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The Impossible Task of Understanding Aaron Carter (Part 2)
The second installment in a multi-part series examining the life, death, reality, and fantasy of a former pop idol.
This is part two of a multi-part series exploring the life of Aaron Carter. If you haven’t read Part One, I suggest taking a look at it before continuing.
Special thanks to my good friend Emily, whose limitless knowledge of 00s online celebrity gossip circuits was immensely helpful in piecing together this story.
In his memoir Facing the Music And Living To Talk About It, Backstreet Boy Nick Carter describes the tumultuous dynamics between his family in the following passage:
“My entire family tends to think that normal communication involves screaming at each other...We tended to fight like pit bulls, make up with a flood of tears and bear hugs, and then within a short time, set back to fighting again.”
Coming from most, this description might seem a tad embellished. But Aaron Carter’s reality television debut truly gave credence to Nick’s words.
The first time someone thought to put the Carter family in front of a camera crew occurred sometime in 2006. At the time, Nick was in desperate need of a PR makeover. Though the Backstreet Boys were still touring and selling records, ongoing issues with addiction and management threatened the long-term stability of the band. Between 2002 and 2005, Nick’s dependence on drugs and alcohol peaked – at his worst, he claims to have cycled between cocaine binges and bottles of vodka, with Ecstacy hits peppering interim highs. In this three-year span, Nick managed to rack up an arrest and two DUIs (though he received little more than a slap on the wrist for these infractions). Rumors swirled that the singer had beaten ex-girlfriend Paris Hilton after paparazzi snuck snapshots of the socialite sporting bruises. Though the allegations wouldn’t be made public for several years, between four and six women have accused Nick Carter of sexual assault between 2001 and 2006.
In order to keep his career from crumbling, Nick needed to clean up his act in a big way. In order to accomplish this, an unholy reality series titled House of Carters was conceived.
The driving premise was pretty simple. Nick, the self-proclaimed patriarch of the Carter family, invites his younger siblings (Bobbi Jean (BJ), Leslie, Angel, and of course Aaron) to live with him under one roof in hopes of healing some of their collective trauma. Fodder for the show would generate naturally through interactions between siblings, and each episode would focus on the family’s day-to-day domestic conflicts. This celebrity pseudo-soap-opera, fly-on-the-wall formula was already established by successful shows like The Osbournes and Hogan Knows Best. If it worked for them, why couldn’t it work for the Carter clan?
18-year-old Aaron probably didn’t need much convincing to get on board with the project. As far back as 2002, the youngest Carter expressed interest in transitioning to television star. Now that he was drowning in millions of dollars of debt spawned from his parent’s past mismanagement of funds, a TV show likely seemed like an efficient solution to quickly pay off his dues. Hell, if it reached the level of popularity attained by similar predecessors, it could relaunch Aaron’s entire career.
Unfortunately, House of Carters would decidedly not be the catalyst for anything good in any of Carter family’s lives.
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House of Carters failed for a few reasons. For starters, it had technical flaws that made it hard to follow. There are no confessionals that break the fourth wall to guide viewers through a cohesive narrative. Instead, the show reads as a sort of disjointed, contextless collection of vignettes of a bizarre family of adult siblings attempting to coexist as roommates. For instance, a scene in which Carter matriarch Jane is hospitalized for a vague illness might butt up against a lighthearted segment of Aaron attempting to make beats in his studio with little to no explanation.
But worse than any technical sin was that the Carters as a whole were unpleasant to watch. Though heavily edited, it is probably the best insight the morbidly curious have as to what growing up Carter might have been like. Nick is borderline tyrannical and constantly oscillates between micromanaging his younger siblings and screaming in their faces. BJ is perpetually functioning in a drunken haze, and in the occasional moment Angel gets a word in edgewise she is often needlessly cruel. Leslie exists in a sort of hell in which her famous brothers perpetually mansplain how to manage her career as a musicianand her sisters gleefully torment her (at one point BJ and Leslie collect a ton of dog shit and put it in Leslie’s bed as “a prank”).
But the Carter sibling viewers hated most of all was Aaron.
Consistently, Aaron comes off as a petulant child because, at this point, he still was one. He whines about being horny and the often uninvited, seldom constructive criticism Nick has to offer (usually along the lines of “this is fucking whack”). Aaron doesn’t clean up after himself, lacks impulse control, and plays his music too loudly. It’s hard to make the argument that Aaron wasn’t annoying. But out of the ordinary for a literal teenager under unimaginable stress? Not really.
