Justin Bieber: Mannish Boy

Justin Bieber is ready to be a grown-up superstar, if only those millions of screaming girls would let him think

Justin Bieber, Mannish Boy: The 2012 Cover Story
Photograph by Mark Seliger
Justin Bieber, Mannish Boy: The 2012 Cover Story
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The Calabasas Country Club is a good place for a celebrity who doesn't want to be seen: exclusive enough to have a guard and a gate, but not sexy enough to be a paparazzi magnet. The initiation fees here run a modest $25,000, as opposed to, say, a more formidable $150,000-plus down the road at Sherwood, where your bigger stars – your Timberlakes, your Pinkett-Smiths, your various Kardashians – like to play. And so, on this windy-hot Tuesday L.A. morning, instead of Britney Spears sunning at the pool, the biggest drama unfolding at Calabasas is whether the two old ladies in visors and cleats in front of the clubhouse will be able to complete their foursome. "Doris can't come," one is saying, "Beverly can't come."

But then, a burst of excitement. A matte-black Range Rover with Georgia plates, screaming into the parking lot blasting Drake at jet-engine volume. The car was a present for its owner's 16th birthday; his initials, J.B., are in studded crystals on the dash. (If you look closely, you can also see the dent in the front fender where he hit a pothole in his girlfriend's driveway.) And thus, with characteristic understatement, der Bieber makes his entrance. "What's up!" he says, his thousand-megawatt smile fully activated. "I'm Justin."

The Evolution of Justin Bieber

Bieber glides his way to the practice range, his entourage trailing behind him. There's his head of security, Moshe Benabou, a former Israeli Defense Force soldier with a handshake like a trash compactor, who probably knows eight different ways to kill you without leaving a mark; Ryan Good, Bieber's creative director and "swagger coach," who's wearing black jeans and high-tops even though it's 90 degrees out and he's on a golf course; and Kenny Hamilton, a radio-DJ-turned-road-manager and all-around caretaker, who accompanies Bieber everywhere and has him saved in his phone as "Nephew."

You might have heard the numbers on Bieber – the 375,000 copies his new album, Believe, has sold, making it the biggest debut of the year; the 25 million followers on Twitter, second only to Lady Gaga; his 45 million Facebook fans, more than Mitt Romney and Barack Obama combined. But did you know it all started with a golf game? Back when he was growing up in Stratford, Ontario, Bieber was a regular at the local municipal course. He'd play almost every day in the summer; he says his handicap was a very respectable seven. And then one day, as he wrote in his 2010 memoir, First Step 2 Forever: My Story, "I wanted to go golfing with my friends . . . but I didn't have any money." So he took his guitar and started busking on the steps of a town theater, hoping to make $20, enough scratch for a round. He came home with $200, as well as a new career.

Five years later, the phenomenon shows no signs of abating. Teenage girls are still camping out in shantytowns for days on end to get a good spot for his concerts; in May, a performance on the roof of the Oslo Opera House incited a riot that injured 49 and had Norwegian police threatening to declare a state of emergency. Any day now you half expect the Gates Foundation to announce that it's given up on malaria and will henceforth focus all its resources on curing Bieber Fever. Even the paper of record, The New York Times, ran a 2,000-word travel story about his tiny hometown, spotlighting his former school Stratford Northwestern, and Scooper's, his favorite ice cream shop.

In the face of all this attention, Bieber lives a life that's designed to maximize his visibility while minimizing his actual exposure. He's rarely outside alone for long, and travels mainly in the blacked-out Range or in his Mercedes Sprinter van, an oversize mobile fun center where he can play PS3 or work on beats while sitting in traffic on the 405, then slide open the doors and roll into his next engagement, running from enclosed space to enclosed space and covering his face like an astronaut who's lost his helmet. "I love what I do," he says. "I love performing, I love being famous. I just don't like the pictures and stuff."

But today is a good day: The sun is shining, the golf balls freshly unpacked, the hordes of Beliebers nowhere in sight. Today Bieber can relax and enjoy himself. Right now he's on the practice range, warming up. He's wearing a Chicago Blackhawks cap ("I'm actually part Indian," he says – "I think Inuit or something? I'm enough percent that in Canada I can get free gas"), a blue short-sleeved shirt and khaki shorts that hang all the way off his butt. Bieber is taller than you'd think – which is not to say tall – and on his upper lip are the tiniest seedlings of a mustache.

