It started with a bulge. In early October 2014, Nick Jonas — out of the shadows of his boy-band past as one-third of the Jonas Brothers — went full Marky Mark: sending his jeans down to his ankles, his shirt up over his head into the stratosphere and his hand directly onto his dick. On the cover of Flaunt magazine, Jonas posed in homage to the iconic Calvin Klein ads featuring Wahlberg, whose allure in the photos was so intoxicating and aesthetically eye-popping that it set a new standard for masculinity in the 1990s. Jonas, barely old enough to buy a beer when his Flaunt spread put fissures in the internet, was invoking sexuality profound enough to melt down a purity ring.
But Jonas’ pronounced junk and rigid abs were not just a physical show-off, but a fine-tuned PR move. Nearly everything the R&B-dipped, media-proclaimed sex machine has done since then has been a meticulous, high-profile effort to strip (quite literally!) his image of anything adolescent and usher him into the next strata of pop stardom: adulthood, where careers for the rare former boy band member are carefully curated to have lasting power.
Jonas’ tight control of his narrative over the past two years has led to the most notable post-boy-band success story since Justin Timberlake. From provocative photo shoots and surgically produced singles to cherry-picked acting roles and minor scandals (which have done more good than bad), the 23-year-old has mastered the art of image, wielding his masculinity as a way to convince fans and media that he is now an adult, and it’s time to take him seriously.
Despite all the artifice of pop music, artists rarely maintain lengthy careers without a foundation of talent. It’s nothing to secure a hit single if the right machine is standing so clearly right behind you. Without the proper training (or a base of talent), it can only place you at the starting line of the marathon. Since releasing his 2004 debut album, Nicholas Jonas (perhaps not the sexiest name for a solo introduction), he’s proved to be vocally adept and capable of working his way across a six-string—save for a live blunder at the 2016 ACMs, where he flubbed a solo and, in a smart shrug-off, tweeted, “So funny. Yes. I screwed up the solo thanks to a huge brain fart.”
When it came to recording his second solo album, 2014’s Nick Jonas, he went safe, trading the Jonas Brothers’ pop-rock palette for R&B-toned inflected mainstream pop. (Older brother Joe Jonas’ solo work had similarly ditched the Brothers’ pop style for a more dance music feel, but to less acclaim.) It’s a comfortable place where many boy band alumni — Timberlake, Zayn Malik, even Jordan Knight — have thrived. Like Malik, who duetted with Kehlani on his breakthrough album Mind of Mine, Jonas tapped “urban” musicians to lend him credibility: Tinashe, for an R-rated remix of his hit “Jealous,” where he drops an F-bomb on the chorus for seemingly no reason other than to prove he’s beyond his Disney days; rapper Angel Haze on album cut “Numb”; and a full gospel choir to back him for a yet another, soul-deluxe rendition of “Jealous.” Even before the LP’s release, he was laying the groundwork, covering Jhene Aiko’s “The Worst” at a Seattle performance in September 2014. (He would later enlist her for a remix of his “Chains.”)
“It was a really important thing for me to step into my soul and R&B influences on this record,” he said during an appearance on BET’s 106 & Park alongside Tinashe in November 2014. “When I was working with my brothers, I didn’t really get to do that as much, but I had the freedom to go in and experiment and see what happens. People like Stevie Wonder and Prince have been some of my biggest influences, even modern stuff like The Weeknd, Frank Ocean, that vibe. Trying to find a sound that was just me.”
While Nick Jonas was maybe less “him” than it was the black culture he borrowed from, it was digestible and relatively inoffensive—branded as “alt-R&B” and generally accepted in mainstream media. But outside the music, eyebrows were raised. Throughout his album’s promo cycle, Jonas used the media and promo appearances to hint that there was more than meets the bulge: that he had awoken sexually, and that he may not be as confined to the far end of the sexual spectrum as fans would believe.
