At four o’clock in the morning, the screams begin again. The sound ricochets off the pavement of 49th Street, rounding the corner to Rockefeller Plaza, where four and a half hours from now, the 16-year-old pop sensation Justin Bieber will perform on the Today show. Though only roughly a thousand fans can be packed, sardinelike, into the plaza, 12,000 have been gathering for the past two days.
Vigilant cops pace the line with billy clubs and bafflement. A CD signing in a Long Island mall this past November caused such a riot that 35 officers from the Nassau County and Garden City Police Departments had to be called in and five minors and a police officer were injured, leading to the arrest of Justin’s manager for “reckless endangerment and criminal nuisance.” In April, an event in Sydney was canceled when several girls were injured in a teenybopper stampede.
Becca Jude and Sinead Byrne have been in line for twelve hours. When they arrived, they spread out their blankets and pillows on the sidewalk and got to work, carefully applying puff paint to T-shirts to spell out, in the purple color that’s become the flag of Biebermania, WE ♥ JUSTIN BIEBER. IT’S NOT AN OBSESSION, IT’S DEDICATION!
They’ve also made a poster, carefully calculated to draw Justin’s attention. WE SKIPPED PROM TO SEE U JUSTIN!! it proclaims. The extremity of this decision, its profound consequences in the teenage mind, immediately garner them the admiration of other fans.
Even more impressive to the assembled are Emily Collyns and Juliet Basraoui, who share that they have actually met Justin at a live taping of The View and, more to the point, that this moment was immortalized online in a clip where you can see Justin singing directly to them for five whole seconds.
“Those girls were just, like, ‘I think I saw you in that video, and I think I hated you,’ ” Juliet tells Emily excitedly. “I always wanted to be hated by Justin Bieber fans!”
Like so, hierarchies are established. Nearby, Ceejay VanDyke, Francesca Giammona, and Brianna Kelly brag that they were there for the riot at the Long Island mall.
“They didn’t have gates, they only had CAUTION tape people could rip through,” Francesca explains to a rapt audience. “So the line turned into a big bubble because all the girls came forward.”
Ceejay cuts in: “Like a hundred girls at least—”
“Stampeded!” Francesca exclaims.
“Just started running.”
“So now there’s no CAUTION tape, and there’s just girls, like, flooding the whole parking garage. And there was little girls, like, standing on cars, like, screaming, crying. There was moms, like, screaming in our faces. Girls were suffocating. Some girl got her arm broken.”
“A mob scene.”
“Policemen were, like, pulling girls by the back of the shirt, like, pulling and throwing.”
“I mean, pushing and shoving.”
“It was so scary!”
Over the course of the night, pizza was ordered (delivered directly to the line and consumed along with a copious amount of Twizzlers and Starbursts); thigh exercises were performed; “Baby,” one of Justin’s most beloved tunes, was played on a ukulele, spurring an impromptu sing-along; homework was contemplated, then jettisoned. There was a deep and embittered discussion of whether bringing along crutches can secure you a place at the front of the line. There was chanting (“When I say ‘Justin,’ you say ‘Bieber!’ ” “Justin!” “Bieber!” “Justin!” Bieber!”). There was crying. There were screams over Justin and screams over roach sightings and screams for passing cars that sounded their horns in response to screamed requests to “honk for Justin Bieber!”
By 4:30, the sky has started to brighten and the lights on the stage are being tested and you can hear what sounds like a drum. By five o’clock, the crowd inches forward toward the Plaza. Hairbrushes emerge from backpacks. Makeup is applied.
“I might pass out,” says Becca, fanning her freckled face with her hands, “and I’m not even near him.”
“You know what I think of?” a girl next to her asks, wide-eyed. “We’re sharing the same oxygen as Justin Bieber.”
On the morning of the concert, Justin Bieber wakes up while it is still dark outside, dresses quickly, then rides with his team to Rockefeller Center to make a 6:15 a.m. call. In the greenroom of the network studio, he does a vocal warm-up. After some brief news about the Gulf oil spill is aired, he’s led to a chair for an interview with Matt Lauer, who asks him if there’s a downside to his intense fame (“I get to travel the world and, you know, live my dream, but, like, there’s definitely downsides”) and then escorts him to the plaza, where the screams crescendo to a deafening decibel. Though the crowd swells forward forcefully, the concert goes on without incident. Justin lopes around the stage in summer whites, hip-hop style, working his way through a short playlist of his most recent hits—“Baby” as well as “Somebody to Love,” “One Time,” and “Never Say Never”—songs that are effervescent, vernacular, and romantic without a hint of overt sexuality. Tonight—after filming a segment for a 20/20 tribute to Michael Jackson and posing in a photo shoot with the editor-in-chief of Seventeen—he will perform two of these songs again for the Macy’s Fourth of July special, which is being shot one month early because on the real Fourth of July, Justin will be away, on his first headlining tour. That is why, right now, he is in a van heading for Queensbridge Park in Long Island City, still groggy from the quick catnap that was the only downtime he’s had all day.