Couples That Rock

Out on the course, things start off a little rocky. On the first tee, Bieber hits a bad slice and ends up in the trees. Trying to get himself out, he then hits a supremely unlucky shot that ricochets off a wooden stake and lands back where he started. Moshe starts laughing, until Bieber shoots him an icy look. ("He's very competitive," Kenny says.) By the time he putts it in, he's racked up eight. Ryan asks him what he had, and he thinks for a second. "Seven?"

But on the second hole, he starts to find his groove. He's on the green in two and then two-putts for a par. "Par for JB!" he says, pumping his fist. "Par for JB! Swag!" When he screws up on the next hole and sends the ball screaming past the green, he demands a mulligan, and then hits a beautiful little chip shot that rolls onto the green, kisses the pin and drops into the cup for a birdie. "Swag! Swag! Swag!" he says, hopping up and down, one hand holding up his shorts. "That's what I'm talking about!" Ryan says something under his breath about his first shot, and Bieber scoffs. "Get out of here. I deserve that. That was dope." (Later, when I ask him why he didn't call him on it more, Ryan laughs. "Did you see how happy he was? It would have crushed him.")

Bieber goofs around through a few more holes. He takes a call from someone who is almost certainly Selena Gomez, his girlfriend (he says "I love you" at the end). He shows off a photo Rihanna just posted on Instagram of herself kissing someone in a Justin Bieber mask ("Check it out," he says, excitedly. "That's swaggy, bro"). He plays a few good-natured pranks, bumping Kenny's golf cart and unstrapping a bag of clubs that turns out to be his own. ("I guess I pranked myself," he says with a smile after it tumbles into the fairway.) He seems to be having a really good time – right up until the moment on the fifth hole when Ryan looks up and groans: "How are they here?"

Up on a hill, on the other side of a fence, two paparazzi are snapping pictures with telephoto lenses. Someone at the course must have tipped them off. Instantly, Bieber's mood darkens.

He's had bad luck with photographers lately. A few weeks earlier, he and Gomez were leaving a movie when they got into an altercation with some paparazzi who were blocking their way. Bieber allegedly threw a punch; the investigation is still ongoing. A few days after the golf game, he'll be ticketed for doing 80 on an L.A. freeway while allegedly trying to evade another paparazzi. The poor kid can't even walk into a glass wall – as he's done, twice – without making headlines all over the world. "No one's ever grown up like Justin Bieber," says his manager, Scooter Braun. "Ever, in the history of humanity."

Teen Choice Awards 2012

Moshe hops out of his cart and rushes the photographers, dialing the number for the L.A. sheriff with one hand and gesturing angrily with the other. There's a brief standoff while Bieber finishes the hole and the paps snap away. But then Bieber decides to take matters into his own hands. "Watch," he says. "I'm gonna blast one at them."

"Justin has two sides," says Braun. "On one side he's probably the most mature and aware teenager on the planet. And on the other side he's a little kid – like, literally, a kid." Right now, the kid is pulling out his nine-iron and dropping a ball at his feet. The entourage moves like they're going to stop him (Kenny: "Still an open case, still an open case!"), but no one does. Bieber rears back and launches the ball over the photographers' heads – their best shot of the day, if they weren't too busy ducking – and then hops in his cart and heads back to the clubhouse.

"They're not supposed to be here," he grumbles on the way. "It's superprivate property." Then he spots three more photographers staked out right on the course. He covers his face with his baseball cap and drives blindly for a while, no doubt violating all kinds of PGA rules, then somehow miraculously arrives safely back at the clubhouse. "How'd it go?" a club official asks.

"Um, not too good," Bieber says diplomatically. The guy asks if Bieber's going to play the back nine, and he shakes his head. "We'll probably never play here again," he says under his breath – sounding not so much angry as disappointed. He takes off his glove and starts packing up to leave. Then, out of nowhere, the club's special-events guy appears, holding a little point-and-shoot.

"Hey, Justin?" he says. "Before you go – can we get a picture?"

