Justin Bieber is leaning forward, eyes squeezed shut. “Jesus is God,” booms the pastor Judah Smith, standing before Bieber’s front-row seat in the ballroom of the Beverly Wilshire hotel. “He’s the relationship and the friendship you’ve been craving your whole life. If you believe that with all of your heart, every ounce of your being, I’m going to count to three, and then I’m going to ask you to lift up your hand.”
Bieber’s restless leg, which had been bouncing throughout the 60-minute service, goes still. “One! God loves you,” Smith announces, building to his big finish. “Two! You’ll never be the same.” And finally: “Three!” A smattering of palms shoot up in the 400-or-so-person crowd. Bieber keeps his down. The pastor, whom Bieber has known since he was 16, later makes clear to me, “This room exists to love people, surround people, encourage people” — not to pressure them into declaring Jesus as their savior. As with many things in his life today, Bieber is sorting out what he truly believes and how he shows that to the world.
The service ends with live music: a four-piece band performing a Christian alt-rock favorite by John Mark McMillan. Everyone stands. Bieber throws his arm around me and sways for the sing-along: “Yeah, he loves us, oh how he loves us…”
Earlier that evening — before we hit Mastro’s Steakhouse for dinner and head to the Wilshire — Bieber sits in a rooftop cabana at a different Beverly Hills hotel where he has been living for nearly a year. (He sold his Calabasas mansion to Khloe Kardashian after paying $80,000 in fines for egging a neighbor’s house.) “Enough with the Justin Bieber Show. I want to veer away from the self-centered attitude,” he says. “I’m just focused on the people who have been there since the start, on people who are taking the journey now. I want them to feel like we’re doing this together.”
Bieber, who turned 21 in March, has undertaken a brand overhaul following two years of headlines about public urination, Brazilian brothels, drag racing, illegal monkeys, grassroots deportation attempts and one cold night in a Florida jail. He insists some of the stories are “completely false,” but he has embarked on an epically literal apology tour: His latest beachy dance-pop single is titled “Sorry,” and he accompanied its rollout with a series of Instagram videos depicting some mildly stupid, imminently forgivable behavior (like using a trampoline under an overhang).
Spend a few hours with Bieber and it’s clear he’s making a real effort to show some gratitude for his hashtag-blessed life. Sure, he loses focus mid-sentence sometimes (once because a woman in a bikini walks by: “Wow, that girl is so hot”). He’s got a few overactive-kid tics, like the jimmy legs and a tendency to absentmindedly hitch up his shirt. And yeah, he walks a little like a robot impersonating a tough guy — but he hurt his neck in, well, a trampoline mishap. When he enters a room today, Justin Drew Bieber shakes hands, makes eye contact and often greets strangers with something of a new catchphrase: “Appreciate you.” And while you might assume the church trip was part of a plot to showcase his newfound nondouchiness, he invited me on a whim when Pastor Smith came up in our conversation (right around the time he started calling me “bro”).
Still, Bieber has devoted much of this year to public penitence, whether submitting himself to a brutal Comedy Central roast (“There were moments like, ‘Man, thatcut deep,’ but I was there to take it on the chin,” he says) or weeping on camera after his MTV Video Music Awards performance. Although his ego does surface as he recalls the latter incident: Asked why he thinks Nicki Minaj’s beef with Miley Cyrus was the bigger VMAs story, he balks, “I honestly thought my crying was more talked about.”
“I see people pointing, saying what a great job I did orchestrating his comeback,” says Bieber’s longtime manager, Scooter Braun. “I’ll be frank. I failed for a year and a half. He shut himself off and went into a dark place. Every single day I tried to help him turn it around, and every single day I failed. And I tried desperately. The only person who deserves credit for this is Justin.”
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