Unfortunately, audiences were not so forgiving. House of Carters only lasted for a single season consisting of eight episodes. The Carter family treaded the treacherous path of this particular reality subgenre so that the Kardashians could eventually run, though they never received credit for the task. In fact, the show was not even afforded the small luxury of dying quietly and fading into obscurity.
Instead, an episode one altercation between Nick and Aaron (which culminates in the Backstreet Boy shoving and grabbing his younger brother by the throat) went viral. Or at least as viral as a piece of media could get during YouTube’s infancy, anyway. Had the fight gone viral in 2023, Nick Carter would have rightly been denounced for his incontrovertibly abusive behavior. But many 2006 viewers found the scene laugh-worthy, nothing more than a nonsensical battle between two buffoonish brothers. The altercation was even parodied in the following SNL skit:
Nick, being an integral figure of the best-selling boy band of all time, recovered from the humiliation of his own nationally televised experiment. However, Andy Samberg sporting a shaggy blonde wig for a comedy skit perhaps marked the moment when Aaron was permanently branded a clown. Gone were the days in which people laughed along with Aaron’s cheesy lyrics or mischievous antics. From age 18 onwards, emotionally stunted Aaron was a nationwide joke and his creative efforts were the punchline.
And so, he turned his attention to the place all 21st-century social rejects at some point seek comfort: the open arms of the internet.
“His liver is finally catching up with him,” one 2006 Livejournal user speculated following a report of Aaron Carter sustaining an internal injury while surfing. “I am pretty sure that this loser does a lot of hard partying”.
“A reason why a person shouldn’t go surfing drunk. His liver is shot already…sheesh Aaron - stop the drinking :P," chimes in a second user.
A third post states, “I’d rather pray for the dying & homeless people in Lebanon than for a rich kid with a reality show”.
This sort of surface-level hatred likely left Aaron Carter hesitant to participate in the earliest iterations of social media. While archives indicate that Carter was on Myspace as early as September 2004, it seems as if Aaron had little to no control over his online presence prior to turning 18. It’s impossible to say whether this was because his handlers would not allow him the autonomy to maintain an account or because Aaron simply wasn’t interested in participating. What is clear is that his initial Myspace profile, which features a photo of teenage Aaron hugging a puppy and an “About” section written in the third person, was clearly operated by a nameless publicist desperately trying to resuscitate Carter’s career.
Viewed as a lost cause following House of Carters, managers gave up on trying to maintain a clean-cut image for Aaron. No one stepped in and stopped Aaron from partying until he was penniless. Before long, AC was forced to move into the empty guest house of his brother’s unoccupied Tennessee property. It was during this period of desperation and loneliness that Aaron likely first logged onto the Myspace account some anonymous assistant established years beforehand.
And it was there that, for the first time in a long time, he found hope. Because wedged between occasional troll posts and musicians promoting their own content were dozens of comments like this:
While we’ll never know which fan’s words triggered the realization, Aaron suddenly recognized that the internet could be so much more than a watering hole for haters. With a little bit of curation, it could become a universe in which Aaron could revel in the kind words of adoring fans while shutting out any and all unwanted comments. It was a place where he could control how the world perceived him, a place where he could be his authentic self without meddling from managers or producers. And most importantly, it was a realm in which he had the power to make himself relevant again, no matter how unprofitable industry bigwigs claimed he might be.
So, Aaron’s relationship with the internet changed drastically in an alarmingly short period of time.
Flawed as Carter was, he had two things going for him. Firstly, he was willing to embrace emerging technologies that a celebrity in a more comfortable position might not seriously consider experimenting with. Secondly, he was conditioned from birth to always put on a performance. Those two qualities pushed the artist to utilize the internet in innovative ways. For instance, years before the introduction of live stream capabilities via Youtube, Instagram, Twitch, or even webcam-based conversation sites like Chatroulette, Aaron treated his loyal fans to real-time performances and Q&A sessions conducted through a (now-defunct) streaming site called ustream.tv. If mainstream outlets wouldn’t provide him a stage to perform, he’d simply broadcast untethered, unfiltered material on his own.
Though the majority of what he posted to Myspace has been lost to the sands of time, it’s evident from surviving bits and pieces that he also took full advantage of the site’s blogging feature to communicate directly with the public. Sometime in 2009, he started using his existing Myspace platform as a means of promoting his newly-established Twitter account, maintaining a fanbase of curious observers as one site died and another was born.
