Late on a Monday night in mid-January, a slightly stoned Justin Bieber leans back on a couch in a north Miami strip club's weed-scented VIP room, casually accepting lap dance after lap dance. He's wearing a backward baseball cap; thick gold chains hang over a T-shirt that he will, inevitably, whip off soon. More than once, Bieber pauses mid-grind to lean over and fist-bump his dad, a hard-eyed 38-year-old who's always up for some family fun. Jeremy Bieber split with Justin's mom when Justin was a toddler, and wasn't always around afterward. But he has, as of late, accepted a place of honor in his superstar son's entourage. The position comes with perks: Jeremy, a tatted-up former carpenter and pro-am mixed-martial-arts fighter, sips a beer while enjoying the overflow from his 19-year-old son's parade of strippers.
Bieber begins whispering in the ear of a newer addition to his life: Chantel Jeffries, a 21-year-old formerly affiliated with Taz's Angels, a "modeling agency" that helps stock Miami clubs with beautiful young women when celebrities are in town. Before hooking up with Bieber, Jeffries was best known for briefly dating Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, as well as Sean Combs' 20-year-old son Justin. Tonight's party spot is the King of Diamonds Gentlemen's Club, a 50,000-square-foot upscale establishment known for improbably big-bottomed dancers – a local alt-weekly called it "America's favorite black strip club." King of Diamonds was the first stop for both Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane when they got out of prison, and Floyd Mayweather reportedly once blew $100,000 here. Bieber was invited here this evening for rapper Lil Scrappy's birthday party, and upon arrival he ordered up three heavy bags full of $75,000 in small bills, helpfully toted by bodyguards. He soon engulfed the small, purple-walled room with a hurricane of cash.
"Justin was definitely doing this for his own fun – like, this is what he does," says Dan Herman, CEO of Scrappy's record label, who witnessed the VIP-room scene – and let Bieber take some expert hits off his G Pen weed vaporizer. "This was some Gatsby-type shit. It was like Wolf of Wall Street." Two days later, after getting a comped rental for a $250,000 Lamborghini, Bieber would be arrested after cops pulled him over in Miami for allegedly drag-racing while intoxicated. His father was accused of helping block off traffic, though a source close to Bieber denies this. Bieber was perplexed by the intrusion of reality on his existence, asking the arresting officer, "Why the fuck are you doing this?"
For everyone else, the arrest wasn't exactly a shock. Bieber was already under investigation for felony vandalism in Los Angeles after allegedly pummeling his next-door neighbor's mansion with eggs – a week before the arrest, deputies came to his door with a search warrant and ended up arresting his roommate, 20-year-old Lil Za, for possession of Oxycodone and molly. (Za, the younger brother of another Bieber pal, Lil Twist, calls himself a rapper, but he has released precisely one song, 2012's "Gangsta Shit.") Before that, Bieber had a remarkably busy couple of years: He abandoned a pet monkey at German customs; painted racist graffiti on a wall; patronized a brothel; mysteriously collapsed backstage at an arena show; vomited onstage; was videoed urinating in a bucket while yelling, for some reason, "Fuck Bill Clinton"; inexplicably wore a gas mask in public; went shirtless through airport security; was photographed biting a stripper's nipple; and allegedly assaulted his own bodyguard and a limo driver during childish tantrums. Two weeks before his trip to Miami, his on-and-off girlfriend Selena Gomez checked into rehab. Tabloids, citing sources close to her, blamed Bieber for essentially corrupting a clean-cut Disney star.
If Justin Bieber were a young rapper or sports star, none of this – the bad behavior, the weed, the possibly enabling dad, even the arrest – would be of much note. But Bieber presented himself to braces-and-training-bra-afflicted Beliebers as a source of inspiration. His professed Christian faith was an overt part of his appeal, even as his team sold him as a messianic figure in his own right. (Unlike the Jonas Brothers, however, he was smart enough never to promise his fans that he'd remain a virgin.) He'd end a good portion of his tweets with a smarmy hashtag: #blessed. Just a couple of months ago, Bieber was on his Believe Tour, flying over the crowd in a pair of angel wings, and pulling an overjoyed fan onstage each night to serenade her with "One Less Lonely Girl."
