As a teenager pursuing showbiz in Florida, Backstreet Boys singer Howie Dorough looked to Puerto Rican icon Ricky Martin for guidance -- most notably, trying to emulate his “luscious” hair. “When I first started out, I remember looking to him with that long hair and all those girls loving it and I said, ‘I’m going to grow mine out and have Ricky Martin hair,’” Dorough, 45, laughs during an exclusive interview with ET. “Unfortunately, I think the combination of my Irish and Spanish didn’t work out, so I grew my hair out, but it definitely wasn’t as full, thick, luscious and flowing as his!"
While Martin may have been Dorough’s hair inspo, the Latinx star would later play an instrumental part in a life-changing moment, as half-Irish/half-Puerto Rican Dorough decided to put years of struggling with his multicultural identity behind him and fully embrace his Latin roots -- a move which would swerve the course of his education, influence some of the Backstreet Boys’ biggest hits and form the backbone of his new solo family album, Which One Am I?, now streaming exclusively on ET, ahead of its official release on Friday.
The record explores various struggles from Dorough’s youth, including experiencing anxiety and being shy, many of which stemmed from his identity struggles.
Born to Puerto Rican mom Paula and late Irish-American father Hoke, in Orlando, Florida, Dorough was in elementary school when he first started to feel the weight of looking different to many of his peers and causing confusion in those around him. “There were times that I would be in situations around other Puerto Ricans or Hispanics and they’d start speaking in Spanish and I’d be looking at them going, ‘No hablo español! [“I don’t speak Spanish.”]" he says. “Or, I would go with my mom to Puerto Rico and people would automatically start talking to me in Spanish. There’s been a lot of instances where I was like, ‘Wow, I look like this, but it’s not totally me.’ It’s actually what inspired my song, 'No Hablo Español.' As I started getting older, I definitely felt challenged with finding my identity.”
The breaking point for Dorough came when he was 14 years old and his dance partner scored him an audition for an all-Latino boy band Menudo, where Martin got his start. “Coincidentally, I sang ‘Endless Love,’ and the girl went, ‘Hey, Ricky! Get in here!’” Dorough recalls. “She told me that was Ricky’s favorite song, so he actually came and sat in on my audition. At the time, my voice hadn’t changed, so I sang both the guy and girl part. Ricky was really cool.”
“They had me come back twice because they loved me so much, but unfortunately the fact that I didn’t speak Spanish fluently was the reason they couldn’t take me,” Dorough continues. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. I realized I was limited by not being able to embrace that side of me, especially in the entertainment world.”
Dorough subsequently chose Spanish as his elective for the next four years, studied the language for two more years in college, then took Berlitz language courses, up to the point where he would have needed to live abroad with a family who couldn’t speak English to fully immerse himself in the language and further his studies. However, by then, he had joined the Backstreet Boys, who were starting to take off -- eventually becoming the biggest-selling boy band of all time, earning multiple GRAMMY nominations, completing a two-year residency in Las Vegas, opening an exhibition at the GRAMMY Museum and launching their DNA World Tour, which kicks off its North American run in Washington, D.C., on July 12.
These days, Dorough says he doesn’t speak the “best” Spanish, but is fluent enough to communicate effectively. “I have a place in Puerto Rico and when I go there, I can talk on behalf of the family,” he says. “It’s not the best Spanish -- it’s all in the present tense! My conjugations are pretty bad because I’ve lost a lot of it, but I’ve been able to embrace it now and feel more secure with my culture.”
However, Dorough notes that not being 100% fluent in Spanish has impacted his music throughout the years. “I actually got close a couple of times to making a record in Spanish with great producers from Emilio Estefan’s camp out of Miami, but I would always stop myself at the very end because I wanted to make sure I didn’t come across as a fake or trying to be something I wasn’t,” he explains. “I would get scared knowing that when it came time to go and do interviews, they would start speaking in Spanish and I’d have to break out the ‘No hablo español!’ again!”
“I never want to misrepresent myself, so even to this day it’s a struggle to be comfortable in my skin, but I’m much more secure than I once was,” he adds. “So, I do have plans to do a record in Spanish, in honor of my mother, and also for my kids to also be able to embrace their grandmother’s culture.”