Around that time, Aaron pulled off a fateful stunt that was simultaneously kind of genius and absolutely insane. Without warning, the former pop sensation started posting his personal cell phone number on both his Myspace and his Twitter accounts. Before doxxing and swatting and general dogpiling became obvious looming threats to those foolhardy enough to broadcast their personal information, it probably seemed as if Aaron had little to lose in opening himself up to the internet.
And, against all odds, this unguarded decision actually opened new doors for AC.
It was through the phone number on social media that casting directors with ABC’s Dancing With the Stars were able to get in touch with Aaron. In part due to the recognizability of the Carter name, in part due to his more recent online antics, producers had a keen interest in getting Aaron cast on the ninth season of the show. Eager to get back in the limelight (and perhaps win a little bit of money in the process), he eagerly accepted the invitation.
Over the years, a menagerie of celebrities have joined the cast of Dancing With the Stars and performed poorly: Tucker Carlson, Buzz Aldrin, Wendy Williams, the guy from LMFAO. Aaron Carter was not one of those celebrities. In fact, his performance on DWTS is representative of what Aaron could have been, had the universe not hurled quite so many difficulties his way.
In arguably the best physical shape of his entire life, he came alive whirling and twirling on stage. Any technical errors were compensated by the fact that Aaron excelled at blocking out the rest of the world during each of his dances. As the songs started, he’d fully surrender to the rhythm of the music. And understandably, the fervor imbued in his every movement was enough to get him pretty far in the competition.
For a few weeks in 2009, the future seemed just a little bit brighter for the 22-year-old. After all, Nielsen ratings at the time indicated that an average of 19 million viewers religiously tuned into the biweekly family-friendly primetime series. What’s more, Aaron’s consistently high scores contradicted the scorn naysayers had hurled at him for years; he clearly did have talent beyond singing kitschy songs as a preteen.
Ultimately, though, Aaron’s best efforts weren’t enough to win him the competition.
DWTS seemed like a way of escaping some of the familial and financial problems suffocating him, and the defeat felt something like losing grip of a lifeline. For a little while, Aaron was optimistic that the reality appearance might garner some interest from record labels and producers. But according to an Oprah interview from 2016, Aaron was devastated to discover that his efforts did nothing to repair his reputation with the industry professionals holding the power to resurrect his career. The rut he was trying to dig himself out of was more of a crater, and all aspirations of escaping the darkness fizzled out with that final fleeting glimmer of stardom.
And with that, Aaron Carter began veering down the dismal path that would ultimately lead to his demise.
In the doldrums following Dancing, Aaron found solace in the unlikely form of computer duster.
For years, the likes of gossip bloggers such as Perez Hilton had speculated on the topic of Aaron Carter’s sobriety. Though he was visibly inebriated on an episode of House of Carters and arrested for possession of two ounces of marijuana in 2008, up until this point a forgiving fan might have attributed Aaron’s prior antics to growing pains no more harmful than what the average fraternity brother might experiment with on a Friday night. But according to multiple sources (including Aaron himself), stepping away from DWTS was the catalyst that pushed the singer to start seriously gambling with his mind and body.
It goes without saying that the risks that come with huffing inhalants are severe and numerous. The limited resources devoted to researching the bodily effects of computer duster (aka difluoroethane) warn that the substance can trigger acute episodes of psychosis and fatal cardiac arrhythmia. Long-term consequences range from kidney injuries to bone degradation to permanent brain damage.
That said, duster is relatively cheap, easily accessible, and 100% legal to purchase. Most importantly, the resulting high is often described as intense and euphoric, if a bit short-lived. ”I was addicted to the feeling of being completely gone from reality,” a former huffer posted to educational drug database Erowid. And if anyone’s reality was worth escaping for a few moments, it was Aaron’s. “I was really fucking stupid and sad,” Carter would recall years later in regard to the early days of his duster addiction.
In an attempt to keep his secret from prying eyes, the former pop idol began frequenting unassuming office supply stores. There, he’d pay for can after can in cash to keep transactions from being traced back to him.
But the high one gets from computer duster is not a discreet one. While the people closest to Aaron may not have known about the exact nature of his addiction, it was evident within a matter of months that some sort of intervention was necessary. At the start of 2011, Aaron was sent to the Betty Ford Center for treatment. His manager avoided divulging any specifics by claiming that the trip to rehab was to “heal some emotional and spiritual issues”.
