Howie Dorough Dishes on His ‘Bachelor’-Like Romance Ahead of 10th Wedding Anniversary (Exclusive)
Leigh Boniello was a 26-year-old music enthusiast, anxiously starting a new job for the Backstreet Boys during the height of their fame, when suddenly she found herself caught up in an epic made-for-TV romance.
“Her job was to get content of us doing stuff outside of the everyday show ritual, and I was always the one who would put my hand up when they’d ask, ‘Does anyone want to go hang-gliding in Rio today?’” Howie Dorough recalls to ET. “So, she would come out and we did the pyramids and so many fun things. I always joked the website became mostly about me!”
“It was like being on The Bachelor, because it was all these crazy experiences,” adds Leigh. “It was like, ‘Here we are in Mexico, let’s get a private tour of the pyramids and go on crazy adventures together!’ It just lent itself to a romantic situation.”
Sure enough, romance bloomed and now, as the couple prepares to mark their 10-year-wedding anniversary on Dec. 8, they’re opening up for the first time about their globetrotting courtship, most memorable wedding moments, juggling family life with BSB and why time apart has strengthened their bond.
Leigh, 43, admits she never expected a job interview would lead to love when she sat in the Los Angeles office of BSB’s management, having completed her final interview for a webmaster gig. The band’s team suggested she meet with the guys immediately; however, the group had just wrapped a six-hour planning meeting after flying in from the Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas, Nevada, so no one was in the mood.
“We were all still hurting from the night before and just out of a six-hour meeting, then they’re like, ‘Is anyone willing to stay and say hi to the new webmaster?’” says Howie, 44. “Everyone was like, ‘I’m outta here,’ and me and Kevin -- the good old faithfuls -- were like, ‘Alright, we’ll do it.’ We walked in and I remember thinking, ‘She’s cute. Alright, I’ll listen to this meeting.’ Then I sat down and thought, ‘Well, she’s coming on tour, eventually one of us is going to hit on her!’”
While Leigh had previously worked on websites for celebrities including Claudia Schiffer and on commercials and music videos for Quentin Tarantino’s company, A Band Apart, she had no hands-on experience with video and behind-the-scenes content. Handed a camera and map for the shoot for BSB’s 2001 hit “The Call,” she was told, “Here you go,” then got into her car and burst into tears wondering how she would pull off her first major task the next morning. Pulling through, a month later she joined the band on their Black & Blue tour and quickly bonded with Howie.
“We were, like, best friends for the first few weeks,” recalls Leigh, who had also worked alongside the head writers of Seinfeld and developed television projects at Dreamworks. “We did a lot of stuff together; we would sit together on the plane and just struck up a friendship. We were sharing potato chips!”
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“I had come out of a relationship, so wasn’t looking for anything serious, but she was around and we had a lot of same interests,” adds Howie. “We both loved to entertain, be around people, go out, visit theme parks, ride roller coasters and eat.
“She opened my mind to music I hadn’t listened to, like Ben Harper and Dave Matthews,” the Dead 7 star continues. “She took me to Primus and exposed me to a totally different realm of music, and I introduced her to more pop/R&B, like Maxwell and Sade -- as well as our music. She knew who we were, but didn’t truly know our songs, so when I hung with her, I was like, ‘She’s not a typical fan who knows every word and asks crazy questions.’ It was a breath of fresh air to have somebody who had totally different interests, but we still saw eye-to-eye on a lot of things.”
While their courtship was free of the glare of social media and the backlash to which the wives of younger bandmates, Nick Carter and AJ McLean, have been heavily subjected, Leigh “still got a lot of hate.” Unsure how to handle herself in public, she would keep her head down and stay quiet, which ignited more criticism. Howie confesses he “didn’t help the situation” by avoiding publicly confirming their relationship.
“In the early years, we were encouraged not to announce girlfriends, and that stayed in my mind longer than the other guys,” he explains. “I never announced any previous girlfriends and wasn’t one to talk about it until I knew for sure I wanted to. I always had my sister, Pollyanna, as my date because she wanted to come to everything! Once I felt comfortable enough to look at fans and hope they could see past the performer and want me to be happy as a person, and acknowledge her as my significant other, a lot of fans accepted her. Before that, they were like, ‘Who’s this hoochie mama hanging around?’ I think fans thought that about all our girlfriends until they became part of our lives, and they realized they weren’t just a one-night stand.”
