Justin Bieber: I want to be the next Michael Jackson

Maclean's archives: A candid interview with the new king of pop


Everyone’s waiting for Justin Bieber. It’s mid-afternoon in Washington, on the eve of the presidential election, but for the hordes of young girls gathered outside a downtown arena, there’s only one leader who can bring salvation. Hours before the 18-year-old Canadian pop star will hit the stage, fans have mobbed every entrance, ready to scream at any hint of movement. They shriek as one of 11 tour buses sits idling outside a garage ramp, as if sheer lung power could shatter the tinted windows.

Inside the arena, Bieber’s bodyguard, a soft-spoken man named Kenny Hamilton, shows off a party trick: he opens a door, revealing his face to fans on the sidewalk. They go berserk. In Bieberland, even Kenny is a celebrity: he has more than a million Twitter followers, which puts him neck and neck with Paul McCartney. Bieber has 30 million—second only to Lady Gaga—and gains a new one roughly every second.

The first superstar child of social media, Justin Bieber recently became the first to score three billion hits on YouTube, where an amateur video led to his discovery at 13. However, as his Believe tour burns across North America—he plays Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto and the Grey Cup in the next few weeks—being the world’s hottest teen idol is still not enough. In an exclusive interview with Maclean’s, he makes it clear he wants to be nothing less than the next Michael Jackson, the new King of Pop. “That’s where I want to be,” he says. “I don’t just want to be a teen heartthrob.”

Bieber has already borrowed the machine-like dance moves, the glitter gloves and a gentler version of the Jacko crotch grab. But can such a sweet Canadian kid be bad? Well, in February Bieber will put out a song that he says will “shock” his fans. Scooter Braun, his 31-year-old manager, says: “Think of the wildest thing you can think of and think: more.”

Backstage at the arena, I’ve just shaken Bieber’s hand when he spots a familiar face, then bolts down the corridor and takes a flying leap into a bear hug with Jaden Smith. The 14-year-old rapper-actor, the son of Will Smith, looks tiny even next to the five-foot-six Biebs. The two of them disappear into his dressing room to rehearse a duet for the show while I wait outside with an older couple who don’t look like typical fans.

They turn out to be grandparents Bruce and Diane Dale, who helped raise the singer in Stratford, Ont. Their unwed daughter gave birth to Justin at 18, while his 19-year-old dad was in jail. The Dales have been on tour with Bieber for three weeks, travelling in their own bus. But do they get to see much of him? “We had breakfast with him once,” says Bruce. So why do they tag along? “Something is better than nothing. And he wants us with him.”

Bieber’s mother, Pattie Mallette, is busy with her own tour, promoting Nowhere But Up, a breathless memoir of sexual abuse, drug abuse, attempted suicide at 17 and domestic rages with Jeremy Bieber—which ends with her redemption as a born-again Christian and a stage mom armed with a camcorder. (She has made peace with Jeremy, who’s now married with two children and is part of Justin’s life.) Bieber’s grandparents tell me they found it hard to believe parts of the book, and that they knew nothing of their daughter’s adolescent horrors until they read it. “There are three sides to every story,” offers Bruce Dale. “There’s one side, the other side, and then there’s the truth.”

The bodyguard ushers me into Bieber’s dressing room, which is equipped with a Ping-Pong table. When I tell him I used to be pretty good, he hands me a paddle, but the pressure of playing with a kid ranked the world’s third-most powerful celebrity by Forbes throws me off my game. Then we settle into that game of spin and deflection known as the celebrity interview. Bieber is dressed all in black, with baggy hip-hop pants and a leather tank top. A backwards baseball cap that reads “DOPE” crowns his pompadour. And he sports some major bling—a diamond stud in his ear, a diamond-encrusted ring, and a diamond-rimmed watch that hangs heavy on his slender wrist.

