Pop stardom is a contact sport, but at age 18 Justin Bieber knows how to roll with the punches. Believe that.

This feature appears in Complex's 10th Anniversary Issue (April/May 2012).

The InterContinental Carlton Cannes is popping on a Saturday night. Inside the luxurious space where Alfred Hitchcock shot To Catch a Thief and Prince Rainier of Monaco wooed his future princess, Grace Kelly, middle-aged couples bullshit over wine and appetizers. This opulent hotel on the French Riviera is the spot for Hollywood players during the Cannes Film Festival, but tonight everyone’s in town for the NRJ Awards, where the main attraction is Justin Bieber.

JayBee’s team—publicist, manager, marketer, and security guards—huddles in a room just off the lobby. Justin’s running 30 minutes late, and the squad is getting worried that he may miss the red carpet. Just as panic is about to set in, Justin strolls through the back entrance of the hotel wearing a bright blue MCM x TI$A perfecto leather, a white shirt/black tie combo, saggy black skinny jeans, and $900 Balenciaga high-tops. His hair is swoop-less and perfectly slicked back, and he carries himself with confidence. When Allison, the GM at his management company, asks who smells so good, JayBee quickly replies, “It’s me.”

“I missed the red carpet?” Justin asks as the team piles into the blacked-out van that will take him to the awards. Then, only half-kidding, he adds: “Hopefully, right?” He makes a point of saying that
Taz Arnold designed the blue leather jacket he’s wearing especially for him—and that it’s a one of one. During the short ride, his hairstylist grooms his eyebrows and asks Justin if he brushed his teeth.

Despite the tinted windows, when Justin pulls up to the Palais de Festivals, his fans know he’s arrived. The van door slides open, Justin emerges, and the reception is overwhelming. You've seen how it looks on TV—flashing lights everywhere, girls with camera phones screaming—but when you witness it live, it’s a lot to take in.

Justin Bieber’s growing up. He turned 18 on March 1—it’s hard to believe he stepped on the scene just three years ago. It’s not often that a pop star transitions to adulthood before our eyes. Michael Jackson did it, as did the other Justin—Timberlake, that is. Both are legends in their own right who graduated from boy bands to spectacular solo careers. But there haven’t been many who’ve done it as a solo artist on both sides of the jump. Bieber’s about to break the mold with his new album, Believe. When all is said and done, this kid could be the biggest pop star of this generation. But are his current crop of fans ready for their idol to grow up? And equally important, does Justin want to make the sacrifices that go along with being the new King of Pop?

 

“Yo, I can rap anyone, like perfect. Watch me do Drizzy.” Backstage after the award ceremony, Justin Bieber, red carpet super-star, takes a break, and Justin Bieber, regular (albeit insanely talented) teenager, takes center stage. He doodles, drawing an off-color cartoon of his manager. He writes a two-line script for his publicist to recite: “I AM SOFA KING STOOP IT” (try pronouncing it phonetically). Kid stuff. He does a flawless Drake impersonation, with perfect accent and flow. He follows that with verses from Eminem, Biggie, and 2Pac. After Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’” verse, he finishes with an impersonation of Nicki Minaj, complete with exaggerated facial expressions. “I love how scary the faces she makes are,” he says with a laugh.

Some grumpy rap media outlets have griped about Bieber freestyling over classic beats like Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya,” but he shrugs the critics off. “I just rap for fun,” he says. “It’s nothing to take seriously. On my new album, I’m going to do a little bit of rapping.” He proceeds to spit a set of bars from “Boyfriend,” a song recorded for Believe. “Tell me what you like, dear/Tell me what you don’t/I could be your Buzz Lightyear/Fly across the globe/You don’t even need to fight, dear/You already know/I can make you shine bright/Like you’re laying in the snow/Burr.” Yeah, JayBee’s up on Gucci Mane, too.

Bieber is so carefree, so natural, it’s easy to forget he’s the same kid who sold more than 12 million albums worldwide and whose documentary has raked in over $98 million at the box office. But the mood takes a turn when someone on his team hands him a BlackBerry that shows a photo of Swizz Beatz wearing an MCM jacket identical to the one he’s wearing right now—the same one he proudly described as a one of one.

Bieber immediately calls his stylist to ask why Swizz had the jacket first. There’s a little bit of tension, but the conversation doesn’t last long and ends with Justin saying confidently, “Well, whatever. I just rocked it here in France and it looks swaggy.”

Later, at dinner, the life of the international pop star encroaches again, as Justin fires off a flurry of text messages. It seems they may be directed at Bieber’s gorgeous 19-year-old girlfriend, actress-singer Selena Gomez, who is thousands of miles away on her South American tour. Navigating that distance can be tough.

