It isn’t the sort of behavior usually associated with pop stars, but then, Backstreet Boys heartthrob Kevin Richardson has always had a romantic streak. Backstage in Kansas City, Mo., last November, during the pop quintet’s Millennium tour, Richardson took the father of his girlfriend, Kristin Willits, aside. “He asked my permission to ask Kristin to marry him,” recalls John Willits. “I told him I’d be honored.” At the time, Kristin, 29, a dancer, was touring with Cher in Europe. Shortly before Christmas, Richardson, 28, took her to the Florida bed-and-break-fast where he’d first professed his love and popped the question.
Before lovesick fans could shriek “Unfair!” fellow Backstreet Boy Brian Littrell, 25, followed suit on Christmas night. Like his cousin Kevin, Littrell also sought permission from the parents of his intended, actress Leighanne Wallace, 30, who received a canary yellow diamond as an engagement ring. “He proposed on Christmas night at home in [Marietta,] Georgia,” says Wallace. “It was really sweet. I have this peace about me now.”
Having one of the world’s most eligible pop stars and the object of millions of teen fantasies declare his eternal love for you will do that. MTV correspondent John Norris, who broke the news of the dual betrothals on Feb. 16, admits he was caught off guard a day earlier when the Boys casually mentioned their engagements. “We just asked each one, ‘Who do you think is going to be the first in the group to get married?’ and Kevin said, ‘Well, the fact is that Brian has set a date.’ ” Within 24 hours of the scoop, Internet chat boards teemed with thousands of messages ranging from “Brian, how could you do this to me?” to “The best of luck to them.”
So just who are these Backstreet Girls? Littrell first spotted Wallace in June 1997 when she was an extra on the L.A. set of the Boys’ video “As Long as You Love Me.” A casting director had sent her over. “I had no clue who the Boys were,” Wallace recalls. Littrell asked her out for Italian food the next night—”I couldn’t eat,” she confesses—and the two have been together ever since. When Littrell had open-heart surgery in May 1998 after a congenital hole had enlarged, Wallace stuck close. “She wanted to be there, and he wanted her there,” says her mom, Shirley Tolbert, 53, a former beauty-salon owner. Last December the couple were spotted in Orlando, Littrell’s home base, when Wallace was shooting the low-budget Olive Juice, in which she stars.
Richardson also met his fiancée on the job. In 1993, Willits was dancing in Beauty and the Beast at the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park in Orlando when Kevin, then working the park as a Ninja Turtle, noticed her in the employee cafeteria. He promptly asked her out. “She walked into the cafeteria,” Richardson told PEOPLE last November, “and it was like someone turned a light on.” Willits, whose parents—chiropractor John Willits and Susan Patton, an auto dealership employee—are divorced, had attended Oklahoma City University before landing the Disney gig.
After their initial six-month idyll in Orlando, Willits’s amusement-park stints kept the pair apart. Once the Backstreet Boys caught fire in Europe five years ago, Richardson lived his life mostly on the road. “It’s hard, real hard,” said Richardson, who is based in Orlando while Willits keeps a place in Los Angeles. “We’ve broken up quite often because of the traveling.”
For now, Littrell is keeping his wedding date a secret, and Richardson hasn’t set one. Whether fans will buy the Backstreet Husbands is an even bigger unknown. “It doesn’t hurt their image at all,” says Seventeen editor Heidi Sherman. “It may even enhance it.” Maybe so, but Howie Dorough, 26, insists that not every Backstreet Boy wants it that married way. “Howie’s single,” he reassured his fans during a recent radio show, “and always lookin’.”
Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles, Jeff Truesdell in Orlando, Pam Grout in Kansas City, Lori Rozsa in Miami and Sona Charaipotra in New York City