After quietly completing the program, Carter tried once again to pick up the pieces of his life and start anew. In hopes of alleviating some of his debts, he began the arduous process of filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. He moved to New York City, where he snagged the starring role in an off-Broadway rendition of The Fantasticks. By almost all accounts, audiences enjoyed watching his performance, and he enjoyed being on stage so much so that he extended his contract at least twice. The $654/week salary didn’t pay for much in a city known for its high cost of living, but his days in the theater may very well have been some of the happiest and most fulfilling he ever knew.
Unfortunately, as was seemingly always the case for Aaron, any upward momentum in Carter’s mental, physical, and spiritual health came to a crashing halt at the start of 2012. At just 25 years old, Aaron’s older sister Leslie was pronounced dead in upstate New York after succumbing to a sudden drug overdose.
As I touched on earlier, it’s evident from watching about 45 seconds of any given episode of House of Carters that Leslie had demons she was struggling with. Sandwiched between her two brothers, she suffered from perhaps the worst case of middle-child syndrome known to man. When she wasn’t being ignored outright, it seemed from an outside perspective that her every waking moment consisted of being patronized, criticized, or teased. So, from a young age, she turned to whatever drugs she could get her hands on to cope. Though it very well could be a bit of revisionist history, Aaron claimed numerous times following her death that he was scrounging his meager earnings together in hopes of sending Leslie to rehab.
If the whole Carter-based reality show debacle didn’t create lasting rifts among the family, Leslie’s death certainly did. Seeking a reason for a reasonless death, Nick Carter was largely blamed by his parents and siblings for Leslie’s drug use and demise. Evidently, the accusations were so extreme that Nick opted out of attending the funeral altogether. This, in turn, left a financially unstable Aaron footing the bill for the ceremony. Right or wrong, Nick’s decision ultimately soured the relationship between the Carter brothers in a way that a bear hug could no longer solve.
Literally unable to afford time off of work, Aaron continued performing through his anger and depression. Away from the stage, he’d turn to his social media platforms as an outlet for his overwhelming emotions.
His Tweets, in particular, grew increasingly erratic around this time. Whether this behavior can be attributed to drug use, stress, or mental illness, we’ll likely never know. Either way, his 140-character blurbs became the stuff of early Twitter memes. Whether he was ranting about the fate of his childhood Beanie Baby collection or his current state of sexual arousal, he found that he had a knack for garnering hearts, thumbs up, and replies. It no longer really mattered if the audience was laughing with or at him – as it turned out, the dopamine rush with each reaction could numb painful feelings just as well as any other drug.
Perhaps it was the cult social media following that provided the necessary reassurance Aaron required to finally emerge from an eight-year musical hiatus. At the start of 2013, Carter left New York and launched the After Party Tour, a marathon lineup of 166 concerts smattered across the United States and Canada. In an interview with Billboard, he reflected on his intentions behind this ultra-ambitious tour with the following:
“I went from being the lowest of low, wondering if I was ever going to be me again — and then actually realizing I never will be me again. I’m gonna be an improved version of what I was growing up…I know it’s going to be hard to get people to believe in me again. They think I’m not dependable or I’m gonna fall off the wagon. But I’ve really got my life figured out. I know who I’m gonna be for the rest of my life. Now I have to show that to everybody”
And so, one city at a time, a reborn Aaron Carter introduced himself to just about anyone willing to listen. Indeed, he was no longer the boy preteens worldwide once loved. Corrupted heavy drug use and years of unresolved trauma, something much more wicked replaced the impish kid.
The venues weren’t nearly as glamorous as the stadiums he’d once sold out. For the most part, he booked bars in college towns in hopes of drawing in university students. In a lot of ways, this was a pretty solid comeback strategy. After all, he appealed to a very specific audience during a very specific time period – the most devoted fans at the height of his stardom would have been in their late teens and early twenties during the After Party Tour. In order to sell as many tickets as possible, Aaron had to cater to the transient undergrad of Syracuse, NY or Lansing, MI looking for a nostalgia hit. He even crafted a promotion offering backstage passes and meet & greet sessions to the sorority houses that purchased the most concert tickets in a visiting city.
So long as it paid the bills, he had no qualms about performing the songs that made him famous (even if they were a bit absurd to hear coming out of a grown man’s mouth). But there was also something undeniably skeevy about the carefully crafted college circuit.
A mainstay on the set list was a Backstreet Boy-ishballad titled "I'm All About You". Ever the showman, Aaron wouldn’t just stand still and serenade the crowd. Instead, he would pull a handful of uniformly young-looking girls onto the stage with him. During pivotal moments, he’d kiss the women on the mouth – with little to no warning, regardless of whether or not they actually wanted to be kissed. Of course, some participants relished the opportunity to live out their childhood fantasy of brushing lips with Aaron Carter. However, it wasn’t uncommon to witness the singer comb his fingers through the hair of visibly uncomfortable women stunned by the spotlight.
