Bieber is adorable in the tawny, guileless way of a small woodland creature. His eyes are moist and fawnlike, his lips a blend of pout and puck. His downy cheeks seem never to have been affronted by anything as indelicate as a razor. About the side-swept perfection of his hair, there is really nothing left to say.
In television interviews, he’s typically flirty and has mastered a sort of bemused affect that allows him to come across as both courteous and cocksure; so I’m surprised to find him slouching down in his seat, furrowing his brow behind D&G sunglasses.
“I have a headache really bad.”
“You want some Advil?” asks Jan Smith, his vocal coach, in a seat by the window.
“Just had some.”
“You took Advil?” She gathers herself up imperiously.
“I—I don’t know what I had.”
“What did he take?” Jan asks Justin’s mammoth bodyguard, Kenny Hamilton.
Jan looks like she’s been smacked in the face. “Kenny!”
Kenny cringes. “What?”
“Ibuprofen? Before he sings?”
“Uh … it’s not good?”
“Nope. It thins out the capillaries. If he pushes them and we get into bleeders? Well. Then we’re gonna have a party.” She turns to Justin. “Let me see your pressure points.”
She begins kneading the fleshy parts of his palms while his mother, Pattie Mallette, leans over from the seat behind them and massages his temples. This isn’t coddling: The livelihood of almost everyone in this very large van, and many other people besides, rests on the narrow shoulders of the 16-year-old with a headache and thinned capillaries. When it occurs to someone that maybe Justin hasn’t had anything to eat today, we swerve up to a Subway restaurant on 58th Street.
“Can I go in?” Justin asks.
“No!” Jan and Pattie and Kenny and Melissa Victor, his publicist, respond in unison.
Justin lunges out of his seat. “I’ll be right back,” he says, bucking the cloistering that has become a constant part of his life in the past few months. Being the adult closest to the door, Melissa quickly follows him.
“You know what I think of? We’re sharing the same oxygen as Justin Bieber.”
Luckily, the jaunt into Subway provokes no serious disruption. Two young girls walking by have a minor freak-out and snap pictures with their camera phones, and the cashier asks for his autograph, but the rest of the patrons, all office workers and over 30, just continue munching their subs.
“This is the reality,” Jan says, watching Justin out the window. “People see all this glamorous stuff. The reality is, you stop at, you know, Blimpie’s, you get you something to eat, you’re doing warm-ups in the car, you’re tired … ”
By the time Justin climbs back in the van with his dinner, Jan has opened her laptop and cued his vocal warm-up, which he does between bites. Her southern drawl, purring from the speakers, instructs him to make various noises as piano scales rise and fall in the background. He snorts like a horse along the scales. Then he meows like a kitten.
“Not through your nose, baby,” says Jan.
“Goog goog goog goog goog goog goog goog goog,” says her voice on the computer.
“Goog goog goog goog goog goog goog goog goog,” Justin repeats.
“Ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah,” goes her voice.
“Ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah,” goes Justin, an octave lower.
“You can’t get any higher than that right now?” the real Jan asks.
The fact that Justin’s voice is changing has recently been a subject of much debate in the media. Not only does it mean his voice is more liable to crack in performance, but it also means he’s losing that clear, high register that got him discovered in the first place. His fans know the story by heart: The only son of a single teenage mother, Bieber grew up in low-income housing in Stratford, Ontario. At age 12, he came in second singing in a local talent show and uploaded the video on YouTube so that his far-flung family could watch. The video got forwarded, and soon there were requests for more. Justin obliged, leaving a trail of grainy footage in which the preteen points a pixie face toward the camera and effortlessly mimics artists like Aretha Franklin and Justin Timberlake. Shortly thereafter, while trying to do research on another performer, Scooter Braun, an erstwhile music marketer and party planner, accidentally clicked on one of the videos, thought he’d found the next Michael Jackson and, after tracking Justin down and convincing his mother that R&B (rather than Christian) music was the way to go, flew them both to Atlanta, where he introduced them to Usher. Justin offered to sing on the spot, Usher made a call to Island Def Jam chairman L.A. Reid, and the rest is pop history.