All idols fall. But it's been less than five years since Bieber's first hit, and his descent from moptop cherub to wanna-be thug seems way too quick: It's as if Michael Jackson had gone straight from "ABC" to skin-bleaching. So far, his core Beliebers – many of them fervent Christians – appear to be the most evidence-averse group this side of climate-change deniers: Show them the nipple-biting picture, and they'll tweet 10 shots of him feeding orphans. The Believe Tour grossed more than $200 million. But then again, his latest self-glorifying documentary, Believe, flopped miserably when it hit theaters in December.
In some ways, Bieber is a test case: What would happen to the first pop superstar of the social-media era, who started his career on YouTube, has 50 million Twitter followers and whose every move could be tracked on a minute-by-minute basis? "He's the only person in humanity who's grown up the way he has – with smartphones and cameras on him 24/7," his manager, Scooter Braun, told The Hollywood Reporter last year.
"Bieber is just an amplified version of what all teens are experiencing," says author Douglas Rushkoff, whose new documentary, Generation Like, examines social media's impact on teen culture. "If he's going to be our stand-in for the rewards of this – he's had the original archetypal Internet career – then he's also going to be the stand-in for the perils."
Those close to Bieber have offered several more-mundane explanations for his apparent descent: Some blame Jeremy, who in recent months seems to have replaced Bieber's manager, Braun, as the male authority figure in Justin's life. Braun saw himself as the Colonel to Bieber's Elvis – a coach, not a BFF. He pushed Bieber to be professional, to work endless days, while repeatedly blaming the singer's escalating bad behavior on his youth. Jeremy increased his role in Justin's life over the past few years, according to a source in Bieber's camp. "His father's not a great influence," says the source. "They're almost not like father and son – it's more like two best friends."
Others, including Justin's uncle, Brad Bieber, blame heartbreak, and say Justin is acting out because of his protracted breakup with Gomez, who started dating him in 2011, when she was 18 and he was just 16. Still others wonder about his repeated choice of C-list rappers and singers as close pals. "Lil Za and Lil Twist are supposed to be artists," says Charlamagne Tha God, a popular hip-hop DJ and TV personality who has relentlessly mocked Bieber. "I mean, if I was Lil Twist, I would've had a mixtape out a long time ago with him and Justin Bieber. But Lil Twist's sole purpose, to me, is to twist up Justin Bieber's weed. When you've got a bunch of guys that are doing nothing, and you're funding everything, that can't lead to nothing but trouble."
Bieber's strip-club trip happened to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and earlier that day, he'd commemorated the occasion with a tweet. "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." Clearly, he was feeling the spirit of the challenged. But beyond that, it's hard to tell what, if anything, was going on in Bieber's head. As the King of Diamonds revelry pressed on, Bieber suddenly seemed pensive, lost in some version of introspection. Another member of his entourage that night, model Carmen Ortega, asked him what was wrong. Bieber told her that he was tired of all the "drama" in his life, tired of feeling like he was under a microscope. Ortega recalls telling him, "Just enjoy the moment." Bieber turned to her and flashed his very white, very practiced smile. "You know what? You're right," he said, and returned to the party.
Bieber's parents had their own problems growing up. Around 1991, 15-year-old Pattie Mallette walked into a party, a cigarette dangling from her fingers, and saw a guy her age named Jeremy Bieber dancing to a 2 Live Crew song: "He had a chiseled body, dreamy eyes and a handsome face," she wrote in her memoir, Nowhere But Up. Mallette grew up in the small city of Stratford, Ontario, where she endured years of sexual abuse from several molesters, including a friend's grandfather. She was born to a 16-year-old mom. Her father abandoned her when she was two, returned to her life when she was nine, and then died suddenly several months later. By the time she was a teenager, she was in a full tailspin of anxiety, depression and rebellion – doing LSD, dealing drugs and eventually attempting suicide. Her mother committed her to a psych ward, where she found Jesus. But Pattie clicked immediately with Jeremy, bonding over their mutual troubles. As teenagers, they went to a few Alcoholics Anonymous meetings together. But it didn't stick. Jeremy and Pattie were both partying hard.
Soon after Pattie got pregnant with Justin when she was 17 years old, she moved into a maternity home, where she fully pledged herself to Christianity. The day Justin was born, Jeremy was in jail for getting in a fight. Though he was smitten with his infant son, he and Pattie fought bitterly. In one blowout, she smashed a beer bottle against his mouth, and he shoved her into a wall and spat on her face. "Jeremy was a jerk when he drank," wrote Mallette, who said that Jeremy's own father was an alcoholic. "Jeremy went to extremes when someone so much as looked at him the wrong way."
