AJ McLean on How ‘RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race’ Prompted His Cosmetic Surgery

AJ McLean in Rupaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race
VH1, Getty Images

Whether it’s shimmying to Christina Aguilera’s “Show Me How You Burlesque” or channeling Dolly Parton while performing “9 to 5,” AJ McLean says competing on RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race has been one of the most “liberating” experiences of his life — and even prompted him to undergo cosmetic surgery.

The 44-year-old Backstreet Boy veteran was recently revealed as the celebrity behind “Poppy Love” on the VH1 show, and his latest performance — doing Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” — landed him a spot in Friday’s grand finale. While it’s hardly the first time the musician has defied gender expectations with his style (the black gown McLean donned for a photo shoot prior to his wedding to Rochelle Karidis, who wore a black suit in the shots; the nail polish line he launched in 2020; and dressing in drag in his 2021 “Love Song Love” video) he says the competition brought him an even deeper level of satisfaction.

“It was so freeing,” he tells TV Insider. “It’s another form of expression and it inspired me to do something I never thought I’d do — get cosmetic surgery. Whether it’s getting your boobs done or Botox, I support anyone doing something that makes them feel more secure, but never thought I’d do it myself.”

Poppy Love in 'RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race'


McLean’s stance changed after being introduced to taping (a technique used by drag queens to tighten or conceal sagging skin) to define his jawline during one episode. The singer says he and family members all carry extra skin under their necks, so he previously maintained a beard to hide the area.

“When I did the episode as Dolly, my jawline looked like an actual jawline — it made me emotional,” he says. “Ru said, ‘You look absolutely stunning,’ which stuck with me. I told my wife and she said, ‘There’s a doctor that does something for that.’ It’s called FaceTite, a form of lipo. So, I did it and feel fantastic. Between that and losing almost 30 pounds, I have a newfound sense of confidence.”

McLean believes his bandmates would also make great contestants on the series.

“Nick [Carter] could do a really good job,” says McLean, who’s hoping to attend RuPaul’s DragCon as Poppy. “And Kevin because he’s got that strong jawline and good features.”

As for what his daughters think about Poppy Love, McLean kept his “padded ass and breastplate” from the show, sometimes wearing them at home to entertain the girls. However, he admits it was “uncomfortable” when, picking up five-year-old daughter Lyric from school, she questioned him about nipple tassels and asked, “Why were your boobs out?” after she viewed his performance as Aguilera.

Meanwhile, McLean’s older daughter, Ava, made headlines recently when it was revealed that the nine-year-old had asked to change her name to Elliott.

McLean was “taken aback” when he arrived home from recording his upcoming solo album, Sex and Bodies, last summer and was told about the decision by his wife.

“I walked into the house and didn’t know what was going on,” he says. “[Rochelle] said, ‘Just so you know, Ava changed her name to Elliott,’ and I was like, ‘What?’ We had a long conversation, then I sat Elliott down and said, ‘I completely support you.’”


It was a year before the family discussed Elliott’s decision publicly, with Rochelle sharing a photo showing her holding a balloon reading, “Elliott’s First Day of 4th Grade” in August.  Intense scrutiny on the post prompted her to elaborate on her Instagram Stories, writing, “Not that it’s anyone’s business, but Elliott’s name change is not a gender thing. ‘Ava’ has changed her name quite a few times since she was five….It’s a little odd that as parents, we choose names for people we haven’t even met yet and expect them to forever identify as that person!”

AJ believes society’s increasing respect of a person’s pronouns and identity choices is what ignited such strong interest; however, he reiterates Elliott’s decision was unrelated to gender.

“Ava had quite a few Avas at dance and at school, so felt her name wasn’t unique,” he says. “She wanted something that was hers and she got inspiration from [Elliott the dragon in] Pete’s Dragon. She always tells me, ‘Dad, I’m still Ava to you, don’t worry,’ but I’m like, ‘You can be whatever you want. Mom and I love and support you no matter what.’”

“As soon as we went with this name change, Lyric then wanted to be Ava!” the singer says with a laugh. “So, then I upped the ante and I said, ‘I’m going to be Crap Bag,’” referencing what Paul Rudd’s character changed his name to in Friends. “They were like, ‘You can’t do that!’”


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A post shared by Rochelle DeAnna Mclean (@rochelle_deanna)

AJ assured Elliott that if she wants a legal name change when she’s older, he will support her. He then explained how he, too, changed his name before joining the Backstreet Boys.

“I didn’t like Alexander and I didn’t like Alex,” he says. “I also knew a few girls named Alex and I got bullied, so I wanted to be Blake. I thought Blake was a cool name…until it got me in trouble. My mom got a call from the principal’s office saying, ‘Your son Blake failed his math test,’ and she went, ‘I don’t have a son named Blake.’ I got in deep doo-doo with the school and my mom because I didn’t talk to anybody about it and just went, ‘I’m Blake,’ from the first day of school.”

While AJ eventually embraced his birth name, Elliott has stuck for his firstborn.

“I’m extremely proud — she could’ve easily lasted two weeks, but it’s been over a year and it takes a lot of dedication to stick this through,” he says. “I didn’t see how serious she was until I picked her up from dance during the holidays and they were doing a Secret Santa. I couldn’t find Ava’s name, but saw Elliott and thought, ‘Wow, this is the real thing.’”

While he’s now enjoying doing school drop-offs and bedtime stories for Elliott and Lyric during some Backstreet Boys downtime, the band will resume their “DNA World Tour” in Portugal on October 3, before releasing their first holiday record, A Very Backstreet Christmas, on October 14.

McLean will also pen personalized tracks for five fans as part of his #IWantItLatte sweepstakes, a partnership with Mr. Coffee to mark National Coffee Day on September 29. Fans who comment on his sweepstakes post on TikTok with their favorite coffee drink will be entered to win a track performed and written by McLean, inspired by their beverage of choice.

AJ McLean

McLean developed a coffee habit while navigating getting sober for the first time in 2001.

“When you get rid of drugs and alcohol, lots of people substitute it with something better for you, whether it’s a change of diet or a new physical activity,” he says. “For me, I fell madly in love with coffee. Before every single [AA] meeting and right after, I would have my white chocolate mocha. I was doing two large white chocolate mochas a day with six shots, so 12 shots a day!”

McLean has since incorporated coffee into the workout regime which has seen him get into the “best shape of my life” — often mixing protein powder into the sugar-free white chocolate mochas he whips up with his new Mr. Coffee Latte, Iced, and Hot Coffee Maker before workouts.

“It gives me extra energy to go in there and work my magic,” he says. “Although if you drink too much coffee before the gym, you do have to pee a lot!”

He also credits caffeine for helping him juggle family life with Backstreet Boys commitments and solo projects like Sex and Bodies, set to be released in early 2023. Having premiered the album’s first single, “Smoke,” in July, a follow-up song, “Electric,” will drop in November.

“The video’s insane,” McLean teases. “The closest hint would be that it’s Stranger Things meets roller-skating.”