Justin Bieber is now 18 years old. Which means, technically, he's an adult. But the question remains: Is he a man? (If you just laughed, congratulations: You're mean.) GQ sent Drew Magary to spend one wild night with the Beeb in Los Angeles right after his big birthday, with explicit orders not to come back until we knew the answer
I have been told specifically that I will be able to punch Justin Bieber in the face. It is mid-March, and I am standing on the patio outside Conway Studios in Hollywood, where Bieber is recording his new album, and I have been waiting for him for hours. Fifty-one hours, to be precise, at least if we're counting the two times that our meeting has been postponed so far. This time, however, I have been assured that Bieber is really coming, and that he wants to fight me. He's due to arrive at any minute now, which is good, because I can't wait to draw some Canadian teenybopper blood.
Justin Bieber is now 18 years old. And when you're a teen superstar who has just turned 18, there are really only two options for where you can go next: You can mature into a "real" artist, or you can swan-dive straight onto the pop-cultural scrap heap with all the other reality stars and drug addicts. A small cottage industry has been erected around Bieber to make sure he doesn't choose Door No. 2, and so the rebranding of a more grown-up Justin Bieber has begun. There's the new album, out this month, called Believe, which is stacked with ready-made dance-floor singles. There's a new haircut (no more stupid bangs). And then there's me. To commemorate the birth of Bieber 2.0, GQ asked me to fly out to Los Angeles and make a man out of him. Never mind that Bieber has already made more money and been offered a finer selection of quality tail than you or I ever will. The goal was explicit: Get Bieber to experience some kind of rite of manhood.
To that end, we proposed to his people any number of insane ideas: drinking, smoking, drinking, going to a titty bar, gambling, drinking, shooting things, drinking, etc. We assumed most of them would be rejected but that perhaps one might slip through the cracks, hopefully the drinking. I told everyone I knew that I had been handed the precious mission of turning Justin Bieber into a gin-swilling, donkey-punching man of the world.
My wife: "You're meeting Justin Bieber?"
My mom: "That's the kid with the hair, right?"
My kid: "You're meeting Justin Beaver?"
Damn straight I was. And when I was done with him, he would be Justin Beaver: teenybopper turned porn-star assassin.
Of course, none of this ended up coming to pass. Turns out neither Bieber nor his team were all that interested in any of our manly ideas. In fact, it's a measure of just how carefully managed Bieber is that all of our ideas, even having a simple beer, were treated as impossibilities, like proposing to build a gay disco in Iran. A second round of gentler ideas (let's race go-karts!) was also rejected, to the point where I was willing to settle for just seeing Bieber in person, to confirm that he actually existed. His people finally blessed a basic, nothing-on-the-agenda meeting on a Monday night, only to cancel it while I was midair on my way to Los Angeles.
On Tuesday, I was told that I could meet him at his recording studio and then we'd hash out whatever manly activity was left for us once we ruled out anything fun. I got there at 8 p.m. and was told by Bieber's PR lady that Justin was in the studio but was about to go to dinner with his mom and I'd have to wait till he got back.
"So he's here now?" I asked.
"Yes," she said.
"Can I see him?"
"Can I go to dinner with him and his mom? I'll eat light."
"No. He'll be back in an hour."
To keep me occupied, I was escorted into the studio, where Kuk Harrell, Bieber's vocal producer, was working on Believe without him. Harrell is an incredibly nice man who looks like a black version of Johnny Depp's Willy Wonka, so I was happy to sit around and stare at his hair for a while.
After a few minutes, I noticed that someone had drawn a bunch of dicks all over the grease board by the door. So I pointed at them and asked, "Hey, who drew all the dicks?" One of the sound engineers immediately jumped up, ran over, and erased them with his sleeve. This is the new and mature Bieber. We can't have dicks being drawn all over the place. People might get the wrong idea about filthy-rich 18-year-old pop stars.
