Billboard Cover: Justin Bieber Says 'I Was Close to Letting Fame Destroy Me'

Zoey Grossman
Justin Bieber photographed on Oct. 14, 2015 at Quixote in West Hollywood, Calif.

Justin Bieber is leaning forward, eyes squeezed shut. “Jesus is God,” booms the pastor Judah Smith, standing before Bieber’s front-row seat in the ballroom of the Beverly Wilshire hotel. “He’s the relationship and the friendship you’ve been craving your whole life. If you believe that with all of your heart, every ounce of your being, I’m going to count to three, and then I’m going to ask you to lift up your hand.”

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Bieber’s restless leg, which had been bouncing throughout the 60-minute service, goes still. “One! God loves you,” Smith announces, building to his big finish. “Two! You’ll never be the same.” And finally: “Three!” A smattering of palms shoot up in the 400-or-so-person crowd. Bieber keeps his down. The pastor, whom Bieber has known since he was 16, later makes clear to me, “This room exists to love people, surround people, encourage people” -- not to pressure them into declaring Jesus as their savior. As with many things in his life today, Bieber is sorting out what he truly believes and how he shows that to the world.

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The service ends with live music: a four-piece band performing a Christian alt-rock favorite by John Mark McMillan. Everyone stands. Bieber throws his arm around me and sways for the sing-along: “Yeah, he loves us, oh how he loves us...”

Earlier that evening -- before we hit Mastro’s Steakhouse for dinner and head to the Wilshire -- Bieber sits in a rooftop cabana at a different Beverly Hills hotel where he has been living for nearly a year. (He sold his Calabasas mansion to Khloe Kardashian after paying $80,000 in fines for egging a neighbor’s house.) “Enough with the Justin Bieber Show. I want to veer away from the self-centered attitude,” he says. “I’m just focused on the people who have been there since the start, on people who are taking the journey now. I want them to feel like we’re doing this together.”

 

Bieber, who turned 21 in March, has undertaken a brand overhaul following two years of headlines about public urination, Brazilian brothels, drag racing, illegal monkeys, grassroots deportation attempts and one cold night in a Florida jail. He insists some of the stories are “completely false,” but he has embarked on an epically literal apology tour: His latest beachy dance-pop single is titled “Sorry,” and he accompanied its rollout with a series of Instagram videos depicting some mildly stupid, imminently forgivable behavior (like using a trampoline under an overhang).

Spend a few hours with Bieber and it’s clear he’s making a real effort to show some gratitude for his hashtag-blessed life. Sure, he loses focus mid-sentence sometimes (once because a woman in a bikini walks by: “Wow, that girl is so hot”). He’s got a few overactive-kid tics, like the jimmy legs and a tendency to absentmindedly hitch up his shirt. And yeah, he walks a little like a robot impersonating a tough guy -- but he hurt his neck in, well, a trampoline mishap. When he enters a room today, Justin Drew Bieber shakes hands, makes eye contact and often greets strangers with something of a new catchphrase: “Appreciate you.” And while you might assume the church trip was part of a plot to showcase his newfound nondouchiness, he invited me on a whim when Pastor Smith came up in our conversation (right around the time he started calling me “bro”).

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Still, Bieber has devoted much of this year to public penitence, whether submitting himself to a brutal Comedy Central roast (“There were moments like, ‘Man, that cut deep,’ but I was there to take it on the chin,” he says) or weeping on camera after his MTV Video Music Awards performance. Although his ego does surface as he recalls the latter incident: Asked why he thinks Nicki Minaj’s beef with Miley Cyrus was the bigger VMAs story, he balks, “I honestly thought my crying was more talked about.”

“I see people pointing, saying what a great job I did orchestrating his comeback,” says Bieber’s longtime manager, Scooter Braun. “I’ll be frank. I failed for a year and a half. He shut himself off and went into a dark place. Every single day I tried to help him turn it around, and every single day I failed. And I tried desperately. The only person who deserves credit for this is Justin.”

