This is an expanded version of an article that originally appeared in Men’s Health magazine. It is also available as an Amazon Single.
Bieber: From Boy to Man
On an early Saturday afternoon in Beverly Hills the hot streets are thick with slick rides and the sizzle of fame. The sky is an opulent blue and feels higher somehow, so the sounds echo and drift as they do elsewhere only in the summer at twilight. A middle-eastern man crosses Rodeo Drive toting a black and gold Bulgari bag no larger than an apple. Tourists gabble at the windows of high-end boutiques where the clerks maintain a desultory distance from the single shopper browsing $600 jeans.
Outside of Saint Laurent there’s a commotion. In any other neighborhood it might signal an escalating argument or brewing brawl. But here there’s no mistaking the thrill that ripples the crowd as selfie sticks are raised high. Who is it? Who? Who? And as the paparazzi muscle angles and the well known name is passed around you find yourself feeling faintly repelled.
Which is odd because you’ve never even heard the guy’s music before. To your knowledge anyway. Still, his name has always been there, like the whine of a mosquito at the edge of consciousness. Recently that whine increased several decibels, when Justin Bieber and his bulge started cropping up in all those Calvin Klein ads. Since then, tuning him out has become more difficult.
It’s not that you don’t like the Biebs. You actually find him offensive. Why? Because his success primarily depends on skillful producers and shrieking tweens? Because he stole the attention of half the planet’s girls by basically becoming one of them?
Or maybe it’s just that he’s never had to deal with all the crap the rest of us did. Like public transportation. Job interviews. Getting fired, dumped, or ignored at the bar. Mowing the fucking lawn. This is a kid who had his bodyguards carry him up the great wall of China. Everything was handed to this kid. And now he’s a big boy and he thinks manhood is going to be handed to him just like everything else. And you’re like, no, dude. No.
On Rodeo the crowd adds ranks. The fifteenth d-bag of the day revs the engine of his rented Bugatti. Around the corner, wannabes crowd the tables of Villa Blanca, the restaurant owned by that woman from Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. The phoniness is everywhere. And maybe this is why the Biebs is disliked so much. Because with him it’s as if all that phoniness is gathered together in one place.
You could keep walking. But suddenly you’ve got this fierce need to know if there’s actually anything real behind the celebrity facade. And what if there was? Would that change anything?
LIFE IN THE BUBBLE
Inside Saint Laurent $1,000 ankle boots sparsely line the white shelves. The latest Parisian fashion hangs from racks suspended from the ceiling. At the end of the shop, a black and white blow-up of Val Kilmer’s son covers an entire wall. There isn’t much merch here. After fine design and craftsmanship, scarcity is the last thing they offer.
The shop is quiet. There’s no sign of the Biebs. But suddenly your phone starts blowing up, like somehow it knows he’s near. Then a lackey appears and leads you to the changing room in back.
The pop sensation stands before a seven-paned hemisphere of mirrors with his arms crossed, trying himself on. He’s rocking the skater look he picked up a few years ago, with calf-length black shorts, a nightie-length black tee, and a Brooklyn Nets cap. A diamond crucifix hangs from his neck. “Prince Johnny” by St. Vincent drifts from invisible speakers.
You recognize the caterpillar eyebrows, the pouty lower lip. But the rest of him is rougher than you’d expect. Scrappy. Like a tuber before it meets the sous chef. His skin is patchy in places, a bitch to shave. For some reason you think of a video game you once played, when, at long last, you finally met the boss.
He nods at a black leather jacket with gold piping hanging on a nearby rack.
“How cool is that jacket?” he says. “That’s on the men’s runway right now?”
A shop girl in skinny jeans pulls it for him.
“Uh huh,” says the girl. “It was on spring-summer ’15.”
The shop girl leaves to fetch a larger size.
Prince Johnny you’re kind but do be careful…
“So Saint Laurent is very cowboy inspired,” Bieber begins. “And really manly. It’s one of my favorite brands.”
More merch appears as you settle in to observe. A new jacket and a pair of hightops with suede fringes at the heel. The shop girl kneels to place them before his Biebitude, deftly reaching around with one hand to keep her jacket from riding up and revealing her butt crack.
When all your friends and acolytes…
“Yeah you know I’m just getting bigger, man,” Bieber says, explaining his need for new duds. “It’s like, my shoulders don’t fit in some things.”
He twists into the new jacket.
“Fresh off the runway, ay?”
