Day of the True Belieber

Thursday afternoon, San José, California. Justin Bieber sits in a dressing room — a tiny boy in a huge room, empty but for a sofa, a documentary-maker pointing a camera at me, his press man and his Xbox. He has chosen for his Xbox avatar a small black girl wearing a plaid skirt.

world Updated: Nov 13, 2010 23:54 IST
Jon Ronson

Thursday afternoon, San José, California. Justin Bieber sits in a dressing room — a tiny boy in a huge room, empty but for a sofa, a documentary-maker pointing a camera at me, his press man and his Xbox. He has chosen for his Xbox avatar a small black girl wearing a plaid skirt.

Justin — being only 16 and by far the biggest teen star in the world, probably the biggest since Michael Jackson — tends to rattle off overly polished maxims in interviews, such as these from his autobiography, First Step 2 Forever: My Story: “Every one of my fans is so special to me... It all happened because of you. I wake up knowing I have the best fans in the world..”

This guardedness is understandable given the millions of anti-Biebers out there, ready to pounce on any misstep, although they're a drop in the ocean compared with the billions of Beliebers in the world. A Belieber is — according to the Urban Dictionary — “A person who loves Justin Bieber & beliebes in everything that he can do”.

According to Twitter, 3% of all their traffic is Belieber-related, with servers all over the world dedicated to Justin and his fans. In July he overtook Lady Gaga as the most searched-for person on the web.

I ask Justin if he ever looks at his own YouTube videos. He says while he understands the perils of Googling himself, he does sometimes read the comments.

“'You're so stupid', 'Your song sucks', I even get, 'You're gay' for no apparent reason. What's the point of that? But then I remember there's so many people who like my videos who don't even comment. When I like a video I don't waste my time commenting. But people who hate you — they're going to take time to hate you.”

Living a dream

He is somewhere in the midst of an 85-date tour. A row of buses is parked back in the loading bay. They drive in convoy through the night from city to city, carrying Justin and a vast army of grown-ups.

“Does all the travel make you feel lost?” I ask.

“You're so far away,” he nods, “and you start feeling like you're a robot. When I'm overseas the schedule is always crazy and then there's the time change and you're not even yourself. It's weird.”

“Do you ever feel wistful for the days before you were famous?” I ask. At this Justin looks as if it's all getting too introspective. “I'm a regular person,” he says hurriedly. “I'm living my dream and I'm just enjoying every minute of it.”

It was YouTube that made him famous. His mother, Pattie, who had him when she was 18, raised him alone in the small town of Stratford, Ontario, Canada.

“My mom wasn't the greatest person,” Justin says. “I mean, she was a good person, but she made mistakes. She drank. She probably did drugs and stuff, and she told me about it because she said she did enough bad stuff for the both of us. I don't need to do it because she already did it. When I was born she quit smoking, she quit drinking.” He pauses. “She did that all for me.”

His father, Jeremy, left home when Justin was three.

Justin turned out to have unexpected talents: “I can do a Rubik’s Cube in a minute and a half,” he says.

“Are you a genius?” I ask.

“I wouldn't say a genius, but I can do a Rubik’s Cube,” he says. “And sudoku puzzles.”

And furthermore, he had an effortlessly cherubic singing voice. When he was 13 he started busking to try to raise money to visit DisneyWorld, also self-teaching himself to play several musical instruments. Passersby filmed him and put the videos on YouTube. He entered local talent contests and his mother put those videos on, too. They were noticed by, among others, his present co-manager Usher and Justin Timberlake, and then by zillions of teenage girls all over the world.

Most stars win over countries gradually, one by one. Justin instantly became massively famous everywhere. So he began the life he now has — home-schooled in the tour van, always on the move.

“What's it like being home-schooled?” I ask.

“I only have to do three hours a day, which is good,” he says. “I drift off. I definitely drift off. So I'm better one-on-one.”

But paradoxically, he says, he is also a perfectionist. “I’m too hard on myself. I always want to be better.”

Drifting off; outbursts of anger; being a perfectionist... “Do you have ADD?” I ask him.
“I…” Justin says. “I have a small case of ADD.”

“How does it manifest itself?” I ask.

“If I don’t understand something, and I’m bored, I don't pay attention,” he says, “so my teacher has to really make it fun for me. Every hour he has to give me a five- to 10-minute break. But after the break I’ll be back into it. I’ll be good.”

Girls and Fans

Justin writes in his autobiography that his favourite topic of conversation is, “Girls, girls, girls, girls, girls, girls, GIRLS.”

“You can ask me about girls,” says Justin, reassuringly. “It’s all good. I like girls. Girls are awesome. Yeah.”

But he says: “There are so many girls who would just do anything for me because of my status.” He pauses. “Someone told me it’s great to be with somebody who has just as much to lose as you do.”

“So you’ll have to go out with someone famous?” I ask.

“Yeah. That’s probably a good idea. Because I can never date somebody who’s so in love with me that she would do anything for me.”

Outside in the lobby, hundreds of competition winners are readying themselves for their meet and greet with Justin. It’s a long line of people, ushered, four at a time, into a room with Justin. And it is never-ending. Fan after fan after fan. Justin says hi. They shriek and look as if they’re going to pass out. They have their pictures taken with him.

Each encounter lasts perhaps 30 seconds. Many have brought letters, which they hand to Justin, who hands them on to someone else, who hands them on to someone else, who puts them on a nearby counter.

Nearby, there’s a larger-than-life-size cardboard cutout of Justin. The real Justin wanders over to it. “Who are you looking at, buddy?” he mutters. He punches it in the face.

First Published: Nov 13, 2010 23:53 IST