Justin Bieber's God, Girls and Boatloads of Swag

How the star went from Canadian YouTube oddity to the biggest teen idol in the world

March 3, 2011
Justin Bieber on the cover of Rolling Stone
Justin Bieber on the cover of Rolling Stone
Terry Richardson

Today, I'm the luckiest girl in the world. I'm flying to Atlanta to interview my pop-culture crush, Justin Bieber. He's only 16, it's true, but half of womankind is in love with him, like Kim Kardashian (who wanted to spend Valentine's Day with a life-size poster of him), Rihanna (who has tweeted about his six-pack) and Katy Perry (who once said, "I would tap that. Yummy"). To the Beliebers, Justin is the most adorable, talented, sensual kid in the world. I've watched his videos at least a dozen times each, I own two of his three albums and I have him on my Twitter feed (though I've never tried to get him to retweet my name on my birthday, or asked him to send me a virtual kiss, or bought a lock of his hair on eBay for my locket).

It's going to be a great day – Justin's even supposed to take me ice-skating! – but he's an hour late, and I'm still waiting around for him at 10 a.m. Then, I notice a black Range Rover idling across the street – the Biebermobile, the one he got after he got his driver's license last year. He beeps the horn, and I scurry over, flinging open the door.

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That's where the soundtrack to this romantic interlude screeches to a halt. The female fantasy about Bieber has a lot to do with wanting him to be your first real boyfriend – or, for older women, with the way that he hearkens back to the time when you had your first boyfriend. But as soon as I see Bieber, I realize that I have deeply confused fantasy with reality. The 122-pound, roughly five-and-a-half-foot-tall person in the driver's seat of this enormous Range Rover is a child – a self-assured one, who may be used to the sound of screaming fans in the bleachers, but still a child, who, as he should, lives in his own circumscribed world, uninterested in anyone's fantasies except for his own. "Yo, sorry for being late," he says. "Traffic." He yawns. "It's so early. People are going to work, I guess. Like, work? What's that?"

Bieber swishes his car through the high-rise canyons of downtown Atlanta, keeping one hand on the steering wheel. "We're going to IHOP, right?" he asks his bodyguard, who looms in the back seat. "I get the crepes at IHOP," he says later. "You know, 'Say you like crepes!' 'I will not say it!' 'Say you like them!' 'Are those those little pancakes? I love those.' 'Oh, then just say you like the pancakes . . .' 'No!'" Bieber gives a self-satisfied grin, announcing with a flourish, "Talladega Nights."

As is often the case with a 16-year-old boy, there's a stereo on in his car played at an ear-splitting volume. There are more moments of quoting lines from movies. There's a discussion of why he's wearing Band-Aids on his fingers: "I dunno," he says. "I'm not hurt or anything, I just like Band-Aids."

Suddenly, Bieber starts fiddling around with something in his teeth, and like a kitten throwing up a hairball, suddenly spits forth some sort of thin piece of plastic. He's been wearing Invisaligns, a kind of invisible braces, for the past year. "My teeth hurt," he says. "They were pointed inwards a little bit, so they had to bring them out, but when they did that, it made a small space in my teeth, and now they have to push that in," he says. He sulks a little, then sticks them back in. And I have to say it's pretty adorable the way he does that. "Ow."


Even with the braces, Bieber is America's coolest kid, the one who has dominated every medium in the past year as a direct result of his sweet voice, slick moves and superhuman ability to make panties wet. He's conquering everything in his path, from music charts, a book and a 3D movie, Never Say Never, to every last corner of the Internet, with more views on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube than there are people living in midsize American cities. Everywhere he goes, there's a melee: girls trampled underfoot before a concert in Sydney, a Long Island mall overwhelmed and a near-riot in a New Zealand airport. "There's a frenzy going on about Justin, and the frenzy is that he's hot," says L.A. Reid, the head of Bieber's label, Island Def Jam. "The girls just love him. They think he's their boyfriend, that there's a shot for them. Justin sold them a dream, and they are buying it hook, line and sinker."