But as deftly as that narrative has been executed, Bieber and Braun have quietly achieved an even more impressive feat: repositioning the teen-pop icon as a cutting-edge hitmaker for grownups. Or millennials, at least. In the run-up to Purpose -- his first album in three years, due Nov. 13 on Def Jam -- Bieber has reinvented himself as perhaps the first true EDM-pop crossover superstar. He ran away with “Where Are U Now,” a hit by Skrillex and Diplo (as Jack U) that melted his vocals down into an inescapable hook, and followed that up by relentlessly teasing “What Do You Mean?,” a neon fusion of tropical house and vocal pop that became his first-ever No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s the 23rd song in chart history to debut at the top, and Bieber is the youngest male artist to pull off the feat (Guinness gave him a plaque).

All of which made a sweet lead-in for the mea culpa “Sorry,” which debuts at No. 2 on the Nov. 14 Billboard Hot 100. And Purpose is well-stocked with cool-boosting collaborations with Skrillex (five songs), Nas, alt-pop upstart Halsey and rap iconoclast Travi$ Scott, plus big names like Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran and producer Benny Blanco. A Kanye West/Rick Rubin song didn’t even make the cut. Neither did an early version of the DJ Mustard beat that became Big Sean’s triple-platinum “I Don’t F--- With You.”

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“He’s building credibility as a true artist right before our eyes,” says Big Sean, who appears on Purpose and has been friends with Bieber since Justin cold-called him in 2011. “Sometimes people really want you to fail, but when you put good music out, it’s undeniable. You never want to let those motherf---ers win.” Says Def Jam CEO Steve Bartels: “There are so few truly global artists, and Bieber’s still getting bigger. He’s touching a group of people that he never had before. The music is the forefront of that.”

Bieber is humble about even this, the very promising new phase of his career. “F---, I’m so nervous,” he says. “It’s hard to make meaningful songs that make you want to dance because it can come off cheesy. In the past I’ve recorded songs that I didn’t like, that I wouldn’t listen to, that the label was telling me to record. I’m self-expressing with this album -- I can’t skip on the moments that were dark, the moments that were happy, the ex-girlfriend stuff. It makes it real, rather than ‘Let’s call up Max Martin to write you a hit song.’ I want my music to be inspiring.”

Like so many who’ve come since, Bieber got his start on YouTube. “I was a white boy from a small town in Canada singing ‘So Sick’ by Ne-Yo,” he says with a grin. As the story goes, Braun saw that video and turned over every stone until he found the 12-year-old from Stratford, Ontario, with the voice of gold. “I was always that fearless kid who would jump onstage or do whatever. My dad would be like, ‘Rap that 2Pac verse,’ and I’d do ‘Thugz Mansion’ -- I was probably 8,” says Bieber.

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His parents were never married, and they split a few months after he was born, in 1994. His mother, Pattie Mallette, was 17, a born-again Christian who had overcome childhood sexual abuse and struggles with addiction to raise her son in low-income housing. His father, Jeremy Bieber, was 18 and “not in a place where he could raise a kid,” says Justin. “He was immature. He left for like a year when I was about 4, went to British Columbia, came back on Father’s Day. I remember my mom said, ‘If you’re going to be here, you have to be here.’ There’s a misconception that he’s this deadbeat dad, but he has been in my life since. I was with him on weekends and Wednesdays.”

Mallette introduced Bieber to music early on -- there’s video of him at age 2 drumming adeptly on a kitchen chair. Religion, too. “When I was 7, she wouldn’t let me listen to anything but [Pastor] Judah’s tapes falling asleep,” says Bieber. She entered her son in talent contests and posted the clip found by Braun. He pitched future Bieber mentor Usher, who went to (then) Island Def Jam CEO Antonio “L.A.” Reid, who signed Bieber in 2008. Mallette later invited the Seattle-based pastor to one of her son’s local tour stops. “By then she had brought around a bunch of weird pastors -- there’s a lot of weird ones -- so I wasn’t too keen on meeting him,” says Bieber. But they kept in touch and have a more solid relationship than Bieber and his mom do at the moment.