Polite and serious, looking me straight in the eye, Bieber comes across as a well-coached kid determined to ace an exam. A publicist has ordered me not to ask about his girlfriend, singer-actress Selena Gomez, and the reason becomes apparent a few days later with news that their two-year romance is over. Bieber shies away from touchy subjects, declining to express his views on the U.S. election or confirm if he still opposes abortion. (“I try and just be a musician and not worry about politics and abortion and stuff. I just get in trouble talking about it.”) And when asked if he approves of premarital sex, he says, “That’s a question you shouldn’t be asking.” But he’s happy to talk about strategies of stardom, and his debt to Michael Jackson. “All our decisions are based on long-term decisions,” he says, speaking in the corporate “we” of a shrewdly managed superstar. “We use Michael as a template. The things that he did for his career—a lot of the times it was good, some of the times it was bad—but he was successful from being young to being old. That’s what I want to get to. I don’t want to grow up and lose my young fans singing inappropriate music.”

Bieber knows how precarious teenage stardom can be. “Now I’m at the top,” he says, “there’s only one way to go and it’s down. That gives me the motivation to stay on top and keep pushing. I grew up with a really competitive side, playing sports—basketball, hockey and soccer. I don’t want to be second-best, third-best, fourth-best. I want to be the best. That takes a lot of dedication and hard work. You gotta have plans.”

It’s disarming to see such unwavering confidence and ambition in the brown-eyed gaze of a teenager who still looks like a kid. With a crown tattooed on his chest, he is the boy who would be king. “We have this running thing called What Would Michael Do?” says Braun. “It’s not that Justin wants to be Michael Jackson. But his thing is, if Michael was the greatest, then why not look to him? You’re supposed to study the greats, their successes and failures.”

Even though Jackson’s success was overshadowed by a lost childhood, freakish behaviour and a fatal drug overdose, he set the gold standard for pop stardom in Bieber’s view: “I model my career on the decisions Michael made and how he kept his young fan base and kept his private life private. All those things add up to me. That made him super interesting.”

Bieber also pays direct homage to Jackson in his music. Die in Your Arms, a dreamy ballad on Believe, samples Jackson’s We’ve Got a Good Thing Going, which he recorded at 13. On Maria, a bonus track on Believe (Deluxe Edition), Bieber mimics Jackson’s Billie Jean, right down to the strangled vocal—and its real-life inspiration from a paternity suit. (The song is about Mariah Yeater’s failed bid last year to claim Bieber fathered her son.)

As a child star with an angelic voice who shot to fame on the wings of R & B, it’s no wonder Bieber identifies so closely with Jackson. Jackson and Elvis are the only solo male pop stars who have reached the stratosphere Bieber is aiming for. And he also finds some inspiration in Presley. “I like that Elvis was a good boy but wasn’t a good boy at the same time,” he says. “He made that infamous dance that shocked everyone. I’m not picture perfect. I don’t want to be inappropriate. Just not perfect like a Disney kid. Nothing against . . .”

Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus—and Gomez—were all discovered by Disney, while Bieber honed his chops busking in the streets of Stratford and Toronto. By now the fairy-tale narrative is well-known. After he showed an uncanny talent for music that began with playing drums at 2, his mom uploaded amateur videos of him singing to YouTube. Braun, talent manager and party promoter for Atlanta’s hip-hop elite, stumbled across one and was blown away.

After tracking down the 13-year-old prodigy at his school in Stratford, Braun flew Beiber and his mother to Atlanta. Initially, Mallette had qualms. She had her heart set on a Christian manager; Braun is Jewish. But he won her trust, signed Bieber to his Schoolboy Records and moved them down to Atlanta. After winning a bidding war against Timberlake’s production company, the singer Usher produced Bieber’s My World, which made him the first artist to chart seven singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 with a debut album. Last year’s biopic-concert movie, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, racked up $73 million at the North American box office, a record for a concert film. And with the release of his third studio CD, Believe, Bieber has now sold 15 million albums.

