The first time I met Justin Bieber was in the summer of 2010. He was 16, and his long blond bangs were a latter-day moptop rage. We ate fried chicken and talked about video games.
Bieber seemed less a pop star and more a kid from the Canadian suburbs who loved hockey and pranks. But fame had him squarely in its sights. He seemed like he knew it, and was desperately trying to keep the monster at bay.
“I’m still young,” he told me. “I’m still trying to figure out who I am, and I’m just trying to have fun.”
Too much fun, as it turned out. Over the ensuing five years, Bieber made millions touring the world and starring in top-grossing music-mentaries, dated Disney star Selena Gomez and grew his Twitter army to 62 million strong.
But he also seemed to change. Our interviews grew less frequent, and when they did happen, Bieber seemed distracted. Gone was the teen heartthrob. Tattoos spread across his expanding frame. He was living life large, and it was starting to swallow him up.
In 2014 alone, Bieber was arrested in Miami for driving with an expired license, ordered to do community service and pay restitution after egging a neighbor’s house in Calabasas, Calif., and arrested for dangerous driving near Stratford-on-Avon, his hometown near Toronto.
Suddenly, the boy who won over the Web with an angelic demeanor was known more for his bad-boy behavior than his R&B pipes. His last big album, Believe, was released in 2012.
But in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY, the Biebs maintains he’s turned a corner. At 21, he’s eager to show off a newfound maturity that begins with a pop culture trial-by-comedic-fire, the Comedy Central Roast of Justin Bieber, which airs Monday (10 p.m. ET/PT).
Between restarting a cherished relationship with his mother, Pattie Mallette, 39, going back to the drawing board for his next album with Kanye West and Rick Rubin, and adoring the moment with Will Ferrell when his pompous Anchorman Ron Burgundy praised Bieber’s missteps as brilliant career moves, the singer just may be poised to deliver on the early promise of his first viral YouTube video.
Q: I haven’t talked to you in forever.
A: It’s been a long time.
Q: It seems like you’ve turned some kind of corner since we met last.
A: Yeah, I’m growing, figuring some stuff out. As you do when you grow up. You figure out what type of man you want to be, that’s where I’m at.
Q: Was there any one incident that made this all click for you?
A: No. I had to see the downs to appreciate the ups, and know what I want. I’m the type of person who has to learn the hard way. Sometimes I just have to see what it feels like. But I got to the point where I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t who I wanted to be. Now, I’m around some pretty awesome people who are supporting me and have my back. So that’s pretty cool.
Q: Has your entourage changed?
A: Yeah, I left a lot of people behind who weren’t on the same journey I was on, and I’ve got a lot of new people in my life who are pouring into me, and not taking away from me.
Q: What would your friends say is the biggest change in you?
A: Well, my eyes. You know how you can tell a person by their eyes, their intentions and where they’re at? Well, my eyes changed, they got softer and brighter. They’re open. I have more of a grasp of who I am at this point.
Q: And what is this new person’s take on love and women?
A: Well, at this point in my life I’m so focused on myself that I’m not looking for a girlfriend. I’m just trying to make sure I’m 100 percent so I can add to the person I want to be with. I want a girl I can trust, who I can lean on. This business is hard, and I want someone I can confide in.
Q: How have your changes affected what you’re interesting in doing musically?
A: It’s changed everything. My whole direction has changed. What you are thinking about all the time is what you write, and now that I’m thinking about more positive things, it completely changes my music. I had to re-do my whole (new) album. It was done but it didn’t match up to where I am now and where my head’s at. I want to tell my story, but I also want to give people hope. I lost hope for a while, I was in a dark place, but it’s about getting out of that rut. It’s about knowing there’s sunshine on the other side.
Q: So what will your songs will be about?
A: About growing, being in touch with yourself. What can I say, it’s life experiences, and knowing that you can and get back up and keep going. Hope and faith, that’s what’s gotten me through this too, my faith. What I believe in. You’re around some people sometimes and it might taint what you believe. I think that’s what happened with me, I lowered my beliefs.
Q: Some will quickly say, ‘What’s so hard about being Justin Bieber?’ You seem to have everything many people want.
A: Unless you’re stupid, I don’t think you would think it’s easy to be who I am. Just use your head, you’ll understand that my life is not easy. Not having privacy. Growing up in front of the cameras since I was 13, 14. You need to have those mess-ups without anyone judging you, and that’s not something I was able to do. I think that people realize, they see it now, the transition. We can talk and do interviews and I can say I’m in a better place, but until they see the walk, and see the transition come to life, that’s what’s really going to matter.
Q: Your mom was a huge part of your life as a single parent raising you. Was it hard for her to not be able to connect with you?
A: Of course, yeah, we lost our relationship for awhile. She couldn’t really tell me anything; she would try, but I wasn’t listening to anybody and that sort of sucked. But our relationship is getting better now; we’re getting it back.
Q: How about Scooter Braun (who discovered Bieber through his viral videos)?
A: He’s in the picture, yeah. We also were on some weird terms, too, but now we’re back 100 percent.
Q: You’re doing Calvin Klein underwear ads, which would seem to indicate that you work out a lot.
A: It’s a big part of my life, yeah. I work out every day. Mostly it’s free weights and cardio. I don’t do that stuff where they throw logs at you, what’s it called, cross-fit. None of that. Mainly it’s just me in the gym, lifting weights.
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SOURCE: USA Today
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