How the star went from Canadian YouTube oddity to the biggest teen idol in the world
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.
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."
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 . . ."
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."
After IHOP, Bieber pilots the Range Rover toward his vocal coach's studio, where he does a lot of Dougieing in front of a mirror, as well as some sort of odd dance that makes him look like a Benihana chef. "I'm cooking," he yelps, "Ninja moves, I'm making food!"
The studio is where Bieber is happiest. "Justin really cares about his music, and he just wants people to give it a chance," says Braun. "He wants to earn the respect of what he thinks are his peers, even if they're not because they're older than him." Bieber's coach Jan Smith, a.k.a. "Mama Jan," a no-nonsense blonde with a small dog in tow, appears, waving a hand to call him in, though he stops to play with her dog first. Bieber has a dog, Sammy, that he doesn't see as much as he'd like: "But now, when I show up, he runs to my grandpa and not to me," says Bieber. He then sticks his bottom lip out and makes the cutest pouty face ever seen on a male.
"Come over here, Mr. Danceaholic," says Mama Jan, and Bieber follows her into the recording booth, where he sits at a console. His fingers flying over the console keys, he starts off with some drumbeats, and then layers a Spanish guitar and some high-hats, before jumping into the vocal booth to perform some lyrics that he wrote down on his iPhone. "We're providing him with creative time instead of having writers put it on him," Jan says. "This allows him to be part of his process. Not all artists have that." In the booth: "I got a big hole in my heart, baby," he croons. "I loved you from the start." As soon as the mic is off, he goes, "Swag, swag."
When it's time for vocal training, Bieber takes off his gigantic black diamond tags, then drops for 20 push-ups, to warm up his chest. "When guys start going through puberty, the testosterone kicks in, which is what makes vocal cords thicker, so we've been working on getting Justin's high end back, those real clean high notes," says Jan. "All of a sudden, on his last tour, his voice started to change. He's got a nice tone to his voice now, a good texture, but it doesn't sound like what his fans think he sounds like."
As he starts a series of scales, Jan nods approvingly. "I think he'll get four octaves eventually," says Jan. "He's still young, and he's got a long, lean muscle aperture. Anything past three is just gravy." She turns to him. "You've got 3.2 octaves now."
"You said 3.3 clean yesterday!" he says.
"Well, it's the best shape you've been in for a while," she says.
"I'm going to get more octaves than Usher, swag," says Bieber. "Did you know that Usher held the longest note ever in a Broadway show?"
"Uh, that's Barbra Streisand, actually – she holds the record for the longest note ever recorded," says Jan. "Eighteen seconds, in A Star Is Born."
Bieber snickers a little. "How do you know she didn't punch in?"
"Well," says Jan, "back then, it was analog."
Bieber goes to leave, but then stops in front of the doorjamb, where there's a bunch of lines in pencil, beginning a couple of years ago, and the last one about a week ago. This is the growth of the Bieber: It's OK, maybe three or four inches. He pulls his body up straight. "Am I taller?" he asks, about four or five times, as Jan swipes a pencil over his head.
He whips around to inspect it – a whole half-inch! Could it be? This is amazing!
"Ah, I think there's something going on there," says Jan, trying to make the addition or nonaddition of height less of a big deal. "It's your hair."
The hair of the Biebs is a whole article in itself. It's a pleasing hue, made up of all the colors found in hay, and as luxurious in person as it appears onscreen. The hairdo-ness of it, with the bangs hanging low on his forehead, seems to bother him a little, and one of the members of his team says he's been talking lately about cutting it off. Every five minutes, he shakes it off his forehead, like a wet dog trying to shake off water.
The hair is part of what's attractive about him to women, though – for women, he's somewhere between an adorable baby and the male version of Scarlett Johansson circa 2003, back when she was a bodacious, well-coiffed nymph. Bieber may love sports and rap, but he knows how to turn on the charm when he has to; in fact, when he's late to meet me another time, he appears with a fancy candle, a stuffed animal and a card signed "love, me" (the "o" in "love" is shaped like a heart). "I like all girls," Bieber has said, "I like a girl with a nice smile and who's funny," and "as far as looks, my taste is dark hair. But I don't limit myself. I like girls with blond hair too. I like everything!"
Until recently, there was a great deal of mystery over Bieber's dating status, but the paparazzi caught him kissing Disney TV star Selena Gomez in St. Lucia. Bieber seems to feel weird about having to hide his girlfriend, and it's clear from the few things that he says about Gomez, always with a guilty look as though he knows someone is about to rap on his knuckles, that he is desperately in love with her. "Justin is absolutely girl-crazy," says Braun. "Not that he goes after tons of girls, but if there's a girl that he wants to see and he feels that we're not respecting that, he will make our lives hell to see her." Bieber says that he knows that some people have sex without love, but says that's not for him either. "I don't think you should have sex with anyone unless you love them." When asked if he believes in abstinence until marriage, he looks a bit wary. "I think you should just wait for the person you're . . . in love with."