At eight forty, the PR lady came in to tell me—surprise!—Bieber would not be returning tonight. Finally, after I sat in my hotel room for another day and ran through as many imaginary conversations with the Beeb as any of his 12-year-old fangirls, word came down from the mountaintop: I would meet Bieber at his studio at 6 p.m. that night and we would box. Given all of our suggestions that had been rejected, this made no sense. Well, we can't have Justin openly buying pornography—why don't we just endanger his singing voice and orbital bone structure instead? But only a fool would argue. If someone asks you if you'd like to punch Justin Bieber in the face, the answer is yes.
Now I'm back at the studio, ready to fight. Bieber is running late, I am told, because he's procuring the boxing equipment. The PR lady, Melissa, warns me that Bieber bos regularly and that his father, Jeremy, is a former MMA fighter. Now I'm starting to get a little worried. I've been waiting two and a half days, and I was looking forward to teaching this kid a lesson about punctuality. But for the first time, it's dawning on me that Justin Bieber might be able to kick my ass. What if his Horny Teenager Strength can easily overpower my Dad Strength? What if he knocks me out? What if he puts me in the hospital? What if he kills me? Do I still get paid for this?
As it turns out, Melissa is only half right. Bieber's father is indeed a former MMA fighter, but Bieber himself is no Drunken Master or anything. One of the guys in his crew tells me that Bieber just went through a brief boxing "phase"—he bought every piece of boxing equipment and had one intense training session, then lost interest. I exhale.
Finally, after an hour or so, the gate to the studio lot opens and a Range Rover with black matte finish pulls in. Bieber. No doubt about it. I can feel his presence. He's like Luke Skywalker, if Luke Skywalker had his own perfume line.
I hear the voice first. Once Bieber is out of the car, he begins calling out for Ryan Aldred, a close friend and his former stylist. His voice is so high, it sounds like a ringtone. He's trailed by his security director, a half man/half bear with an Israeli accent named Moeshe Benabou, whose Mossad-level neck-snapping skills are slightly undermined by the fact that he's carrying around a tiny designer leather backpack, like Mickey Rourke holding a Chihuahua.
There is no way around it: Justin Bieber is a very small human being. He's 18, but he could easily pass for someone six years younger. His rep says he's five feet nine, but he looks about four feet four, maybe one hundred pounds. I shake his hand, and it feels like there should be more hand there. I suddenly realize that I can't box this guy. I'm ten inches taller and a hundred pounds heavier. I ought to sit with him and read him Babar. But soon it doesn't matter, because Bieber says he forgot his boxing equipment.
"I didn't want to get my ass kicked," he says.
"But I was told your dad was an MMA fighter," I say.
"Yeah, he was."
"So you could beat my ass."
"No, not really."
And just like that, game over. No beatdown for either of us. No catharsis. There goes my last chance at making a man out of Bieber. I'm out of options. I'm stuck here with an 18-year-old, and we can't drink, we can't smoke weed, and we can't leave the premises. We're gonna have to talk.
We head into his studio, where Aldred greets Bieber and pumps him up for the evening by ripping the sleeves off of his T-shirt while he's still wearing it. OUTTA MY WAY, SLEEVES. This is clearly not the first time they've performed this ritual. It's Bieber's patented entrance move, his talcum powder tossed in the air. Being Justin Bieber means having an endless number of T-shirts to destroy.
I have been warned by several people, including some people in his own camp, that Bieber has a very short attention span. This is correct. He is amazingly distractible. He also bursts into song a lot, at random intervals, no matter who's around. (...Money on my mind and you on my mind, too much on my mind...) If it were anyone else, this would be annoying, but this is Justin Bieber, so every improvised song fragment is intended as a present to whoever's around him, like that SNL skit in which Picasso dashes off sketches on scraps of paper and hands them to anyone walking by.