Justin’s outlook on the relationship is realistic. Although he’s not ready to answer the question of whether he’s in love, he’s not trying to conceal his feelings for Gomez anymore. “There’s no way to hide the relationship completely, because then it would be unfair to us,” he says. “It’s like, ‘You take this car, and I’ll take this car, and then we’ll meet up at the spot. Then, you go in this door, I’ll go in this door. We’ll end up crossing ways. You get back in this car. We’ll cross over, do a James Bond. You go through the kitchen. I’ll go through the back area. Then we’ll meet in the dressing room and see each other.’ At that point, it’s not even a relationship. You’re just hiding from everyone. That’s unfair and unhealthy, man.” With that, he polishes off the extra plate of broccoli he requested from the waiter and heads back to his hotel room to retire for the night.

 

Four days later, Scooter Braun, Justin’s manager, is clutching his BlackBerry at the Four Seasons Hotel in Miami. Since returning from France, Bieber and his right-hand man have been in the studio with Timbaland, pulling all-nighters for Believe, the official follow-up to his multi-platinum 2009 debut, My World. That is, unless you count the subsequent releases, My World 2.0, My Worlds Acoustic, My Worlds the Collection, the soundtrack album Never Say Never: The Remixes, and most recently, the Christmas album Under the Mistletoe—the first record where Justin’s voice sounds noticeably deeper.

 

It pisses me off when people say, 'Get over it Justin. You're famous.'

 

Braun’s planning a major rollout for Believe, including a full-scale marketing blitz, but the most important piece of the puzzle is the music. He’s doing his best to help Bieber stay focused, despite the constant distractions. (The night before, there were roughly 600 girls outside the studio hoping for a glimpse of Justin; police had to come and disperse the thirsty crowd.) Lil Wayne’s been working in the same studio—and they’ve done some skateboarding together. Who knows? Maybe they’ll record together, too. But Scooter’s already got plenty of A-list collaborators lined up. “We’re talking to Benny Blanco, Bei Maejor, Mike Posner,” Braun says. “We’re going to work with Pharrell...and Bruno Mars. He’s going in with Drake and 40 next week.”

Making his name throwing parties at Atlanta’s Emory University, Scooter Braun went on to work under Jermaine Dupri before discovering Bieber on YouTube when he was just 13. Since then, Braun’s charted a path for the pop star that’s been flawless. Outsiders call Scooter Bieber’s mentor, but he likens the relationship to that of an uncle or a dad. “We made a commitment to each other when he was 13 to be there for each other no matter what,” Braun says. And “no matter what” means a lot these days as Justin shifts from teeny-bopper to young man. “I want him to start being on my level and one of my boys,” says Scooter. “I want to start treating him like a man. He’s pushing back a little bit more, but I think that’s natural.”

The typical growing pains of adolescence are different under the microscope of fame. Scooter recalls a conversation they had about drugs: “He called me and said ‘Do you know why I’m never going to do that stuff? Because I know you’d walk in and beat the shit out of me.’” Bieber says he’s never even smoked a cigarette in his life. Most of the “pushing back” has to do with wishing for a more ordinary life. “He doesn’t like being famous,” Braun explains. “He struggles with not being normal. I’m constantly telling him, ‘You’re not normal, and since you’re living an extraordinary life, I’m holding you to extraordinary standards.’”

 

At 4 p.m. Braun walks to Justin’s hotel room, where the pop star is just waking up, playing Temple Run on his iPhone in bed. Scooter tells Bieber he’ll be on his own for this part of the interview, proving his point about letting Justin be his own man. Braun’s final words before closing the door: “Don’t fuck up.”

Dressed in red from head to toe—red T-shirt, red adidas track pants, and red Vans Authentics—Bieber settles in on the couch, his hair restored to its infamous swoop. He wants to talk about a video that surfaced online showing him and his bodyguard rushing from their car into an airport terminal to avoid paparazzi, leaving a trail of disappointed fans. “The cameramen were waiting for me to come out of the car,” he says. “They thought it was going to be a minute, so they had their cameras down. I sprinted right by them, and they didn’t get any shots of me.” Unfortunately, he says, “I didn’t see the girls there, and it made me look awful.”

 

I give up a personal life, I give up friends and family to pursue what I love and make fans happy... There's no point in doing this if I'm not going to be the best.

 

Bieber is conscious of his fans, but not surprisingly, he’s less fond of the paparazzi. “I’ll be covering my face,” he says, “and it pisses me off so much when people say, ‘Get over it, Justin. You’re famous. People are going to take your picture. Suck it up, you’re rich…’ It’s like, ‘Yo, I just got off an eight-hour flight. I’m tired and my eyes have bags under them. I’m not trying to take pictures. I’m not going to come to your house, wake you up, and start snapping your picture.’”

The push-and-pull of JayBee’s coming-of-age came to a head last March when a picture surfaced on gossip sites showing Justin flipping off reporters. It was an image most people over 18 thought was awesome—but perhaps a moment that Justin’s younger fans didn’t understand. “I probably shouldn’t have done that,” Bieber says, explaining that he and his girlfriend were out celebrating his 17th birthday when their car was surrounded by photographers. (He later apologized on Twitter, promising next time he’d try to #killthemwithkindness.) “It was what it was. I’m not hiding from anyone. I am who I am, and I’m not perfect. I don’t want to give these kids the wrong impression. If they learn that from me, that’s not good.”

