Bieber may not have access to his money until he's 18, but one would imagine that he has gobs of it. He said he doesn't think about money much, though. "I don't love money, because once you start loving money, you've got a big house and nice cars and just an empty heart, and that's the truth, I'm not just saying that," he says, and wow, does he look cute when he says the word "heart."
Bieber considers himself somewhat "street," because he was born into a poor, broken family. His mom, Pattie Mallette, a tiny woman (at least a few inches shorter than Bieber) with a pixie face and enormous blue eyes, had a horror story of a childhood: She was sexually abused as a child and left home at 15. "I was messed up on drugs and alcohol," says Mallette. "At 17, I went into the hospital for trying to commit suicide." She called on a higher power: "I decided to call out and say, 'God, if you're real, if you've got a better way, show me,'" she says. "And He did. He gave me a reason to live."
Mallette turned her life around, learning Web design and joining an evangelical church, the kind with emphasis on the power of prayer, semi-acoustic modern Christian rock and lots of talk about Jesus. Within a couple of years, though, she became pregnant with Justin, out of wedlock. She couldn't find a full-time job, so she took a job at Zellers, a Walmart-like chain store. Bieber's dad, Jeremy, a ripped young fighter who competed in a UFC-like Muay Thai league, was in and out of the picture. "My dad would take me to training with him, and I'd spar and kick the bags," says Bieber. "He was really good. He never lost."
Soon, Mallette was forced to move into a public-housing complex, into a basement-level apartment. "That place was really dirty," says Bieber. "We had mousetraps everywhere, because there were mouses – uh, mice – in the house. I didn't have a real bed. I slept on a blue pullout couch in my room. We didn't have anything in the fridge, ever, except maybe lunch meat for school, and Kraft macaroni and cheese."
Bieber didn't have a lot of friends in the building, but Mallette's young friends always dropped by in the evenings, sometimes bringing instruments. Mallette fiddled around on the piano and knew a few chords on the guitar. "I'm not a musician, but music was a big part of my life, because my friends played," says Mallette. "At home, I'd start jamming with friends, and Justin would grab a djembe. It was a way for both of us to connect with people."
Bieber impressed Mallette's friends by keeping a beat on a kitchen chair when he was a preschooler, and picking up the drums thereafter. He was intensely social at school, and sometimes received detention for talking to friends in class. There wasn't money for music lessons, and in any case, Bieber was more focused on sports, like hockey, soccer and golf. He still sang at home and in church, though, and even started busking on a street corner. When he placed second in a local singing competition in his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, the "Stratford Idol," Mallette uploaded the videos to YouTube, where they attracted tens of thousands of views.
One day, Mallette got a call from Scooter Braun, a Jewish 25-year-old from tony Greenwich, Connecticut, who had made a name for himself in Atlanta throwing hip-hop parties for white kids. Braun had recently quit his marketing job at Jermaine Dupri's So So Def Records – "My dad told me, 'If you work for a man's company and if he disagrees with you, you shut the fuck up and listen to him, but if you know you can do it differently, then leave,' so I left," he says – and he was on the hunt for artists he could develop. He found Bieber's videos accidentally, after clicking on a link to an act that Akon was interested in.
Braun was already working with rapper Asher Roth, who was living on his couch. Braun offered an even better deal to Mallette when he called her. If she agreed to fly Bieber down to Atlanta, and everyone agreed on terms, he'd rent them a town house and get Bieber a deal.
Mallette wasn't sure. "I heard so many horror stories about the music industry," she says. "And when God presented Scooter, I was like, 'Wow, surely you're going to give us a Christian manager.' But when I prayed about Scooter, I had complete peace, so I knew He'd chosen a Jewish manager." Mallette asked to meet his family, to find out what kind of man he was; luckily, his dad was on a layover in Atlanta on his way back to Greenwich after a kite-boarding trip to Brazil, so they were all able to meet up at an airport T.G.I. Friday's. Once Bieber was in, it took only a year and a half to land a deal with Usher and L.A. Reid.
Braun and Bieber are an interesting team, and it's unclear which one motivates the other more – they're both so ambitious, and so hyper, that they seem to look at Justin's fame as a continual baseball game in the ninth inning. Nothing makes them happier than when someone compares Bieber to Michael Jackson, his idol. "Michael is my inspiration, and I want to emulate his career as much as possible," says Bieber. "When he died, I couldn't believe it. It was like, 'Wow, he's gone, I didn't even get to meet him.' I was so sad."
Bieber is focused on not falling into the same traps as Jackson; he's totally against drugs. "Are you curious about cutting off your finger?" he asks, when I ask him if he wants to experiment. "Do you want to know what that feels like? To me, taking drugs is the same type of thing. In the end, all that happens is you get hurt by it."
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