Is this really the end for Justin Bieber?

Maclean's archives: Jonathan Gatehouse on the popstar's bogus meltdown

Editor’s note: A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 5, 2014 in Miami, to decide if Justin Bieber will go to trial on charges of driving under the influence. 

Let the record show that Jan. 9, 2014, marked the beginning of Justin Bieber’s descent into darkness. Or maybe twilight. It was after all, only 7:30 p.m. when the 19-year-old pop superstar and some buddies allegedly launched a salvo of eggs against a neighbour’s house in the upscale gated community outside of Los Angeles where he lives. Damage from the attack—dirty windows, sticky sidewalks and yolk-stained bricks—has been pegged at an astounding $20,000, and prompted a vigorous “felony vandalism” investigation by the Los Angeles County sheriff’s office.

So it was that early on the morning of Jan. 14, a dozen detectives descended on Bieber’s home armed with warrants allowing them to search for evidence. They didn’t find the videos they were after—or any eggs for that matter—but they did come across what they initially described as a stash of cocaine “in plain view.” Xavier Dominique Smith, a 20-year-old member of the singer’s entourage who goes by the handle Lil Za, was arrested on suspicion of drug possession. (The results of police tests on the white powder have yet to be released.) A charge of vandalism was later tacked on after he reportedly damaged a pay phone while in the county lockup.

Less than a week later, Bieber was back making gossip headlines during a trip to Miami Beach. After flying into town on a private jet, he and his retinue of hangers-on, including his 38-year-old father, Jeremy, received a police escort to a local strip club for the 30th birthday party of another member of his diminutive crew, Lil Scrappy.
There, Bieber showed his appreciation for the entertainment by “making it rain,” showering dancers with what the establishment tweeted was $75,000 worth of dollar bills. (Ricky “Disco Rick” Taylor, the owner of King of Diamonds Gentleman’s Club, would later tell a local radio station that the reports were overblown. “Justin Bieber didn’t spend $75,000,” he said. “He stayed for an hour. If he dropped $75K, he’d have been here for three or four.”)

While in Florida, the Stratford, Ont.-born musician worked on some new material at a recording studio. He posted video and photos of him and his friends skateboarding and playing basketball. And he shared a snap with his 49 million Twitter followers, of three paparazzi photographers standing in the surf, attaching a self-pitying message. “This is how I get to enjoy the beach :( ”

On the night of Wednesday, Jan. 22, Bieber and his buddies hit a number of clubs along the coastal strip. At Set—a “white glove service” night spot that, according to its website, boasts “table butlers” who assist guests in everything from making restaurant reservations to lighting cigars and even walking to the bathroom—he sat shirtless in a VIP room, sipping Red Bull. Around 3:30 am, he left in the company of a local model. Forty minutes later, he was under arrest for driving under the influence, resisting without violence, and having an expired license.

The Miami Beach PD will never be accused of trying to hush up the affair. Just before 8 a.m., the force tweeted their celebrity collar, using the #BreakingNews hashtag and Bieber’s own handle. By late morning, they had also released an official mugshot of the singer, glassy-eyed, but still smiling brightly in his jail-issued red fatigues. The arrest report relates how an officer spotted a yellow Lamborghini and a red Ferrari “drag racing” at an estimated 55 mph (88.5 km/h) along a main thoroughfare, as two large black SUVs blocked traffic behind them. When he caught up to the rented Lambo several blocks later, the cop found a belligerent Bieber behind the wheel. “Why the f–k are you doing this?” the singer is said to have demanded. “What the f–k did I do? Why did you stop me?” The officer claims the teen idol smelled of alcohol and had bloodshot eyes.

Later at the station, Bieber failed a sobriety test. Raymond Martinez, the chief of police, told reporters that the musician admitted to drinking and smoking marijuana, as well as having taken a prescription anti-depressant he’d obtained from his mother, Patti Mallette. The driver of the Ferrari, Khalil Sharieff, a 19-year-old R&B singer, also faces a charge of driving under the influence.

Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic

Earning his first arrest certainly isn’t good news for Bieber, who has built a lucrative career over the past five years by serving up unthreatening pop music to a global audience that consists almost entirely of preteen girls. And it’s just the latest in a string of off-putting incidents. He’s been caught fighting with paparazzi and urinating into a mop bucket in a New York restaurant, and there was the release of a video of him sleeping, shot by a Brazilian woman variously reported to be a hooker, porn star, or a model. In the last few months, the baby-faced crooner has shown up hours late for several of his concerts, been photographed exiting a van in what appears to be a cloud of pot smoke, and accused of cussing out strangers with alarming regularity.

But even as websites like TMZ claim he has deeper drug issues, and report that his managers and friends are planning an intervention, there is little evidence to suggest he’s actually on the road to ruin. His blood alcohol content at the time of his arrest has been variously reported as being 0.011 and 0.014, well below the legal limit, and despite being more than a year shy of Florida’s drinking age, not enough to trigger even an administrative suspension under state law. (The case will hinge on whether he was impaired by other substances.) The supposed “drag racing” didn’t even result in a speeding ticket. No one was hurt. There was no property damage. His bail was fixed at the standard amount for each of the charges and totalled just $2,500.

Like the hype that surrounds Bieber’s music, the furor over his extracurricular activities seems mostly manufactured. The almost inevitable “fall” stories that are due a pop-culture figure who has been pumped up beyond all reason. The details—pot, rudeness, women—change, but not the format. Anonymously sourced tales and candid pictures—sometimes emanating from his own camp—that keep his name and face constantly in the news, and speed his transition from teen idol to adult entertainer via gangsta-lite misdemeanours.