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Bieber admits that during the last two years his connection with Mallette became, in his words, “pretty nonexisting. I was distant because I was ashamed. I never wanted my mom to be disappointed in me and I knew she was. We spent some time not talking, so it takes time to rebuild that trust. She’s living in Hawaii now, so it’s hard, but getting better. She’s an amazing woman and I love her.”

He also dotes on his father in a way that feels like role reversal. Bieber sometimes posts Instagram videos (to 42.5 million followers) of Jeremy playing guitar, and at one point in our talk he opens a notes app on his phone. “My dad told me this the other day,” he begins, reading from the screen. “He said, ‘Pride is your worst enemy. It’ll pull greatness out of you.’ I just thought that’s so great, because he’s a prideful man -- he has always known what’s best -- and it has taken him this long to see that.”

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But the elder Bieber is still figuring it out, sometimes in public. After a nude photo of Justin hit the web in October, Jeremy tweeted: “@justinbieber what do you feed that thing. #proud daddy.” People were aghast, including Bette Midler, who shot off a tweet saying, “The biggest dick in this situation is the dad who abandoned his son.”

“This Britt Meddler,” says Justin, unintentionally mangling the stage-and-screen legend’s name. “I don’t even know who that is, honestly. I wanted to immediately say ‘Who is this lady?’, but then I’m just fueling this negativity. I do feel the photo was an invasion of my privacy. I felt super violated. My dad made light of it, but I don’t think that’s sick and twisted. It was funny. Dads are going to be dads.”

(Bieber has his own joke about the paparazzi shot from his Bora Bora vacation: “I was scared. I first saw the one with the black bar over it. I was like, ‘Oh, my God. I just got out of the water. Shrinkage is real.’ ” So, er, was it? “No, no. That’s as big as she gets.”)

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Another key figure in Bieber’s circle these days is Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd, his go-to co-writer since the two met in Las Vegas at a 2013 party for Bieber’s former crony Lil Twist. That’s the friend who got a DUI driving Bieber’s chrome Fisker Karma. Another pal, Lil Za, was convicted for possession of ecstasy after a raid on Bieber’s old place. Boyd was part of that group too, but he and Bieber found a chemistry worth fighting for.

“It’s easy for me to get caught in my own head, and Poo Bear knows how to get me out,” says the singer. They’ve been virtually inseparable since, even on world tours, and initially against the wishes of Braun. “I was smoking weed and stuff,” says Boyd, without elaborating on “stuff.” But the first fruit of their union, 2013’s Journals -- a set of grown-man R&B songs that drew on Boyd’s experience writing for 112, Usher and Chris Brown -- was crucial in establishing Bieber’s artistic maturation.

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Though the digital release wasn’t promoted by Def Jam (Bieber dubs it a “creative project”) and was dwarfed by Beyoncé’s surprise album (released 10 days prior), Boyd now calls Journals “special, because not everybody knows about it. It’s that feeling that makes you play it for people.” He says he and Bieber wrote 103 songs -- and quit pot -- en route to Purpose. Braun slipped Diplo one of those demos at a party: “Where Are U Now,” another underplay that actually went big (to No. 8 on the Hot 100), influenced the sound of the album and opened more minds to Bieber.

“I’m surprised at how he’s got his shit together,” says Skrillex. “He has been around people who weren’t the best. It’s hard for him to trust, but at the same time he treats everyone around him with respect.” Plus, Skrillex adds, “he’s so f---ing talented. A lot of times when he’s not trying and just freestyles, some of the best shit comes out. You got to hit record right away when he’s, like, testing his mic, because the first idea is a lot of times the best idea.”

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At Mastro’s, Bieber knows what he wants -- filet mignon and a glass of cabernet -- and orders it like a swanky person in the movies would, without opening a menu. But he’s confused by the waiter reaching out to place a napkin in his lap, pausing a beat before scooting his chair back and explaining, “Sorry -- I’m not fancy, bro.” When he samples my meal -- seared ahi, which he has never tried before -- he picks it up with his hands. The taste of rye whiskey in my cocktail makes him wince.