In the meantime, Dorough has produced Which One Am I? for his children, initially inspired by the lack of suitable music out there for James, 10, and Holden, six -- his two sons with his stunning Italian-American wife of 11 years, Leigh. He says while movies like Toy Story and Wreck-It Ralph offer adult humor as well as children’s entertainment, it’s not the same with music, so he wanted to create something both kids and parents could relate to.
“There should be cooler stuff for kids,” he says. “Kids aren’t dummies and that’s why they end up listening to older adult stuff at a young age because they move on past the kid bops. I was also looking around our audience and going, ‘Man, we have a lot of fans bringing their kids to our shows now’ and it hit me -- ‘Why don’t I make something that kids can enjoy, but parents can too?’”
Calling in GRAMMY-nominated composer Tor Hyams and his Broadway performer partner, Lisa St. Lou, Dorough had a lengthy phone conversation with the couple, who pointed out that the experiences of his youth would be the perfect songwriting inspiration. “I was talking to them for two hours -- it felt like a therapy session,” says Dorough, who previously released a solo record, Back to Me, in 2011. “When we were done, I was like, ‘So what do you think we should write about?’ and Tor was like, ‘Your life! You have a lot of experiences that kids can relate to, and adults too.’”
Seamlessly spanning a variety of genres, from blues to reggae and rock, the 12-track record explores issues both young and old can connect with, like dealing with worry, anxiety and growing up in the shadow of an older sibling, with humor woven in along the way. Backstreet Boys fans are sure to get a chuckle out of the opening track, “Which One Am I?” in which Dorough hilariously sings about his bandmates, describing Brian Littrell as a clown, Kevin Richardson as “smooth [with] never a hair out of place,” AJ McLean as constantly “busting” out dance moves and Nick Carter as “always driving girls crazy.”
St. Lou performs backing vocals, and while the trio was working on the songs, they started seeing the potential for a musical production and created Back in the Day, which will premiere at the Rose Theater in Omaha, Nebraska, in January 2020, with Dorough performing in the 12-show debut run. The production will include new music plus three songs from Which One Am I? and James has already put his hand up for playing a young Dorough.
When it comes to ensuring his boys feel connected to both sides of their cultural roots and avoid the same issues he faced in his own youth, Dorough says the family spends time in Puerto Rico -- and enjoy plenty of traditional food in-between. “We’re very blessed that my mother is around and I have an aunt who lives next door, so she and her daughter cook a lot of traditional food,” he says. “My kids love the beans, rice and pork and all the flavor and spices and sauces. Food is how we keep closest to the culture.”
“And I have a place in Puerto Rico that I try to get my kids down to,” continues the Dead 7 star. “James has been a couple of times and we’re going to take Holden down soon. They speak less Spanish than me, but they do pick up words and they’re starting to teach them basic Spanish at school now, so they can count up to 10 and say small greetings. I should teach them more, but I don’t speak it the most grammatically correct, so I don’t want to teach them wrong!”
Dorough has certainly come a long way since his Menudo audition. And, while he went on to find incredible success after being rejected from the group, he continues to have the utmost respect and admiration for Martin.
“It’s funny because many years later when Backstreet Boys became successful, we met and I had a chance to remind him about my audition,” he shares. “He doesn’t remember because it was so far back, but I definitely do! I’ve always admired him as a performer -- he’s just fearless, embraces the Latin culture and really takes pride in being Puerto Rican and giving back to the community. He’s a great entertainer and we had our Vegas residencies at the same time over the past couple of years, so I was honored to go see him. He’s such a great guy.”
Pondering how different life might have been had he made it into Menudo with Martin, Dorough believes joining a Latin boy band instead of his "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" bandmates could have both helped and hindered his identity struggles. “I think if I got into the group without knowing Spanish, it would have been hard catching up with the rest of the other guys, but once I’d embraced it, it could have definitely helped me,” he says. “But everything happens for a reason. If I had gotten into Menudo, maybe I wouldn’t have been around for the Backstreet Boys.”
“The beautiful thing is that I was then able to influence my guys to do a couple of songs in Spanish, as well as translate a couple of songs [including '90s single “I’ll Never Break Your Heart”] into Spanish," adds Dorough, who was also lead vocals on fan favorite "Spanish Eyes" on the group's 1999 smash Millennium. "So, I feel like I’ve been able to have [an] impact. Everything happened for a reason and thank God -- because I think this is definitely my destiny!”