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A bumpy road for the Backstreet Boys

For years, the public parade of celebrities entering rehab to confront personal demons has bypassed the teen pop universe. Headlines have been generated by such names as Robert Downey Jr., Matthew Perry, Darryl Strawberry and Melanie Griffith.

But all that changed last Monday. In a statement that stunned their fans, the Backstreet Boys announced that one of their five members, A.J. McLean, was undergoing a 30-day treatment "for his clinical depression, which has recently led to anxiety attacks and the excessive consumption of alcohol."

This was a major bombshell for legions of preteen and adolescent fans who plaster their bedroom walls with Backstreet Boys posters, pack concert arenas and comb fan magazines and BSB Web sites for any tidbits on their favorite Boy.

The group was forced to postpone some 20 concert dates on a North American tour that began June 8, though those appearances have since been tacked onto the end of the tour in September. While financial losses of roughly $700,000 per show seem to have been averted, other issues linger.

For the first time in the new teen pop wave, ushered in by the Boys themselves in the mid-1990s, one of the genre's icons has been knocked off its pedestal.

In a music that trades heavily on a perception of wholesomeness _ a traditionally safe image coupled with hip clothes and cool dance moves _ the McLean revelation has posed questions previously foreign to the scene.

How will fans, particularly starstruck young ones, react to the unsettling news that one of their idols is dropping from sight to battle serious problems that include alcohol abuse? Just as important: What will their parents tell them about it?

And what are the implications for the larger-than-life band _ especially if McLean is unable to rejoin them when the tour resumes Aug. 7?

Gauging from reaction so far _ from sympathetic messages on Internet fan sites to the heart of teen pop, MTV _ McLean, 23, enjoys an ocean of goodwill.

"I think most of their fans _ who are midteens on up _ understand what's going on and for the most part are very supportive of him," says John Norris of MTV news.

"Obviously, letting things get out of hand in one's life is not something to admire, but the upfront way the (Backstreet Boys) have handled it is something perfectly admirable."

Its Web site, mtv.com, has received about 10,000 e-mails about McLean so far, and about 90 percent are "completely supportive," Norris said.

Still, Norris and others say the news may hit the Backstreet Boys' youngest fans in a different way.

"For those of us a little older, a celebrity doing drugs or going into rehab is no banner headline," says David Wild, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine who has profiled the Backstreet Boys in a cover story. "But I do know I have a nephew who's 9 who was really upset by this, and it really shook his world."

How should a parent handle a child who is confused or angry about what's going on with the troubled Backstreet Boy?

Talk about it.

"The more that parents can talk to kids about these kind of issues, the more that can help," says University of South Florida clinical psychologist Dr. Vicky Phares. "Maybe even for a parent to initiate this kind of conversation would make some sense. That might help the child express their concern, because the child might not even be able to formulate a question themselves."

Dr. Carole Lieberman, a media psychiatrist and author in Beverly Hills, Calif., also sees a potential lesson for youthful A.J. fans.

"Young fans put them on even more of a pedestal and think they're perfect, and certainly little girls fantasize about them being their boyfriends, so it would be jarring to realize they're less than perfect," says Lieberman.

"However, (McLean) is to be commended for taking a step to get help, and I think it's a lesson parents can teach their kids, that if somebody has a problem like addiction, that it's good to admit it and get some help. This is an opportunity for parents."

That dialogue might help children, but the Backstreet Boys may have hurt themselves with some parents, says Donna Wright, an Orlando pop and R&B manager who helped manage, market and nurture the Backstreet Boys during the band's first five years.

"While I think they'll be okay with their older fans, I believe that the younger fans are confused by this, and many parents of those younger children will probably pull away," says Wright, whose former husband Johnny Wright also managed the Backstreet Boys and now guides 'N Sync and Britney Spears. "But if that happens, it'll be okay, because the (group) is growing up now."

Wright, the head of Wrightstuff Management, has a unique perspective on the group. In addition to handling their press, she traveled with them to shows, listened to their problems, tried to keep them from eating too much junk food and encouraged them to get their rest.

She was especially fond of McLean and remains close to him. She says when he visited her last month in Orlando, he was starting to fall apart.

"I saw the breakdown," she says. "I also saw that he felt he needed to get help, and he told me he did. I could see he needed to be held, and I held him, and I said, "A.J., please, you've got to get help.' I felt such sadness for him, because I knew he was fighting this, and he was feeling very much alone out there."

The statement the group released to the media referred to the recent death of McLean's grandmother, to whom he was very close, as a trigger of his problems. McLean's parents divorced when he was 4, and he was raised by his mother and grandmother.

Wright agrees that the loss fueled his downward spiral, but she said his strict upbringing and sudden fame may also have contributed.

"I think when A.J. finally got his freedom, he ran with it, in every direction," she says.

McLean cultivated a bad-boy image with his many tattoos. Still, says Wright: "He never used to drink. Maybe once a month. But I think it came to the point where he just got bored, and some of the people they hang out with on tour are into that kind of stuff, and when you don't have somebody out there to keep you stable, you run with the crowd."

Bandmate Nick Carter, in a radio interview last week on the MJ Morning Show on WFLZ-FM 93.3, talked of the pressures of being a Backstreet Boy.

"It's really hard to get a grip on reality. . . . We have to deal with things a lot of people don't understand when it comes to living up to people's expectations (or) having to just deal with the long road life . . . You can't have a steady relationship. We've come to learn that money can really screw up people's lives."

"He's been in this group since he was 15. . . . This is all he knows," Carter continued. "I was fortunate to grow up with both my parents. . . . He didn't have a dad (around) his entire life."

Guy Walker, former guitarist in the BSB Band, now on staff with Big 3 Entertainment in St. Petersburg, says that he "flat out never saw" hints that this would happen to McLean. What he did see was pressure on the Boys: "They're pulled in every direction, every minute of the day."

Walker predicts that fans will stick with the group and that McLean will come back stronger by showing he's human. "It's wrong to put him on a pedestal," he says. "But that's what people do to stars, and maybe it's too much for them to live up to."

"The pressure on performers like the Backstreet Boys is so intense," says singer-songwriter Mindi Abair, who toured with the group as a saxophonist and percussionist and is currently performing overseas. "They never get a break, and they have little or no time to deal with real life issues and struggles. I've received hundreds of e-ails from fans regarding A.J. I hope he knows how much love and support is out there for him."

Paul Ciliano, operations director at local soft rock station WWRM-FM 94.9 (Magic), on which the Backstreet Boys are staples, says McLean could come out of the ordeal fine. "He acknowledged he has a problem and he's getting help," he says. "And it's his first time."

"The word rehab is synonymous with rock bands like Aerosmith and Stone Temple Pilots," says MTV's Norris, "I think the truth is, it's not that this kind of thing doesn't happen with pop groups. But if it ever raises its head, it's quickly squashed by publicists and managers who say who say, "This is suicide if we go public' _ be it a sex scandal or substance abuse situation. So many have tried to either whitewash it, or make up some story about, "He's not around.' I think these guys are sending a message that being open and honest is way more positive."

Norris has his doubts that McLean will be ready to rejoin the group after his 30-day rehab is over. The group might, he says, have to finish the tour without him, as a quartet.

"They haven't ruled that out," he says. "And I know they're doing everything in their power to avoid that situation, but they say, and rightly so, A.J.'s health and happiness should come first.

"I think it's optimistic to think that somebody could deal with all this in 30 days, and then, of all things, go back on the road, which is not a conducive environment to staying clean and healthy," Norris said. "But best of luck to him. Maybe he'll be ready."

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