THE BACKSTREET DAD I NEVER KNEW I HAD' Heart-throb singer AJ McLean has legions of adoring admirers. But, as the Backstreet Boys singer tells ROB McGIBBON, his biggest fan has turned out to be the father he thought he would never see again...
Heart-throb AJ, one-fifth of the American boy band, had not seen his dad since his parents divorced when he was five.
AJ, now 20, was raised by his mum Denise. He never even received a birthday card or Christmas present from his dad and was banned from talking about him.
But last year, while the Backstreet Boys were recording in Orlando, Florida, AJ discovered a vital piece of information which led to a tearful reunion.
AJ (pictured, with goggles) revealed: "I came across a court document sent to my grandparents which referred to a Mr Robert McLean. It had an address in Orlando and I couldn't resist checking it out.
"I was curious to see if he was really at that address so a friend picked me up and we drove over. I knocked on the door and this guy answered. I had no idea what my dad would look like so I asked him, 'Are you Robert McLean?'
"He took one look at me and knew who I was. He gave me a big hug and started crying. It was really weird and emotional seeing him. I went inside and met my step-mother. It turned out that he had been living in Orlando for a few years, not far from me.
"We had a good chat. He knew all about the Backstreet Boys, even though we weren't famous in America. He had bought our album from an import CD store and had read all the teen magazine interviews with me and the guys. He had followed us on the Internet and knew my tour schedule. It was crazy to think he knew so much about me but I knew nothing about him.
"I asked him why he never called or wrote to me. He said he didn't get in touch because he thought I didn't want anything to do with him. He thought my mum and my grandparents had put it into my head that he was an evil person who never wanted to see his son.
"I told him that wasn't true. No-one ever talked about him, it was like he didn't exist. I told him I was cool about everything and that I didn't blame him or anybody for what had happened. My mom and dad were just not meant to stay together.
"He came down to meet all the other Backstreet Boys during a photo shoot and they thought he was cool. He is a real hippie kind of guy with long hair and is so excited that we are getting to know each other he's like a big kid. We are slowly building a relationship and he pages me all the time wherever I am in the world."
Although AJ and his dad are now slowly growing closer it will take years to heal the wounds of a childhood without a father. AJ says his parents' divorce affected him badly and turned him into a liar and a misfit.
He was ridiculed by school bullies but, ironically, his burning desire for attention ultimately helped lead him to riches.
AJ said: "It was pretty tough on me not having a dad around. He never wrote and I never got any birthday cards or gifts. I would watch the other kids play basketball or baseball with their dads but I never had that.
"I wasn't allowed to speak about my dad around the house because it upset my mom so I never really got to understand why he left us. It was all so confusing.
"I think one of the reasons I craved so much attention was because my dad wasn't around. With him gone I needed to make sure I got all the attention I could from everyone else.
"I always loved telling stories and it got me into all kinds of trouble. I would exaggerate stories to get attention but I went so far over the top that they became complete fantasy.
"My mom or my grandparents would say, 'Now come on, AJ, tell us what really happened'.
"Instead of holding up my hands I would come up with more lies to make the story more believable. I couldn't stop myself. I wasn't intending to lie, I just got carried away.
"My first girlfriend dumped me because I lied so much. She was the first person to ever come straight out and call me a liar. I was really hurt but she was right.
"I also got a hard time from a lot of guys at school. I was really into dancing, singing and acting but the guys would say, 'What's your problem, man, why don't you play basketball like a normal guy?'.
"I tried not to take too much notice but it was upsetting. To be honest I think a lot of it was jealousy because they weren't capable of those things and they didn't like the attention I got.
"I did play sport when I was a kid but only with my close pals. I didn't have a dad encouraging me so I wasn't totally committed. Instead I had my mom saying, 'Come on, AJ, time for singing lessons or piano tuition'. Some guys would laugh when they heard I was going for singing lessons.
"I was a bit of a nerd at school and was always a little different from the others. All the kids had a knapsack for their school books and a lunch box. I had to be different so I had a briefcase for my books and kept my lunch in a paper bag. For some crazy reason I saw myself as a little businessman. For a while I wore glasses, even though my eyesight was perfect, because I thought they looked cool. I guess I have always been a bit wacky.
"But even though I didn't have a dad I had a great childhood. I got all the love and support I needed. My mom and my grandparents were fantastic and I owe everything to them.
"They were always there for me and supported me in everything I wanted to do. They gave me the security I needed in my life. Without them who knows how I would have turned out. I sure don't think I would be where I am now."
Rob McGibbon is the author of Backstreet Boys - The Official Biography, published by Boxtree.
AJ was seven when his precocious talent was first spotted after he appeared in a local fashion show in Florida. A children's theatrical agent saw his potential and gave him his first stage role - as Dopey in a Christmas production of Snow White.
AJ says: "It was a fantastic break. I couldn't believe the reaction I got because it was all so new to me. I was just being myself and people were laughing. I don't mean to be conceited but I stole the show and I loved it.
"After the opening night I got my first taste of being sort of famous. A lot of kids came up and asked me for my autograph. I signed my full name for them - Alexander James McLean. I enjoyed doing that show so much and I remember having the biggest crush on the girl playing Snow White, who must have been 10 years older than me."
AJ became a regular star in local productions and took dance lessons. He was 13 when a teacher realised AJ was destined to be a pop star.
Singing tutor Dirk Donaghue says: "AJ turned up at my classroom and asked to be in the talent show. I had already finished the auditions but if a guy wants to sing I let him. I said, 'Sure Alex, show me what you can do'.
"He had a little tape player with him. He popped in a tape with just instrumental music on it and he sang Johnny B. Goode. He knocked my socks off. He did a few spins and kept the beat by snapping his fingers. I was pretty amazed by his confidence and he was way ahead of the other kids I had auditioned. I signed him up immediately.
"He was fantastic in the show. He had so much personality and stage presence that it shocked everyone. Alex won the contest and beat a girl who had won it two years in a row. He was really excited. You could tell he got a great buzz from performing. He had masses of talent and came alive on the stage."
When AJ was 15 he was spotted by a Florida talent scout and invited to audition for a new pop group. He took up the first place in what was to become the Backstreet Boys.