On the surface, Jonas seems pretty boring: He loves to golf and can do a neat trick with his putter; he hates working out (like the rest of us); the one thing he’d change about his first time is the song choice. But buried in each interview, beneath the relatable boring stuff, you’ll find one or two spicy tidbits—surely planted by a media-trained expert to build intrigue. “I’m an adult in all ways,” he once said to Wendy Williams with a wink-nod. “I’ve had sex and drank a lot,” he bluntly told The Daily Beast. Thanks to a conversation started by his newly mature music (and an old one harping on that vanished purity ring), sex is always part of the conversation and he’s smart enough to address it directly.
He knows fans will lap it up: Of the 678 articles that result when you search “Nick Jonas” on Billboard.com, for example, 523 of them were posted since the Jonas Brothers announced their disbandment on October 29, 2013. His love life is always part of the conversation, playing an integral role in shaping his public image. Following his breakup with former Miss USA Olivia Culpo in June 2015, he made headlines for reportedly dating Kate Hudson. The discrepancy in their ages is substantial, if not newsworthy — he’s 23, she’s 37 — and it often affects the tone of the coverage surrounding it. Even if they aren’t “fucking,” as Complex asked him directly in a 2016 cover story (“Kate’s incredible,” he expertly demurred), it casually scrubs any doubt that he’s still the Jesus-loving boy next door who keeps his male chastity belt at the front of the top drawer.
Despite his notably heterosexual dating history (Miley, Selena, Culpo etc.), Jonas’ transition from boy to man very much involves the gay community. In the past, boy bands have very, very rarely had openly gay members during the height of their success, and many (Jonathan Knight, Lance Bass, Ricky Martin) only come out of the closet after their boy band years are far behind them—when it’s “safe.” Twenty-year-old Troye Sivan may be the first openly gay mainstream musician to reach the same heights as his straight peers. There are few examples of openly gay artists scaling the charts; were Jonas to be among them, it would be yet another victory for gay representation in pop music.
But Jonas has never claimed to be gay (or bi, or queer), so why pander to the LGBT community? As a show of tolerance, sure, but also purely for profit. It’s what Jonas has done since pulling the ripcord on the marketing machine for Nick Jonas, a through line that’s carried to his upcoming third album Last Year Was Complicated, releasing June 10. Right before the release of Nick Jonas, he did a brief tour of gay clubs in New York City—a tour he did 95 percent topless. (“When you look at his dim prospects, focusing his efforts to woo an oft-overlooked demographic that is estimated to be less than 3 percent of the population but exerts more than $800 billion in buying power doesn’t seem like such a terrible strategy,” wrote Broadly.) He landed a role as a fighter on DirecTV’s Kingdom, which featured steamy same-sex scenes between him and another man. Then he took a role on FOX’s Scream Queens as Boone, a gay man in love with his frat brother. When asked if he’s ever had a gay encounter, he explained, “I can’t say if I have or haven’t, but if you watch the show you’ll see more of that.”
Jonas has denied accusations of queer-baiting. “It’s not the majority, but a large handful have a negative opinion for whatever reason,” he said, “and I think it’s really quite sad.”
But there is no doubt that queer-baiting is exactly what he’s been doing, and his intent doesn’t hold much significance in a capitalist economy — he’s profiting from it without harm. But the financial gains are only half the picture. Jonas comes off as the nice guy, one of the few straight stars who actively acknowledge the existence of their gay fans. (That he does it as an outspoken Evangelical Christian only highlights his tolerance, the kind that’s often accrued through age.)
Most recently, Jonas appeared alongside singer Demi Lovato (with whom he recently launched the ironically named label Safehouse Records) in “Carpool Karaoke” on The Late Late Show With James Corden. She tells Corden she’s known Jonas for years (she briefly dated his older brother, Joe) and ribs him about having dated Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus. He sits in the back seat, fake-protesting. Corden turns around to ask when he decided to remove that purity ring, which he wore at various parts during his relationships with the two pop stars. “[It was when] I had a real relationship with an adult and I fell in love, actually,” he says. “I fell in love and then I decided it was time to take the ring off.” Whether that gesture was genuine is something only Jonas will ever know.
Steven J. Horowitz is a music journalist based in Los Angeles. He’s contributed to Billboard, VIBE, Rolling Stone, Village Voice, SPIN and more.