After getting engaged in front of family and friends in 2006, the couple decided to tie the knot at Howie’s family church in Orlando, Florida. But the building was about to undergo renovations, meaning they could either rush to have the ceremony within six months or wait a year. The “full speed” planning became a blessing, as Howie’s father, Hoke, sadly died from cancer in 2008, meaning he may not have been around had they waited.
The extravagant nuptials were attended by Howie’s bandmates, *NSYNCer Chris Kirkpatrick and ’80s icon Debbie Gibson. The couple agrees their most memorable moment was helicoptering into their lavish reception at a sprawling private home, La Viance, with puzzled guests thinking they were paparazzi, then erupting in cheers as they landed. Howie also recalls a special moment that made his late sister Caroline’s presence felt. After Caroline died of lupus in 1998, Howie founded the Dorough Lupus Foundation, which has a butterfly logo. After the wedding, 200 butterflies were released and one randomly landed on his mom’s shoulder. “It was like, ‘Oh, that’s my sister,’” he reflects.
A decade later, the pair has welcomed two adorable boys (8-year-old James and 4-year-old Holden), weathered the highs and lows of juggling Howie’s career with family life and built a strong marriage despite frequent chunks of time apart. Having put in 50-hour weeks working on movies including Oceans 12, Westworld and Nancy Drew as director of development, then vice president at Jerry Weintraub Productions after leaving the webmaster gig, Leigh didn’t have time to “sit around and pine over him being gone,” meaning the couple grew comfortable with stints apart.
She was also happy to give up her career so that the pair could start a family. “It’s a big sacrifice, and that’s something that [Kevin Richardson’s wife] Kristin and I talk about because it’s hard being a wife and mother all the time,” she admits. “We love it, but you have to be OK with taking that backseat sometimes. I think someday I will have a second career, but right now I want to make sure the kids grow up right and get them on track.”
The family often joins Howie on the road, whether it’s James having toured Japan with BSB when he was just six weeks old or the whole clan rocking out in the front row at the group’s Larger Than Life residency at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. Although James is now at an age where he’s more “emotionally attached” to Howie coming and going, he also has a greater understand of his father’s job -- proudly talking about his famous dad at school and even following in his entertainer footsteps by starting his own YouTube channel.
Howie says having children has made him “as Brian would say, selfless.” As for maintaining a healthy relationship when so much of their limited time together is focused on parenting, he believes stints apart have become a blessing.
“We have a good, healthy balance,” he says. “We don’t have the norm of a regular relationship where we’re at home seeing too much of each other. Sometimes, distance for us is not the worst thing. I’ll get a two-month break and by that point we’re itching for each other -- absence makes the heart grow fonder! We also realize we’re both strong individuals, and the fact that she’s supportive of me doing what I do gives her the chance to have a bit of her own life as well. We’ll have my cousin come over and she’ll go do some girlfriend nights out.”
When they are at home, they have weekly date nights at dinner, movies and comedy shows, but of course it’s Las Vegas where the pair loves to let loose these days. The fun-loving duo have lapped up romantic meals in the Grand Canyon, boat trips on Lake Mead and 2 a.m. hotel room dance parties for two during BSB’s residency, which resumes at The AXIS theater on Wednesday and features hits including “I Want It That Way” and “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” While the band will be in the middle of a run of holiday shows on Howie and Leigh’s Dec. 8 anniversary, the couple has planned “a little trip” to bring them together on the day and hope to organize a bigger vacation later.
“We try to make it so we don’t go too long apart,” notes Howie, who’s also working on a children’s musical production. “We put a lot of time into our kids, but we also put time into ourselves and that’s why she’ll come out [to Vegas] for a weekend sometimes. People go, ‘Where’s your kids?’ but they’re fine back home with their cousins and it gives her and I a chance to keep the flame going and make sure we don’t lose that daddy-mommy time to kids, kids, kids -- which so often happens in relationships.”
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