The next afternoon, Bieber is in Burbank to tape an episode of The Tonight Show. By the time he pulls up around 1:45 p.m. in his Sprinter van, he's almost an hour late. He's wearing a white T-shirt and red heart-shaped 3D glasses, which he got the night before at the premiere for Katy Perry's concert documentary, Part of Me (basically an attempt to recreate the $100-million-worldwide success of Bieber's own documentary, Never Say Never, a ruthlessly uplifting piece of pop-aganda that in terms of heroic myth-creation rivals Triumph of the Will).

Bieber had a late night, but not as late as it could have been. Following the premiere, he headed to the afterparty with Perry, Gomez and Twilight star Robert Pattinson. But when he realized it was at a club, he decided to go home instead. He just turned 18 in March, and even though he partied with Mike Tyson and Kim Kardashian and got a rose-gold Rolex Daytona from his lawyer, he doesn't want to be seen around booze in public. He's been enjoying other perks of adulthood, though: For one thing, he's a homeowner now. He recently bought a seven-bedroom, 10,000-square-foot mansion in Calabasas that used to belong to Eddie Murphy's ex-wife and came complete with a game room, a movie theater and a wine cellar that he can't legally use for three more years. "It's really nice," Bieber says. "Not too big, not too small. Perfect for my first house."

This morning, Bieber woke up around 11, rolled out of bed, squeezed in a quick workout of 25 sit-ups and 50 push-ups, trundled downstairs and ate a bowl of Frosted Flakes, skated for a while on the half-pipe in his backyard, got hot, jumped into the pool, came back inside to take a shower, and then came to the TV studio. Now he's sitting in his dressing room, enjoying a Big Mac and an Oreo McFlurry, and strumming his guitar.

Bieber started playing guitar when he was six. He's left-handed, so he first learned upside-down, like Jimi Hendrix. His dad taught him some, but mostly he learned by ear, which is the same way he figures stuff out today. "Do you know this one?" he says, bending a few strings. "It's 'Sweet Child O' Mine'!" He plays it again, and sure enough, swap out a few notes and make it twice as fast, and he's nailed it.

Justin Bieber's 'Believe' Scores the Year's Best Debut Week

Pretty soon there's a knock at the door; Jay Leno pops in. "What's up, big guy?" he says. "How are you?"

"Hey, man!" says Bieber. "Thank you so much for having me." They visit for a few minutes – Leno says he recently bought a Cadillac like Bieber's ("But you have the automatic – I got the stick"), and the host takes his leave. "Such a nice guy," Bieber says after he's gone. "He does that before every show. Last time, he brought my mom flowers. Letterman doesn't do that."

Bieber was on Letterman a week earlier, and it didn't go well. At one point the host took notice of his new tattoo – the word BELIEVE, on the inside of his left forearm – and teased him about turning his body into the Sistine Chapel. "I'm not going for the whole Sixteenth Chapel look," Bieber said, much to David Letterman's delight. ("I knew what it was," Bieber says this afternoon. "I was making a joke." Braun, however, suspects otherwise: "The poor kid had no clue. I saw his tutor the next day, and I was like, 'Seriously?'")

Soon it's time for Bieber to get ready. His hairdresser, Vanessa, makes him strip off his shirt and sit in a makeup chair while she sprays his pompadour. Meanwhile, his stylist steams his T-shirt and tells him about the gloves he'll be wearing today – very soft, because they're fetish leather. "Fetish leather," Bieber repeats vaguely. He asks who the other guests are, and someone says Mila Kunis. "Mila Kunis is here?" he says, literally hopping out of his chair. Then everyone clears out so he can call his grandmother.

Pretty soon it's time for his performance. Bieber is singing his single "Boyfriend," a Timberlake-y jam designed to bridge the gap between chaste tween-crush object ("I could be your Buzz Lightyear") and swagged-out ladies' man ("Chillin' by the fire while we eatin' fondue"). (Speaking of which: Has he really eaten fondue? "I've had the chocolate kind with, like, strawberries and stuff," he says. "Not the cheese kind. Who eats the cheese kind unless you're old and from Paris?")

