You might know Adam Levine Or his band, Maroon 5, singers of the catchiest white-people music of our time. Or maybe you’ve seen him on The Voice, where he is the unrepentantly bro-y coach with the groomed stubble. Maybe you even own some music—chances seem good, since people have downloaded more Maroon 5 songs than songs by Justin Timberlake or Jay Z. Chances are also good that you find him strangely uncool. Because, well, there’s just something about him, and he knows it
*Adam Levine wrote this headline. See what we mean about being self-aware?
“Okay. Let’s get into this: What are the characteristics of a douchebag?” says Adam Levine, pushing aside the remains of his egg-white omelet. We’re sitting at Blu Jam, a diner near where he lives in the nondescript Los Angeles suburbs. We’ve been discussing his role inBegin Again, the new movie musical in which he plays a character kinda like Adam Levine: a talented, ambitious indie musician who, after achieving mainstream success, starts acting a little bit like a, well…you know. “Let’s define this,” says Levine, turning on that twinkly-eyed smile, the one that has brought many a groupie to her knees. At 35, Levine’s face is still boyish, the biceps peeking out of his red Hawaiian shirt formidably toned. Later someone will post a sneaky cell-phone photo of this exact moment on Twitter, and a fan will comment:“Damnnn.”
“A douchebag is a really specific thing,” he says. “Okay?”
The waiter comes over.
“We’re talking about douchebags,” Levine tells him.
“Oh, okay,” the waiter says. “That’s a long conversation.”
“No shit!” Levine says. “I just said the same thing.”
Adam Levine is one of the biggest pop stars in the country, if not the world. Along with his band, Maroon 5, he’s responsible for some of the most ubiquitous earworms of the past decade, songs like “This Love” and “Moves Like Jagger,” one of which you’re probably humming right now just by virtue of having read the words. His enthusiastic coaching of aspiring singers on The Voice has made Levine a household name. He has his own microphone-shaped fragrance and a clothing line at Kmart selling faster than you can say “Coachella-inspired,” and he has deployed his considerable personality to sell acne medication, smartphones, and of course, his own music. In 2012, 5 million people downloaded Maroon 5’s “Payphone,” a fact that is especially impressive when you consider most of them probably don’t even know what a pay phone is.
“Douchebag,” Adam Levine says. “What is a douchebag?” Well. The thing is, there are a number of people who might say a douchebag is Adam Levine. Have said it, in fact. There it is, right in a BuzzFeed headline: “Adam Levine Is the Definition of ’Hot Douche.’ ” One could argue that on the Internet, everyone is being called a douchebag by someone. But perhaps more so than it is for any other celebrity, the word douchebag and its variants are applied to Adam Levine in an almost proprietary way. (“Lord of the Douche,” one blog calls him; another refers to him as “a ridiculous douchenozzle.”) Last year, when People magazine named him the Sexiest Man Alive, even the website Jezebel, which had in the past creatively avoided the D-word by dubbing him “the human equivalent of testing positive for chlamydia,” called it “a stunning victory for douchebags everywhere.”
Polo Sweater: Salvatore Ferragamo. Pants: Gucci. Belt: Brunello Cucinelli. Shoes: Johnston & Murphy. Watch: Rolex. Golf Glove: G/Fore.
So far, in my experience, Levine has been perfectly pleasant. Delightful, even. He is quick and witty and unfailingly polite. But there are arguments to be made: He put a grand piano in his bedroom. He rose to fame on a song in which he basically describes fingering his ex-girlfriend. He appeared on Lindsay Lohan’s Sex List. He once told a reporter yoga was good for “fuuuuck-ing,” while thrusting his hips around on a private jet. He makes the kind of music, catchy but deeply uncool, that people hate themselves for singing along to. Not long after our interview, he will dye his hair Eminem blond and tweet a picture of it, making a face that is unironically Blue Steel.
“Would it be really easy to assume that I was a douchebag?” he says. “Definitely. One hundred percent. But that doesn’t mean that I am.” He thinks for a minute. “Or maybe I am, I don’t know.”
He takes a long sip of green juice. “Okay,” he says. “So I’m gonna get really intricately self-reflective right now and ask myself the hard questions, to find out, once and for all, definitively, whether or not I’m a douchebag.”
Before he can embark on this soul-searching, the hostess approaches us. “I’m so sorry?” she says. “But I just wanted to let you know, there is a bunch of paparazzi outside?”