Bieber fever has reached the point where he can't do concerts anymore in venues without seats. "Otherwise, you've got a mob pushing, and even if it's little girls, they're crawling on top of each other with their arms and elbows, and getting injured," says Kenny Hamilton, Bieber's bodyguard. Bieber doesn't want his fans getting hurt, but he doesn't spend much time thinking about the reasons behind the frenzy, the answer to why so many girls are desperate to bestow their virginity upon him. "I really don't know why they're acting that way," says Bieber, disengaging his braces again, but this time, he doesn't spit them out – he just leaves them rumbling around in his mouth. "And you know what? I don't think about it. My attitude is, why ask questions when things are going so well? Ain't no questions that should be asked in this situation!" He nods a little, laughing, and then shrugs. "They love me, and that's it."

That's the way Bieber talks, jauntily and a little suave, with a bit of Ebonics – similar to most cool white boys in America, even if he's really from Canada. "I'll never be an American citizen," he says, and adds, half-jokingly, "You guys are evil. Canada's the best country in the world." When pressed on the reasons for Canada's supremacy, he points to everything from traveling American college students who put Canadian flags on their backpacks to diffuse any potential tension, to health care. "We go to the doctor, and we don't need to worry about paying him, but here, your whole life, you're broke because of medical bills," says Bieber. "My bodyguard's baby was premature, and now he has to pay for it. In Canada, if your baby's premature, he stays in the hospital as long as he needs to, and then you go home."

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That's right, Bieber truly does have a sympathetic and emotional side, but that doesn't mean that he sits around mooning over girls the way that he does on his records, where he's always either talking about being in love, or wondering why his love broke up with him, or about the "first dance" he's going to have with you, one where he promises "to be gentle," because he knows "we gotta do it slowly." In real life, Bieber is a die-hard hip-hop fan. In his Range Rover, he plays records by his pal Lil Twist, Lil Wayne and Soulja Boy, in particular his song about hopping out of bed to turn on his "swag," because he's taking a "look in the mirror" to say "what's up, yeah, I'm getting money, oh."

"Swag" is Bieber's favorite word, and he punctuates hundreds of sentences with it today. He points to the front of his oversize black T-shirt, which features Mickey Mouse. "See, Mickey's got a chain on here, so that's why I put mine on too," he says. "Swag." The chains, too, are "swag," of course, loaded down with a dog tag and a cross made of black diamonds, which swing this way and that, low on his chest as he makes his way around town. "That's right, I wear black diamonds instead of regular ones," he says, nodding his head a little, "because I'm not flashy, just flossssy."

At the IHOP, Bieber slips into a booth, hardly looking around to see if he's recognized. "See, it's 11 a.m. now, so there's old people in the IHOP," he says. "Come here after four, it's a different story, but now all the kids are in school. All these people are, like, grandmothers. If you had moms in here . . . it would be bad. The moms are the worst." He gets the crepes, Nutella ones with bananas, and strawberries on top, and then recites about 10 more Will Ferrell jokes, including the one from The Other Guys about a tuna eating a lion, and another about ordering a "half-caf' in Kicking and Screaming. He talks about what he wants to do today: He needs to stop by his studio, and maybe buy a toiletry bag, because he never had one, and now he's got all this adult stuff to carry, like deodorant, shampoo and conditioner, and then he's got to take off for L.A., where he's hoping to hang out with a friend, a music producer, who just got his driver's license too, and they might try out a Ferrari. He might be moving to L.A. after his next tour, but he doesn't like it there much – in L.A., his defenses go up, because he can't walk around anywhere and is always getting trailed by the paparazzi. "I hate paparazzi," he says. "They're stalkers with a camera. If someone's following you, that's automatically a crime, but if they have a camera, it's OK? I don't agree with that at all." There's one thing I didn't hear in his to-do list, though. What about our ice-skating date? "What, someone said we were going to ice-skate?" he says, raising an eyebrow to communicate just how corny he thinks that idea is.

When the check arrives, I try to pay, but he throws down a card. "I have a credit card," he starts boasting, but then thinks better of it. "Well, it's a bank card, which is kind of like a credit card. After all, this card does have credit, and credit means that you don't have to carry money . . ."

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