The pop sensation is lurching from one crisis to another and the slide may prove irreversible
AMERICAN cable and satellite channel MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell was interviewing congresswoman Jane Harman about NSA reform on a live link from Davos in Switzerland last week when a voice in her earpiece told her something really important was happening in Florida.
With the catlike reflexes that got her where she is today, she cut across Harman mid-sentence to deliver the shocking news to a flabbergasted nation. Was Obama stepping down mid-term? Had there been a major breakthrough in the Syrian talks?
No, Justin Bieber had been arrested for drink-driving and resisting arrest after drag racing in a rented yellow Lamborghini in Miami Beach. Cue footage of the teenage Canadian pop star with bloodshot eyes, Jedward-style hair and an orange prison jumpsuit.
The notion that a celebrity’s skirmish with the police could take precedence over matters of national security has prompted much breast-beating over the dumbing down of the news agenda, but then Bieber isn’t just any celebrity.
The 19-year-old is an internet phenomenon-turned-international star with 50 million Twitter followers, fans so devoted they’re known as “Beliebers” and an income so huge he was last year declared the second highest-earning star under the age of 30 (after Lady Gaga).
And Bieber’s arrest was not a blip in an otherwise trouble-free life, but the climax of a public meltdown the likes of which has not been seen since Britney Spears shaved off all her hair in 2007 and her life started to disintegrate.
While fellow child star Miley Cyrus’s controversial shedding of her cute Disney image – complete with tongue-wagging, twerking and naked straddling of a wrecking ball – seem to be doing her profile no harm at all, Bieber’s brattish behaviour is threatening to derail his career.
The pop star must have been glad to see the back of 2013, a year which saw him split up with long-term girlfriend, the actress Selena Gomez, lose custody of his pet monkey, diss holocaust victim Anne Frank and pee in a bucket in a restaurant (of which more later).
But so far 2014 isn’t shaping up to be any better. Less than a month into the new year and he has already had his Los Angeles mansion raided by police, leading to his iPhone and security camera system being seized as part of an investigation into the egging of a neighbour’s house.
The most recent escapade in Miami began after Bieber, who has sold 100 million records, allegedly consumed a cocktail of alcohol, marijuana and the prescription drug Xanax while partying with model Chantel Jeffries, and began drag racing with Dem Jam rapper Khalil Sharieff, aka Crazy Khalil, who was in a red Ferrari and was also arrested. When stopped, police say, Bieber put his hands in his pocket and repeatedly used “the F-word”.
Ever since he first exploded into the charts in 2009, Bieber has been a Marmite star polarising music-lovers and the Twitter-sphere. His fans are slavishly devoted, but to his haters, including actor and comedian Bill Hader and Eminem, he is the epitome of all that is wrong with the music industry – an overrated warbler spewing out insipid, bubblegum pop songs and swaggering about with an entourage of can-swigging hangers-on who act like wannabe gangstas.
So it’s not surprising that reaction to his latest misdemeanour has been divided. Some of his loyal followers are devastated. “I feel helpless. I can’t do anything to help Justin. What if one day we wake up and Justin’s gone. I don’t even want to think about it,” said @kidrauhlcharts on Twitter. Others, including Lady Gaga, urged his fans to rally behind him and his critics to cut him some slack.
At the other end of the scale, however, Bieber-baiters have been having a field day. Soon after the story broke, a photograph of a child in a toy Lamborghini being admonished by a finger-wagging police officer was circulating, and actor Seth Rogan tweeted: “All joking aside, Justin Bieber is a piece of shit.”
Those closer to him are becoming increasingly concerned about his behaviour. His long-suffering manager, Scooter Braun, who discovered him at the of 13, is said to be losing patience, though he tweeted: “I love you and will act in the manner of someone who really cares.”
Since Bieber’s father Jeremy, 38, has been linked to one of the two SUVs which were apparently used to block off other roads so the drag racing could take place, and had earlier been seen out partying with him at a nightclub, questions are also being asked about his influence over his son, whose first tattoo was a seagull just like his dad’s.
To those who have followed Bieber’s pop career, his meltdown cannot have come as much of a surprise. Any star who shot to fame so young would find it difficult to cope with the attention and the money, and from early on there were hints that self-restraint was unlikely to be his forte.
Nor did anyone else appear to be trying to keep him grounded. Growing up in public was never going to be easy. As a practising Christian, Bieber’s image was squeaky clean and he initially pledged not to have sex before marriage, but it wasn’t long before Gomez had ditched her purity ring and the pair were spotted getting friendly down on the sand in St Lucia. Three months after he passed his driving test at the age of 16, he was given the keys to a white Lamborghini by rapper P Diddy.