Jeremy and Pattie split for good shortly after Justin was born. In the following decade, Pattie pieced together a living for herself and Justin: working a series of low-paying jobs, living in a housing project, collecting food sundries from the local church. Jeremy was a scarce presence in those years – early on, he dabbled in Muay Thai boxing, struggled with drug addiction and did jail time for assault. He went on to have two children with another woman; Mallette said he became a great dad. "He's not the kind of guy to take shit," says one of his current closest friends, Burton Rice, who, with Jeremy, co-owns the MMA clothing line Headrush. "He's a tough guy. He's a street guy. He would always stick his nose and get into it with people and stuff like that. And I guess MMA was a forum for him to just get some of his frustrations out. There was one time, specifically, where a guy was just ragging on him about his son, and he knocked him right out with one punch. I think that was in Toronto, years back."
(Rice, who also knows Justin well, had issues of his own: In 2009, Canadian police raided his family's "bunker-like compound" on a Mohawk reservation outside Montreal. The police charged Rice with "gangsterism," alleging he had ties to a criminal enterprise run by Canadian Hells Angels. Rice has denied the charge. The case is ongoing, but Rice says that throughout his legal problems, Jeremy has been a stalwart friend. "He had [his own] legal problems," says Rice. "He had gotten in trouble and stuff like that. So I think our bond was there for me to talk to him. As far as the Biebers knowing what I've been through, they've stuck by me.")
Justin showed an interest in music from an early age, and he loved to put on shows for church members in his living room. By the time he was 12 years old, Mallette was posting videos of him singing Ne-Yo and Chris Brown covers on YouTube. A following started to build, and in Atlanta, 25-year-old party promoter Braun happened upon Bieber's YouTube channel. "Scooter had a real fatherly way with him," says Bieber's first publicist, Kathryn Frazier. Braun paid for Pattie and Justin to move to Atlanta, where he talked Usher into investing in Bieber. Together, they formed Raymond Braun Media Group, and soon signed the adorable kid to Island Def Jam. Braun saw the instability of Bieber's life and vowed to provide boundaries and insight. "I made a commitment to him when he was 13 that I would never leave him, whether he was singing or not," Braun said in 2012. "So that's family for me. I love the kid to death. I'd take a bullet for him."
In the beginning at least, Bieber was a charming, hardworking kid. "My first impression was that he was totally normal," says Frazier. "A sweet, kind of precocious kid, like a little boy. Good- natured, with a sense of humor. Bright and focused enough."
Braun built a team around Bieber, including an accountant, a business manager, two portfolio managers and lawyers with whom he insisted Bieber speak to weekly about his operations. With Mallette, he set up trusts for Bieber, with a board of advisers that kept his money secured until he turned 18. "It was a tight ship," says Frazier. "There was no swearing around him, dancers weren't allowed to go out and drink. They made a great attempt to keep it familial and tight and safe."
The ambition shared by Bieber and Braun cut both ways in their relationship, bringing them closer together but also presenting challenges. Braun aggressively promoted himself alongside Bieber, doing dozens of interviews with magazines and newspapers, celebrated as "The Brains Behind Bieber." He monetized Biebermania, with deals for fragrances, movies, books,appearances and merchandising. But Braun also had an eye to the future, constantly leveraging Bieber's success to sign other clients. He also used Bieber's profile as currency to begin investing, billing himself and Bieber as the music world's version of the entrepreneurial Ashton Kutcher. In addition, Braun set up a $120 million venture fund.
"They were as tight as could be," says one close member of Bieber's team. "You could tell Scooter was building his business and expanding at the time Justin was exploding. They were pretty much living out of each other's suitcases at the beginning. Then I felt a distance was starting to be created between them." As early as 2010, Bieber was bristling at the demands of fame: He broke down in tears backstage one day, bemoaning his lack of privacy. "If you want the Michael Jackson career," Braun told him, "you have to grasp that you are never going to be normal again."
For Braun, part of the problem was simple: It's hard to be a surrogate father figure when the real father shows up. As Rice sees it, Bieber is becoming less like his mother and more like his father, rebelling and questioning the people around him. "People have to realize that he is a person who can make up his mind about what he wants to do. He has that choice," says Rice. "It was just kind of questioning, 'What's going to happen to me if I spend 16 hours doing interviews or seeing fans and stuff like that? What's going to happen to my mental and physical wellbeing?'"