“Yeah, we got it yesterday,” says the store manager, a hanger-thin retail vet with a spectral stare. “Do it if you’re in love,” he says, dispensing his sole piece of wisdom. “Don’t do it just to do it.”
“I know. You’re right.”
He ponders. This is Saint Laurent, after all. Not Nike.
“You know what? I really like it. I really like the epaulettes and everything. But I don’t like these little details. Is there one that has gold trim without the details?”
The manager withdraws.
“It’s crazy how fashion is man,” Bieber says. “Because before I didn’t care about fashion at all. Until I just started getting an eye for it — different materials and stuff? Before I was just like, Oh yeah, I’ll just wear anything. But now it’s like I really have a taste for certain styles and fabrics.
“I had a stylist,” he goes on. “I don’t have a stylist anymore.… just because I know what I want now…. I’m grown up, so I want to take initiative.”
There’s your problem right there, you’re tempted to say. But don’t. Because really, you don’t want to be a dick about it. And what would be the point?
The manager returns with another jacket. Bieber notices a black leather backpack studded with silver stars.
“Is this a new backpack?”
“Yeah it came in yesterday,” the manager says.
“All leather,” a third helper says. “One of two.”
“One of two?”
“Yeah, for us. I think maybe New York bought two as well.”
Bieber tries on a few more items.
“So I’m probably gonna head out with the blue jeans and the brown shoes and the red shoes and that’s it.”
A brace of bodyguards materializes — a neat trick, given their size. Together they resemble a pair of bridge pylons.
“Give me two seconds,” one of them says. “Because the paps are all right in the window.”
“The car is right there,” Bieber says.
“Yeah he going to pull it up in the alley. We going to go through the office and go out the back.”
“I kinda wanna make a little documentary,” he says, of the paparazzi. “Have like a GoPro, and just film what they’re doing…. just to show how dangerous they are. How relentless. Maybe even change some laws or something. I think a lot of people have tried to change the laws but no one’s succeeded yet. It’s funny that they wouldn’t have changed stuff after the princess Diana thing.”
The first bodyguard returns after checking the front.
“There’s less people here,” he says, gesturing with a burly arm. “We’re trapped over there.”
The clerk hands Bieber a $1,000 hat to cover his face — the kind of thing Richie Sambora used to wear in the early Bon Jovi days. His team assumes a SWAT formation and piles out the rear door.
“Where we going where we going — ”
“Right here follow me.”
Bieber crouches after the bodyguard as the shouting starts. Behind him comes Ryan, a pal from way-back. They wind around an open car door and plunge inside. A bodyguard can be heard shouting. “You need to turn your life around, man. You need to give us some love.”
Paparazzi and groupies mash against the windows.
“Not in the car not in the car,” a bodyguard says. It’s chaos for a moment, but then the last door closes and a hush descends. The car horn sounds far away. The tick of the blinker is louder than the shouting.
“Get the fuck out — ” the driver mutters, as gawkers crowd the sidewalk.
Bieber raises his knuckles to the tinted glass as the car — a Rolls Phantom — slides out of the alley and onto South Santa Monica. A right onto Rodeo, past Hermes, Prada, Dior. Past the silver statue of a woman’s torso: the goddess of manikins. Or perhaps fire hydrants. In Beverly Hills, they’re all painted silver, too.
SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI
“So I had a neck injury about a year ago,” Bieber says, leaning back in the richly upholstered seat, his voice a low croak. “I landed on a trampoline on my neck, doing a backflip, and my neck has been messed up ever since. And this chiropractor who I found, he’s amazing. He does all the Clippers. He’s just like the guy to go to out here. I got the connect from Denzel Washington, actually.”
You listen. Because there is something interesting about the kid. What’s interesting is that he’s a 20-year-old pop star, surrounded by temptation, a fog of sycophancy, and wolfish paparazzi, and still somehow trying to tackle the ultimately very private question of how to become a man.
Watching it is painful, like watching a skunk work loose from a bear trap. But there’s something fascinating about it as well. It turns into a kind of dark sport. And if you watch long enough you can’t help but think jaysus, if I only had five minutes with the kid… But what exactly would you say? And could he even hear you if he hasn’t learned to listen yet?
Low in his seat, Biebs looks out the window as the great black car purrs across Dayton, then left at the European facade of the Beverly Wilshire, where Ferraris and lesser phyla brighten the curb. John Lennon lived here for a while. So did Elvis.
Biebs massages his neck. Someone recalls a scene from his first movie, which shows him doing flips on a hotel bed. He’s quiet for a long moment.
