Perhaps the shyest teen dream of all time, Jonathan Knight achieved global superstardom as a member of one of the most lucrative and popular teen idol acts ever, New Kids on the Block. The boy band raked in hundreds of millions of dollars by selling out arenas, moving oceans of merchandise, and scoring a string of smashes that included the chart toppers "I'll Be Loving You (Forever)," "Hangin' Tough" and "Step by Step" as well as additional hits like "Please Don't Go Girl" and "You Got It (The Right Stuff)." Thoroughly dominating their pop cultural era, NKOTB mania defined the childhoods of countless young girls, but by the mid-1990s, their moment was over, due in part to an ever-growing backlash. Knight, known as the band's most low-key, reserved member, was in fact struggling with panic attacks, and sought medical treatment as well as a quiet life out of the spotlight as a real estate developer. Happily, he was able to rejoin his bandmates as they reunited for multiple projects, including a stint with Backstreet Boys known as NKOTBSB and a 2013 tour with 98 Degrees and Boyz II Men known as The Package. In fact, Knight showcased his self-confidence by announcing he was gay after his longtime friend and fellow teen star Tiffany accidentally revealed it in 2011. Although his shyness marked him an unlikely superstar, Jonathan Knight made the most of his quiet but crucial role in the juggernaut success of New Kids on the Block.
Born Nov. 29, 1968 in Worcester, MA, Jonathan Rashleigh Knight was the fifth child out of six, which also included his younger brother, Jordan. Although he was incredibly shy and prone to panic attacks, Knight was a talented singer and would find an opportunity to put his talents to use when former schoolmate Donnie Wahlberg tapped his younger brother Jordan to join a new singing group, Nyuk. The burgeoning group came with an impressive pedigree; it was created by Maurice Starr, who had formed the immensely successful boy band New Edition. After losing New Edition in a contract dispute, Starr set out to form a white version, recruiting rapper-singer Donnie Wahlberg, who in turn brought on his younger brother, Mark Wahlberg, Jamie Kelly, Danny Wood and Jordan Knight, who in turn brought in Jonathan. After Mark Wahlberg and Jamie Kelly dropped out due to the punishing rehearsal schedule instigated by Starr, they were replaced by 12-year-old Joey McIntyre, whose entrance into the band proved rocky at first, since he was considerably younger than the others and they resented him for replacing their friends.
Displaying an impressive potential, Nyuk landed a recording contract under one condition: their name was changed to New Kids on the Block, after a rap Wahlberg wrote. Although their 1986 debut album, New Kids on the Block sold poorly, it gave the members the opportunity to begin cutting their professional teeth on the local touring circuit. From the beginning, Starr had an iron grip on the band's direction, writing and producing the majority of their songs and controlling their image, but in the wake of their fizzled debut, members Wahlberg, Wood and Jordan Knight pushed for more creative control. Steering away from straightforward bubblegum pop, 1988's Hangin' Tough featured a harder, R&B-flavored sound and proved to be their breakthrough to global teen pop superstardom. Buoyed by the Top Ten ballad "Please Don't Go Girl," Hangin' Tough went multiplatinum and spun off the No. 3 hit "You Got It (The Right Stuff)," the No. 2 hit "Cover Girl," and a pair of No. 1 hits, "I'll Be Loving You (Forever)" and "Hangin' Tough."
All the stars aligned perfectly for the group, who ignited a white-hot furor among young girls that was reminiscent of Beatlemania and was so intense that it turned their debut album into a multiplatinum success, the band into a cottage industry, and the New Kids themselves into something akin to gods for a certain fanbase, even earning their own Saturday morning cartoon series. Although each member appealed to a different "type," Knight was seen as the sensitive, quiet one who avoided the spotlight, singing lead on only one song, "Happy Birthday." The worldwide pop cultural dominance found NKOTB gracing a staggering amount of tie-in merchandise that helped rake in hundreds of millions and to further spread the screamingly devout army of "Kidiacs" or "Blockheads." As with any act who achieved such massive success, especially those appealing to younger audiences, New Kids on the Block endured a particularly scathing backlash by critics and others who disparaged their packaged nature, their youthful naiveté and their perceived artistic and personal inadequacies.