Bieber’s success is often attributed to his mother, Pattie Mallette, who became pregnant with him at the age of 17 and fought to keep him despite pressure to have an abortion. Working two low-paid jobs, in Stratford, Ontario, she raised him as a single mother (Jeremy kept in touch, but went on to marry someone else and have two more children).
When Bieber showed signs of being musical, having taught himself to play the guitar, the trumpet and the keyboards, she encouraged him, uploading videos of him singing popular songs to YouTube.
Stumbling on one of these videos in 2008, Braun was immediately impressed and flew Bieber out to Atlanta to record a demo. Within a week he had performed for singer Usher Raymond, who became his mentor and collaborator, within a matter of months he had signed with Island Records, and by 2009 his debut album had gone platinum on both sides of the Atlantic.
For the next few years, the cherub-faced pop star could do no wrong; he produced hit single after hit single – including Baby, Never Say Never, Boyfriend and Beauty And A Beat – and made the part-biopic, part-concert film Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.
Though his baby face and tendency to spout nonsense during interviews made him an easy target for his detractors, millions of screaming girls (and boys) fell for his mellow voice and unthreatening, androgynous looks.
When Bieber fever reached its height, Bieber T-shirts, Bieber duvets and Bieber dolls were tweenie must-haves. So commodified had he become that his 2011 haircut was dubbed the most expensive in history as companies were forced to fork out hundreds of thousands of pounds to bring their merchandise up to date. Always keen to use social media to heighten his profile, in 2010 Bieber accounted for 3 per cent of all Twitter traffic.
As with so many stars before him, his problems started when his little boy looks started to give way to a kind of adolescent angularity and his voice began to break so he could no longer reach the high notes. But they began to spiral out of control after he finally split up with Gomez in January 2013 and – as mothers everywhere say in defence of their sons – “he got in with the wrong crowd” – a posse which includes rather less well-known performers Khalil, Lil Twist and Lil Za.
By then, he had already established himself as a boy racer and been involved in a series of altercations with photographers. But now the pop star seemed to be on a mission to self-destruct as every month brought fresh reports of bad behaviour and humiliation.
His year kicked off with the death of a photographer who was run over as he tried to snap Bieber’s Ferrari (though Bieber wasn’t driving it at the time) and culminated in his announcing his retirement on Twitter – a move his management quickly dismissed as a prank.
In between, his relationship with his neighbours in Calabasas hit rock-bottom as they grew frustrated with him driving around the gated community at high speed, with one claiming he had been spat at during a particularly nasty confrontation. His relationship with his fans deteriorated after he failed to show up on time for several concerts, including one at the O2 in London, leading Jon Bon Jovi to call him an “asshole”.
His image took a hit when his pet monkey – his choice of pets echoing that of Michael Jackson; not a good sign – was confiscated at Munich Airport due to lack of proper paperwork. He failed to pay for its care, and simply bought a new one. Then a message he left in the visitor’s book at Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam – “She was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a Belieber” – had people rolling their eyes at his self-absorption.
Rumours of prodigious pot use flourished and he was evicted from a Paris hotel, turfed out of a nightclub in Austria and given a life ban by a Las Vegas indoor skydiving facility after failing to pay (or include a photo of the venue on Instagram as promised). Perhaps the lowest point, however, came when a video of him peeing in a bucket at a restaurant and shouting “F*** Bill Clinton” went viral.
Bieber’s bad behaviour is having an impact on his popularity; he may have earned $58 million last year, but, where his first film Never Say Never brought in $30m in the first weekend, the sequel, Believe, took just $4.2m in five days when it opened in December. Booing threatened to overwhelm cheers when the star was given the most innovative artist award at the Billboard Music Awards.
It is the intimate clips such as the one showing him peeing in a restaurant which betray the scale of his arrogance and contempt and have the power to destroy his future. Last week, a petition calling for Bieber, who has performed for President Obama and his daughters, to be deported, was gaining popularity on the White House’s We the People page.
He is currently resisting all attempts to get him to go to rehab and refused to board a private jet to take him back to his management team after bail was posted last week, choosing instead to party on with his father.
On Friday, Jeremy tweeted a cryptic message: “I can protect my kids, but I can’t protect them from you and your lies. Believe in the truth not in the Lies of the Enemies.”
But if the troubled teenager doesn’t take some steps to rehabilitate his image soon, he seems destined to discover that those who live by the internet often die by the internet too.