Justin Bieber has lived a well-documented life – maybe among the more well-documented lives in the history of this decaying planet. But, to my knowledge, there is not one example of him speaking this way in public – in a moving but unprompted, unselfconscious torrent of words – prior to this moment. I will admit to being disoriented. If I’m being honest, I had been expecting someone else entirely – someone more monosyllabic; someone more distracted, more unhappy; someone more like the guy I’m pretty sure Justin Bieber was not all that long ago – and now I am so thrown that the best I can do is stammer out some tortured version of… How did you become this person? By which I mean: seemingly guileless. Bursting with the desire to connect, to tell his own story, in case it might be of use to anyone else.
He is, if anything, the empathetic professional in this interaction too as he goes about trying to help me understand how he’s arrived at where he’s arrived.
“I’ll answer as best I can,” he says, nodding. As for who he was in the not-so-distant past: “Hurt people hurt people – you know? And there’s a quote; I’m trying to remember it. I don’t know if it’s biblical, if it’s in the Bible. But I do remember this quote: The comforted become the comforters. I don’t know if you’ve heard that before. But I really do feel comforted. I have a wife who I adore, who I feel comforted by. I feel safe. I feel like my relationship with God is wonderful. And I have this outpouring of love that I want to be able to share with people, you know?”
He is aware that people have perceived him at times as anything but full of love. But today, he says, he thinks of himself as a comforter, in part because he knows what it is to have been the person who needed comfort so badly. He asks himself now: How can I be of service? The new music, the inspirational messages he posts on Instagram, the deliberately calm manner in which he goes about his days – all of it is addressed in some ways to his younger self, to the kid who was drowning and felt like he’d never be saved. Justin Bieber wants to save that kid now. He wants to talk to him. He wants to tell him not all is lost.
“I don’t want to let my shame of my past dictate what I’m able to do now for people,” Bieber says. “A lot of people let their past weigh them down, and they never do what
they want to do because they think that they’re not good enough. But I’m just like: ‘I did a bunch of stupid shit. That’s okay. I’m still available. I’m still available to help. And I’m still worthy of helping.’”
If you ask Bieber what he would’ve been doing five years ago, should the world have shut down and locked him in his home, he’ll say that five years ago things were pretty dark in general. “I was surrounded by a lot of people, and we were all kind of just escaping our real life,” Bieber says. “I think we just weren’t living in reality.” Which is to say: “I think it would have probably resulted in just a lot of doing drugs and being posted up, to be honest.”
Bieber was 21-22 years old at the time, at a low point in what was supposed to be a charmed life; at night, he says, his security guards began to slip into his room and
check his pulse to make sure he was still alive. “There was a sense of still yearning for more,” he says now. “It was like I had all this success and it was still like: I’m still sad, and I’m still in pain. And I still have these unresolved issues. And I thought all the success was going to make everything good. And so for me, the drugs were a numbing agent to just continue to get through.”
Today, Bieber can describe rock bottom with the clarity of someone who had to retrace every single step to hoist himself back out of it. “I just lost control of my vision for my career,” he says. “There’s all these opinions. And in this industry, you’ve got people that unfortunately prey on people’s insecurities and use that to their benefit. And so when that happens, obviously that makes you angry. And then you’re this young angry person who had these big dreams, and then the world just jades you and makes you into this person that you don’t want to be. And then you wake up one day and your relationships are fucked up and you’re unhappy and you have all this success in the world, but you’re just like: Well, what is this worth if I’m still feeling empty inside?”
What had all of it been for? Singing, Bieber says, “was supposed to bring such joy. Like, this is what I feel called to do. And my purpose in my life. I know that when I open my mouth, people love to hear me sing. I literally started singing on the streets and crowds would form around me to where I’m like, Okay, this could be something. There’s this reciprocation of: I’m using my gifts to serve people. That’s what I loved so much. And I just think more and more as you’re a kid and you don’t have an identity yet, and you’re trying to figure out who you are, and to have everyone saying how good you are, how incredible you are? You just start to believe that stuff. And ego sets in. And then that’s where insecurities come in. And then you start treating
people a certain way and feeling superior and above people. And then there’s this whole dynamic shift. I just woke up one day and I’m just like, Who am I?
I didn’t know. And that was scary to me.”
This was around 2017, the year he cancelled the final dates of a world tour from which he stood to make, in his words, a “huge amount of money – money that people would never turn down.” But he was also positive he was miserable, that he had found too many ways to push his friends and family away, that he was gradually building himself a cage out of his own bad behaviour that might eventually imprison him forever. He asked himself: “Am I ever going to be able to live a normal life? Am I going to be too self-centered and ego-driven that I just, you know, make all this money and do all these things, but then I’m left at the end of my life alone? Who wants to live that way?”
Toward the end of that tour, before he called off the rest of it, he found himself in an actual castle in Ireland: “This old castle. Just like the most beautiful estate. With the trimmed hedges that are completely immaculate.” He gestures, shapes the hedges with his hands, like he can still see them, perfectly vividly, today. “It’s over this beautiful body of water. And I was there. And I was alone. And I was sad inside.” He couldn’t enjoy the opulence or the beauty of it. In fact, he couldn’t feel anything at all.
