NKOTB’s Jonathan Knight and Pop Star Tiffany Talk Dating, Coming Out and 31-Year Friendship (Exclusive)
By Leena Tailor
It was early May 1988, as 16-year-old pop icon Tiffany sat backstage eating dinner with her bestie at New York’s Westbury Music Fair, when New Kids on the Block walked in. Eyeing up the five-piece, one by one, she thought, “Hot, hot, hot, hot, hot,” and suggested they open for her. “All these hot guys come in and they were talented, sweet and wonderful and I didn’t have an opening act, so it just made sense,” she tells ET. “My manager wasn’t there, so it was the first big call I ever made on my own. I got into a lot of trouble afterwards, but I’ve never regretted it!”
The move had a monumental impact on the Massachusetts quintet, who found crucial exposure to the singer’s young fans, many of whom would become New Kids on the Block’s earliest “Blockheads.” But it was one of those “hot” guys who would have the greatest influence on the teen songstress -- Jonathan Knight, whom she would eventually date, break up with, find out was gay, get accused of outing and through it all, remain close with.
Now, with Tiffany back on the road with Knight as part of New Kids on the Block’s Mixtape Tour, the exes are opening up like never before about being a celebrity couple at the height of their fame, whether Knight’s sexuality impacted their romance and remaining pals three decades since their first encounter.
While Knight’s first impression of Tiffany back then was, “What a sweetheart,” it was three weeks before the two really got talking, with Knight, then 19, admiring the “I Think We’re Alone Now” singer in action one night. “It was like, ‘Wow, here’s somebody who’s our age and successful,’” he recalls. “She had a tour bus, stage, roadies and everything!”
“He was like, ‘Wow, this is really your world. You love all this craziness!’” Tiffany adds. “I think he’s always been torn with that because it’s a lot of people in your space, your life is planned out for you, people are always watching. That was our first proper conversation, about the music industry and my passion for it, then I started hanging with the boys more.”
“I was just so excited to have somebody my age on the road,” she continues. “We shared lots of pepperoni, black olive pizzas! Jon and I became really good friends, then, of course, we became boyfriend and girlfriend.”
In Tiffany, Knight found someone with a rare understanding of the roller coaster ride to fame that New Kids on the Block started experiencing as the tour progressed and their breakout record, Hangin’ Tough, began making waves.
“I just fell in love with her soul,” Knight, 50, says. “She’s such a free spirit, caring and sweet. It was nice to relate to somebody who was in the same boat. We were both experiencing the same things and I had never had anyone besides the guys experience those things with me. She helped ground me and it was a good escape from the rigors of touring.”
Although romance bloomed, it was a difficult time for the pair to be dating, given that New Kids on the Block were exploding into teenage heartthrobs and subsequently discouraged from having girlfriends. As the tour went on, fans started hunting the boys down and ignited a level of “madness” where it was difficult to go out. Tiffany notes that unlike today, where celebrity power couples are popular, they felt they had to hide their romance to remain “accessible” and not break fans’ hearts.
Meanwhile, toward the end of the pair’s roughly two-year romance, Knight was starting to discover his true sexual identity. “In the beginning, it didn’t affect our relationship, but I think as I got older and was able to have more self-realization, that was the hard part towards the end of our relationship,” he reflects. “Coming to terms with that, even though it was a good thing, was difficult. I really felt like I was betraying her, so that was hard and caused a lot of guilt.”
Tiffany, 47, says she never felt the weight of Knight’s internal struggles, but, in hindsight, noticed there was less pressure than she had felt with other guys. “I think that’s just Jon period because he’s so caring,” she says. “But I loved that he wasn’t trying to get into my pants every five minutes. Not that there wasn’t anything there -- we were definitely regular boyfriend and girlfriend -- but I just always thought our friendship was amazing. I guess he had things he was also struggling with, but we’ve really never talked about it.”
Notably, by the time Knight was grappling with his identity, cracks were already forming in the pair’s relationship due to the tour being over and the two trying to maintain long-distance love amid busy careers. Ultimately, it was the increasingly hectic schedule that accompanied New Kids on the Block’s skyrocketing success which led to their split.
“It just got really hard to keep up with a New Kid on the Block!” Tiffany explains. “I got off the road and they were touring around the world. I was a girl with my own money and fame, so I could go, ‘I’ll meet you in Hawaii,’ and pop up anywhere, but the boys were so busy.”
“You start to feel like you’re chasing somebody down and you’re in the way a bit,” she continues. “I ended up doing a third album and got busy with that as he was busy touring, so I noticed we were fizzling out on the boyfriend/girlfriend end, which bummed me out. I didn’t want that to happen.”
Breaking up but remaining friends, Tiffany went on to marry Bulmaro Garica (whom she divorced in 2003, but has a 26-year-old son, Elijah, with). Having lost touch with Knight, it wasn’t until two or three years after their split that she heard about his sexuality. “I found out he was gay through mutual friends,” she says. “For me, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh my gosh, really?’ It was like, ‘Oh, OK.’ I love him, period. He’s a wonderful, caring person and I’m proud to have him in my life. It wasn’t shocking and it wasn’t not shocking. It was just an acceptance and an extension of his life.”