Bieber, dressed in some sort of blue-jean-vest/leather-jacket hybrid, performs the song for the squealing studio audience, with Leno and Kunis watching just off-camera. At one point he does a pelvic thrust, and Kunis' jaw actually drops. Afterward, he's lingering in the hallway when one of her handlers walks by carrying the bear from the movie Ted, which she's here to promote. "Is that for me?" Bieber asks excitedly. She says that unfortunately it's the only one – but she can make sure he gets one later if he wants? "Yes, please," he says.

 

When Kunis appears, though, Bieber suddenly slips into suave mode. "Hey, what's up?" he says, going in for the hug. "Did you like the performance?"

"Oh, my gosh, it was so great," she says. He blushes. Then, "Can I ask you a favor?"

"Of course," Bieber says, looking eager. She takes out her phone. "Could you take a picture with my roommate?"

This new album is supposed to solidify Bieber as an adult-size, not-just-tween pop star with adult-size fans. ("I'm not, like, 'over' tweens," Bieber says, in a tone that suggests he's so over tweens.) The goal is a career like Michael Jackson's or Justin Timberlake's – massive child stars who successfully became even huger grown-up ones. But both Jackson and Timberlake were in their early 20s when they released their mature breakthrough albums (Off the Wall and Justified). Right now, women like Kunis still look at the barely legal Bieber the way Bieber just looked at Ted; it's still the preteens who are buying all his tickets and nicknaming his (as he puts it) "genital area." ("It's 'Jerry,'" Bieber says, laughing. "My fans are crazy.")

In the parking lot, a few dozen of the little crazies are amassed for a pre-planned acoustic Bieber bonus performance. But talking to Braun outside his dressing room, Bieber has some reservations. "So I don't know how you expect this to really, like, go down," he says.

"We did it the first time we were here," says Braun. "You'll be out in the parking lot, we'll open the Sprinter van, the kids will stand back, and you'll do a song."

"But I feel like all the kids out there, it's gonna be madness."

"It'll be fine," says Braun. "They listen to you."

Bieber frowns. "They don't, really."

A few minutes later, Bieber is in the van, powwowing with his musical director – a floppy-haired young Canadian named Dan Kanter – while the girls outside elbow to get close. ("The next car we get, we're doing it like the pope," Moshe says. "Bulletproof glass.") Kanter asks him what he wants to sing, and Bieber looks at him like he's crazy. "'Boyfriend,'" he snorts. "What else would I sing? 'Baby'?" "Maybe you should do 'Crazy Train,'" Kanter says. He starts strumming the chords, and Bieber joins in. "Crazeh!" he howls. "That's how it go-o-oes . . . " It sounds pretty great. Kanter switches to Metallica's "Fade to Black," and Bieber starts singing the lead-guitar part – da na na na na na na do do doooo. "I used to fall asleep to that song!" he says. Then he switches to "One," stomping his foot on the floor in time. "Hold my breath as I wait for death!" Kanter cracks up. "I love this kid."

In the end, though, Bieber just does "Boyfriend." The girls sing along to every word.

A couple of days later, Bieber wants to have lunch. "He normally doesn't do lunch interviews," his publicist says, "but he needs to learn now that he's growing up." He's chosen to meet at his favorite spot, a place in Studio City called Sushi Dan.

Bieber chafes at any suggestion that he's still a kid. "Scooter didn't buy me this," he bristles one day when someone mistakes the Sprinter van for a gift from Braun. "I bought this." (The car Braun bought him was a Fisker Karma, a $100,000 hybrid sports car – the one he was doing 80 in when he got pulled over.) It was less than two years ago that Bieber was wearing Invisalign braces and rocking Spider-Man sheets on his tour bus, but he says that since he turned 18 he's starting to feel like a real adult. "Just feeling more responsible, having to do things myself," he says. "I have to sign more things. Before, my mom signed things." It's no big deal, though: "I've been signing my name since I was 13."

According to Braun, Bieber has two must-do phone appointments every week: one with his lawyer, and one with his business manager. It's especially important now that he's 18 and has more control over his money. "The money was always mine," Bieber says. "It was just in these trusts where I couldn't go and spend it all. Now it's still in the trusts, but it's available to take it out if I want it."

So, does that mean someone else has control over it?

"No one has control over it," he says. "It's just, like, a trust."

So theoretically he could take it out and blow it all?

