Justin Bieber is a hugger. The 16-year-old musician, whose album My World 2.0 debuted at No. 1 on Billboard and has sold nearly 850,000 copies in just five weeks, doesn't shake hands he goes straight for the full embrace. But Bieber is so small that unless you are a preteen girl (which you very well might be; most of his fans aren't old enough to drive), you'll have to bend down to greet him. Bieber has a warm smile and overgrown hair that he brushes forward into his face. His giant high-tops are always untied. He seems at first like nothing more than the latest in a line of manufactured teen idols the Britneys, Justins, Mileys and Jonases that have dominated teenage hearts for the past decade. But beyond his looks and talent, Bieber is something else entirely: the first real teen idol of the digital age, a star whose fame can be attributed entirely to the Internet.
Bieber didn't arrive through the normal channels: he wasn't a child model; he was never on Star Search or the Disney Channel; his parents didn't audition him for commercials. In 2007 he was 12 years old and living in Stratford, Ont., with his single mother, Pattie Mallette. Mallette began posting videos of her son's musical performances on YouTube so that relatives could see him in action: Bieber participating in a local talent show or singing and playing guitar at home. He covered pop and R&B songs: Matchbox Twenty, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys. And he was good. Really good. So good that strangers started watching his videos. Within months, his Internet following numbered in the thousands. Not bad for a middle-school student.
Late one night in 2007, Scooter Braun, an Atlanta-based promoter and music manager, was in bed surfing the Internet when he stumbled upon a grainy home video of Bieber belting out Aretha Franklin's "Respect." "It was such raw talent, my gut just went wild," Braun says, and then pauses. "Maybe I shouldn't tell people I watched videos of Justin Bieber in the middle of the night." Two weeks later, he flew Bieber and his mother to Atlanta and became his manager.
Braun and Bieber spent the next six months strategically building a fan base. Bieber would post new songs on YouTube, respond to messages from fans and interact with them. He was accessible; he addressed his fans by name and talked to them as if they were friends. Even now, with 2.2 million Twitter followers, he frequently responds to fans' questions and retweets their greetings. "I also try to read all of my fan mail," he says. "A lot of them send me candy, which I'm not allowed to eat 'cause my mom says it might be poisonous."
Record labels don't like to take chances, and none wanted to touch an untested teenage act. "They kept telling me, He's not backed by Disney. He doesn't have a TV show. He's a nobody," says Braun. But among other artists, word of Bieber's talent quickly spread. Justin Timberlake wanted to work with him. So did Usher. "He sang and played the guitar for me, and I was like, Wow, this kid has even more talent than I did at that age," he says. The R&B star struck a business deal with Braun; a Def Jam record contract soon followed.