He’s also become a mini-mogul. He’s plowed millions into a series of tech start-ups. He launched a profitable fragrance named Somewhere. Two movies are being developed for him to star in, including a basketball drama with Mark Wahlberg. And he helped launch fellow Canadian singer Carly Rae Jepsen by throwing a spotlight on her infectious hit, Call Me Maybe—Jepsen, 26, signed with Braun and is now touring as Bieber’s opening act. In a pop universe virtually ruled by women (Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry), is he jealous of a female protege whose No. 1 hit eclipsed his single Boyfriend on the pop charts? “Not at all,” he says. “I found this song. She’s my first artist, so it’s great to have that stat—the biggest song of the year. I definitely want to pay it forward.”

Now a precocious impresario in his own right, Bieber may be the most judiciously groomed pop star ever incubated by the music business. He might have come from a broken home in small-town Ontario, but under Braun’s tutelage (“I feel like a protective uncle”), he was adopted by an extended family of hip-hop royalty. Usher and Ludacris, his boyhood idols, became his mentors. He would record with Drake and Lil Wayne, and become pals with welterweight boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. He would enlist a legion of producers, a vocal coach and a stylist who became known as his “swagger” coach. “It was a joke,” Bieber explains. “He was a straight male so he didn’t want to be known as a stylist. He didn’t teach me how to walk or anything.”

With the kind of athletic discipline he once brought to hockey and basketball, Bieber works with choreographers to hone his stage moves. “Today we spent two hours rehearsing for this dance that I do for Beauty and a Beat,” he says, pulling out his phone to show a video of him shirtless, executing a semaphore-crisp routine. “When everybody’s behind me doing that, it will be cool.”

As Bieber comes of age, he’s gradually turning up the erotic heat—on the weekend, he put a post-breakup pic of himself shirtless on Instagram. At one point in his concert he bares his abs to the screams of the crowd and by the end he’s stripped to the waist. “I’ve been working out in the gym, getting bigger,” he says, with a coy smile, “trying to get sexy for the ladies.”

It may be raining supermodels—last week Bieber performed at a Victoria’s Secret fashion show—but his future depends on the music. His voice, which has deepened since the early records, swoops through love songs with a sensual maturity and a soulful ache beyond his years. It’s the reason he didn’t become a rock singer. “I love classic rock,” he says, “ My voice, though, always wanted to do runs, vocal acrobatics.” To demonstrate, he sings a couple of lines, letting the notes softly somersault through a flurry of modulations.

Too often, that tender voice gets lost in the slick production of pop dance beats. But Bieber swears the next album will lean more toward R & B. “It’s going to be so different,” he says. “It’s not going to be anything people are used to hearing. I want to just shock people. And I have a platform to do that. People are listening. With my Twitter following, with my YouTube following, I have their ears right now. Rather than make music that everyone else is making with the same four-on-the-floor beat, I have a chance to change music. There’s only a certain amount of people that can do that.”

Bieber co-writes most of his material, and Braun says he is on a creative tear. “Justin is always writing. He’s written 10 songs in the last three weeks on the road. When he feels even a little bit like the world is starting to doubt him, he kicks into overdrive. He’s very competitive—a Canadian hockey player at heart.” As for his future, Braun says, “You know what the key to longevity is? Just make f–king great songs. Be nice to people and make great songs. That’s the formula.”

The question remains: amid all the ego-inflating adulation, can Bieber shape-shift from teen heartthrob to adult superstar without losing his soul? “The pressures of 20,000 people a night chanting your name, and people wanting to cater to you, can really screw a kid up,” Braun concedes. “But the idea that Michael lost his childhood, and how much that affected him, is something we’ve tried to avoid. The Canadian in him has played a tremendous role in how he’s been able to handle this. His roots, his family, his grandparents—there’s something about it that keeps you grounded.”