"Theoretically, but, no. Because it's in, like, trusts."

Before long, the sushi arrives. Bieber ordered two different deep-fried rolls, one of which is called the Paparazzi ("Ironic, right?"). "This is the jam, bro," he says as he takes a bite. It's shrimp tempura slathered in some kind of Thousand Island-ish special sauce. "Here, try it," he says, proffering the plate. "So good, right?"

I ask Bieber what else has changed in the past couple of years. "I'm definitely more mature," he says. "I feel like I carry myself in a more manly way. I don't carry myself as a boy." He's been through all the manly rites of passage: He graduated from high school and got his first credit card, and also had his first paternity case (it was later withdrawn; there's a song about it, à la "Billie Jean," on Believe). He says one of the craziest things is that he's now the same age his dad was when he was born. "I could have a child right now," he says. "That's nuts." I ask if it makes him feel old, and he shakes his head. "It makes me feel very young."

A few minutes later, an attractive girl in a tight white dress walks by on her way to the bathroom, and Bieber stares. For a good 10 seconds he totally zones out. "Sorry," he says. "I just lost what I was thinking about."

When it comes to the ladies, Bieber says he's pretty romantic. "I make sure to do the little things," he says. "Like noticing when they get their hair done, or when they change their nail color. Also saying things all the time – like, 'You're very pretty,' 'You're gorgeous,' things like that." I ask if he's ever been in love and he says yes; then I ask how many times, and there's a seven-second pause while he decides how to answer. "Um . . . once?"

In some quarters, there's the worry that Bieber's relationship with Gomez has hurt him among his fan base – not because of who she is (a baby-doll-cute Disney star), but because the fact that he has a girlfriend at all makes him less of a fantasy object.

"Personally, I think that's all a bunch of bullshit," Braun says. "Yes, there's gonna be some girls that if they see him with a girlfriend, it kills the dream – but there are also gonna be girls that see him with a girlfriend, hear about the romantic things he does, and want him even more." As an example, he points to a date Bieber orchestrated last year, when – inspired by the Adam Sandler classic Mr. Deeds – he borrowed an empty Staples Center for the night, arranged a candlelight dinner in the middle of the floor and followed it up with a screening of Titanic on the Jumbotron.

"I have 30-year-old female friends who heard about that and said, 'Justin Bieber is the most romantic dude on the planet,'" Braun says. "'I'm in love with this boy.'"

One evening, Braun, 31, is having a beer in the living room of his $6 million mansion high in the Hollywood Hills, with his infinity pool spreading out over all of L.A. Usher, who, together with Braun, launched Bieber's career, is crashing here for a few days while he's in town, and he's sitting on the couch next to him. Usher has been a mentor to Bieber, a model of how to transition from a teen star to an adult one, but also a reminder that most artists aren't megastars forever.

Both of them understand that this is a pretty crucial moment for Bieber. "I think Justin's competition is himself," Braun says. "I know how bad he wants this and how bad he wants to last, and I know how much it would kill him if he lost it."

Usher has a theory about where Bieber's drive comes from. "I think it's partly being brought up without his father," Usher says. "He's more mature than the average child – or, rather, young man." Bieber's dad split a few months after Justin was born, and although they're on good terms now, Bieber was essentially raised by his mom, and has been the breadwinner in his family since he was barely a teen. It's a relationship Braun is still touchy about. "I can't speak on that," he says flatly. "It's good now. His dad's in his life." Later, when asked about Bieber's many father figures, Braun shakes his head, silently mouths the word "one," and points to himself.

Braun has been managing Bieber since he was 13, and they have a unique relationship. Braun is fiercely protective, but also good about calling him on shit. "Did you ever read that article about Justin being a brat at CSI?" he asks. In 2010, Bieber appeared in an episode of CSI, after which one of the actors gave an interview calling him a brat and telling a story about him locking a producer in a closet. "My team told me everything went great," Braun says, "so I get on the phone to get to the bottom of this. The producer gets on – he's a stuffy dude, and he's like, 'Justin is incredibly unprofessional. He put his hand in a cake, he locked me in the closet . . . ' And I said, 'Let me ask you a question. When he locked you in the closet – did you tell him you were angry?' He goes, 'No. I needed him to work, so I laughed.' And I said, 'So he saw you acknowledge his joke and say it's OK? Then you're more to blame than him. He's a kid – he's waiting for someone to tell him where the limits are.'

