About a year ago, Nick Jonas hit a dead end. The Jonas Brothers' days as purity-ring-rocking boy-band kings were long over, and the sibling trio had canceled a planned reunion tour and album in the face of low demand. "There were a couple of months of sitting around and doing nothing," says the singer, 22. "Then I woke up one morning and I thought, 'This is not my life. I'm going to go work that much harder.'" His relaunch as a solo artist worked: Jonas' ultracatchy single "Jealous" is a Top 10 smash, he's dating former Miss Universe Olivia Culpo, and his half-naked photo shoots have turned him into a grown-up sex symbol. "It's really bizarre, to be honest," says Jonas. "I've never had a song like 'Jealous.' It's pretty flattering."
You recently Instagrammed a photo of yourself wearing a zebra mask at Taylor Swift's birthday party. Care to explain what was up with that?
Oh, I think that was just the tequila talking. That was a fun night. Taylor threw a really good party. And I was pretty pumped about hanging out with Jay Z and Beyoncé. Talk about relationship goals!
Speaking of Beyoncé, does it make you jealous that she had a song called "Jealous" a year before you released yours?
Well, I've realized that there are a lot of songs about jealousy. I don't think I can take ownership of the word. And I love Beyoncé, so I'd say it's OK.
The photo shoot you did last year where you were in your underwear, grabbing your crotch, pretty much single-handedly jump-started your solo career. Did you know it was going to be such a big deal when you took the photos?
I had no idea. It just kind of happened, and now I have a lot of unexpected new fans. It was pretty interesting to watch it all unfold and travel in the way it did. It's resurfacing at the moment, as another male artist [Justin Bieber] has done a photo shoot similar to it. It's one of those things where I'm getting sick of looking at myself like that.
Between those photos, your role as a gay martial artist on the TV show Kingdom and your performances at gay clubs, you've become a new gay icon. How do you feel about that?
I don't know if I'd necessarily call myself a gay icon. But my goal in the last year was to expand and grow as a person and an artist, and embracing my gay fans was a priority. Some of my gay friends have thanked me for that, and that's a really good feeling.
Were you worried about backlash from your old fans?
Of course. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little fearful. But you have to be willing to say, "I know I'm pushing myself, and if not everybody comes with me, that's OK." I'm just thankful that a lot of them did.
When you look back at your years as a tween idol in the Jonas Brothers, are those fond memories or do they make you cringe?
It's a good balance of both. It was a lot of fun — I got to perform at the White House five or six times, and I went to spring training with the Dodgers, which was a highlight of my entire life. But there are also things that are embarrassing, like looking back at your middle-school yearbook. Especially the emphasis on our relationships. That can mess with your head. We had a pretty huge female fan base, so we had to make a concerted effort to keep things private and say we didn't have girlfriends. I feel bad about it now. I probably hurt some people.
Your older brother Joe revealed last year that he smoked weed for the first time with Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato when you were all teenagers. Do you have any stories about getting high with your fellow Disney stars?
Uh, I never smoked weed with any of my fellow Disney stars. I smoked weed elsewhere [laughs]. But I was actually way more guarded back then. I wasn't partying too hard at 15, which is probably for the best. I've loosened up quite a bit since then. My Disney years feel like a long, long time ago.
Do you think you'll ever reunite with the Jonas Brothers?
I don't know. My life has changed so much in 12 months that I can't predict what tomorrow is going to bring, you know? It's hard to imagine saying "never." But for this moment in time that I'm in right now, I don't see that happening.
What's the biggest difference between your life now and what it was like being famous the first time around?
I think part of the beauty of being a pop phenomenon is that you're going 1,000 miles per hour, and it's all happening – and that's also the hard part about it. It's very easy to get used to certain things going at that speed, with that frenzy behind it. But it's not necessarily the foundation for the best, longest-lasting career. This time around, I'm trying to set up a foundation so that I can do what I love for the rest of my life. I see my career as not just music, but as hopefully an entertainer on all mediums, and someone who can have real influence and make great art.
Who are your biggest role models in that regard?
Elvis, for sure. He was one of the first ones to do acting and singing at the same time, and he's obviously an icon. On top of that, I think that Justin Timberlake has done a good job of not only transitioning from where he started, but also balancing acting and singing.
Do you listen to much new music? What have you been loving lately?
The new D'Angelo album is my favorite. Specifically the song "Betray My Heart." It's amazing to hear someone with so much soul be that creative with melody.
It's interesting that you mention D'Angelo. He went into a decade-long tailspin after showing off his toned abs in the "Untitled" video. Can you identify with that?
I definitely understand the pressure you can feel in that position, and how it can complicate your mental state. It makes things strange when you reach for one more beer or you want a cheeseburger, and you start thinking how it's going to affect your body. But I'm diabetic, so I have to be health-conscious regardless.
You're about to open for Iggy Azalea on tour. Have you ever thought about crossing over to rap?
You know, I've been known to drop a spoken-word bit into a song from time to time. But not straight-up rap. I don't know that I have that gift [laughs].