Another point of contention for many was the perceived cultural appropriation of the white New Kids performing "black" music for a mostly white audience, and despite their obvious performing ability, the group members were frequently dismissed as talentless hacks or simply serving as puppets for Starr, who had himself been an aspiring singer in his youth. Helping to dismiss these charges was the behind-the-scenes artistic growth of several of the members, especially Jordan Knight and Wood, who possessed the ability to play keyboards. Although Starr was reluctant to allow the New Kids to write their own songs without his input, he missed a major opportunity when Jordan Knight and Wood joined forces with aspiring singer Tommy Page to pen the song "I'll Be Your Everything," which Page took to No. 1 in 1990. Nevertheless, the New Kids machine chugged along, turning out the 1989 holiday album Merry, Merry Christmas, which featured the hit charity single "This One's for the Children."
The band's next studio album, 1990's Step by Step, proved a turning point for the New Kids, who showcased more of their songwriting and producing chops, but scored the biggest hit of their careers as well as one of the most popular of the decade with the title track, which hit No. 1 around the world. Although the album only yielded one more Top Ten hit, the No. 7 "Tonight," the album marked the moment where the already supermassive star of the New Kids flashed supernova, with merchandising revenues topping hundreds of millions or more in the early 1990s. In 1991, Wood and Wahlberg displayed impressive creative and business acumen when they helped former New Kid Mark Wahlberg launch his own act, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, who managed to score their own No. 1, "Good Vibrations." As the band hit the peak of its tidal wave, however, they faced the inevitable decline, sparked by a lawsuit alleging the band lip-synched their vocals, which was eventually dropped, although they admitted to using a backing track during some live performances.
Perhaps most damning for the band's success, however, was the fickleness of younger audiences who found "outgrowing" their childhood idols was a necessary part of adolescence, and the impossibility of sustaining a globe-sweeping mania. Tastes and times changed, and the world in which the band released 1994's mostly self-written and self-produced Face the Music was a very different place than that of their debut. Dropping Maurice Starr and their band name in an attempt to start anew, New Kids shortened their name to NKOTB, but neither their new name or sound caught on, and the band broke up shortly thereafter to go their separate ways. Escaping the spotlight completely, Knight seemed happiest living off the public radar and became a real estate developer. After successfully seeking treatment for his panic attacks, however, Knight proved open to the idea of reuniting with his bandmates, and they finally joined forces once again for 2008's The Block, which earned them a hit, "Summertime," and kicked off the second chapter of their career, in which the warmth of nostalgic fans replaced the bitterness of their haters. Settling into a comfortable, lower-wattage stardom, the New Kids continued to perform around the world and made headlines when they joined forces to tour with their spiritual descendants, the Backstreet Boys, as the supergroup NKOTBSB.
Although he had been romantically linked to fellow teen idol Tiffany during his career's heyday, Knight came out publicly as gay in 2011 when Tiffany accidentally revealed the information during an interview. Although she immediately Tweeted an apology, Knight Tweeted in return that her she had done nothing wrong, writing on the band's website, "To all my fans who have expressed concern: I have never been outed by anyone but myself. I did so almost 20 years ago. I never knew that I would have to do it all over again publicly just because I reunited with NKOTB! I have lived my life very openly and have never hidden the fact that I am gay. I love living my life being open and honest, but at this time I choose not to discuss my private life any further! My fellow band members don't discuss their private lives with their loved ones and I don't feel that just because I am gay, I should have to discuss mine!" Along with his brother Jordan, Knight made an appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" (syndicated, 1986-2011), but the duo, along with their New Kids bandmates, made global headlines in January 2013, however, when they announced a tour billed as The Package, which promised to feature the ultimate boy band concert: New Kids on the Block, 90 Degrees and Boyz II Men.
By Jonathan Riggs