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.
“Does anyone know we’re performing?” he asks now, about the Fourth of July taping.
“Oh, yeah,” Jan replies.
“But you can’t Twitter about it or anything,” warns Melissa.
Justin looks dumbfounded. “Why?”
“Because it’s controlled. We got an e-mail from the NYPD. They’re busing these people in. They don’t even know where they’re going. We can’t disclose. NYPD will shut us down.”
“They don’t want security issues,” Jan clarifies. “Here you go. Now googs.”
As we near the park, Melissa pulls a glossy black shopping bag out from under her seat.
“What’s David Yurman?” Justin asks, eyeing the bag casually.
“It’s a jeweler.”
“Ooh,” Jan coos. “It’s my birthday.”
From the dozen or so bejeweled dogtags that Yurman has sent over, Justin selects one that’s encrusted with spiky black diamonds.
“Is this real?” he asks.
“Um, well, it retails for $7,500,” Melissa tells him. “So, yeah. Don’t lose it!”
He puts it around his neck with the tag still attached.
“I might pass out, and I’m not even near him.”
When we arrive at Queensbridge, it is already bustling with activity. Sound guys and lighting guys and construction guys dart from place to place talking into headsets. Just under the 59th Street Bridge, a large metal stage has been constructed with a panoramic view of Manhattan spreading out behind it.
Justin is led down to an area by the river where he will do several interviews, including one for Fantástico, a Brazilian show with 35 million viewers. (“My Brazilian fans are amazing—really there for me from the start!”) Before the cameras roll, he’s stooped over and a little vacant, but once they start, he snaps to attention, turning up the charm, even when he doesn’t have answers to all the questions. “I’m gonna be performing … uh … I don’t know. Kenny, what songs am I doing?”
“ ‘Baby’ and ‘Somebody to Love.’ ”
Justin turns back to the camera gamely. “All right. ‘Baby’ and ‘Somebody to Love.’ ”
Once the interviews are over, he ambles across the open field to a leafy area where a few luxury trailers are parked and his staff—mainly men in their late twenties—mills about, making occasional runs to the catering table. There’s an easy camaraderie here, lots of high fives. Justin inserts himself into the conversation like an affable younger brother, sidling up to Dan Kanter, his 28-year-old guitarist, to engage in an impassioned discussion of the movie Brüno. Kenny teases him about bodies floating in the East River. His manager, Scooter, idles nearby.
It is no small measure of Justin’s growing fame that these three men have become half-celebrities in their own right. They, too, hear their names squealed with teenage fervor.
“It’s a little weird, right?” Scooter asks when the subject arises.
“The kids are crazy,” says Dan. “When we’re with him sometimes and we’re in a car and people are banging? It’s scary. Sometimes mothers will stand in front of the car so that their kids can bang on the side.”
“Never mess with the passion of a 14- or 15-year-old girl.”
“Yeah, but it’s real weird when we’re playing and watching someone get carried over the railing, and we’re like, ‘Well, do we stop? Do we keep going?’ ”
Still, these men have the luxury of not being the epicenter of the frenzy.
“It’s definitely amazing to me that I have such amazing fans,” Justin says, then pauses, feeling out how far he should go. “But, like, at the same time, I mean … I’m claustrophobic, really bad. I don’t like to be closed in.”
Even so, Justin stokes the swirl of pubescent estrogen. According to Billboard magazine, he tweets at least four times more often than any other celebrity, almost as if he’s filling a quota. He follows more than 70,000 people. He actively cultivates an online conversation, maintaining the illusion that it is not one-sided by frequently giving “shout-outs” to particular fans (“allison in the purple tye dyed shirt it was nice meeting u”) or to his female audience in general (“how u doin ladies ;)”). The belief that, unlike other artists, he is “real” and that he “really cares about us” is a common refrain among devotees—and what they feel separates him from the genetically blessed and vigorously managed young stars forged in the Disney or Nickelodeon machines. For many fans, having him follow them on Twitter is a lifetime goal, though few have ruled out the possibility that he might one day swoop down into the crowd and choose a lucky girl to be his one and only.
