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Adam Levine: All the right moves

On paper, the Maroon 5 frontman-turned-”Voice” coach is kind of hard to like: He’s a cocky rock star who dates a lingerie model and lives in a bachelor pad with suede floors. But on TV, he’s funny, charming, and (dare we say it?) sweet. Okay, fine, Adam, we like you. We really like you

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That was the original idea behind NBC’s hit singing competition The Voice. Nestled in their Dr. Evil chairs, the coaches couldn’t see you performing. So if you were a bald girl (last season had two of those), you could still be a pop star. And if you were a fox (last season had more than two of those), you could feel good about something other than being hot. The philosophy behind The Voice (which NBC adapted from a Dutch program) is simple: It’s raw talent, not looks, that matters. So…why can’t one Voice coach stop posing naked for the cameras?

Adam Levine is more than happy to answer that question. Sitting on the balcony of his sleek Hollywood Hills house, wearing ’80s-style sunglasses and a woolly cardigan, the 32-year-old L.A. native explains, ”I just feel comfortable naked.” His most recent nude photos were done out of the goodness of his heart: One was a cancer-awareness ad; the other, the cover of Russian Vogue, was shot with his girlfriend, Victoria’s Secret model Anne Vyalitsyna. (Apparently, she feels comfortable naked too. For Christmas she gave Levine the gigantic nude photo of herself that now hangs by his bed.) Besides, adds the singer, ”the biggest thing I’ve realized is that image plays into everything. And that’s true whether you’re Ke$ha or Bob Dylan.”

It’s certainly true if you’re Adam Levine. As The Voice enters its second season, his own image has changed quite a bit. Last year, most people knew him as the motorcycle-riding, supermodel-dating, boxer-shorts-baring singer of the Grammy-winning band Maroon 5. But after one season of coaching on the hit reality show, he’s been transformed into America’s most likable douche bag. (And before you protest, that’s a term he jokingly uses about himself…which somehow only makes him more likable.) True, he still delivers the occasional frat-boy comment — ”I thought you were a chick,” he told a high-voiced guy last season, ”but sadly you have a penis” — but he also has shown a genuinely sweet commitment to his team members, including winner Javier Colon. ”I told Stevie Nicks I wasn’t going to cry on national television,” a tearful Levine said after Colon’s finale duet with the Fleetwood Mac singer.

It’s that combination of hard yoga body and soft, tender feelings (along with a sharp ear for melody) that has made Levine the breakout star of The Voice. (The show, which averaged 13.7 million viewers last season and just lured a staggering 37.6 million with its Feb. 5 post-Super Bowl premiere, is the struggling network’s highest-rated entertainment series.) ”He’s the leading man, this handsome, mainstream, young, sexy talent — and he’s not afraid to take his shirt off,” gushes NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt. ”A little controversy isn’t a bad thing, especially when you’re building a network.”

For Levine, The Voice has been his best opportunity to show the world he’s more than a cocky rock star. ”Singers don’t get the chance to talk very often,” he says, petting his golden retriever, Frankie (whose paw print is tattooed on Levine’s shoulder), and gazing at the Hollywood sign in the distance. ”I like that I’m not perceived as just a bimbo. I get to use my brain on the show.”

You know the dream that 13-year-old boys have, the one where they get to play in a rock band and date a lingerie model? Well, Adam Levine feels pretty awesome about making it a reality. Hanging out at Record Plant studios in Los Angeles, recording Maroon 5’s as-yet-untitled album (due out in June), he’s wearing his finest Harley-Davidson T-shirt, sitting behind multiple rows of Moët bottles, and watching the L.A. Clippers play the Utah Jazz on four giant TV screens at once. ”Could we get some more TVs in here?” he jokes.

Nearby, the rapper Wiz Khalifa is rolling a joint, picking from the massive cookie jar full of weed that he’s brought along for ”inspiration,” and passing it around to the gathered songwriters, producers, and assistants as the room fills up with smoke. He’s here to do a guest spot on ”Pay Phone,” a soaring pop song from Maroon 5’s new album, and he gets through only a few freestyled lines before Levine cries out, ”I’m loving this!”

This is the life Levine’s wanted for as long as he can remember. Raised in a well-to-do family (his dad owns a boutique clothing chain called M. Fredric), he attended the posh Brentwood School, alma mater of Jonah Hill and Fred Savage. He signed his first major record deal with Reprise for his band Kara’s Flowers, which featured many future members of Maroon 5, when he was still in high school. In some ways, it seems like he’s been frozen in time at that age. ”I’m not an adult,” Levine admits. ”I just wanted to spend my whole life fighting to make sure that I could stay a kid as long as possible.” He still owns an extensive collection of superhero underwear, though lately, he says, ”I feel like an a–hole wearing them,” so he mostly lets his girlfriend model them for him. And whenever he’s in his house alone, he feels like he’s waiting for his parents to come home (though the maroon suede walls and floors suggest that it is not his mother’s bachelor pad). Levine still hangs out with the friends he grew up with, from his roommate, writer-producer Gene Hong, who’s helping him develop a pilot for NBC about karaoke, to his personal assistant Shawn Tellez, who confesses that their social circle is ”kinda like Entourage.”

When Maroon 5 got their big break with 2002’s multiplatinum-selling Songs About Jane, guitarist James Valentine says it felt like their fame was predestined. ”[Before], we would be pulling change out of the couch to go get Taco Bell, and Adam still had that ego, like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna make it.”’ When they hit it big and won multiple Grammys, says Valentine, ”the rest of the world was just catching up with the way he was acting.”

Not everyone in Maroon 5 wanted Levine to join The Voice. Valentine recalls, ”It was like, ‘Is the band totally jumping the shark?”’ But their last album, 2010’s Hands All Over, sold just 142,000 copies in its first week (their previous album’s first-week sales were three times that amount). So when offered the gig, Levine jumped. ”Our parents would watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and the next day they would be the biggest band in the world,” he says, eyes still glued to the wall of TVs. ”We’ve never been closer to that than we are now. The world has these shows that can launch careers overnight. The experience of listening to an album is almost dead. Now it’s all about the broadcast.” (Cut to ”Moves Like Jagger,” which Maroon 5 premiered with Levine’s fellow coach Christina Aguilera on The Voice, becoming one of the best-selling digital singles of all time.)

If that sounds cynical or uncool, Levine doesn’t care. He believes that today’s bands are too averse to ambition. ”I have a very classic idea of what a rock star is, and that’s always what I’ve wanted to be,” he explains. ”I’m such a cliché. I mean look at me, I’m the f—ing guy in the band with a Sanskrit tattoo!” But Levine is genuinely excited about mentoring singers. So far this season, he’s shown a willingness to fight Aguilera over every last pick, even when she gets mean. (During the premiere, she accused him of ”trying to be Justin Timberlake.”) Eventually he’d like to focus on songwriting and producing, because he knows Maroon 5 and The Voice won’t be around forever. ”I’m almost 33 years old,” he says. ”I’m not gonna be able to do this at 40. This is it. This is the time.”

For now he just wants to put out another great pop record, which serves as a reminder of why he’s on The Voice in the first place. Growing up, he says, ”I wanted to be a musician. It wasn’t about being famous.” So maybe image isn’t everything to him after all. Does that mean he’s through with posing naked? ”Oh, of course I’ll keep posing naked,” he says, grinning. ”You’ve gotta do it while you’re still young.”