After the impromptu T-shirt alteration, Bieber goes into the recording room to listen to two songs he says he wrote just days earlier. He plays one of them and then proudly announces that he wrote it for his mom, who raised Bieber largely on her own in Stratford, Ontario. "She cried," he says of her first listen. When he plays the second track, an as-yet-untitled reggae-infused love song—I just wanna be loved by youuuuu—I ask who inspired it. This time, he ducks his head shyly and stammers out, "That one, I just wrote it." Bieber has been romantically linked to fellow singer Selena Gomez, but he's not going anywhere near that. Like every other teenager in the universe, Bieber evades questions by staring directly at the floor.
I ask Bieber if he'd like to venture outside the studio to talk over dinner, but he declines. "It's just a pain in the ass," he says. Bieber exists inside what amounts to a series of interconnected skyways: He goes from his secluded house to his secluded Range Rover to his secluded studio, rarely setting foot in the exposed world. Suggesting that we pop down the block to a restaurant is insane. Stupid, even. I have been assured by Scooter Braun, Bieber's manager, that Bieber is "very normal, very regular," which is nonsense. No one can be normal living under the circumstances that constitute daily life for Justin Bieber.
So we stay at the studio and retreat into a rec room with a pool table. I'm told this is the first time that Bieber has ever been alone with a reporter for a one-on-one interview, which is not true but still makes me feel like a pederast. He immediately grabs a cue and begins playing by himself. I stand off to the side and start lobbing questions at him.
Bieber, justifiably, isn't forthcoming with people he doesn't know, and so I do most of the talking, because whenever I stop talking, there's nothing but silence. Vast, horrible silence. Lots more floor-staring. I ask Bieber if fame ever cramps him.
"Not really, no."
I ask Bieber about the new house he reportedly just bought.
"I'm not telling you where I live."
I ask Bieber about not having set foot inside a classroom since he was 14 and how he feels about education in general.
"As far as education goes, you should be a smarter person."
I ask Bieber about getting shitfaced.
"For me, it's just like, I like to be in control of myself. I mean, I've had a beer, like, before.... But I never get out of control."
(Later on, I tell Braun about this response, and he says, "He knows that I hold him to a high standard.... He doesn't want to blow it.")
"I mean, I keep my guard up a lot, because you know, you can't trust anyone in this business," Bieber says. "That's what's sad. You can't trust anybody. I learned the hard way." I assume he's talking about the paternity suit that was filed against him (reportedly withdrawn) or maybe the comments he made to Rolling Stone about abortion that made pro-choice advocates angry. Bieber has already learned that every rough edge he shows the world will be turned against him, and so our conversation skates gingerly along the surface of things.
After forty minutes of playing pool by himself, he finally comes over to a nearby barstool and engages with me like an adult. He starts looking me in the eye. He never ignores me to check his phone. There's a glimpse of a thoughtful person in there, someone who knows he's a caged animal. We talk music, and he mentions his love for pre–"Black Album" Metallica—"One," "Fade to Black." "Those are my jams," he says. At last, we've got something in common. I feel no desire to punch him in the face anymore. I want to take him on a college tour and buy him sixty cheeseburgers. Seriously, the kid needs to add bulk.
A bit later, someone alerts Bieber that West Coast Customs has arrived with his new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van. So now he's running out to the parking lot to give it a once-over. It took West Coast six weeks to trick out the van, and WCC founder Ryan Friedlinghaus is here to hand-deliver the keys.
The Sprinter is exactly the car that an 18-year-old with too much money would drive. The interior is lined with Alcantara. There are two reclining seats way in back, with bucket seats lining the driver's side of the main cabin, as in a stretch limo. There are three hi-def TVs, a computer dock, and a fully operational recording studio along the passenger side. All that's missing is a button that spews out an oil slick, Spy Hunter–style, to foil paparazzi. Bieber's pals try to guess how much it costs. "Definitely not a million," says someone. One of Bieber's business advisers, a woman named Allison Kaye, isn't wild about the new toy. "Oh, this just screams inconspicuous," she says to Bieber. No response.