While the news didn’t faze Tiffany, her comments about Knight during a 2011 interview on Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen, unexpectedly blew up, sparking headlines about her “outing Jon.” At that point, Knight was dating now-fiancé Harley Rodriguez, and while he had never hidden his sexuality (which had already been reported by tabloid outlets), he hadn’t addressed his love life publicly, never feeling the need to. Asked by Cohen if she had ever dated anyone famous, Tiffany named Knight and added that he “became gay later.” “I didn’t do it,” she added when Cohen asked if she was responsible for “turning” Knight gay. “I was thinking maybe I did.”
“It had already been on Perez Hilton and magazines, so I was under the impression [everyone knew] he was gay,” Tiffany now reflects. “I just thought it wasn’t a big deal. I felt so bad after, so I immediately texted him, saying, ‘I’m so sorry. I’d never do anything to hurt you or say anything I didn’t think people knew already.’ He texted back, ‘I know you wouldn’t do that, so don’t worry about it!’”
Adds Knight: “The thing I hate the most is that she’s always quoted as the one who ‘outed’ me when in 2010 my ex-boyfriend sold pictures to The National Enquirer for $10,000. So, everybody already knew then!”
In the years since, the two remained pals, but truly reconnected when New Kids on the Block encouraged Knight to ask Tiffany to play with them at a Coney Island gig in 2016. The acts are now back together on the Mixtape Tour, which sees New Kids on the Block perform mixtape-style alongside Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Salt-N-Pepa and Naughty by Nature.
These days, the two teenagers who bonded over pizza and rising showbiz careers on the bus have been replaced by grown friends supporting and wowing each other with how far they’ve come. “He’s been very supportive of my new music,” notes Tiffany, referring to her Pieces of Me album and its latest single, “Beautiful.” “It was great having him on my bus talking about Pieces of Me and just getting reconnected as the businesswoman I am now. I think he was taken aback by the fact that I’m not just the little girl with the big voice anymore. I’m running my own companies, doing my own music, writing, producing and pounding the pavement to get my album noticed. It’s different for him to see me so hands-on because back then I had a very controlling manager and was just learning.”
Indeed, the Tiffany taking on the music industry today is a long way from the teen sweetheart Knight fell in love with three decades ago. Her greatest feat has been finding her voice as a female artist, given how challenging that was a teenager.
“I often felt my manager or the label were making decisions that weren’t the coolest. Sometimes, even the songs I recorded were too mature. Beautiful, but probably making most 15-year-olds go, ‘Huh?’ Finding my voice and sticking up for myself took many years, but after my third album, I learned so much,” continues the singer, who also faced a turbulent home life amid her rise to fame, during which she sought emancipation from her mother who was facing alcoholism struggles. “I grew as a vocalist, but more than anything, I grew as a survivor. I [realized] this is my career and I’m going to have to speak up, even if it’s uncomfortable, and have a vision for myself.”
Tiffany’s drive to remain true to her musical tastes and dreams is evident in her most recent releases, with Pieces of Me showcasing her rock edge and subsequently making fans (and “hopefully” future collaborators) out of idols like Dave Navarro and Dave Grohl.
Getting collaborators to see beyond her pop star image has been a battle. “I would tell people, ‘This is what I want to do,’ then we’d get in the studio and it would be watered down and become a pop song,” explains the musician, who also recently remade her 1987 hit, “I Think We’re Alone Now.” “I’d say, ‘I’ve done that already. I have more to offer.’ I’m into Led Zeppelin, Foo Fighters and Blondie and to find somebody to take that seriously was a long haul until now. People are finding ‘Beautiful,’ retro, a little punk, a little Foo Fighters and that makes me smile because I’m like, ‘Yeah! My favorite things!’ We’re going to keep going in that direction.”
That means spending Mixtape Tour downtime writing new music, then hitting the summer music festival circuit in the U.K., before creating her next album at Wales’ legendary Rockfield Studios, where Queen worked on Bohemian Rhapsody. The busy summer will conclude with a return to the U.S. to launch her 40-date Pieces of Me theater tour.
In the meantime, the Mixtape Tour continues to roll through the East Coast before wrapping in Florida on July 14. The concert features Knight and bandmates Donnie Wahlberg, Danny Wood, Joey McIntyre and brother Jordan Knight in a sweet video thanking Tiffany for helping give them their big break -- and 31 years later, Knight says she’s the same sweet girl. “She’s that same loving, caring person,” he gushes. “Her heart and her ambition is what I love the most. I see her walk through the audience night after night and she’s so gracious, holding everyone’s hands. It’s beautiful.”
And, while this time Tiffany is single on the road -- admitting there’s barely time to grab dinner let alone date -- she has loved getting to know Rodriguez, whom Knight has been with since 2008. “It’s very full circle being back on the road with Jon,” she says. “It’s great to see him happy and Harley’s beautiful. They’re both gorgeous men! I’m glad he’s living his life and being authentic. When I see him on the road, and all the boys now, it just brings a big smile to my face.”