"At the end of the day," Braun says, "even in his most selfish moments, you just need to point out that he's being selfish. He's more embarrassed about it than anything. When he's being a prick, he's not being a prick because he's famous. He's being a prick because he's a kid."

Braun says that far from hurrying Bieber to grow up, he encourages him to act his age. Some of his favorite moments are the ones where Bieber forgets he's a superstar and acts instead like an excited little kid. Take last December, when Bieber performed at the White House as part of the annual Christmas concert. Afterward, he says, everyone lined up to greet Obama, approaching him with a respectful handshake: "Thank you, Mr. President." "Pleasure to meet you, Mr. President." Then came Bieber's turn. He stepped up, clasped Obama's hand, and gave him some dap. "What up, my dude!" the not-yet-high-school graduate said to the president of the United States. Obama's rejoinder? "What up, Biebs!"

"That's the stuff I like," Braun says, grinning. "That's playful. That's still a kid."

He takes a sip of his beer. "Of course, I would like him to pull his pants up . . . "

Every once in a while, in keeping with his duties as a professional music star, Justin Bieber participates in the making of music. It doesn't appear to take long – he works in chunks of 45 minutes or so – but it's the part of the process he loves the most.

One afternoon, Bieber is at a studio in West Hollywood on the same lot where Charlie Chaplin filmed Modern Times and Michael Jackson and friends recorded "We Are the World." He's here to do a revised version of his next single, "As Long as You Love Me," for international radio. "It usually has a rapper on it," he explains matter-of-factly, "but a lot of countries don't play rappers, so we have to do a version without." Instead, they're recording vocals for a bridge. One of Bieber's engineers, Josh Gudwin, cues up the music, and Bieber sits there for a few minutes, listening to the vocal guide track and reading the lyrics off a sheet of paper.

When he's ready, he takes his place in the booth. The first line he's supposed to sing is, "I don't need money, I don't need cars." Bieber tries it out a few different ways – emphasizing different notes, ad-libbing lyrics on the fly. His stripped-down falsetto, meanwhile, sounds truly great, with just the right amount of minor-key ache. By take 10, Gudwin thinks he's getting close: "Good, just let me hear the words a little bit more?" On take 11: "Sounds nice!" Take 12: "Ooh! That was filthy." Take 17: "Good!"

Bieber keeps going this way, cobbling the bridge together bit by bit. For the next line ("I don't need to shine if I got your heart"), he does 12 takes. For the one after that ("Beating right here, here with me"), he does 15. On the last line – "Baby, that's all I need" – he tries stretching the last syllable out across 10 melismatic notes, then realizes he's overdoing it and pulls back to a perfect four. After about 30 minutes, he's finished, and some lusty teenager in Lithuania has a new favorite song to request.

Bieber is just about to leave the booth when Josh remembers one more thing. "Oh, hey – can you just get that '18' on 'Actin' Up' real quick?"

He's talking about a song Bieber did with the rapper Asher Roth, another Braun client. There's a line about him being 17 on it, because when he recorded it a few months ago, he was – but now that he's 18, he needs to change it. Bieber spits the first few bars a cappella:

Eighteen years old and I gotta act up
Cuz I'm so, so fly
I'm so fly
And I don't know why
But I know I go so wild
Till the bass goes, oh, my . . .

"Thank you," Josh says into the intercom. "That's all I need." Josh plays the track back, and Bieber come out of the booth and listens to himself for a few seconds. "You like it?" he asks. I tell him I do. "Thank you," he says, beaming.

Braun says Bieber hated fame for a really long time. "He hated not being normal," he says. "He hated being different. We'd get into huge arguments – he would just refuse to admit that he was famous. It's only in the past year that he finally came to terms with the fact that 'This is my life, and it's not normal.'" Bieber is dancing around the studio now, hands in the air. He's rapping along to the kid on the speakers, an 18-year-old at the top of the world:

Bass loud, hands up
I don't really give a fuck
They say I ain't old enough
But I be young and acting up

This story is from the August 2nd, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 1162: August 2, 2012