Everyone gathers around as Bieber tours the van. He is euphoric. So much so that he has decided to pledge his loyalty to West Coast Customs forever and to decry its rival, Platinum Motorsport. "Fuck Platinum," he says. "Platinum can suck a dick, man. West Coast all day." This is a different Bieber from the one who was imprisoned with me just five minutes ago. This must be the Bieber that Bieber would like to be all the time. His R-rated rant, though, draws a reprimand from Friedlinghaus. "I respect everyone's business—it's all love, dog," he tells Bieber. "Dudes came from my neighborhood, you know what I mean?" Bieber is chastened. "I respect that," he says. To atone, he invites Friedlinghaus and the entire West Coast Crew into his recording bungalow to listen to the new songs. "I'm 18 years old and I'm a swaggy adult!" he yells. "Come on, swaggy bros!"
Bieber likes to listen to his music at roughly 9,000 decibels. Once we've all piled inside the studio, he sits by the console, cues up the first single, "Boyfriend," and turns a big red knob in the center as high as it will go. You don't think of Justin Bieber's music as eardrum-splitting, but when the volume is ratcheted up like the amplifiers in Back to the Future, lyrics like Swag swag swag on you / chillin' by the fire while we eatin' fondue quickly turn into Pantera's Vulgar Display of Power.
When we spoke the day before, Harrell insisted that despite the squadron of professional songwriters penning demo tracks for him, Bieber is in charge of his musical identity. "He knows his brand," he said. "If he hears something, he'll go, 'I think that's me....' The brand steers the ship." (Or as Bieber himself puts it to me, with casual bravado: "I've never made a bad song.") I asked Harrell, who also works with Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez, if Bieber ever needs to be pushed during recording—if he ever gets his feelings hurt. Harrell said no: "He hurts feelings."
I'm starting to feel physically ill from the volume, but it doesn't seem to faze any of the guys from West Coast Customs. They all crowd around Bieber, marvel at his gold chain that's long enough to rig a mountain bike, and nod their heads to the beat. Bieber also starts nodding his head. Soon everyone is nodding his head, like white people at a company karaoke night. Once in a while, someone will pull out the jazz hands to punctuate a drum fill. Occasionally one of the West Coast guys will erupt in laughter, as if to say, This is so awesome that all I can do is laugh hahahaha!
I'm the only one not nodding, and I start to worry that I'm being a dick by not nodding. Bieber is sitting at the console, soaking up everyone else's nods, getting the validation he's looking for, and I'm the lone holdout. I'm not sure he notices or cares, but I feel like I'm breaching an unspoken rule. I don't want to look like I'm faking it, so I don't nod. I genuinely like some of the songs, especially "Boyfriend," but I have to watch my expression during the tracks where Bieber raps. His flow is slower than prostate cancer.
Finally, the engineer offers around earplugs. I'm the only one who grabs a set, but even with the plugs, I can't stand it any longer. I run back out to the patio and join some of the guys from Bieber's crew. Alfredo Flores, another close pal, says he can't ride in cars with Bieber anymore because he plays his music so loud.
"That kid's got ears made of steel," I say.
"Until he doesn't anymore," says Flores.
"He'll be Pete Townshend in, like, two years," I say.
Apparently, the steel eardrums run in the family: Moeshe, the security director, says Bieber's mother was given a ticket that very day for playing music too loudly in her car. "One week," he adds, "she blow twice the speaker in the car. Brand-new car."
At last, Harrell finally decides to break up the listening party and get Bieber in the booth to work. Bieber was going to lay down a new track tonight, but time is short, so Harrell is just going to have him do a few ad-lib vocals over two existing tracks. Bieber hops into the booth, which is festooned with the requisite soothing tapestries, and starts to sing while still chewing on a wad of Swedish Fish. Despite no warm-up of any kind and a mouthful of candy, Bieber is never off-key. He's an old hand by now.