“Really?” Levine says, sounding genuinely surprised. Earlier, he had extolled the virtues of living in the Valley. “No one ever follows me,” he’d said as we drove in his black Ferrari through a landscape of foot-massage parlors and nail salons. “Because, truthfully, it’s not the most desirable place for a lot of people to go.”
Attention is not something Levine shirks. (“I love attention” is one of the quotes on BuzzFeed’s “15 Quotes to Remind You That Adam Levine Is Still a Douche.”) But he prefers it to be on his terms. “Every part of my being is allergic to walking out of a place and seeing them,” he says of the paparazzi. Then he cheers up. “It’s fun if you look at it like a spy movie,” he says. ” ’We’re trapped in here! How do we get out?’ ”
He picks up his phone. “Hey, bro,” he says to his assistant, Shawn. “So there’s like 7,000 paparazzi outside. Maybe two of you guys can roll over, and one of you can grab the Ferrari, and then we can just split? Thanks, bro.” He clicks off, and a few minutes later, Shawn, a gentle lion of a man with a Jesus ponytail, has pulled up outside and hustled us into his Dodge Magnum.
“Shawn, are you experiencing inordinate amounts of pain?” Levine asks as we pull out of the parking lot. Levine recently became engaged, and over the past few days, in preparation for his wedding, he, Shawn, and some of his other guy friends have been doing P90X-style workouts together.
“I’m a little sore,” says Shawn. “I feel like I’m already buffer. I think three days is enough.”
Levine laughs. “You gotta start your own workout program and call it ’Three Days Is Enough.’ ” He swivels his head as we pass a strip mall. “Oh, I guess the hearing-aid store went out of business,” he says. “That’s a shame.”
“We should get that space and open a store,” says Shawn.
“We should totally open a store,” says Levine with conviction. “What kind of store?”
“Just random shit. Like a mix between like a liquor store and like a pharmacy and like a…a pizzeria. We’d have tacos.”
“We would have weed, tacos, and some clothes, and some golf stuff. We’d call it Weed and Golf,” Levine says.
“And Tacos,” adds Shawn.
“I like tacos,” Levine says happily as we pull up to the house, a big white wedding cake of a compound whose past occupants include Charlie Sheen and Denise Richards. It’s a rental—Levine and his bros are only living in it until contractors complete work on a place for him and his fiancée, supermodel Behati Prinsloo. “These are kind of the last days of the frat house,” he says, waxing nostalgic about the costume parties, and the toga party, and the gigantic pirate party, after which they kept finding swords and eye patches and gold coins at the bottom of the pool for weeks. He grabs a coconut water from the fridge and gingerly eases his body onto a floral-upholstered bench in the breakfast nook. The house came fully furnished by its owner, a Famous TV Personality who favors the English country style and anything with inspirational wisdom printed on it. Levine’s only contribution to the decor is a plaque above the sink, a gift from his former Voice colleague CeeLo Green, sentimentally inscribed THE ONLY REASON I WOULD KICK YOU OUT OF BED IS TO FUCK YOU ON THE FLOOR.
A cleaning lady brushes by with a bucket. “You know what the greatest thing about what’s happened to me is?” Levine says. “I don’t have to do my own laundry. I’d always think to myself, I can’t wait for the time when I don’t have to do laundry anymore.
To be clear: Nothing just “happened” to Adam Levine. Maintaining his level of stadium-filling, heart-palpitating, cash-money-making stardom for a dozen years is not something that justhappens. In fact, people who act like fame and fortune just found them are kind of a pet peeve of his. “’Oh yeah, this just happened, man, I didn’t try at all,’ ” he says mockingly. “It’s total nonsense.”
Levine is talented. “He sounds Autotuned even when he isn’t,” says his guitarist, James Valentine. But becoming a mega pop star at a time when that isn’t even supposed to be possible takes work.
“I’ve worked hard,” he says, “but I’ve also had a lot of wonderful things happen to me. I haven’t been dealt a hard hand.” This, Levine reckons, is probably his Original Douche Sin: “I’m not an easy guy to root for.”
Consider the insanely easy big break of his first band, which Levine and his friends formed as teenagers in Brentwood, the wealthy Beverly Hills-ish enclave where he went to school. “It’s actually—it’s ridiculous,” says Mickey Madden, Maroon 5’s bassist, about the discovery of the band that was then called Kara’s Flowers. He describes a scene that sounds straight out ofBeverly Hills, 90210: “We were playing at a house party in Malibu. I guess we were freshmen or sophomores in high school. And this producer was like literally walking his dog and heard us, and he came in and watched the show.” The next thing they knew, they were on the actual90210, performing at the Peach Pit and getting excused early from class so they could go into the studio with the guy who produced Green Day. But their album flopped. “We were shitty,” says Levine. “We were like a shitty version of Weezer, you know, trying to be alternative radio.”
