By Michelle Tauber
November 20, 2000 12:00 PM

Teen crushes die hard. Although it has been a decade since Jonathan Knight’s face first graced pillowcases, T-shirts and bedroom walls as one-fifth of the boy band New Kids on the Block, Knight, 31, is still a heartthrob in demand. “Recently there were two 29-year-old girls from Spain in my driveway screaming my name,” he recalls incredulously. “Just today there were some girls in a car with New Jersey license plates.”

In fact, fan antics are one reason Knight and his fellow New Kids (brother Jordan, Donnie Wahlberg, Danny Wood and Joey McIntyre) called it quits. “Sometimes, back then, it got real scary,” he says. “Especially at airports—the most I got were some scratches, but those crowds could get out of control.” Finally, after their Face the Music tour wrapped in 1994, Knight wanted out. “I felt that we had done it long enough,” he says. “I was the first to jump ship. The others were angry at first, but they understood.”

With brother Jordan, Knight ultimately found refuge in rural Essex, Mass., on a 20-acre estate that includes a 14-bedroom house and a stable. (Jordan has since relocated to Milton, Mass.) Yet it wasn’t until 1996, when he launched his career as a real estate developer, that he found professional independence. Working to buy, sell and renovate houses and condos, “I can finally stand on my own two feet,” he says. Although Knight typically keeps mum about his ex-teen-idol status, “sometimes when we’re at a closing the lawyer or client will realize who he is,” says Jim Cullity, 34, one of Knight’s two partners in a Boston real estate firm. “They’ll ask for his autograph or posters, and Jon will always do it.”

In recent months Knight has also been collaborating with architects to design houses. It is an interest he developed growing up in Dorchester, Mass., the son of Marlene, 60, a former social worker, and Allan, 63, an Episcopal priest (the two divorced in 1984). “I was always doodling house sketches,” says Knight, one of six siblings.

Eventually, of course, Knight’s architectural fantasies gave way to pursuit of his musical abilities, which he honed by singing in his father’s church choir. In 1984 he and Jordan joined a vocal group being recruited by producer Maurice Starr, and Knight soon found himself touring the world—and inciting preteen hysteria wherever he went. He describes his years on the block as “more fun than unfun,” but admits he also battled frequent panic attacks while touring. “We performed in front of 30,000 people every night,” he recalls, “and I had lots of anxiety attacks. Those attacks had a big impact on my determining to leave the entertainment industry.”

In the years since, Knight has remained resolutely out of the limelight, even as Jordan, now 30, has continued to record and perform as a solo artist. (Wahlberg, now 31, is an actor who appeared in The Sixth Sense; Wood, 31, is in music production; and McIntyre, 27, is also pursuing a solo singing career.) Knight insists that he doesn’t miss his former fame. During the New Kids heyday, “my life was so materialistic,” he says. “Other people handled everything for me.” Notes father Allan: “He’s told me that when he used to sing, he wasn’t that happy. His life was hectic and crazy.” Donna Wright, a talent manager for the Backstreet Boys who has known Knight since 1985, says that these days “he’s a lot calmer and more focused. He’s still the same person, but he’s much happier.”

The now-grown Kid, who is single and looking to relocate to Boston (“I want to be around people, not crickets”), says he wouldn’t rule out a future reunion with his former singing partners “for old times’ sake.” And he maintains a keen sense of humor about his boy-band past. “Sometimes, when the two of us are working in a house, I’ll put on one of his New Kids CDs and blast it,” confesses Cullity. “He just laughs along with the words.” Of course, Cullity notes, “he’ll do something later to get back at me.”

Michelle Tauber

Phyllis Karas in Essex