A team of adults works to keep the teen pop sensation from becoming too big for his baseball cap and dog chains.
Justin Bieber had finished school for the day, but the threat of detention was still looming.
Backstage at "The Tonight Show" last week, the teen pop star's personal tutor, Jenny, couldn't find her cellphone. She suspected her pupil might have hidden it as a prank. "Justin, did you take my phone?" she said, searching under a couch cushion. "Because if you don't have it, I'm going to have to cancel my plan right now."
"No! I swear, I didn't take it," he said, offering up a convincing puppy dog look and shaking his wispy trademark bangs out of his eyes and walking away. The teacher still seemed skeptical. "I don't know. It's April Fools' Day," she sighed, "and he's a 16-year-old boy."
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Amid the circus surrounding America's latest teen sensation, it's easy to forget that Bieber is still a Doritos-munching kid. One who is only a couple of inches over 5 feet tall; whose voice is still changing; who likes to push the boundaries of his new world. In the last month, Bieber has performed on "The Late Show With David Letterman," twice on "The View," Nickelodeon's Kids' Choice Awards show, and "American Idol." He played at the White House's Easter Egg Roll, where First Lady Michelle Obama enthusiastically danced along to his songs. His second album, "My World 2.0.," was released in March and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. And Saturday, he is the musical guest on "Saturday Night Live," a gig that many big name performers twice his age can't land. As the music industry continues to struggle, Bieber, in the span of less than a year, is suddenly one of its most valuable assets, the evidence being the team of adults on his payroll that follows him nearly everywhere he goes, working to both manage and prolong his success. It's a lot for a teenager to process.
"I am with adults all day," said Bieber of his current posse, "and it's fun sometimes, but sometimes I'm like, 'No, I want to hang out with my friends my own age,' " he said. "But at the same time, it makes me mature a little faster. I think I'm still immature sometimes, but I try not to think I'm hot stuff."
Maybe so, but there's no escaping Bieber Fever. That was apparent last Thursday, when Bieber was shuttled from a morning appearance at Radio Disney to an afternoon taping of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."
A clutch of young girls was waiting outside the Burbank radio station at 9 a.m. when Bieber arrived, escorted by his bodyguard, publicist, vocal coach, road manager-stylist and a representative from his music label. His manager, mother and tutor Jenny (who asked that her last name not be used to help her avoid female teen hangers-on) would join the entourage later in the day.
"I just want to hug Justin Bieber," said Isabella Galeazzi, 13, who had skipped school in the hopes of meeting him. "I just want to be friends with him," chimed in Jessica Hopkins, also 13.
"Yeah, I'm OK with that too," Galeazzi agreed. "I just want him to know me."
Like many of Bieber's fans, both girls became acquainted with the singer through his YouTube videos, which he began posting online at age 13 after performing in a local talent contest in his native Canada.
Scooter Braun, a 28-year-old Atlanta-based manager who had worked with rapper Asher Roth, stumbled across one such video. Eager to meet Bieber, Braun, tracked him down, persuaded him and his mother, Patti Mallette, to fly to Atlanta their first airplane flight -- for a meeting. That was where Bieber famously ran into Usher Raymond in a parking lot -- an occurrence that led the R&B star to go to bat for the then-unknown, helping him land a professional deal and forming a joint-venture label with Braun and Antonio "L.A." Reid, the chairman of Island Def Jam Music Group.
"When I met him, his personality just won me over," recalled Raymond. "And then when he sang, I realized we were dealing with the real thing. His voice just spoke to the type of music I would want to be associated with."
The important endorsement came after months of rejection for Bieber.
"Everyone had told me: 'You don't have a Nickelodeon or Disney show. You can't break Justin.' I wanted him to be the next Michael Jackson. And literally everyone said no," Braun recalled. "But his talent was undeniable, and his success is a testament to his true ability."
While Bieber's vocal chops are his own, the adults surrounding him are molding him in other ways. He is most often seen wearing oversized baseball caps, dog chains and flashy sneakers, a streetwise look that's been concocted by his road manager and stylist Ryan Good, 26, once dubbed Bieber's "swagger coach," a term he now bristles at. Though a product of a middle-class suburban upbringing in Stratford, Ontario, Bieber's manner of dress and speech ("Wassup man, how you doin'?" or "It's like, you know, whateva' ") suggest he's mimicking his favorite rappers. Some of those rappers, like Ludacris, appear on his songs, which have been produced by a respected team of artists that includes Terius "The-Dream" Nash.
The young star also seems to have mastered Flirting 101. He frequently compliments his fanswith pet names and has flirted with talk show hosts Chelsea Handler and Barbara Walters.
"You all look like princesses," he cooed to a handful of fans allowed inside the studio for Radio Disney's "Take Over With Ernie D." "You look like Miley Cyrus with your fancy hat," he told one.
Later that afternoon, his Gucci sneakers up on a couch before the Leno taping, he snacked on Doritos and said he sometimes finds his fans' adoration perplexing.
"I don't really understand it, because I've never had a musician I was that into," he said, picking up a Sharpie and practicing his signature by repeatedly autographing a blank piece of paper. "I just try to make it as fun for them as possible. For some of them, this might be the only time they'll get to meet me."
Team Bieber is acutely protective of his image. A day before the Leno appearance, publicist Melissa Victor complained about a video interview with the star from the Kids' Choice Awards on The Times' website that she described as "snotty." Then, when Bieber told Leno on the air that he had purchased his own Range Rover -- prompting an unflattering remark from someone in the audience that was overheard by Victor -- she asked a reporter to excise any mention of the car from this story.
Bieber's bodyguard, Kenny Hamilton, also watches the teen's every move. When he heard Bieber call some Leno cameramen "dumb," he quickly pulled the singer aside and scolded him.
Bieber's mentor, Raymond, feels Bieber is handling the limelight well.
"It's like Justin has already been here before," said Raymond. "Although he's 16, when you talk to him, it's like you're talking to a well-seasoned young man. It's almost like he'd already mapped out in his mind what his story could be, and it's up to us to navigate him."
Manager Braun and Chris Hicks, executive vice president of A&R at Island Def Jam, Bieber's label, said keeping Bieber level-headed is key not just to maintaining his current status, but to eventually transitioning him to adult success.
"My thing with Justin is: feet on the ground. We don't have any time to levitate," Hicks said.
"The answer to me is that you help him become a man," Braun said. "You surround him with people who don't treat him any differently. Justin rode coach today because there was no first class available and we had to get somewhere. It was no questions asked. He's been given a gift and a blessing, but that doesn't make you better than anyone else."
As for Jenny, the tutor, her cellphone was eventually returned to her. She declined to identify the culprit.