Of course, this level of devotion has its advantages. Buyouts of his CDs are routinely organized by groups such as the self-designated Bieber Army (one girl with the Facebook name Lauren Love Bieber told me that she had bought his first album, My World, nine times, My World 2.0 seventeen times, and the “Baby” single 24 times). When a new single comes out, fans mobilize online to drive it to the top of iTunes. When Twitter changed its algorithm so that its “trending topics” listed those that had shown a recent spike in popularity rather than the most consistently popular—a move that would have dethroned Justin from the No. 1 spot—his 4 million followers quickly caught on. Suddenly, obvious variations such as “Jieber” and “Twieber” were taking up not one but multiple spots on the list. “I’ve never seen a phenomenon like this,” L.A. Reid told me. “Look, we put his first single out thirteen months ago, and today he’s selling out arenas all over America, and kids in the nosebleed section are wearing Justin Bieber T-shirts, and when he says scream, they scream, and when he says jump, they jump. I’ve never seen anything like it since the Beatles.”
Already, the mania has outpaced Bieber’s ability to control it, the adoration sometimes morphing into something more sinister. When he joked that he was dating Kim Kardashian, she began receiving death threats. While signing autographs in Paris, he skittered away from the crowd cradling his arm after it was struck by a metal barricade that barely restrained a violent surge of fans. During an onslaught at an airport in New Zealand the day after his canceled Australian show, tweens tore at his clothing and sent his mother sprawling in their frenzy to reach her son. He dealt with it over Twitter. “Finally got to New Zealand last night,” his post reads. “The airport was crazy. Not happy that someone stole my hat and knocked down my mama. Come on people … I want to be able to sign and take pics and meet my fans, but if you are all pushing security wont let me. let’s keep it safe and have fun.”
All of which has led Justin’s team to become protective, not just of his person but also of his psyche. “I sometimes feel like I’m a counselor and he’s my camper, you know?” Dan says. “Bon Jovi isn’t, like, pillow-fighting with his guitar player before he takes the stage.” To maintain some degree of normalcy, Scooter has fired people who acted too deferential or pandered to Justin. “I feel bad. I put him into this position,” he says. The team tries to keep their working relationships light. There’s wrestling and video games. Friends are invited along for portions of the tour. Pranks are encouraged. Once, having stolen the number from Scooter’s phone, Justin called the singer Akon, pretending to be his illegitimate son. “He’s like, ‘Daddy, why don’t you love me?’ ” Scooter laughs. “It really scared the shit out of Akon.”
When the Queensbridge field starts filling with fans, Justin retreats into his trailer. Much time is spent trying on different outfits and e-mailing the photos to Ryan Good, Justin’s stylist (a.k.a. “swagger coach”), who is at a wedding in Florida. Good gives his approval to black jeans, a black T-shirt, a white vest, and maroon high-tops. The Yurman piece also gets the thumbs up.
WE SKIPPED PROM TO SEE U JUSTIN!!
By now, Justin is used to living out of a suitcase. In the past two months, he’s only been home once. Tomorrow morning, they are flying to Boston so that Justin can open for Taylor Swift. The next day, they’ll head to London to perform at Wembley Stadium for 70,000 people.
Dan is still in awe of all this. “In my yearbook, the last line of my paragraph blurb is, ‘Wembley Stadium one day.’ Seriously.”
Scooter laughs. “Mine actually is, ‘Scott “Scooter” Braun: Someday I will find a 12-year-old on the Internet, randomly, in the middle of the night after coming back from a long night of drinking, and I will stare at that little boy for two straight days until I find him.’ Now if I would have wrote that, anyone would have thought, That’s weird. But now— ”
“It still sounds a little weird,” says Mike Alexander, the director of Justin’s international marketing.
Scooter shrugs. “It sounds weird, but no one seems to have a problem with it. The whole world is celebrating me seeing a little boy on the Internet in the middle of the night. How lucky is that? Pretty effin’ lucky.”
Before Justin takes the stage, the team assembles in a trailer that’s a near-perfect approximation of a suburban living room.
“Can you guys hear me?” Justin calls out into a wireless mike. A roar rises from the direction of the field indicating the affirmative. “We’re gonna pray, all right?” Scooter lunges for the mike. This is a corporate event, he reminds them, and therefore secular. The youth pastor Justin met in an Atlanta church who has been traveling with the team plows ahead anyway. “Father, we come before you, acknowledging you for this day, for this opportunity. Thank you for each member of this team, Father. Thank you for the performance. May you bless each and every person, Father, and may they see you in us as we perform. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
“Amen,” repeats Justin.