Still, he felt, the band was destined for success. It’s not like he believes in “The Secret or all that bullshit, which is total bullshit,” he says, but “energetically, I always felt really positive, like good things were going to happen.” All his band had to figure out was what kind of band they were going to be. “It’s funny to listen to their recordings from back then,” says Valentine, who joined the band in 2001, around the time they changed their name to Maroon 5. “Adam was trying to sing like Eddie Vedder, which is funny, because Adam is not a baritone. Then they went through a Green Day sort of punk phase. Then they went way out and were into a Britpop period. And then they had a weird left turn into like jam-band stuff, like Phish and Dave Matthews Band.” Then Levine discovered Stevie Wonder and had a kind of revelation. Like Stevie, he has a high-pitched register, a voice that, he found, was best suited to bouncy, Motown-inflected pop.
When Maroon 5 debuted their new, funky, Stevie-inspired sound, their fans and friends in what Valentine calls “cool bands” were horrified. Not only was the music vaguely embarrassing in the way it always is when a skinny white guy imitates Michael Jackson; it was the kind of music you could imagine being played in a rock block with Britney Spears, not on KROQ. It sounded, suspiciously, like they were trying to be successful.
Which they were. “I wanted to become a successful musician,” Levine says now. “It wasn’t like now, when kids are like, ’I want to be a famous slut. Or whatever I can possibly be famous for.’ I wanted to be a famous musician.”
It’s hard to remember, but this was in a time when being a slacker was something to aspire to. Saying you wanted to be successful was like announcing that you loved hair metal or shopping at Structure. Sure, lots of people did, but it wasn’t cool. “That’s the ’90s in a nutshell,” says Levine. “Oh, you can’t, like, try. ’Oh, no, I could never pursue mass worldwide success! No, that wouldn’t be cool.’ ”
Between the irresistible pop hooks, Levine’s boy-band good looks, and the borderline-filthy lyrics, Maroon 5’s first album went over with the Top 40-consuming public like Fifty Shades of Grey at an administrative-assistants convention.
When the album went triple platinum, Levine pretty much reacted the way anyone who has spent twenty-five years dreaming of being a rock star might. He moved into the Chateau Marmont, where rumor had it he personally auditioned every celebutante crotch flashed in the mid-aughts: Lohan, Jessica Simpson, Paris Hilton, and sundry other blondes. “Maybe,” he told an interviewer about why he slept with so many women, “the reason I was promiscuous is that I love them so much.”
“Um, all right,” says Levine when presented with this evidence pointing toward douchehood. “All of a sudden, I had money in my bank account. I hadn’t had a break in a long time. And I went a little fucking nuts. You know? And good,” he adds defensively. “I deserved to go a little bit nuts. And I had the time of my life.” Fair enough. But dude: I love women?
“I didn’t say it like that,” he protests. “I didn’t say it like Fabio.”
He flops back and props a pillow under his head. “Men are not as sophisticated as women,” he goes on. “They’re not as mature as women. They’re not as connected with their emotions as women. There’s a very Neanderthal quality that still exists in a lot of men. There’s the carnal shit you can’t deny. And if you’re in the public eye, to me, it’s very boring to say what you have to say and be media trained to the extent that you don’t ever reveal any truth. There was a time in my life when I lived probably a bit more on the primal level. And it was amazing.”
Ever since these youthful indiscretions, Levine has been doing what feels like a long walk of shame. “That was kind of the foundation of all the negative shit I still get,” he posits. “I was out there having fun, you know. I didn’t give a shit, and I got burned for it.” He goes to the fridge, opens another bottle of coconut water, and chugs it. “People change; people grow up, get more self-aware and in tune with all this shit.”
And his recent birthday, he says, made him more in tune with all this shit. “Being 35, as a dude, is basically the time in your life where you say, ’Am I gonna be a kid for twenty more years? Or am I gonna be a grown-up?’ ” he says. “It’s almost like you think to yourself, God, you know, I don’t want to be a 50-year-old dude trolling around a club in L.A.”
When it comes to his fiancée, Behati Prinsloo, Levine is clearly besotted. “She’s the coolest person in the world,” he says. But it is also true that “B,” as he calls her, is the third Victoria’s Secret model he has dated in five years, another data point that lends credence to the image of him as what the Los Angeles Times calls “a sexy creep.”