Here’s a video that shows Carter trying to worm his tongue down the throat of a concertgoer that literally had to use her hand to block his kiss. Rather than taking a hint, Aaron proceeds to grab her by the waist and sit her down on his lap. There are dozens of videos online virtually identical to this one, all of which are equally cringeworthy:
Seemingly in line with this somewhat disturbing behavior were dozens of anonymous, unsubstantiated accounts on platforms like Tumblr. Accusations against Carter ranged from generally embarrassing drunken behavior to solicitation of sex from underage fans.
But in a world prior to the #MeToo movement, nothing much ever came from these tales. For some, the illusion that the idealized childhood crush of a million girls still dwelled somewhere deep in Aaron’s adult soul was shattered. But considering all of the other negative labels that had been attached to AC over the years, the disapproval of a few more faceless women likely meant very little to him. Life went on.
Theoretically, Aaron’s situation should have marginally improved by the conclusion of 2013. As his mega-tour came to an end, his bankruptcy case was finally taken to court, offering some of relief to his long outstanding financial troubles.
As an alternate to Chapter 13 bankruptcy (which would still leave Aaron on the hook for about 50% of his debts), a judge offered to expunge the bill if Aaron agreed to testify against his parents for their past fiscal failures. Because this would have potentially resulted in his mother and father serving up to ten years in jail, Carter refused the judge’s proposal. Aaron later claimed that this act of sacrifice moved the presiding judge so much so that he instead made Aaron a Chapter 7 bankruptcy offer – a clean slate on the condition that Aaron liquidate all of his personal assets. However, since Aaron had almost nothing to his name, Chapter 7 bankruptcy essentially equated to a get-out-of-jail-free card. By the year’s end, the dark multi-million dollar cloud that had loomed over Carter for years was gone.
At long last, he was free.
Unfortunately, that freedom came far too late to save Aaron from himself.
In the next installment: Aaron launches the internet’s most tragic one-man-livestream in an effort to rewrite reality. CLICK HERE for part three
Paris Hilton seems to confirm that her relationship with Nick was indeed a physically abusive one in the 2020 documentary This is Paris.
In 2006, a 20-year-old fan filed an incident report with the West Allis, WI police alleging that Nick Carter had assaulted her, though she ultimately did not press charges. In 2017, Melissa Schuman of the girl group Dream wrote in a (now deleted) blog post that Nick Carter raped her in 2003. In December 2022, Shannon Ruth filed a lawsuit claiming that in 2001, Carter lured her onto a tour bus and assaulted her as well. The lawsuit includes allegations from three additional Jane Does, some of whom were reportedly underage – however, it’s impossible to know whether the Jane Does referenced in Ruth’s complaint include Schuman or the unnamed Wisconsin fan. Shortly following the publication of this newsletter, Nick Carter filed a countersuit against accusers Ruth and Schuman.
When I say that shows like The Osbournes and Hogan Knows Best were successful, I mean it strictly in a financial sense. What the Carters were either unaware or willfully ignorant of was the fact that these shows wreaked absolute havoc on their featured family units. Despite their show garnering millions of dollars, Sharon Osbourne claims that had production of The Osbournes continued it “would have destroyed our family”. Unfortunately, the Hogan family didn’t come to that realization quickly enough. By 2007 Hulk was caught having an affair with his daughter’s best friend, matriarch Linda found a post-divorce rebound in a 19-year-old boy, and 17-year-old son Nick Hogan’s reckless driving caused a car wreck so severe that it left his passenger in a vegetative state.
Though rarely discussed, Leslie Carter was an aspiring musician. Her career never took off in the way that her brothers’ did in large part because producers felt she didn’t have the stick-thin “look” to become a star. However, her sole single “Like Wow” was moderately successful and ended up on the Shrek soundtrack.
When I say “lost to the sands of time” I mean the 2019 Myspace server migration debacle that resulted years worth of data loss.
Depending on how much you believe his word, Aaron was actually first introduced to inhalants as a teenager by his older sister Leslie. However, by his account it seems that his usage didn’t become habitual until he began exhibiting signs of depression post-DWTS.
Sorry Aaron – I know that you would have absolutely hated a stylistic comparison to the Backstreet Boys, but I have to calls ‘em like I sees ‘em.