The moment the star sits down, the restaurant seamlessly switches over to an all-Bieber soundtrack. He’s used to the universe eagerly morphing to his presence. “It’s a sign of respect,” he says of the restaurant music like a mafia don. Still, he decries the “fake fantasy world” celebrity creates -- yes-people convincing him, “like, oh, everything I say is funny. I must be the funniest dude ever. Only to find out, man, my jokes suck.”

Bieber is still in the thick of unpacking his unreal teen years. “I wouldn’t suggest being a child star,” he says, as if the child usually has a choice. “It’s the toughest thing in the world.” More than once in our conversations, he goes off on what he admits is a rant about the plight of female teen stars in particular. “I want people to be more kind to young celebrities,” he says. “Like Kylie [Jenner]. Look at her world: She has been living on TV since she was a kid. Every time she’s looking around she sees a camera, and that’s affecting how she’s thinking and how she’s perceiving people and why she has to do certain things ... Situations that happen taint your mind, especially in this industry. Especially for girls.”

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As Bieber voices these concerns, one can’t help but see him projecting his own not-fully-resolved struggles onto others. “I hurt for some people,” he says, reflecting on burdens that apply as much to him as anyone. “Everything is so [based] on people’s looks and stuff ... Look at the statistics on how many child stars have crumbled and turned out to be wack jobs. It’s because -- it’s f---ed, bro, this lifestyle.”

The sense that he’s still reconciling his difficult experiences with his Christian optimism comes through even when he discusses ex-girlfriend Selena Gomez. “I’m proud of the woman she is today,” he says, adding that it’s “too soon” since their split in 2014 for him to get serious with anyone else. “When you love someone that much, even if something comes between you, it’s a love that never really dies.” As confident as he might be of that, he still hasn’t listened to her new album because “I know I had a lot of play in that one. I don’t know what she’s saying about me.”

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Ultimately Bieber hopes to find someone who “knows her worth.” (Of the women he has been spotted with lately, he says it was never serious with Kendall Jenner; Hailey Baldwin is “one of my best friends in the entire world”; and after six months he’s still getting to know model-blogger Jayde Pierce, who accompanied him to Bora Bora.) Bieber knows his own worth well enough to recognize that even when he appeared to be living the high life -- or at least, indulging his whims -- he was sabotaging himself.

“It might seem awesome from the outside, but I’m struggling,” he says. “Certain things broke my trust with people. Situations happen that taint your mind. I started going through the motions. I felt like people were judging me all the time. I came out alive. I came out swinging. But I was close to letting [fame] completely destroy me.”

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He politely demurs when it comes to what exactly brought him to the brink, but he does say how he felt at the time: “Empty. Lost. Like I didn’t know myself.” And what went through his head: “You’re not good enough. People hate you. You try too hard.”

“I couldn’t go to sleep during that time,” says Braun. “Every night I was wondering, ‘Is something going to happen?’ I turned to my own dad and asked, ‘What do I do here?’ He said, ‘You just got to be a rock.’ ”

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It was in the midst of all this -- “a couple years ago,” when he was 19 -- that Bieber reconnected with Judah Smith. “I’d come and listen to him and try to hear him out. I had all these questions and things were not adding up. ‘Well, why is this, then? How did all those animals fit on Noah’s Ark, then?’ ” Today he better understands faith. “That’s what it’s all about -- not questioning it.”

“We text almost daily, and it’s not just me sending him Bible verses anymore,” says Smith. “He’ll send them to me, along with encouraging thoughts or an encouraging emoticon. I’m committed to helping him and protecting him, but it’s fair to say we’re there for each other.”

After dinner, on the walk to church, the wildest thing Bieber does is jump on his bodyguard’s back for a ride down the block. It’s actually kind of sweet. He stops to take photos with two girls on Razor scooters. He shakes hands with a paparazzo. Lately, an average day for Bieber starts with a modest prayer -- “Thank you so much for allowing me to wake up today; help me to enjoy each and every moment” -- and might end with him sneaking down from his room to the hotel lounge to play the piano while people drink. Like the new Bieber himself, what his go-to song lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in earnest vulnerability: “Let It Be” by The Beatles

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