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AJ McLean is feeling more confident than ever.
Since February, McLean has lost over 30 lbs. and even decided to get FaceTite, a procedure where a plastic surgeon uses radiofrequency waves and liposuction to pull in loose skin.
He also celebrated a year of sobriety on Monday, addressing the drug and alcohol issues he says he's battled for over two decades.
"I am a completely different person, and it really all started this show," McLean tells PEOPLE ahead of Friday's finale of the VH1 reality competition series.
"This was by far the most liberating thing I think I've ever done," the father of two says. "I'm no stranger to drag, I wore drag at my wedding! I'm very in tune with my sexuality. And I've been an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community for over 35 years. I grew up in musical theater, wearing makeup, painting my nails — all that is nothing new to me. But doing drag like this, it just changed me."
"Hands down the biggest thing I took away from this amazing experience was to love the body that you're in," he adds. "That's something I've long struggled and this proved to be the catalyst for me to really look inwards and do the emotional work to embody the person I am and really just love myself. Because as Ru says, how can I love anybody else if I don't love myself?"
Ethan Miller/Getty; VH1/World of Wonder
McLean approached each stage of the process differently, starting with his sobriety.
"I've struggled with drugs and alcohol issues for 25 years and in [September 2021], I got sober," he tells PEOPLE. "It's still a daily struggle still but it allowed me to finally dive into me. And when I walked on set [at RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race], I was so at ease because there's a massive sober community there. I even had a couple of meetings while I was in rehearsals, which was phenomenal. I felt like I was home."
The show's "Drag Queen Supreme" Jujubee offered support to McLean too, he says. "I remember we had just finished our second day of rehearsals and I was outside having a cigarette and she came out and mentioned being a Friend of Bill's [a popular euphemism used to identify recovering alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous]," recalls the singer. "I was like, 'Really!?!' So we would literally talk about it offset all day, every day. It was a month worth of recovery, talking about what we've been through and what this journey's about. It was just awesome."
"Everyone on that show made me feel so loved and supported," McLean says. "It felt like a family, from stage production to wigs to wardrobe to makeup to the cast to Mama Ru to [choreographer Jamal Sims] to everybody. I looked forward to going to work every day. They kept me on track."
VH1/World of Wonder
Getting into drag each week to create Poppy Love, McLean's stage persona, caused the singer to consider cosmetic surgery.
"Look, I have no shame in saying this: I went and got lipo on my neck," McLean tells PEOPLE.
It started when Raven — RuPaul's Emmy-winning makeup artist — approached McLean on set one day and suggested he try taping, a common trick used by queens where they tape their eyebrows and neck up under their wig to tighten sagging skin.
"Genetically in my family, everybody has extra skin around our neck: my mom, my grandmother, my grandfather, my uncle, my aunt, everybody. And for years, I was growing a beard to hide it because I was very insecure. But the day we shot that episode, I got to see what I looked like with a jawline and Ru told me how beautiful I looked and I got so emotional. It really struck me."
From there, McLean mentioned it to wife Rochelle who suggested the procedure. "She found me an amazing doctor," he says. "I look 10 years younger ... I just feel like a new human. And I'm so thankful for the show for giving me that little ounce of confidence to do something for myself that makes me feel so good. Without the show, I never would have done it. I would have just kept growing out a long beard and would have always been insecure about it. But now I can say for the first time, I love my profile."
McLean also revamped his diet and exercise routine.
"I started working out five days a week, and then mixing it with healthy eating — literally grain-free, gluten-free, and sugar-free foods," McLean tells PEOPLE. "It's the sinfully most boring diet you've ever done, but I see the results and I feel freaking fantastic."
Being on tour over the summer with the Backstreet Boys helped, too. "We were back on the road in the hottest summer we've had across the country," he says. "The first two months of this tour were outdoor venues, so we're looking at temperatures of 95 degrees and up with 90% humidity. That mixed with stress, not sleeping a lot — yeah, you're going to burn a lot of calories."
He's now down to 140 lbs., from roughly 175 lbs. "I am in literally the best shape of my life," McLean boasts. "I've definitely leaned out and now it's time to put on size. But yeah, it's all just mind over matter."
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McLean will find out on Friday if he wins RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race.
"Fingers are crossed," he says. "I'm a little freaked out because Backstreet are actually working while the show is airing, so I'm trying to just have my phone off. I have too many friends who watch the show, I don't want to get a text message with the results or go on social media and see them. I just need to shut everybody out, and then get home and watch it with my family and my daughters (Lyric, 5, and Elliott, 9). I hope to God that nobody spills the beans."
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But no matter what happens, he tells PEOPLE he already feels like a winner.
"Whether it's a win or a loss, it's been a f—ing hell of a ride," McLean reveals. "I can say that I love myself today because of what I learned from this show. I'm finally loving the body that I'm in. So everything will happen exactly how it's supposed to happen. I have got no regrets."
As for Poppy Love, McLean says he's ready to bring her back to life anytime. "I would do it again tomorrow," he says. "I kept my boobs and my butt, it's in my office. So I'm ready to go to DragCon. I just got to shave again and I'll be there."
The season 2 finale of RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race airs Friday (8 p.m. ET) on VH1.