“Let’s go,” says Scooter.
It’s unclear what the crowd heard of the prayer, because as soon as Justin exits the trailer, all else seems to be forgotten in the hysteria that erupts. Justin climbs up the stairs at the back of the stage. When he emerges up front, the first notes of “Baby” sound out across the East River.
“Happy New Year, everybody!” Justin calls out, smiling broadly. Then he catches himself. “Whoa, whoa, guys, start over. Start over.”
“You’re not hyped enough!” the D.J. admonishes the crowd, though this is clearly bunk.
Justin giggles. “And I said, ‘Happy New Year.’ And it’s not the New Year. It’s … um … it’s … Fourth of July!” The music stops and then starts back up again from the top. He performs the song several times so that the cameras can catch him prancing from different angles. Between each take, a young woman runs up onstage to powder his face, and Justin tries to do some crowd control.
“Guys, people are getting smushed in the front. Can you take one, two steps back? All right, we need everybody to back up—seriously, though. Because obviously that didn’t work. Please just step back.”
“If you love Justin Bieber, you need to take three steps back,” the D.J. joins in. Even this seems to have minimal effect. Down front, the tears of fans glimmer in the stage lights. At one point, Justin swigs from a water bottle and then squirts the remaining liquid over apoplectic girls below—a move he’s only recently made his own. When he finally exits the stage, pulling his shirt off in the process, cops on horseback pace the perimeter of the metal barricades. Engulfing a bare-chested Justin, the crew literally sprints to the van, which is rushed out of the park by a police escort with lights flashing.
“Did you have fun?” he asks his fellow passengers once we’re safely on the road. The consensus is yes, it was a great show. Justin strips off his jeans and changes into a pair of basketball shorts. He takes two more Advil, washing them down with borrowed water. (“Do you have hepatitis?” he jokes, clutching the bottle.) Then he leans back, satisfied with the job he’s done today.
“I love him! He’s amazing! I don’t want to be that creepy fan, but, like, I totally am.”
“Kenny!” he exclaims suddenly. “Is there a place we can get a lane? A bowling lane?”
Looks are exchanged across the van. “You have a lobby call tomorrow at 6 a.m.,” Pattie reminds him.
“Yeah, but I don’t do anything until the nighttime. I can sleep all day.”
“You have school,” Melissa points out.
“No, I don’t! I did school today.”
“Two and a half hours.”
“Can we cool your voice down, please?” asks Jan, cuing up the scales on her computer.
In desperation, Justin begins whispering to Pattie.
“No whispering,” Jan instructs. “You gotta use the vocal column. You just can’t whisper. It’s not good.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” Justin says a bit too loudly.
Pattie sighs. “Tonight’s not a good night. You can go bowling any time.”
“Any time?” Justin asks, with reason. “All right. You name a time.”
“It’s just late.”
“Yes, that’s too late. Justin, you’re 16.”
“Exactly,” he retorts. “I’m not 2.”
Scales rise and fall in the background as the car falls silent. It’s clear that none of the adults will budge, and it’s clear that Justin, burgeoning megastar that he is, is as accustomed as any teenager to not always getting his way. Sensing defeat, he stares out the window, watching the lights of New York flash by.
Sixteen-year-old Juliet had better luck with her mother that night. It took some cajoling, but she had gotten permission to go to Justin’s Queensbridge show, which was fortunate since, as far she was concerned, the Today show concert had been a bit of a bust. She and her friend Emily had fought their way toward the front of the crowd, where the summer heat and the body heat and the crush and collective exhaustion and hysteria had created a veritable inferno. As the music ended, Emily had appeared at my side, panting.
“Juliet fainted! They took her into the building!”
Inside the triage area in a shadowy hallway of Rockefeller Center, Juliet was seated, pale and trembling and wearing an oxygen mask, surrounded by other young fans in similar states of semi-consciousness.
“There’s so many of them,” one EMT said, scanning the supine young bodies. “How many you think? Twenty?”
“Thirty,” his partner answered.
Suddenly, Juliet pulled off her mask. “Please don’t tell my mom,” she pleaded. “Justin has another concert tonight. I have to go!”
And in the end, she was there, watching Justin from afar amid another throng of shrieking, shoving, adoring teens, all enraptured by the very sight of him.
“I love him! He’s amazing! I don’t want to be that creepy fan, but, like, I totally am. Oh, Justin …” Juliet trailed off, her adoration outpacing her words. “My mom is so over Justin Bieber.”