In 2012, Braun told Rolling Stone that while Bieber was pushing back more and more as he got older, they both had the same goal. "I know how bad he wants this and how bad he wants it to last and I know how much it would kill him if he lost it," Braun said. "So I'm not going to let him fail. I'm going to constantly be the person pushing him because he was the biggest thing in the world, according to everybody."
When it comes to young-male-celebrity misbehavior, there's a fine line between "young Leo DiCaprio" and "King Joffrey with a crossbow." With January's egging incident in Los Angeles (two weeks before his Miami arrest), Bieber seemed to slip into Joffrey territory. Bieber had, for some reason, chosen to live in a sedate gated community otherwise dominated by well-to-do families. For months, Bieber had been terrorizing the neighborhood, driving his Ferrari at deranged speeds on streets packed with little kids. In the spring of 2013, when Bieber's neighbor, businessman Jeff Schwartz, saw the star blazing recklessly through the streets for the umpteenth time, Schwartz had finally had enough.
Schwartz approached Bieber's property as the kid pulled into his driveway. "Hey, you gotta slow down," he told him. Bieber instantly became irate, screaming, "Get the fuck off my property. I'll fucking kill you." He spat in his neighbor's face, and his security guards turned away as if nothing had happened. "He thinks he's invincible," says Suzie Schwartz, Jeff's wife. "He could do whatever the hell he wants to do to himself. But I'm afraid he's going to hurt someone else. He's a punk, and no one has the balls to stand up to him."
Nine months later, in early January, Jeff Schwartz and his 13-year-old daughter heard a pounding sound from outside their house, as if someone were throwing rocks. Schwartz spotted Bieber through his window and told his daughter to call 911. On grainy video from inside the Schwartz home, you can hear the panic in his daughter's voice. "Bieber was probably high," says Suzie. "I think he thought he was funny. It's awful, the way he did it – with such intent. It was not like a little prank that a 10-year-old on Halloween night does, and then gets caught and learns a lesson. He continued to do it when we saw him."
Five days later, 12 deputies arrived with a felony search warrant. Lt. David Thompson says that the long backlog of neighbors' complaints demanded a serious approach. "I tried talking to him. That didn't sink in," Thompson says. "From my standpoint, he's on a downward spiral. I'm going to sleep at night, because I won't say I could've done a search warrant if God forbid he kills someone drunk driving. It's time to smack this kid on the head – you can't keep acting with impunity against the law."
Even as the egg investigation continued in L.A., the Miami police delivered that head smack. But Bieber seemed to have trouble taking the situation seriously – he was filmed swaggering his way through the jailhouse, and on his way out of the courthouse, leapt on a car, Jacko-style, to greet fans. Then his motorcade sped off, driving aimlessly for several hours, tailed by paparazzi. He was released on $2,500 bail; his fans started a prayer circle online, under the hashtag #prayforjustin. "There's certain things he's doing that aren't right," says a source close to Bieber. "But then a lot of [accusations] out there just aren't true. That makes it harder for him to recognize his behavior. It's easy for someone who is acting out to counter claims that their behavior has crossed the lines when they see reporting of stuff that never happened. He feels persecuted and misperceived."
After his night in jail, Bieber fled Miami, heading to the beaches of Panama, with Chantel Jeffries in tow. She coyly tweeted a picture of herself in a bikini, while an affiliated Twitter account – created, it seems, entirely to promote the model – displayed real-time selfies that Jeffries was apparently taking in her hotel room, with hyperlinks to buy the style of bikini she was wearing with Bieber. In short order, her Twitter account had a link to a website, where she had worked out a licensing deal to sell her own brand of eyebrow makeup.
Three authority figures in Bieber's life – his old mentor Usher, his mother and Braun – also flew to Panama. Their first step was to send Jeffries back to Miami. "It wasn't an intervention," says one source close to the Bieber camp. "It was a conversation, reminding him of the people who care about him, and to consider things to do about it. He needs to be evaluating his own behavior. His behavior has crossed the line to not acceptable. What's happened is, going forward, his schedule has been cleared for the foreseeable future so that he can work through his phase."
Whatever its precise goals, the not-an-intervention didn't take. The next week, Bieber and his dad flew from Toronto via a rented private jet to Teterboro Airport outside New York, where they planned to hang out at the Super Bowl. According to a leaked incident report, Jeremy and Justin were so verbally abusive to the flight attendant that she holed up in the cockpit with the pilots. Bieber was smoking huge amounts of pot on the plane, so much that the pilots reported that they had to wear oxygen masks in order to fly. When the jet landed, it was met by drug-sniffing dogs and the DEA. Although the plane was still smoky, no weed had been left behind. U.S. Customs and Border patrol were quick to separate Bieber for questioning because, according to the report, "in past examinations, Bieber had become argumentative and abusive when together with his security team."