“It’s funny,” he murmurs. “I still feel… like a kid. I just still feel young. I don’t feel like I’m almost 21. At all. It feels like yesterday I was doing those backflips on the bed.”
The silence stretches out. But then his mood seems to lighten. “Chugging Red Bulls,” he says, elbowing Ryan. “Me and this guy. Like, chugging eight Red Bulls for fun.”
“Yeah those were the fun times,” Ryan says wryly. “Now it’s reality. Now we’re adults.”
It’s quiet again as the great car banks onto South Beverly. Biebs bought Ryan a Mustang for his birthday several years back. Now he’s helping him become a Hollywood director.
“There’s a part of me that I don’t ever want to grow up,” he says, in his soft voice again. “I want to always remain… to have that sense of purity inside of me where I don’t… I don’t want to lose that sense of purity.”
The car comes to a stop across the sidewalk outside a modern ten-story building. The steel garage door is shut. Some paparazzi have already arrived. The Biebs is still in his ruminative zone.
“You ever notice how like smells and stuff bring you back to old times?” he says.
The garage door opens and the Rolls eases inside. An elevator leads to the second floor, where a woman has just emerged from the chiropractor’s office.
“Bye,” she says, brushing past us. “Thank you.”
In the empty waiting room the Biebs shares a story of how he beat up two of his bullies in the sixth grade.
“I was a pitbull,” he says. “I was small but I could hold my own.”
It seems to match his current image, as a scrapper. But this doesn’t sit right with Bieber.
“Maybe that’s like a cover-up for me not being tough,” he says, in his soft, sleepover voice, which seems to emerge from an unseen gloom. “Like the tattoos and stuff? Maybe that’s like a cover for me being a softie.”
And you listen. Wondering what to think. How to judge. As if manhood were, at the end of the day, yours to bestow.
Meanwhile a door opens and a white-haired man in jeans and a blue tee emerges, followed by the chiropractor, Dennis. The white-haired guy is Paul Marciano, co-founder of Guess.
“I know that you’re now at Calvin Klein,” Marciano says. “I saw the ads are everywhere.”
“You like it?”
“Looks good, right?”
Marciano and the Biebs share a mutual acquaintance — the Guess supermodel Gigi.
“I know her since she’s born,” Marciano says. “I did all her campaign for her. She was just elected model of the year just two days ago.”
“Gigi was?” Dennis says.
“Yeah, she’s huge now,” says Marciano.
“Yeah she’s getting really big,” Biebs agrees, his voice different now, light and bright.
“He created another one,” Dennis says. “He creates, like, mega models.”
“But Gigi’s a doll,” Marciano says. “And she’s a good girl.”
“Yeah mentally, she’s just — there,” says the Biebs. “She knows what she’s doing.”
“She’s an amazing girl,” Marciano agrees.
Marciano leaves. Marciano is 63. A man. And he talks to Bieber as if he were a man, too. But maybe it’s just that they’re both rich, and know supermodels.
“All right my man,” says Dennis. Dennis is an affable guy in his 60s, the kind of dude you can easily picture padding barefoot around a mansion in the Hills. Like maybe one of those 10,000 square-footers that has its own orange grove.
Dennis mentions that he was featured in Men’s Health magazine a few months ago.
“They did an article on me on that invention I did? Thirty years after. On the Abdominizer.”
The Abdominizer? Respect.
We move into Dennis’s office. Framed Clippers shirts hang on the wall, between them a canvas that looks erased, like a mind after the right pill. Only a pink and yellow wash remains. Tinted windows look west, toward the stylistically destitute towers of Century City. A metal sculpture of a Harley is parked on a low cabinet.
Bieber climbs onto the padded table and Dennis begins working his ankle, which the Biebs sprained ten days ago playing soccer.
“Did you recognize Demi?” Dennis says. “You didn’t recognize her did you. That was Demi Moore that left when you came in. She’s just… man she’s really gone through a lot.”
A pause ensues.
“Great girl,” Dennis concludes.
You wonder at the phrase. Didn’t Bieber say the same thing about Anne Frank, in that unfortunate comment he left in the guest book at the Anne Frank museum last year?
Poor Demi. Nursing a vague sense of loss at not having recognized her, you observe that maybe the Biebs has something to learn from Demi about how to get around unnoticed.
“Pssh,” he says wearily. “There’s nothing I can do.”
“No,” Dennis agrees, “you’re fucked. You’re fucked.”
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