So began a process in which Justin Bieber tried to find out what was wrong with him and how to fix it.
Two things brought Justin Bieber back, ultimately: his marriage and his faith. What they had in common was that they were value systems that didn’t depend on him performing in exchange for money. Bieber talks a lot about “have to” versus “want to” – his life has been mostly shaped by the former, in the sense that from a young age, he was brought up primarily not by his parents but by managers and bodyguards and label executives, whose purpose and presence, however benevolent, was to keep
the business on track. What he wanted, beyond money and further success – for instance, to stay in Toronto with his friends instead of performing on the Today show – was something he learned not to think about too much.
But he was always someone who was “compelled” to marry, he says. “I just felt like that was my calling. Just to get married and have babies and do that whole thing.”
(On the “babies” part of that: “Not this second, but we will eventually.”) And that was something he was missing all those years. Bieber is honest about the fact that his marriage has not always been easy. “The first year of marriage was really tough,” he says, “because there was a lot, going back to the trauma stuff. There was just lack of trust. There were all these things that you don’t want to admit to the person that you’re with, because it’s scary. You don’t want to scare them off by saying, ‘I’m scared.’” He spent the first year as a husband “on eggshells,” he says, but at some point he started to actually believe. Now, with his marriage to Hailey, he says, “We’re just creating these moments for us as a couple, as a family, that we’re building these memories. And it’s beautiful that we have that to look forward to. Before, I didn’t have that to look forward to in my life. My home life was unstable. Like, my home life was not existing. I didn’t have a significant other. I didn’t have someone to love. I didn’t have someone to pour into. But now I have that.”
It is beautiful to hear Justin Bieber talk about God. “He is grace,” he says. “Every time we mess up, He’s picking us back up every single time. That’s how I view it. And so it’s like, ‘I made a mistake. I won’t dwell in it. I don’t sit in shame. But it actually makes me want to do better.’” (And, perhaps, this is convenient: Bieber has done a lot in his life that needs forgiving, and an ethos of total acceptance can be alarmingly close to an ethos of total impunity, of being right in your deeds, no matter how bad or dark or selfish they are. But hear him out.) I am not a believer myself. Bieber doesn’t care about this. “My goal isn’t to try and persuade anybody to believe in what I believe, or condemn anybody for not believing what I believe,” he says. “If it can help someone, great. If someone’s like, ‘Hey, I don’t believe that. I don’t think that’s true,’ by all means, that’s their prerogative.”
That sense of belonging, of care, of stability – Bieber came to recognise it as the thing he wanted but had never had. “I came to a place,” he says, “where I just was like, ‘God, if you’re real, I need you to help me, because I can’t do this on my own. Like, I’m struggling so hard. Every decision I make is out of my own selfish ego.’ So I’m just like, ‘What is it that you want from me? You put all these desires in my heart for me to sing and perform and to make music – where are these coming from? Why is this in my heart? What do you want me to do with it? What’s the point? What is the point of everything? What is the point of me being on this planet?’ ”
And what happened, when Bieber asked for help, is that someone or something answered. He suddenly had a certainty: “If God forgives me and He loves me and He set these things in motion, if He put these desires in my heart, then I’m going to trust Him.”
He allows himself to be so open now, in daily life, that at one point when we speak, he cries. It’s a gentle cry, more like the rush of emotion that precedes tears than tears themselves. It’s just – he gets thinking about God and the world and his place in it, and sometimes he gets overwhelmed. I’d just asked if he’d fully reckoned yet with his younger self – if he still related to that person. If he’d forgiven that person.
“A lot of people will never do what they want to do, because they’re afraid and they have shame,” he starts. “They don’t feel enough to accomplish what’s in their heart, or there’s a cause they’ve always wanted to help, but they’re just like, ‘Aw, man, like, who am I? Who am I to be able to do this? Because look what I’ve done. Look at my past.’ And that was me for a long time. And I always felt like I was a good encourager. I always felt like I could encourage people and that my words held weight. But when you start living in shame, you start to devalue what shouldn’t have lost that value. And that’s why…”
He puts his head down and is silent. For 20-30 long seconds, he says nothing. I can’t even see his face. And then he picks his head up and continues, and his voice is thick and choked.
“It’s just rewarding to be all that you were designed to be. And I believe that, at this point in my life, I’m right where I’m supposed to be, doing what I believe that God wants me to do. And there’s nothing more fulfilling.”
Bieber wants to tell you that you’re a miracle too. He asks himself: “What can I do to be an encouragement?” He wants to say: “You can do it. You are valuable. Whatever you are saying about yourself or believing about yourself is not necessarily true. It’s just not.”
“I don’t know if that gives you clarity,” Bieber says, out of words at last. He is trying to be less focused on the outcomes of things. So either way, ultimately, is fine. He grins. “This is just therapy for me.”
Photographed by Ryan McGinley
Styled by Karla Welch
Written by Zach Baron