There’s probably not a single person in the world that divides opinion as much as that scrawny little 18-year-old we interviewed last weekend, slouching on a sofa.

This singing, dancing, baggy jeans-wearing, Twitter-spamming teenager is kind of like Marmite personified. You either love him or hate him, and it’s usually intensely, almost irrationally so.

Lady Gaga is often ridiculed but rarely despised. Cristiano Ronaldo has his haters but they generally admire his skill. Obamacare isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but Barrack Obama is still widely regarded – as Jimmy Fallon so eloquently put it – as the “POTUS with the mostest”.

But Justin Bieber? Good luck finding someone who’ll concede some kind of middle ground on the kid. He’s either god’s gift to adolescent girls, or a symbol of all that’s wrong with modern pop culture.

World Stage Sunway KLCC

The surprisingly well-mannered Justin Bieber, addressing fans at an exclusive meet-and-greet before our interview with him.

Still, as he walked into that hotel meeting room in Kuala Lumpur for a roundtable interview with a few journalists who had flown in from around the region, it was almost impossible to believe that this guy is the same cultural phenomenon that has inspired such incredible depth of emotion.

He seemed like just another laid-back, unassuming and extremely well-mannered teenager. Just day the before, he had hundreds of fans chasing him around town, following every rumoured sighting on social media; and in a few hours, he would have to perform at the MTV World Stage Live in Malaysia concert, in front of 15,000 fans.

Yet there he was, relaxed, seemingly self-aware, and trying his best to send out a positive message without sounding manipulative.

During a press conference before our interview, a fan asked what it felt like to be loved by everyone and Bieber replied: “Not everybody loves me”, with more than a tinge of irony apparent in his tone. “There are people who don’t. I just think it’s a blessing, that I get to inspire so many people. That’s my goal, to be a good person.”

Justin performing during the MTV World Stage concert in Malaysia.

Giving back

A pretty large group of fans were given the chance to attend the press conference, and Bieber made sure it was a special one by performing a seven-song acoustic set with his guitarist Dan Kanter – a celebrity in his own right by now, at least among Beliebers.

Bieber said he loves doing acoustic sets because they allow him to showcase his vocals, and you got to hand it to him – he’s actually pretty good. He has this pop-flavoured blue-eyed soul style that really works in an acoustic R&B setting. He’s no Robin Thicke or Justin Timberlake, but he’s no talentless mug either.

And the last time he performed in Malaysia, his April 2011 concert in Stadium Merdeka, he was totally over-doing it with his vocal runs. Well not this time. Guess he’s not the same show-off he was back then.

He performed songs like Fall and Die In Your Arms from his new album, Believe; and he also did a couple of his “classics” – Baby and One Less Lonely Girl.

Towards the end of the performance, he brought a lucky girl on stage and serenaded her with Boyfriend. That’s the kind of thing Bieber says he enjoys doing the most – making the fans happy.

“Just me bringing a fan on stage… She’ll probably never forget that moment, and it’s so easy for me to do something like that, so I always try to take time to do those things,” he said.

“There was a girl that had cancer. She listened to my music, and that helped her get through her chemo. Those are the moments when I’m like, ‘wow, this is why I do this, and this is special’.

“Life isn’t perfect, people have obstacles, and I feel like a lot of my fans just listen to my music as an escape. It’s amazing for me to be able to give them that. That’s what I want to do.”

Justin brought a lucky fan on stage as he sang “Boyfriend” at the press conference.

Growing pains

Our roundtable interview was straight after the press conference, and the first thing Bieber did when he came into the room was walk up to every single reporter to offer a polite handshake. There wasn’t even a hint of the obnoxious, arrogant wannabe punk he’s been so often made out to be. Or maybe he’s just grown out of it. In any case, he was extremely well-mannered so kudos to his mother and grandparents, whom he credits for keeping him grounded.

Speaking a few days later to Australia’s Today Tonight programme, Bieber said the best advice he’s received was: “Stay humble and keep your family close, keep the people that were there at the beginning there, because those are the people who cared and care enough to stay with you.”

The interview we had went fairly well – apart from an odd question about what he had for breakfast (answer: Protein shake. Moving on…), and an even more awkward moment when a Singaporean journalist chose to hand him a bag full of fan letters rather than ask a proper question (there’s probably never a straight-forward media session when this boy’s involved) – Bieber admitted that he has in the past allowed the pressure to get to him.

“I’m not perfect, but I want to be a good role model, a good person, you know? Through my music, through my interviews.

“I can have bad days and be upset during interviews, and maybe not answer questions the right way. I could be like, ‘yeah…’ (shrugs shoulders). But I think overall, people see that I’m just a good person,” he said.

But Bieber has reached his breaking point before. Just a couple of months ago, he was investigated for an alleged scuffle with a paparazzi photographer while out with his fellow teen pop star girlfriend Selena Gomez.

And earlier this month, he made a desperate 911 call saying the paparazzi were tailing his car and driving recklessly, forcing him to drive above the speed limit. He received a ticket for speeding, while the paps got away scot-free.

Even without the paparazzi, Bieber had to be surrounded by bodyguards when he visited the Sunway Lagoon shopping centre the day before his MTV World Stage performance. The mall’s security staff also had to help keep the growing number of fans at bay as he shopped and went for a round of laser tag with members of his entourage.

According to a representative from the mall, Bieber was just like any other kid on a shopping trip. He just wanted to buy what he was looking for, and move on. He didn’t schedule or announce his arrival, though the rep did also say his sudden laser tag detour was “pretty random”.

Shopping and laser tag – that’s what Justin did at Sunway Pyramid the day before his performance.


Much has been said about the new “Justin Bieberlake” sound on Believe, and Bieber himself admits he had a few doubts about ditching his teen-friendly pop sound.

“I know my fans love me and they would accept my music, but I didn’t know if they would accept like the more mature sound, so I got a little nervous about a week before the album came out. Like, should I pick this song to be on the album, or that song… You start having doubts, but at this point I don’t have any. I’m really happy,” he said.

Any why wouldn’t he? Believe was certified gold in ten countries just two weeks after its release, and according to Bieber, the new sound has even helped put him on his way to conquering that final frontier as long as his career is concerned – the male audience.

“It wasn’t a scary transition (to the new sound), but it was a transition I felt like it was just time to make. I think this album, it wasn’t too shockingly different, but it was different, and I think I gained fans with this album.

“I noticed a lot more guys have been showing up to my concerts, and a lot more older people. It’s been really cool to see the transition, and to see the different faces in the audience,” he said.

Justin’s already thinking about growing together with his fans.

Having greater creative control was something Bieber enjoyed as well with Believe, which was executive produced by his mentor, Usher.

While his first release My World was recorded in just three weeks, Believe took almost nine months, and Bieber says he was definitely more involved throughout the entire process this time around.

But in spite of his new sound, Bieber is hoping his younger fans will continue to grow with him as an artiste.

“I think that’s what separated Michael Jackson from everyone else. Whether you were a baby or 80-years-old, you’d like Michael Jackson.

“Some people put themselves in a box, when they start singing things that are inappropriate, or just things that young people can’t listen to; and I think that with my music, it’s appropriate, (but at the same time) it is edgy.”

As much as he’s enjoying his career right now, Bieber isn’t completely sure he’ll still be making music ten years from now.

Asked where he sees himself in ten years, he said: “When I’m 28, I will probably… (pauses to think) I don’t know. It’s so long from now! I will probably still be doing music, hopefully just gotten better, and evolved. I want to just keep evolving, and keep changing.”

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