After forty minutes, Bieber's done. That's it. I have been told repeatedly what a hard worker he is, but in two nights—Bieber only records at night—I've witnessed him work for a grand total of forty minutes. Soon he's back to pinballing around the studio. He catches Kaye ragging on Kim Kardashian. "That bitch should never wear white in public again," she says. Bieber gets mildly indignant and sticks up for Kardashian. "You guys are so mean, bro.... People say she doesn't do anything; she actually does do stuff.... She works hard." Bieber is, of course, wrong, but it's easy to see why he sticks up for Kardashian. For one thing, they once did a photo shoot together, which naturally makes them best celebrity friends forever. And he surely knows what it's like to be hated by people who've never met you. Unlike Kardashian, though, Bieber is legitimately talented. He has something to offer the world. He wants to be a real artist. He wants respect.
But the way his life is built around him is going to make that very difficult. There's too much riding on his "brand" for him to get dinged and knocked around and punched in the face, to suffer—and to bounce back from—the kind of traumas that make a child into an adult. My mission was to make a man out of Bieber. The label's mission is to make a man out of Bieber. The only person who isn't ready to make a man out of Bieber is Bieber. He wants to be 18. He wants to be a swaggy bro—he seems incapable of being anything else—and that's as it should be. Manhood can wait.
It's almost midnight, and Bieber is going home now. But before he leaves, he pokes his head into the break room to yell, "GOOD NIGHT, BITCHES!" Melissa, the PR lady, winces. But she shouldn't. That, right there, is a proper 18-year-old, someone who probably knows how to draw an excellent dick on a grease board. To be a real man, you gotta be a real boy first.
If our recent 3,500-word profile of Justin Bieber wasn't enough for you, good news! There's plenty of material that didn't make the final cut, so we've collected it all here. A GQ web exclusive
I spent five days in Los Angeles trying to get an audience with Justin Bieber, and there was a lot of random crap I experienced that didn’t make it into the final article for the June 2012 print edition because it was random, and in most cases, it was crap. Ah, but now we’re online, where I can post any worthless tangent I please. Here’s the best of the rest from the Bieber sessions:
This was the first time I’ve ever profiled a celebrity for a big magazine, so I made sure to follow journalistic protocol and use a voice recorder to accurately capture everything said by Bieber and his friends. I had the voice recorder in my shirt pocket and, despite the fact that everyone at the recording studio knew I was a reporter, I still felt like an FBI informant walking around wearing a wire. I felt so, so dangerous. I desperately wanted Bieber to forget I was there and begin negotiating the sale of 30,000 kilos of heroin. Instead, I’m the one who forgot I was mic’d up for the entire four hours at the studio, so I left the recorder on when I went to go take a piss. GQ’s fact checker, who had to listen to the entire audio, was not happy about me pulling a Frank Drebin into the mic. I’m real sorry about that, Rafi. But we both know it could have been worse.
When Bieber and I first met, we decided to play ping pong because we had nothing else to do. Bieber destroyed me—sample Bieber trash talk quote: "Get on me, bro!"—but our game never made it into the article because, in the very same issue, GQ correspondent Chris Heath profiles Michael Fassbender and also plays ping pong with him. That’s right. "GQ: We Play Ping Pong With People." [Editor’s note: As it turned out, the ping pong match between Chris Heath and Michael Fassbender ended up getting cut from the story because of space constraints. Sorry, Drew!]
At one point while we were in the studio, Bieber played for me a two-minute rap by Jaden Smith, who is a friend of his. (Of course they’re friends.) I wrote in the article that Bieber is a lousy rapper, but Jaden Smith is a hundred times worse. He’s fucking AWFUL. It was torture. Longest two minutes of my life. And the guys from West Coast Customs loved it. I think they’re so good at pretending to like shit that they’ve crossed over into genuinely liking it.
