Justin Bieber's family values
Once, his family couldn't afford meals; now he buys them houses. Craig Mclean reports on the rise and rise of the dream teen
BRUCE Dale, a 67-year-old retired automotive-industry factory worker from small-town Canada, is telling me about his grandson. "He was a good kid -- but he was a boy! He was always pushing the limits.
"No matter what -- if he got into ice hockey, he'd push the limit, to the point of being obsessive. Soccer was the same way. He's not a kid who needed to be pushed."
Justin Bieber's dad Jeremy, meanwhile, thinks for a second when I ask at what age he first noticed that his own son had talents that were perhaps unusual.
"Around three," he decides. "That's when he started playing drums, and reciting books and the Bible and whatnot. So he was special right away -- he could read really early as well."
"Ever since I can remember I've always loved music," Justin Bieber is saying to me. "Being at church when I was really young, I used to go on the drums and I used to watch the drummer. My mom could see that I was really into it, so she kind of furthered... just helped me..." he falters.
He might be the most recognisable, most famous teenager in the world, and a slick one to boot, but he's still a teenager. Occasionally Bieber is all tongue-tied, repetitive and waffly.
Even 8m album sales and a total 2.7bn combined YouTube views can't help you with that. Even appearing on a recent cover of Forbes business magazine -- he's earned some $108m (¤86m) in the past two years alone, according to that august publication -- won't mature you faster than nature intended.
His mother, Pattie Mallette, a single mom since she and Jeremy parted when only-child Bieber was an infant, "would buy drumsticks so I could drum on the floor", he continues. "Because drumsticks were only $10, $20, so she could afford that. But she couldn't afford a drum set."
After his home-made videos -- the peachy, soulful adolescent from the Canadian sticks covering R&B and pop hits -- became YouTube sensations in 2008, Mallette fielded a flood of offers from the entertainment world.
Apparently with God's counsel, she decided she liked the cut of Scott 'Scooter' Braun's jib. And so, at the young American music-biz entrepreneur's urging, she relocated with her 14-year-old son to Atlanta, crucible of black-music culture.
"My mom did whatever she could to motivate me," recalls Bieber of his formative years. "She brought friends over that played drums to show me stuff. She was always very supportive of what I loved to do."
Would he say he had a happy childhood? "Yeah, of course. I experienced not having a lot of money and being poor. I would consider myself poor back then. I didn't get new clothes often, and when I did, it was like, my grandparents helped out a lot when they could.
"I felt like that really helps me today. Especially with money -- I see the value of money. When I used to go to restaurants with my mom, I had to look at the menu [carefully] -- I couldn't order drinks because they were too expensive; I'd only get water.
"Me and my mom would split a meal because we couldn't afford two.
"That's the type of stuff I went through," he shrugs. "And now, being able to go to a restaurant and not have to look at a menu and be like, 'I can afford this, I can afford this...' I can just get what I wanna eat. And it just feels so good because I didn't have that privilege before.
"I've bought my grandparents a house and a car. And my mom's gonna be getting a house. I'm getting a house. So I'm gonna be able to be spending some of my money -- but on things that do matter."
He is, at the time of our interview, still looking for a place in Los Angeles, where he is now based. "I'm looking for something comfortable, modern, bachelor pad.
"There has to be a pool -- I love being around a pool, especially in LA. Gotta have a studio, movie-theatre room..." A few weeks later, Justin Bieber finds his bachelor pad. It's in the tiny LA 'hood of Calabasas, and costs him $6m (¤4.8m).
Boasting an intense, hectic logjam of a professional life in the four years since he relocated to Atlanta from Stratford, Ontario, the workaholic, ultra-competitive kid is also colonising the social-media world with super-celebrity.
The Beliebers, the crushing mass of hardcore fans who amount to 23, 297,893 Twitter followers at time of writing (only Lady Gaga has more Tweet teamsters), love, love, love him.
Of course, with great power come great amounts of crap. Last year, Bieber was accused of fathering a child with a fan. Mariah Yeater claimed that the then-16-year-old had got jiggy with her in a bathroom backstage after one of his concerts in LA.
Having spent some time with him -- and, more importantly, with the intense, protective crush of people around him -- I must say it's hard to fathom anything even close to this happening. Bieber is as vanilla as they come: polite, well-meaning, God-fearing, beer-phobic (OK, he's had a couple of drinks, "but it's not something that I'm like, 'Oh yeah, I'm excited to do that,' or anything like that. [Drinking] just doesn't really appeal to me").
The baseless case went away. But Bieber wouldn't let it lie. He wrote a song for Believe about the affair. Just in case we missed the point, it's called Maria (he removed the "h" for a smidgen of disguise).
I ask: is it a revenge song in the tradition of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean or Timberlake's Cry Me A River (allegedly his riposte to rumours of ex-girlfriend Britney Spears' infidelity)? "Yeah, it's really got a lot of vibes from Billie Jean. Billie Jean was the record I was kind of chasing with this song. The opening [line] is, 'She said she met me on the tour, she keeps knocking on my door, she won't leave me. Leave me alone...' So it's pretty good. The words are really powerful in the song."
Why didn't he sue her for defamation?
"Um... because of... I don't know all the legal work that goes on, but I think she has her own stuff she's going through." One of Yeater's ex-boyfriends surfaced with his own claims of dubiety on her part. "So I don't know -- I just kind of... I just wanted the world to know that it wasn't true, that was all I was really focused on. And you know, I feel sorry for her in a way. Whatever she's doing, she's obviously not in the right state of mind, to be doing all that, be saying such mean things."
With Believe, Justin Bieber has a lot to prove. That he's no flash in the pan, no passing teen fad. That he has musical chops, can actually write. That he can make grown-up music for grown-ups. I've only heard half of it, and that was at an album playback event in London bedevilled by terrible sound. But it sounds as though he has made a decent fist of it.
But for probably the most adored pop star in the world, it's the naysayers who rankle. He's tweeted more than once about wanting to prove the haters and the doubters wrong. "I wanted to make music that I felt like everybody could listen to, and wasn't only geared to younger people," he says. "I wanted to make music that was just good, and people couldn't help but, like, bob their head to it, or stomp their feet to it. It's just music that people can feel."
What do the haters hate?
"I think they hate the idea of me. They hate the fact that I am successful at a young age and that I am doing what a lot of people wish they could be doing. There's people that just hate for those reasons. And they might not even have heard any of my music."
And what do the doubters doubt?
"The doubters..." he muses. "I think they just doubt that there's any sort of talent that comes with me. Because they feel like I was a product and put together and then [presented], like, 'Here you go'. But it's not -- I've been making music ever since I can remember. This isn't just a marketing scheme. I'm the real deal."
What do people get wrong about him?
"What do you mean?"
What misconceptions do they have?
"Um, people..." Justin Bieber sighs. "I don't know... Everything that I do, I always am me and I always let people know what I'm gonna do, what I wanna do. And I'm not gonna conform to anything. I just want to be different and be known as someone who's, like, a nice guy. But I won't take anybody's, like, sh*t."
So what does Justin Bieber's future hold? Does he even have a future beyond his teen years? Judging by the fact that the first, North American, leg of the Believe world tour sold out in 60 minutes, he might.
Will.i.am, who's collaborated with Bieber, has been pondering this, too. "He's 18 now -- so in 10 years he's 28," he says.
"You know, what could happen in 10 years? In 10 years he could be forgotten. Or in 10 years Justin could be, like, legendary."