"He's got a great ass!" screamed the ripped gay man in front of me. The man was losing his mind, as well you might, because Nick Jonas was standing on the stage of the Up & Down with a strapping black drag queen at his side. The former Disney Channel star had come to the popular Manhattan nightclub to host the first Up & Down Sundays of September. The weekly event is New York's latest party for twinks and the elderly gay vampires who want to fuck them.
A few years ago, gay men never would have expected Jonas to visit, let alone host, a party at a place like Up & Down. After all, he's a former member of the Jonas Brothers, the family boy band remembered for wearing purity rings to symbolize their virginity. He used to go out with Miley Cyrus pre-twerk, when she was still Hannah Montana and dating her was a mark of one's uprightness. But there he was, on the stage of a club that is more flamboyant than a high-end Cheesecake Factory, brandishing his "great ass."
"Have you ever had chocolate nuts?" the drag queen asked Jonas as her decorated eyes filled with lust. "I remember when you were a child. But in your new videos, you're a buff bitch."
She begged him to lift up his shirt and Jonas obeyed. "You can't do this to me, bitch! I'm an old black woman!" the drag queen yelped at the sight of the pop star's happy trail.
This appearance marked the beginning of Jonas's aggressively gay-friendly publicity campaign for his first post-Jonas Brothers album, Nick Jonas, and you might wonder why he bothers with the Up & Down and the drag queen and the ab-baring and all that. Why would the teeny bopper turn to homos to hawk his new record? It could be because his career is in a precarious position. Truth be told, only three stars have had impressive careers after being in a boy band-Justin Timberlake, Michael Jackson, and Bobby Brown-and the latter two aren't exactly role models. Meanwhile, Jonas's brothers haven't been doing so great in the last few years: Joe's first solo album sold an abysmal 18,000 copies in its first week. 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.
He's not exactly subtle about his desire to court the gay community. The day after Jonas hosted Up & Down Sundays, he removed his shirt again at On Air with Ryan Seacrest and tweeted out, "I love my gay fans." Later that week, he exposed his ripped abs at yet another gay club while sharing a stage with Cocky Boys porn star Levi Karter, who had stripped down to his skivvies. All the while, this gay club striptease tour was being pushed by ads on Grindr.
Since then, Jonas has taken his gay-baiting to television, appearing on The Real Housewivesproducer Andy Cohen's Bravo talk show Watch What Happens Live, where he revealed he would-once again-be stripping down on the new DirectTV show Kingdom, a dramatic series about a mixed martial arts gym.
Jonas has described his Kingdom character as an MMA fighter who goes through a crisis "revolving around his sexuality," but when I asked him if this meant he was playing a gay man, he acted coy. "I can't give any spoilers away, but I can say this: My character goes on a journey," he said. "I think it was a really beautiful story that was important to tell." Jonas did, however, confirm he bulked up for the role: "When the show came around, I really had to push myself, and I gained about 15 pounds of muscle."
He has also shown off his new sexy body on the cover of Attitude-a gay mag that specializes in shots of muscular men wearing very little. (I once bought it when I was 12 years old and didn't have access to GayTube.) And a few weeks ago, Jonas practically broke the internet when he posed in his tighty-whiteys and showed off his rock-solid, hairy, and possibly un-photoshopped ass crack in a spread for Flaunt magazine.
Many gay men have expressed happiness for this deluge of masturbation material, but others have taken to social media to question Jonas's motives. "Nick Jonas wants so bad to be part of the gay community," one Tumblr user said, and another posted photos of Jonas stripping followed by a Nicki Minaj GIF that said "…I know what the fuck you're doing."
Dr. Michael D. Dwyer, an assistant professor of Communications at Arcadia University, also knows what the fuck Jonas is doing. In a phone interview with me he compared Jonas's publicity campaign-especially the Flaunt photos-to Marky Mark's relationship to the gay community in the 90s. The former rapper-who's now an actor and producer and goes by Mark Wahlberg-became a gay sex icon when he groped his crotch while wearing nothing but a hat and briefs in a 1992 Calvin Klein ad. (Jonas aped that iconic ad in his recent spread in Flaunt, all the way down to the groin grab.) The sexy ads made Marky Mark a sex object for gay men, and they became an important part of Marky Mark's audience according to Dwyer-but because of the AIDS crisis and the country's homophobia, Marky Mark couldn't directly cater to this segment of his market. At the same time, the rapper also probably couldn't afford to lose the gays. After people accused him of gay bashing and homophobia in 1993, he made a point to sit down with the gay magazine the Advocate for an interview to save face and keep that queer cash coming in.
Of course, Marky Mark was far from the first celebrity gay icon. American gay men have been idolizing female heterosexual stars at least since Judy Garland's suicide attempt in 1950, but their power as consumers only started to get recognized in the 1970s, when disco exploded and many states legalized same-sex dancing, according to Dwyer.
From the get-go, the public associated disco with gay men. At first, music historian Alice Echols notes in her 2010 book Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, gay men mainly championed songs by heterosexual black women, like Donna Summer's "I Feel Love," helping catapult them onto the charts. After all, what gay man hasn't dealt with a homophobic boss and then had to tell himself he will, in Gloria Gaynor's words, survive?