At one point, Bieber told me that the massive gold chain he was wearing was a gift from Usher. (Apparently Usher, along with Scooter Braun, also gave Bieber a Fisker Karma, because Usher likes wasting money.) Anyway, I put that tidbit in an early draft of the article, but then Bieber’s PR lady complained. I am amazed we live in a world where shit like this matters to people. NO! WE CAN’T LET THEM KNOW THE SOURCE OF THE GOLD CHAIN! USHER’S ENTIRE GIFT-GIVING OPERATION DEPENDS ON IT!
I walked to Bieber’s studio from my hotel in West Hollywood, a distance of four or five miles. I walked to the studio along Santa Monica Boulevard, which was a mistake. That is not a pleasant stretch of Los Angeles. It’s pretty much all Russian grocery stores, medicinal marijuana clinics, cut-rate acting studios, and vacant housing for crackies. When I told Kuk Harrell, Bieber’s vocal producer, that I walked to the studio, he looked at me like I was the stupidest person on Earth. He was probably right.
Harrell is also a vocal producer for Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez, and it becomes apparent when you’re in this environment why everything on the radio sounds the same. Everyone uses the same mercenary songwriters, the same producers, the same studio space—when I was there, Adam Levine was right next door—the same mixing software... The singer is almost an afterthought. After Bieber left the studio for the night, Harrell and his engineers spent several more hours culling Bieber’s ad libs and dropping them into the tracks. Bieber didn’t even need to be present for the machinery to keep on rolling.
One of Bieber’s crew said they could tell I wasn’t from the West Coast because I wasn’t wearing bright colored sneakers. Yeah, well, where I come from, dark blue Merrells make you HARD. Don’t fuck me with me on the mean streets of Bethesda, Md., Cali boys.
At the end of the night, I was still trying to get as much out of Bieber as possible. So when he was leaving the studio, I decided to try and tag along to his car, just to observe the Beeb in his natural element one last time. That’s when this exchange occurred:
Me: Hey Bieber, you mind if I walk you?
Bieber: What do you mean, walk me?
Me: I just want to walk you.
Bieber: It’s kind of weird, bro.
Can’t blame him there. It was so weird. His PR lady stepped in and told me my time was up.
Bieber’s PR lady also tried to tell me with a straight face that Justin wasn’t "media-trained." Oh, of course not. He’s only been world famous for four fucking years, lady. I’m sure he’s perfectly spontaneous at all times in the presence of reporters.
Bieber’s people were also very proud that Bieber tweets on his own. They tried to present this as a risky move—you never know what he might say!—but I’m pretty sure their fears are unfounded. I assure you that you will not find a duller Twitter feed:
"Wow. Airport was crazy getting to London! All worth it for my beliebers. Some people always tryna ruin it for the fans. Not today Swaggy."
You won’t catch Bieber linking to Tubgirl anytime soon. (NOTE: Do not Google "Tubgirl.")
One day, I went to this place called Millions of Milkshakes to get a milkshake. Never, ever go to this place. It’s horrible. The place was larded with HDTVs all re-running the same clip of the owner hanging out with Kim Kardashian and promoting the very store you’re in, over and over again. When I was there, the computer was busted, and the mouth-breather clerk just stood there like an idiot waiting for it to magically start working again, with Kardashian prattling away in the background like the vacant bobblehead that she is. My advice: never go to Millions of Milkshakes.
But do go to Pinches Tacos. Oh, Pinches Tacos. You complete me. They even had tongue tacos. Mmmmmm... tongue tacos. THEY TASTE YOU WHILE YOU TASTE THEM!
My extended stay in LA put a great deal of stress on my wife, who was seven months pregnant at the time. A week after I got home, she went into premature labor, which resulted in my son being born way too early and scaring the piss out of us. Since that day, we have joked that Bieber was the one to blame for the complications. You’re totally paying my NICU bill, Bieber. I saw your van. You can afford it.