“The transformation is certainly very deliberate when teen stars are looking to move on to more adult perceptions. That’s just the nature of the business,” says Jeetendr Sehdev, an L.A.-based branding expert with the firm Walton Isaacson. “That kind of marketing is done externally with the fans, and internally, so that entertainment executives see them in another light.” Miley Cyrus’s twerking rupture with her Hannah Montana past is a perfect example, he says. In the immediate aftermath of that MTV awards performance, pundits predicted she too was finished. Instead, the controversy propelled her song Wrecking Ball to the top of the charts—her first No. 1 hit in the U.S.

And while Bieber surely didn’t plan to get thrown in clink in Miami, it’s a misstep that can be played to his advantage. “Troubled times can absolutely help a brand. It’s referred to as turning flaws into features,” says Sehdev. The singer’s audience is rabidly loyal and will accept almost any change—as long as they feel it’s authentic. “If he’s now truly a rebellious brand, he needs to embrace it.”

The larger question might be whether Bieber is still down with the overall plan. Plucked from small-city obscurity by Atlanta-based impresario Scott “Scooter” Braun at the age of 14, he has lived his entire teenage years in a bubble. Packaged, coached and styled for stardom, he was already a YouTube sensation before his first album, My World, dropped in 2009. It debuted at No. 1. His second disc, My World 2.0, released in 2010, managed the same feat and went on to sell more than five million copies worldwide. By the time he hit 16, he’d been the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, performed at the White House, and been the focus of an entire episode of Oprah.

But along with the fame and wealth has come constant scrutiny. Bieber has always been at the forefront of social media, documenting, sharing and selling virtually every aspect of his life. In addition to being neck-and-neck with Katy Perry for the world’s most-followed tweeter designation, he has almost 14 million subscribers to his Instagram account, and has racked up 63 million Facebook “likes.” Type his name into Google, and you get a billion hits. It doesn’t leave much space for secrets.

In the spring of 2012, Bieber left his Atlanta base and bought his own $6.5-million home in the Estates of the Oaks of Calabasas, a gated community within a gated community, 45 km northwest of Los Angeles. The 10,000 sq.-foot, seven-bedroom, eight-bathroom “French-style” mansion boasts a pool, skate park and six-car garage. (He purchased an even nicer house for his mother, a few streets away.) The town was already home to a number of celebrities, including Kourtney Kardashian, Nikki Sixx from Mötley Crüe and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. But Bieber’s presence has proven an outsized distraction. Neighbours like Keyshawn Johnson, a former NFL wide receiver, have gone public with complaints that the singer drives along residential roads and excessive speeds in his many super cars. And Bieber’s frequent parties are a source of consternation. Guests to a Great Gatsby-themed event last November, including Chris Brown and Snoop Dogg, were asked to sign a legal contract, agreeing not to divulge details of the festivities on pain of a $3-million fine.

Nonetheless, TMZ breathlessly reported the soiree went on until 3 a.m. and included the presence of 20 “big booty strippers”—an extravagance not included in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original text. The neighbour whose house was egged in January called the police three times to complain about the noise. The gates keep the hoi polloi out, but don’t stop other rich and private people from judging him.

Miami Beach Police/Reuters

Bieber’s family suggest he’s being unfairly singled out by the press and police. “What he does is everything a 19-year-old boy does, only he is more open,” his grandfather, Bruce Dale, said in a brief interview last week with the National Post. “The paparazzi follow him around. So don’t tell me he is doing something that any other kid isn’t.” And when Patti was promoting Nowhere But Up: The Story of Justin Bieber’s Mom, a harrowing memoir detailing childhood sexual abuse (by non-family members) and her violent bust-up with the singer’s dad, she expressed the same view to the Wall Street Journal. “You don’t think of yourself as a celebrity, you’re just doing life,” she said of her son’s fame. “You want to experience everything everyone else does. You’re making all your mistakes?.?.?.?But the media is there to catch it all.”

In the past, Bieber has been very open about whose path he is striving to follow: the King of Pop. When Braun and his protégé are facing tough decisions they don’t ask “What Would Jesus Do?” but rather how Michael Jackson might have handled things. “I model my career on the decisions Michael made and how he kept his young fan base and kept his private life private,” Bieber told Maclean’s in 2012. “All those things add up to me. That made him super interesting.”

The young singer is of course aware of how things ultimately turned out for his idol. The idea, he says, is to copy the good stuff, not the bad. But on the cusp of his 20s, Bieber no longer seems quite so sure that the sacrifices he’s making are worth it. In December, he sent a shiver through his fans when he told a L.A. radio station that he soon plans to retire from music. He later claimed it was a joke. But Bieber repeated the threat in a Christmas Eve tweet. “My beloved beliebers, I’m officially retiring.” Forty minutes later, he was back online with the all-cap, ungrammatical promise “IM HERE FOR EVER.”

The danger signs, such as they are, point more to him fading away than burning out. Bieber’s latest album, the digital-only Journals, was a flop—at least by his monster standards. And his latest concert film, Believe, which debuted the same weekend, has so far grossed just over $6 million. (Never Say Never, his 2011 offering, took in $99 million.)

Even as a 14-year-old, Bieber appealed to a younger demographic, with his concerts mostly filled with the eight-to-12 crowd. Six years on it’s unlikely their parents hold much sway over what they listen to. The original Beliebers are deep into their high school years, and have exchanged pop crushes for real ones. They’ll soon be off to college. Maybe it’s high time Justin Bieber grew up too.