Gay's fandom for disco, however, wasn't as beneficial for male performers, who found themselves in trouble for singing music that homosexuals loved. "The reason why 'disco sucks' was sort of a cultural movement was in large part due to homophobia," Dwyer said. "If you read through the early 80s press of Michael Jackson, prior to Thriller, there was so much concern of him being a disco star and what that meant for his masculinity. His success as a pop star meant disowning, or minimizing, the degree to which he would have gay fans."
Many other boy banders have needed to prove their masculinity after they left their groups behind. Justin Timberlake's first solo video, "Rock Your Body," featured a close-up on his patchy facial hair, as if to say, "Yo, my balls dropped. I'm a man who has sex, and I'm not on Disney anymore." Most of the time, however, this approach has failed. In 1972, Partridge Family star David Cassidy posed nude in Rolling Stone, hoping to transition from teen icon to sex icon, but his adult career never matched the heights of his teen superstardom. (Of course, Cassidy's music was also never as great as Timberlake's 21st-century classic Future Sex/Love Sounds.)
Female pop singers have faced easier transitions into adult stardom. Of the Disney Channel divas from the years when the Jonas Brothers dominated, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and Demi Lovato have all had success as adults. Similarly, while Jackson had to act macho in the 1980s, Madonna's gender and origins in New York nightclubs allowed her to court gay listeners.
Up to Like a Prayer, gay men adored Madonna. But their perception changed, according to Dwyer, when she started behaving like a "colonizer," appropriating the vogue dancing that came from New York City's gay black scene in 90s. This critique expanded when Madonna kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the 2003 VMAs during a period when few genuine lesbians appeared on TV.
"She was too far removed from being at the disco cafeteria and being this sort of grimey New York girl. She's become seen as someone who just sort of capitalizes on [gay culture] for explicitly straight audiences," Dwyer said.
Throughout the Obama era, gay audiences have accused other female pop stars of similar behavior. In a scathing Bitch magazine article called "Raise Your Glass if U R a Firework Who Was Born This Way," feminist writer Lauren Elmore describes how Ke$ha dedicated "We R Who We R" to Tyler Clementi, a gay Rutgers student who killed himself after being bullied. Less than two weeks later, Katy Perry followed her lead, dedicating the music video for "Fireworks," a song about feeling like a plastic bag drifting through the wind, to the It Gets Better Project-an online video series created by gay writer Dan Savage as a way for older LGBT people to tell young homos that their lives would improve as they aged. Perry and Ke$ha's public stances certainly didn't hurt their bottom lines: According to the Billboard charts, "We R Who We R" became Ke$ha's second-biggest single, and "Fireworks" became the third-biggest single of 2011, spending 39 weeks on the charts.
In an email, Jonas's publicity team admitted what was obvious: He too was deliberately seeking the approval of gay men. "Nick's audience has long been diverse and he appreciates and loves all of his fans," they said. "With the roll out of his new album and TV show, it was important to him that he reached and embraced all of his fans and that includes the LGBT community."
At Jonas's birthday party last month at Queen of the Night, an extravagant dinner-theater production in midtown Manhattan, I felt like Jonas and his team were gay-baiting me. I first got an inkling of this when I was conspicuously assigned to a table with two other gay professionals-an Us Weekly staff writer and an employee at MTV. Then I looked around and realized a large portion of the partygoers were gay media professionals. The whole scene felt ingeniously calculated.
When I later confronted Jonas on the phone about how some LGBT people have seen his marketing strategy as exploitative, he went on the defensive. "I think it's really ignorant," he told me. "I think nobody should be wrong to embrace a large part of your audience, whether they're gay, straight, bi. It's all the same at the end of the day. Music is a universal language."
Dwyer views these tactics as part of a larger trend. Media companies are seeking passionate fan bases instead of large fan bases these days, and they know that gays can make for extremely loyal pop music fans. "I mean, 'Leave Britney alone,' right?" Dwyer said.
At the same time, several people I spoke to, including Dwyer, believe Jonas has broken down a huge societal barrier: Although a heterosexual artist like Marky Mark posed in borderline soft-core porn photographs that generations of gay men have jacked off to, Jonas stripped for the gays and then openly declared his support for the LGBT community.
"Jonas is saying all the right things-things that God knows he wouldn't have been allowed to say when he worked for the House of Mouse," gay veteran rock journalist John Norris told me in an email. "I have no reason to doubt he means it, and honestly, credit to him for being a young straight guy who will turn up at a gay club and show some skin, even if it is promo for a record and TV show. Can you imagine Justin Bieber setting foot in a gay club? I actually support Justin more than most people I know, but gay-friendly he ain't."
So far, Jonas's gay appeal seems to have worked. Although his songs haven't become global smashes, his album has hovered in the top five on the iTunes charts all week, and he has sold out several concerts.
He hasn't ridden the zeitgeist Miley-style, but he has formed a dedicated fan base-in other words, his strategy is working exactly as planned. Last week, a line of girls and gay men wrapped around the block before his sold-out show at Gramercy Theatre. During the show, Jonas exhibited all the characteristics of a gay icon in the making. He danced like a male stripper and showed a self-aware sense of humor reminiscent of Liza Minnelli: "I will keep my pants on tonight!" Jonas joked before he removed his jacket during the song "Teacher."
Even more important, his new songs sound incredible. He can be experimental like Frank Ocean, he can croon like Frank Sinatra, he can pop like Britney Spears, and he can make the kind of jams queens like to listen to as they rim assholes. He probably won't become the new Justin Timberlake, but there's a big chance he's our first heterosexual male Gloria Gaynor-and that is kind of revolutionary.