Is Justin Bieber okay? In the days surrounding his nineteenth and “worst birthday,” Bieber wore a gas mask to evade the paparazzi; ripped his shirt off in front of the paparazzi; stormed out of (or was kicked out of) his own “weak ass” birthday party; went on two Twitter rants about persecution; arrived two hours late to a concert; was hospitalized after a concert collapse; shared a sexed-up picture from his hospital bed; and threatened to “fucking beat the fuck out of” a foul-mouthed photographer.
“Ahhhhh! Rough morning,” Bieber tweeted after video of the threat appeared online this morning. “Sometimes when people r shoving cameras in your face all day and yelling the worst thing possible at u … well I’m human. Rough week.”
Given the level of chaos surrounding Bieber — two months ago a paparazzo died trying to photograph the teen idol’s car — he’d be inhuman if he didn’t crack. A person with an ordinary psyche, thrust into extraordinary circumstances, will react. The true psychopaths of show business are those capable of staying calm as paparazzi plunge to their deaths and rumors swirl about teen girls carving song lists into their forearms.
Still, the cracks follow an alarmingly familiar pattern. Like Britney Spears, he alternately lashes out at a curious public and courts our sexual attention. Like Michael Jackson, he hides his face behind elaborate masks. Like Chris Brown, he responds to perceived threats by thumping his chest.
Unlike most of his teen idol peers, though, Bieber is not the product of a lifetime of rigorous training at a child-star finishing school like Disney (Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez) or Nickelodeon (Miranda Cosgrove, Amanda Bynes). He was a YouTube upstart who drew the eye of first-time talent manager Scooter Braun, who became Bieber’s de facto parent figure and encourages testicle-punching. The cult of Bieber is, at its core, about improbability. Just as Braun plucked Bieber from YouTube obscurity and thrust him at the feet of (former child star) Usher, Bieber encourages fanatical devotion by plucking random followers from his Twitter feed for retweets and direct replies. (Members of his entourage, including Braun, have been known to do the same.) Bieber documentary Never Say Never was a feature-length celebration of disbelief at the heights “regular kid” Justin Bieber had reached. Or, as the Observer explained, “Fame itself is the star, it seems; Bieber just the vehicle.”
So it’s no surprise that the improbably famous Justin Bieber is, in the words of former child star, Drake, “having a hard time adjusting to fame.” Even though fame is his defining feature. And, as Bieber becomes an adult, all that he knows.
We praise stars when they escape the gauntlet of our attention with the gestures of normalcy intact. Witness the hyperbolic enthusiasm incited by Jennifer Lawrence admitting she’s “starving“; Beyoncé sharing her video diaries; Mila Kunis flirting with a non-famous person. Those who watched Kunis’s gentle conversation with a “petrified” young reporter marveled at how down-to-earth the A-lister remained, in spite of fame, beauty, and wealth. In spite of twenty years in a superficial industry that she conquered, in part, by lying about her age to land a sexpot role in a primetime television show when she was just 14. Tied up in our worship of the miraculously sane Mila Kunises of Hollywood, is relief. Celebrating those who survive child stardom eases our guilt over those who don’t.
Nonetheless, even as Bieber’s every move makes headlines, coverage of his so-called “meltdown” remains relatively measured. Compared to the widespread panic that broke out every time Britney Spears went shoeless — or that still breaks out every time Lindsay Lohan goes braless — Bieber’s life is relatively light on concern-trolling. (Though his choice in friends, particularly the one driving his Ferrari the day that photographer died, has furrowed some brows.) Is this a sexist response? Probably; we don’t fear for the purity of young men the way we do for young women. But it also may be what saves Justin Bieber. Discussing this morning’s tussle with the paparazzi, Bieber made the kind of vow we only wish our stars could keep: “Not gonna let them get the best of me again. Only way someone can break u is if u let them.”
* An earlier version of this article misstated where Selena Gomez got her start. She was a Disney star, not Nickelodeon.