It's funny, Bieber has seemed younger than his 16 years all afternoon, but when I start asking him questions about his beliefs, even if he's not well-educated ("I hate school" is all he will say on the matter) he transforms into an adult, one with a firm grasp of logic and decisionmaking. He says he doesn't read the newspaper, isn't sure which political party he would support if he could vote ("I'm not sure about the parties, but whatever they have in Korea, that's bad"), and thinks it's possible that the 1969 trip to the moon was a conspiracy, because he saw something about that on the Internet. But he also nods solemnly when I ask if he's for or against the death penalty (jury's out on that one for him), and quickly responds when asked if he believes homosexuality is a sin. "It's everyone's own decision to do that," he says. "It doesn't affect me and shouldn't affect anyone else."
Bieber is a heartfelt Christian, but he's nervous talking about it, and makes sure that I'm a Christian too before he opens up. He says that if he could be one character from the Bible, he would choose Job, because he lost everything and stayed faithful to God. He also believes in angels, and thinks he might have been touched by one once, in the form of a kid at Christian camp who gave him a "really good-smelling" sweater and then disappeared, never to be seen again. "I feel I have an obligation to plant little seeds with my fans," he says. "I'm not going to tell them, 'You need Jesus,' but I will say at the end of my show, 'God loves you.'"
He also says that he's going to heaven. "It says in the Bible that you go to heaven as long as you have God in your heart and ask for forgiveness of your sins," he says, with a smile that could warm the coldest heart.
He's definitely against abortion, too. "I really don't believe in abortion," he says. "I think [an embryo] is a human. It's like killing a baby." Even in the case of rape? "Um," he says. "Well, I think that's just really sad, but everything happens for a reason. I don't know how that would be a reason." He looks confused. "I guess I haven't been in that position, so I wouldn't be able to judge that."
And that's it. Bieber's pretty pro-love: "I don't agree with war either, necessarily," he says. "I think everyone should just get along. I don't understand why people attack. What's the point of killing people –power? If no one cared about power, then no one would have wars. Canada doesn't go around attacking people."
When he's done in the studio, Bieber starts to pilot his Range Rover toward the ESPN Zone, but it's closed, so he decides to go to a Dave and Buster's arcade. "I know where it is and how to get there too, swag," he says. "No one will be there because kids still aren't out of school." Then he affects a cool pose. "I used to freak out at arcades, but now, I'm like, whatever." In the arcade, he walks swiftly over to the pool tables, playing a few games at an advanced-beginner level while an overhead TV plays music videos. John Mayer appears with guitar in hand, playing an acoustic version of "Free Fallin'." "Hey, I know that song!" says Bieber. "That's from Jerry Maguire."
Afterward, Bieber stops by his house to pick up his "swaggy" new toiletry bag from his assistant, for all his new adult creams and gels. Then he starts making his way to L.A., heading to the airport in an SUV with tinted windows. It's weird to be leaving Atlanta; he wants to see Selena, but L.A. represents a lot that he doesn't like – paparazzi, interviews with prying adults, meeting people that want something from him, people projecting their fantasies onto him. "Justin doesn't trust many people anymore," says Braun. He's much less trusting than he used to be, in general. "But it's weird," continues Braun, "because Justin trusts the fans. He feels like they know the real him."
In the car, Bieber talks for a while in a British accent, says that he wants to play Oliver Twist in his next movie, tells us the title of his next album (Believe) and shows off a chargeable case that he's bought for his iPhone. "You need a new BlackBerry," he says, inspecting mine. "Yours has a ball still. The new ones don't have that, and they're better." The British Bieber turns to Kenny. "At pool, she said something about playing with my balls. Quite funny."
Kenny laughs and turns to me, with a look on his face that's only partially friendly: "Hello, I'm Chris Hansen with Dateline NBC, and we're doing a special on older women who like younger boys."
Bieber laughs mildly and then starts fiddling with his two computers, one of which he claims is the only black MacAir in the world. He balances it on his knees, opening it up with the intent of typing something, but when he realizes that I'm seeing his wallpaper, a picture of him and Selena against an orangy sunset, he hurriedly shuts it.
At the airport, Bieber is shuttled through security by a special escort, and into a window seat in first class, with Braun next to him, and the rest of the crew in coach. "I don't mind flying on a regular plane – I don't think I'd want one of my own," he says. "No one can get up out of their seats while we're flying, so it's OK for me." He eats a couple of Twix and an apple, halfheartedly reads a chapter of a book for school, uses the plane's Wi-Fi to iChat, and builds some beats and guitar around the vocals he created in the studio earlier in the day. But once the plane lands at LAX, Kenny calls Braun from coach; the escort who is supposed to meet Bieber just called to tell him that there are paparazzi at the gate. They must have gotten a flight manifest. They are waiting for him.
Normally, the paps wait downstairs, by the arrivals, so the fact that they were right outside, at the plane's gate, freaks Bieber out. He puts on a baseball cap, drawing his blue hoodie over it, and then begins to retreat into his shell. Braun tries making light conversation with him, but his answers start getting shorter, and then, after he grabs his bags and starts walking out, he puts on his sunglasses. He walks as quickly as he can through the airport, with cameras after him, and rumpled businessmen pulling out their cellphones to take photos for their daughters, and the feeling of thousands of eyes on him.
This is what has given him his life. But how much longer will it last? "I don't think of myself as powerful," says Bieber. "If anything, my fans are powerful. It's all in their hands. If they don't buy my albums, I go away."