Justin Bieber: Bad Boy

There's a fine line between having more fun than any teenager alive and completely melting down. Justin Bieber seems completely determined to find it

March 13, 2014 12:00 AM ET
Justin Bieber
Justin Bieber on the cover of Rolling Stone.

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.

Justin Bieber's Wild Decline: A Timeline

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."

Face the Music: See Rock Stars' Mug Shots

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.

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