His problems haven’t always been so extraordinary. Braun recalls a story of Justin speaking at a school in Vegas and telling the kids that he had to steal clothes from the lost and found because he couldn’t afford new ones. Bieber’s tricky upbringing has been well documented. His mother had him when she was 17, and shortly after, his parents split. “They did the best they could, but it was tough for them,” Justin says. “They had to work on their relationship, and trying to raise a kid through that was hard. It made me stronger. There’s a lot of people that I know who wouldn’t be able to handle the position that I’m in now, because it’s too much pressure.”

Part of that pressure is handling criticism. Though he declines to comment on the paternity suit brought by a 20-year-old California woman who claims she hooked up with him after a concert in L.A., he laughs off other claims that have been written about him—like inhaling helium to help him hit high notes, and taking drugs to help him stay young. “Yeah, I’m actually a 40-year-old man in disguise,” he says with a smile. When asked about a recent V magazine shoot in which critics thought he looked feminine, Bieber is coolly dismissive. “Every guy has feminine qualities,” he says. “You’re raised by your mother and father, and I was raised mostly by my mother. I think the pictures turned out good—so whatever.”

 

All of the handlers and packaging can’t conceal the fact that Bieber is a confident—and competitive—young man. His father is a former MMA fighter, and Justin himself is a big fan of the cocky boxing champ Floyd Mayweather Jr. “There’s no point in doing this if I’m not going to be the best,” Bieber says. “I give up a personal life. I give up my friends and family to pursue what I love and to make my fans happy. Why would I give up so much to be just another singer?”

It’s this attitude that suggests Bieber will have a longer run than other tween pop stars. “When I release something I want it to be the best,” he continues. “When I release my fragrance, I want it to be the number-one fragrance; I don’t want it to be the ninth-best-selling fragrance. My Christmas album went double-platinum worldwide. Christmas albums don’t do that, and that still wasn’t good enough for me.”

 

People just need to take a chance and listen. That’s going to be the biggest problem, to make them feel like it’s cool to like my music.

 

Bieber wants to win so much he’s only looking to the record books for comp. “He’s competitive with Michael Jackson,” Braun relates. “He looks at other groups in his space not like competition, but as part of the team. When he looks at who he should chase and who’s setting the bar, we only talk about Michael Jackson. We talk about Michael probably every other day.” In fact the Jackson family specifically asked Bieber to appear at the ceremony for MJ’s induction to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Bieber considers it one of the biggest moments of his career. “It was crazy,” he says. “It was such an honor to be there and have his mother and daughter introduce me.” Even crazier was hearing Jackson’s daughter, Paris, tell Justin, “I think my dad would have loved to mentor you.”

The day when having a Justin Bieber song on your iPod isn’t a guilty pleasure is coming soon. “As adults we think about that transition when you started living young manhood,” says Braun. “He’ll represent that. I don’t think there’s anything that needs to be done. The one thing I tell him all the time is, ‘Don’t be in such a rush to appease the adult audience and try to be a grown-up. Just be 18—and people will relate to that.’” But as much as he encourages JayBee not to get ahead of himself, that doesn’t mean he’s scaling back his grand vision.

“It’s awesome that he’s Canadian,” Braun says before they head back to the studio. “Because I just realized Canada is a province of the U.K., so the Queen of England is the Queen. Technically, if Justin has an amazing career, he can be knighted. He can be Sir Justin.”

JayBee isn’t quite ready for knighthood, but he’s begun to embrace what Scooter’s been saying all along: that he’s not a normal kid. “I’m ready,” Justin says before heading back to the lab. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to be the greatest I can be. If I start making terrible music, I don’t expect people to like me. If I’m making great music and there’s no reason for people to dislike me, that’s when it’s going to make me upset. People just need to take a chance and listen. If they don’t want to take a chance, then I don’t know. That’s going to be the biggest problem, to make them feel like it’s cool for them to like my music.”

Justin says he wants to get more tattoos when he’s older. He pulls up his shirt to reveal a small seagull tattoo on his hip—inspired by Richard Bach’s book Jonathan Livingston Seagull. His whole family got inked with the same design when he was 16. “They all got it on their wrist, but I wanted it in a different spot,” he explains. “The book is about a seagull who wanted to be more than just a seagull. I’m trying to be more than just a regular person. I’m trying to be extravagant.” Kid stuff, right? Not so much.

WATCH JUSTIN BIEBER'S BEHIND-THE-SCENES VIDEO:

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ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (STYLING) Matthew Henson. (GROOMING) Vanessa Price. (MAKEUP) Miho Suzuki. (CLOTHING) Suit by Dolce & Gabbana / Shirt by Won Hundred / Bow tie by TOPMAN / Shoes by Android Homme.