Rice sees this scenario as unlikely. "Listen, the last thing Jeremy is is an enabler," he argues. "Jeremy would literally kick the shit out of him if he knew he had this so-called drug problem. He would step in for sure. It wouldn't be an intervention, it would be like, 'What the fuck are you doing?' You know what I mean?"
Bieber had long intended to take 2014 off, which leaves him 10 more wide-open months to get in trouble. (He reportedly may use some of the free time to open a high-end tattoo parlor with his dad.) "The next step for Bieber is to understand that he's in the gutter," says longtime crisis PR consultant Howard Bragman. "And I don't think he gets that."
Bragman sees more than a little bit of arrogance in Bieber, citing an incident at last May's Billboard Awards: When Bieber swaggered onstage in black leather to accept an award, he was booed. Says Bragman, "Instead of saying, 'Boy, there's a lot of talented people here I can learn from,' he said, 'I'm 19 years old. . . . I think I'm doing a pretty good job.' Any 19-year-old who thinks he knows everything is kidding themselves."
Bieber is certainly capable of strikingly peevish behavior, especially surrounding awards shows. When he wasn't nominated for a Grammy in 2013, he set up a special webcast the night of the ceremony and told fans to tune in to that rather than the awards. Instead, they overloaded the servers, and there was no webcast at all.
He still has yet to win a Grammy, and for all of his misbehavior, yearns to be taken seriously as a musician. With guest spots from Lil Wayne and Chance the Rapper, his most recent release, the deliberately under-the-radar iTunes-only album Journals, sounds like a bid for respect, with legit guest stars, edgier production, subtler hooks and his version of confessional lyrics: "Everything I had to do, I did it next to you," he sang on "Alone," a song about the Gomez breakup. "And the memories we made are so incredible/Then our love was interrupted by my schedule." ("Man, those lyrics are incredible!" enthuses that song's co-producer, Dominic Jordan, who met Bieber through Lil Twist. "We wanted this music to be more intimate, more inside of Justin.")
Bieber also upgraded his companions in the hip-hop world, hanging out with Diddy and Rick Ross at one of Diddy's recent parties. Ross, for one, defends him. "A lot of times when I see the media ridiculing him, I think, 'You're fuckin' playin' yourself. All that shit you're writing?'" Ross says. "He's just smoking weed and laughing at all that."
But the hip-hop cred Bieber's longing for may prove elusive. "He's going to end up ruining his brand, because nobody is going to buy the bad-boy image from Justin Bieber," says Charlamagne Tha God. "And hip-hop is never going to accept him! You know when you get a little poodle dog, you teach it to stand on its hind legs like a human? That's what [Diddy and Ross] are doing: 'Yo, look, we got Justin Bieber acting like a thug! We got Justin Bieber acting hood!'"
For Bieber, the good news is that it's not too late to play the redemption card. "He's young," says Charlamagne, "and he can save his career if he's honest, and by being honest he's like, 'Yo, I've been a knucklehead.' You can always go that route – you can always go the 'I've been on drugs' route. We've seen that before!" (A source close to Bieber confirms that in addition to the weed, he's been known to drink the codeine-cough-syrup concoction known as sizzurp.)
The problem is that besides the justice system, no one can exert any power over Justin Bieber. "He's not dependent on the people around him for his fame," said Oliver Luckett, who runs theAudience, a social-media agency that handles campaigns for Pearl Jam and Kid Rock. "I can guarantee that Justin Bieber doesn't give a fuck about his record label. With Michael Jackson, he would've been like, 'What does the label think?' He doesn't need those fucking people. Twitter is going to be his lifeline. He's above the media. He has that direct connection of adrenaline from fans."
For all his bravado, Bieber has shown some signs that he understands the danger he's in. As recently as September, he attended services at Manhattan's hipster-friendly Pentecostal Hillsong Church, tweeting that the pastor's sermon made him weep. On a Saturday night in February, he got in touch with that pastor, Carl Lentz, wondering if he could find a suitable body of water for an immediate born-again baptism. Sadly, all the pools were booked.
This story is from the March 13th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.