WHAT HAPPENED?

The Troubling Downfall of Aaron Carter, America’s Middle School Sweetheart

Pop singer Aaron Carter has spent his adult life plagued by health and money crises, a DUI arrest, and a strained relationship with his family. But how did he get here?

Aaron Carter’s newest entry into the celebrity mug shot hall of fame is arresting.

The 29-year-old former child star is unrecognizable, sporting a shock of peroxide-blond hair and the cold, dead-eyed stare of a man with a permanent neck tattoo. Face to face with this vision, snapped after Carter was charged with a DUI in Georgia in mid-July, it’s easy to forget that Carter was once a wholesome heartthrob—a pre-teen who wore his baseball hats backward and recorded deeply white raps about suburban house parties and beating Shaquille O’Neal at basketball (2000, man).

Carter, no doubt helped along by the popularity of his Backstreet Boys brother, released a series of hits in the very early aughts, like “I Want Candy” and the unforgettable “Aaron’s Party (Come Get It).” Before there was Justin Bieber there was Aaron Carter, and he was cherubic AF. The younger Carter threw himself into the Hollywood dating pool, two-timing Lindsay Lohan and Hilary Duff. This early infidelity was clearly symptomatic, with Duff eventually calling it quits on their two-year, on-and-off relationship when Carter reportedly cheated.

Some child stars have extreme mental breakdowns that wind up on TMZ. Others take slower, windier roads toward rock bottom. In Carter’s case, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when his career took a turn for the unsalvageable. And while Carter has clearly been on a questionable path for a while now, it’s still hard to reconcile the singer’s adult onset personality/rap sheet and the world’s middle school boyfriend.

Former Aaron Carter stans desperate for answers can start by re-watching 2006’s House of Carters, an E! reality show that found all five of the Carter siblings under one roof. While a dysfunctional, fame-hungry family doesn’t necessarily lead to fucked-up offspring, Aaron Carter’s onscreen interactions with his siblings felt particularly foreboding. In one infamous scene, Aaron and older bro Nick, aka the other famous one, get into a physical fight, with Nick taunting his younger brother and demanding his “respect.” The fight ends with Aaron’s concerning revelation that, “Every time you fight with me, I run away from you… You are not a good person, and everybody sees it Nick!”

Carter’s issues with his family went far deeper than scene-stealing drama. In 2003, he filed for legal emancipation from his mother, Jane Carter, believing that she had stolen over $100,000 from him. When Aaron turned 18 and got access to his trust fund, Aaron alleges, he found far less than he was owed. “I grossed over $300 million in my career,” he told Complex in 2016. “So, they didn’t even give me my Coogan Account, which is 15 percent… Fifteen percent of $100 million is $15 million. So, $45 million should’ve been in my account, and it wasn’t. I had $2.1.”

From 2006 on, Carter’s personal and professional lives appeared to be in a competitive dovetail. He got engaged to Playboy model Kari Ann Peniche, only to break off the engagement a week later, deeming his proposal “hasty.” He joined Dancing with the Stars, tried and failed to reinvigorate his music career, and ended up in rehab. In 2011, Carter completed a month of treatment at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California. In November of the same year, the singer took his talents off-Broadway, starring in The Fantasticks. In 2012, he appeared on one episode of a celebrity cooking competition (he was quickly eliminated), and continued to perform at casinos, festivals, and Ryan Cabrera shows across the country. No doubt cursed by this close contact with Cabrera, Carter found himself filing a bankruptcy petition in 2013, in an attempt to rid himself of more than $2 million in debt. Carter’s publicist at the time explained, “The bulk of the debt is from over 10 years ago when he was a minor and not in control of his finances,” adding, “This has happened to a lot of people who had fame at such at a very early age.”

2014 was a banner year for the adult Aaron Carter, who announced a worldwide tour and started performing new music. He also settled his tax debt.

And then things got weird again. In a 2014 twitter thread, Carter confessed his undying love for Hilary Duff, writing, “Don’t be that stupid douche that loses the love of your life forever.. Like me…I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to better myself to get back to her. I don’t care what ANY of you think.” Duff eventually dismissed Carter’s romantic-ish gesture as “ridiculous” in a Cosmopolitan interview. Carter upped his online antics in 2015, eliciting understandable backlash when he told the world that, “Michael [Jackson] passed down the torch to me.” He continued, “MJ and that’s why we both connected because we really were and still out the only ones of our kind…When Dookie gave me his JACKET PERSONALLY he was passing a torch to me verbatim don’t need 2 explain myself.”

Back on his bullshit again in 2016, Carter tweeted, “Does America want to have a president who FOLLOWS or someone who leads? I vote For @realdonaldtrump.” Asked to clarify his endorsement, Carter told GQ, “I support Donald Trump. I don’t support every little thing. Trump goes his own way. He’s a leader, not a follower, and he’s proven that by humbling the other campaigns. I think in regards to him becoming president, well, the electoral college will be the decider… I like what he’s doing for taxes for the people. And I like what he’s focused on. Like, let’s worry about our deficit right now. And about our country. And about how we can actually make it great again. He’s proving that sometimes you have to file for bankruptcy and rebuild. I can relate. I’ve been through it.”

Unfortunately, Aaron Carter’s plan to make Aaron Carter great again is going about as well as Trump’s own initiatives. When Carter and his girlfriend Madison Parker were arrested in Georgia in mid-July, the textbook celebrity DUI charge quickly snowballed into a PR disaster. Initially, Carter’s team claimed that the singer “wasn’t even in the car” when he was apprehended—he was stopped at an AutoZone, en route to a Kansas City performance. Aaron, who allegedly refused to take a breathalyzer test, was also charged with possession of marijuana and obstruction; his reps counter that Carter uses medical marijuana to treat his anxiety. According to Carter, his driving was erratic because of car problems. “I do not drink alcohol at all,” he explained. “I have a medical condition called hiatal hernia, which means I can’t drink.” 

It didn’t take long for Carter’s family to respond to his arrest with a typical level of dysfunction. Nick Carter tweeted, “I love u no matter what…I am here and willing to help you get better…Family isn’t always easy, be we’re all here for you.” This public showing rubbed Aaron the wrong way. As he wrote in a subsequent statement, “If my own blood (Nick) truly cared about my well-being, why wouldn’t he call me directly and have a conversation instead of making this about him through a very public forum? That’s not cool at all to use me for his PR and kick me while I am down.”

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In an Entertainment Tonight interview, Carter elaborated on his precarious health, explaining that his hiatal hernia has caused him to lose 20 pounds. “I [weigh] 135, 140,” Carter said. “Yeah, and I’m 5’8. [Doctors] said avoid stress. Because I can develop cancer.” Carter also admitted to using Voluma fillers on his face, adding, “How would you feel every two seconds, seeing a tweet, ‘You have AIDS. Go die. Oh, look at this meth head. Oh, meth kills. Crack kills,’” Carter recalled. “I’m not a meth head. I’ve never touched it in my life.”

Later in the interview, Carter was joined by his girlfriend Parker, and the couple expressed their desire to start a family and possibly star on a reality TV show. Carter added that his kids will be free to pursue music careers—“It’s up to them. If they want to do it they can”—just “not when they’re seven.” He concluded, “When they’re like, 16 and they’re cognitive; they’ve been through school and they learned about life and boys and people, and I can teach them certain things and I can warn them about it and they can make the decision.”