In September, partiers on New York's gay club circuit were treated to an unexpected sight: Nick Jonas, performing "Jealous," the sexy hit single from his self-titled solo debut (due Nov. 10 on Island) and flashing his abs in a mini-strip tease.
"I love my gay fans!" exclaims the 22-year-old former Jonas Brothers star, weeks after he pulled the stunt at Manhattan clubs Up & Down and BPM. "All my gay friends were thanking me for having gone out there as a heterosexual male. I don't see it that much -- more people should do it."
Oh, how the littlest JoBro has grown. Jonas and his brothers Joe, 25, and Kevin, 27, came up with a golden generation of Disney Channel babies that includes ex-girlfriend Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez, not to mention the whole High School Musical gang. But that age of curly-haired innocence is long gone now.
Nick, Joe and Kevin Jonas in 2008 at the height of their Disney Channel-assisted fame.
"It feels like a different life," says Jonas. "I fell on the Disney Channel two months ago, and it was like a whole new world. It was just like, 'Wow. The journey ahead for all of you...' "
Jonas' journey has taken some turns recently, ones that were impossible to predict back in his tween-heartthrob days. In 2013 the Jonas Brothers split; now, with his self-titled solo debut and "Jealous," which is at No. 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 dated Nov. 15, Jonas has left his teenybopper days behind, transforming into an sultry soul-pop man, part Miguel, part Justin Timberlake. Of course, it helps that Jonas isn't bad to look at: The singer, who's diabetic, has been showing off the buff bod he honed to play a mixed-martial-arts fighter in his gritty new series Kingdom (currently airing on DirecTV). But over lunch at a bistro in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, Jonas -- dressed in a black-and-white flannel shirt and black skinny jeans -- looks more unassuming than the crotch-grabbing, butt-crack-flashing hunk who channeled Mark Wahlberg's iconic Calvin Klein underwear ads in a buzzed-about Flaunt magazine shoot in October.
"I sent the pictures to my parents the day I did the shoot," says the singer, who still looks somewhat boyish in person. "My dad was like, 'You know you got that from me, right?' He was proud more than anything."
Befitting his new studly status, Jonas now has a beauty-queen girlfriend in Olivia Culpo, 22 -- the 2012 Miss USA and Miss Universe -- who appears in the "Jealous" video and inspired the song. "We were at a bar, and this guy kept staring at her, [for] uncomfortably long," explains Jonas. "The next day I went in the studio and started [thinking] about the night before. It was like, 'That's the song we need to write today!' The song wrote itself. It was done within an hour."
Nick and girlfriend Olivia Culpo, a former Miss USA and Miss Universe.
But breaking up the Jonas Brothers -- who sold 4.5 million albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and landed 17 Hot 100 hits before splitting with their longtime label, Disney's Hollywood Records, in 2012 -- was much more complicated. The trio planned a comeback album and tour, but canceled both -- the latter just two days before it was supposed to start in November 2013. "There is a deep rift within the band," their spokesman told People at the time. "There was a big disagreement over their musical direction."
It turns out that Nick prompted the disagreement. "The moment for me came last summer," says Jonas, who had previously ventured from the JoBros in a side project with The Administration on 2010's Who I Am, which hinted at the R&B flavor of his new album. "I had to have a conversation to tell them where my head was at. I felt limited. I just wasn't feeling like we were vibing together anymore, and thought that our relationship as brothers might get complicated if we continued on that path. It was a tough conversation, of course, and it was a couple days of picking up the pieces. But once communication opened up and we started talking, we realized everyone felt the same way."
Now, while Nick is taking off with "Jealous," Kevin will star in the upcoming season of Celebrity Apprentice; Joe has been DJ'ing and hitting the fashion circuit, co-hosting Fashion Rocks Live's 2014 backstage show. Is there any brotherly jealousy of Nick's musical success? "Honestly, I don't know," says Jonas, speaking in measured tones. "I feel like they're excited for me. I've played them the music, and they seem to like it. Any time you transition out of one thing to another, there are moments of complication, but I have respect for them and the way they've supported me, because I know that it's tough."
This isn't the first time he has walked alone. Before the New Jersey-raised family band formed, an 11-year-old Jonas was signed as a solo artist to Sony Music Group by David Massey, who is now president of Jonas' label, Island Records. "The first call that I got after my brothers and I closed that chapter was Massey," recalls Jonas. "It's pretty wild that we're back together again after so much time."
From the very beginning, Massey saw something special in the precocious Jonas, who began singing in Broadway musicals including Les Miserables and Beauty and the Beast at age 6: "He was like a little grown man when he was 11. He was already such an old soul." And Massey has big plans for his artist's future: "I see him being a staple male global superstar like Justin Timberlake or George Michaelwas in the '80s. There haven't been enough of those complete-package superstars on the male side. Nick is a triple threat: He's a real singer, he's a real songwriter and musician, and he's a great actor."
Despite growing up in the spotlight, Jonas has so far not gotten into any real trouble, making his metamorphosis even more startling. No Justin Bieber bad behavior from him -- well, at least not in public. "I've had my drunk nights with people I love who protect me, so there's that," he admits. "Earlier in life I carried this pressure -- a lot of people were affected by my decisions. But I realized that was a really unhealthy way to live because you have to make some bad choices and do some dumb shit to know who you are. So I just said, 'I'm going to live my life and have fun.' "
Which is presumably why Jonas is now more likely to be seen dancing on top of a bar between two male dancers in their underwear than singing sweetly on the Disney Channel. "There has been an effort in all of this next phase to do things I wouldn't have done in the past," he says. "It's the right moment in my life for all this. I feel free."