But there’s nothing modest about the sports car Braun bought him for his 18th birthday, an all-chrome Fisker Karma hybrid that’s a paparazzi magnet—Bieber was ticketed for speeding away from photographers. “I felt he was going to get a sports car anyway,” says Braun, “I’d rather it be one with four doors so security can be in it. It also sends a message by being an electric car.” Justin, he adds “is not attached to material things at all. He has a signed Michael Jackson picture and that’s the only thing he cares about losing.”

Bieber has bought a $6.5-million house in the Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas, home to the Kardashians. But Braun says it gives him privacy and he could afford something “10 times more lavish.” His mother now rents a house nearby, which his grandmother notes is “nicer than his.” His grandparents declined to relocate to L.A. because they were happily retired in Stratford. But after Bieber and Gomez spent a weekend there while a mob of fans camped out across the road, he said he wouldn’t be back unless they moved. So they built a house out of town, on a site surrounded by marshland.

While Bieber’s grandparents are quietly supportive behind the scenes, his mother has surfed his wake into the media spotlight, making the talk-show rounds with her memoir. From its multiple incidents of childhood sexual abuse (by non-family members) to the grisly breakup with Justin’s dad—which climaxes with her smashing a beer bottle into his teeth—it seems like too much information for any son. “Yeah, it was a lot for me to hear,” Bieber says. “But I’m older now. When I was younger, my mum never told me any of this stuff. It was definitely hard reading those stories, but I’m supportive of her writing the book. It’s cool.”

Mallette recalls telling Justin about her sexual abuse when he was 12, though not in detail. Interviewed by phone from L.A., she says she’s less involved in his life now that he’s of age. “It’s tough letting go. He’s more like, ‘Mom, I want my space.’ But no one cares like mama. Business people come and go but I will always be his mother. I continue to be the loudest voice in his life.”

Mallette’s Christian faith has left an indelible mark on her son—with a tattoo of Jesus adorning the back of his left calf. But when I ask about his religious views, he says, “I never said I was religious. I’m not religious at all. My mum isn’t religious either. She’s spiritual.” However his faith “plays a significant role,” Bieber adds. “I believe in God and stuff. I believe He’s given me this platform for a reason, to help change people’s lives. That’s why in each of my shows I try to give a positive message. I say I’m on this stage and I never thought I could do this. Whether you want to be a doctor or an engineer, you just gotta have that motivation and you can do anything if you set your mind to it.”

Bieber’s fans call themselves “Beliebers” and he’s made the word “believe” his brand: it’s inked on his forearm, which also sports a fresh tattoo of an owl perched on a key. “He’s holding the belief key,” says Bieber. “The whole tour is based on this key. I like the owl because it signifies . . . what’s the word?” Wisdom? “Wisdom, yeah.”

That night in Washington, when Bieber hits the stage, there’s no lack of faith. The collective shriek from thousands of young girls splits the night as their idol descends from the rafters harnessed to a giant pair of metallic wings, a super angel dressed in white but for a pair of dark glasses. Bieber moves in lockstep with a dozen dancers, morphing through a suite of scenarios involving astronaut suits, white parasols and a black-clad posse right out of a Michael Jackson video. His band is led by Ottawa-born Dan Kanter, his guitarist and musical director, who plays a Gibson Les Paul emblazoned with a Canadian flag.

Bieber’s celebrity narrative is part of the show. His star-is-born fable flashes by in a montage of his childhood YouTube videos. A cinematic clip shows him being chased by paparazzi in a Bond-like action sequence. And the name Justin Bieber is trumpeted so often that at times the concert resembles a rally.

Late in the show, he cruises the stands in a cherry picker, riding waves of hysteria as he sails past reefs of outstretched arms. Suddenly he’s coming our way, and the girl in the black minidress next to me is in a frenzy. He comes close, so close that he can’t not see her. She screams and screams, begging for eye contact that never comes as Bieber glides by. It’s a controlled hysteria: while shrieking her lungs out, the girl holds her idol in the steady frame of an out-thrust smartphone. So what begins on YouTube ends up on YouTube, as the singer and his fans try to connect through a star-maker machine that’s bigger than both of them.

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