Backstreet Boys fans know Nick Carter and his group, in part, for Black & Blue, but on The Masked Singer, he rocked head-to-pink as Crocodile.
"Pink is a happy color and it reflects on how I feel on the inside," Carter, 40, tells PEOPLE. "I'm happy and sensitive and loving and caring."
The boy band member placed third on season 4 of The Masked Singer as Croc, but he almost competed as a different reptile on season 3. "I developed the costume on the phone, with drawings and everything, for the Turtle," Carter reveals. "It was supposed to be for me but I was on tour with the boys and I just didn't have time."
Fellow pop star Jesse McCartney ending up performing as Turtle and taking second place last season, and Carter's schedule opened up once the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the Backstreet Boys' DNA World Tour went on hiatus. Along with competing on The Masked Singer, Carter used the downtime to write and record solo music, including his new single "80's Movie."
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"The Masked Singer inspired me to jump into the studio and to try some new solo music," he says. "The song '80's Movie' encapsulates everything that I am as a person. It's almost as if everything else that I have done before from a solo side — it was great, it was experimental, but this is it."
Carter details how The Masked Singer gave him confidence, how his "little croc-lings" — daughter Saoirse, 14 months, and son Odin, 4 — reacted to his unmasking and what releasing solo music means for the future of the Backstreet Boys.
How does it feel that your big secret is out there now?
It's awesome. I had so many people call me and say, "I knew it was you. Why didn't you tell us?" I couldn't. It was so much fun. It's such a family-oriented show. I have two kids and they've been watching it every single week as well, loving the Crocodile, and I just didn't tell them. They didn't know until the end when I took the mask off. They're like, "Oh my God, it's Daddy!" It was super sweet. It's something I was happy to be a part of because in a time when people are longing for entertainment and searching for things to help them cope with having to be quarantined, I thought maybe this could give our fans or anybody else out there a little bit of joy.
You've been doing music for most of your life, so what did The Masked Singer teach you?
What's liberating about being in the mask is that you don't have to pay attention to the noise. You can come back to it was what it was all about in the beginning when we started. I was 11 years old when I first started in my group, singing all sorts of songs, not having to be Nick Carter from the Backstreet Boys. I'm just a singer at heart. Being in the Croc outfit, I was able to experiment with different sounds and see what people's reactions were. I was able to really grow and learn and believe in myself as an individual and as a solo artist.
Had you felt pigeonholed before doing the show?
I don't think I was pigeonholed. When it comes to being in the group, I love being on a team, being a member of something. We share with each other and love each other. I love that. On the other hand, as an individual, I don't think I have grown and discovered who I was as a person. I've done a couple solo albums here and there, they haven't been all that successful, but it really doesn't matter because I'm grateful to be in the Backstreet Boys and also grateful to be an entertainer.
Did the pandemic present a natural opportunity to work on your own music?
We were getting ready to launch our next 50 shows in the states and those are still on the books but obviously, we're waiting for everyone to be safe first. Everything has been on hold and we're just waiting to see where things take us and when the light at the end of the tunnel comes. I'm always going to be a Backstreet Boy and I'm always going to be doing music with the guys. Right now I have time to explore as an individual and really do music as a solo artist. It's a balance of the two.
What did you make of AJ McLean and Howie Dorough both being guesses for you on the show?
It's funny. I wanted to not reveal anything and see if I could trick anybody. I think I held people off for at least three to four weeks and then it started to become apparent. Some of the guys would give me a call and be like, "Hey, just so you know, good job on the show." They confronted me directly and I'd say, "Yeah you got me. I didn't tell you because I wanted to surprise you and make you proud."
You opened up about your childhood in some of your Masked Singer clue packages. How did your upbringing shape you as a musician?
When you've been in it since you were a child, like I was, it's all I've known. When you are a child in the entertainment business, you have to be able to grow and learn. I've been doing that in the public eye for 28 years.
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You mentioned on the show how now you want to give your kids what you didn't have growing up. Do they fully understand who you are yet and what you do?
Not yet. And that's the thing, it's not about being Nick Carter from the Backstreet Boys, it's just Daddy. And I want to keep that for them forever. Growing up in the industry, you can be taken advantage of and that's happened to me throughout the years from people that I trusted and loved. For me, it's about my children knowing I will always provide for them and make sure they enjoy their childhood. Give them the life that I never had because I had to work at a young age to provide when I was basically a little kid. So now it is my job and my duty to give them something that I didn't have and that's a house full of love joy, and the ability to grow into a great human being.
It sounds like fatherhood really gave you a new perspective on life and your career.
Absolutely. Now that I have what I've always really longed for, I will protect it at all costs.
You have your solo single out as well as your song "Matches" with the group and Britney Spears—do you plan to release more music?
I have at least six songs done and I'm writing more. [With "80's Movie"] I wanted to release a song that really somehow or another captures the spirit of the holiday season but not directly says, "Hey this is Christmastime." I was trying to find a song that would give people that warm, nostalgic feeling and I think I found it with that song. These lyrics are what I relate to. It's definitely going to grow even more so I'll be recording more music.
The Masked Singer returns in the spring for season 5.
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