At mention of “the model thing,” as he puts it, Levine’s hackles are raised. “I don’t date what the person does,” he says. “I date the fucking person. You know what I mean? I could have been a zitty teenager and walked into a Tower Records, and we would have talked about Pearl Jam, and we would have fallen in love when we were 15. And that’s when you know. It’s like, oh, my God, game over.”
And if he had to date “the entire Victoria’s Secret catalog,” as his Voice co-star Carson Daly put it, to find her? “So what?” Levine says, unscrewing another coconut water.
“Preference should never be looked down upon,” he opines. “Unless it’s based on something really shitty. I’m not saying I have a preference, but like, I want to date someone… Listen, there are a lot of women in this country, in many countries, who date men for their money. Okay? That’s despicable. Right? That’s not what we’re talking about here. Whatever does it for you, man. I don’t like feet. You know what I mean? But some people do. Some people have fucking foot fetishes. And it’s weird to me. But I don’t have to deal with it, because I don’t have that. You know?”
He stands up. “You know what I’m saying, man,” he says. “It’ll all make sense somehow.”
He heads to the bathroom to process all the coconut waters, leaving me to ponder these deep questions alone. Back at the diner, he’d come up with three indicators of douchiness. A lack of self-awareness. “That’s big,” he said. Levine is definitely self-aware. Arrogance. “I’m not arrogant,” he protested. “I’m cocky. It’s different. Cocky is playful.” The third was insecurity. “Or masking deep insecurity with too much security,” he said. Arguably, posing naked on the cover of a Russian magazine with his last Victoria’s Secret model girlfriend could fit the bill. But it doesn’t really. “I’m confident,” he said. “Some people don’t like confidence. They resentconfidence.” This is true, and it may be the main reason Levine is so often slapped with the douchebag label. Modern celebrities are supposed to be hiding cellulite and driving Priuses, not driving flamboyant Ferraris and dating models and exposing extremely enviable, well-toned abs. Even though all those things, like weed and tacos, are objectively awesome. It’s notcool.
“He’s very defiant in doing a lot of the things that make him happy,” says Valentine. “Like, ’I want to live the life I want to and I am not going to feel any guilt about it.’ And other people don’t really want to root for a guy like that.”
Just as, back in the ’90s, when Levine violated the rules of budding rock stardom by acknowledging his ambition, he has since broken the Just Like Us vow of celebrity: Never act like you are having too much fun. “Every day,” he’d said to me, “every single day, at some point, I think to myself, this is so great. It’s so much fun.”
Now Levine returns from the bathroom. “You know what the gist of this article is?” he says. “Your opening line can be: ’You don’t have to like me, but I’d prefer it if you did.’ That’s kind of how I feel. I’m not the easiest person to love right off the bat, you know. If I knew everyone in the world, they would love me. Every single last fucking one of them.”
A morning session of yoga at the Mercer hotel has loosened up his P90X’ed body and left Levine limber enough to be able to give a small wave to the Maroon 5 fans clustered outside the red carpet at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Begin Again. “Ow,” he moans a little, under their deafening screeches.
In the film, Levine plays Dave, a struggling singer-songwriter who becomes an overnight success. At first, says the director, John Carney, “it felt a bit stunty” to cast Levine in the role. But he says Levine was actually pretty good at making the character, who cheats on his indie-singer girlfriend, played by Keira Knightley, and ultimately chooses the wide world of rock stardom over their small life together, seem sympathetic. “He wasn’t totally black-and-white, you know, and a lot of that is due to Adam,” says Carney. “You see him being tempted by these things he comes across, and you understand why it’s appealing. Even as you sort of want to strangle him.”
Levine skips the screening—he’s already seen the movie (“I was surprised at how not-sucky I was,” he says)—and instead has a meeting with his managers about doing more film work. Then, at the afterparty at Tribeca Grill, he and Behati Prinsloo are wrapped around each other in a banquette, giggling, when Levine’s publicist interrupts. Bill de Blasio, the newly elected mayor of New York City, wants to meet him. Levine untangles himself and turns on his twinkliest smile. “You were great,” the mayor tells him. “You really inhabited the role.” Then the mayor puts on a stern look and mock scolds him over the douche sins of his character. “I’m still kind of pissed off at you, to be honest,” he says, laughing. “What a jerk you are!”
Levine keeps twinkling, but now his eyes have narrowed ever so slightly. After all, his character just wanted to be successful. What’s so bad about that?