An autographed Epiphone is encased in glass beside a poster advertising Justin Bieber’s movie, Never Say Never, at the town tourist office.
Every summer, teenage girls flock to Long & McQuade across the street and burst into tears at the sight of the teen pop star’s former rental guitar, far out of reach on a ledge above the door.
Shirts in shop windows along the main drag, Ontario St., read “To Bieber or not to Bieber,” a reference to the Shakespearean festival that was the town’s main claim to fame until Bieber came along.
Bieber’s hometown of Stratford, Ont., has basked in the glow of its wonderkid, who shot from the ranks of yet-another teen hopeful posting cover songs on YouTube to one of the world’s biggest names in music.
But the headlines about his devoted fans, his musical accomplishments, his philanthropic work, his awards, have diminished of late.
In its place, notoriety.
In the past month alone, there was the police raid in response to complaints of egging a neighbour’s home that uncovered illegal drugs; there was the Miami arrest for allegedly driving under the influence and drag racing; there was the Toronto assault charge for allegedly hitting a limo driver.
So, now, the headlines scream of the fall of a teen star.
But in Stratford, it’s not as simple as that too-common showbiz trope.
People here have grown weary, and wary, of the attention and the damage it does, to Bieber, his family, his friends.
“What’s your angle?” someone says, when asked about Bieber.
“Is this a tabloid story? If it is, I’m not interested,” another says.
“I think fatigue has set in with the continual news cycle of what he’s got into,” says Mayor Dan Mathieson.
There is a great deal of concern here, from those who knew the boy before he became the Biebs; from those to whom he is still just Justin.
And Justin is, after all, still just a kid.
He’s that kid who used to burst into the YMCA on Downie St., crippled skateboard in hand, looking for an Allen key to fix it.
The kid who brought his laptop into the Screaming Avocado cafeteria at Northwestern Secondary School to show off his online musical success: ‘Look! I got 500 hits!’
That kid, “a bit of a twerp,” fidgeting into Madelyn’s Diner with his mom or his grandparents, going to day camp with the owner’s granddaughter.
He’s that kid who belted out tunes on the stairs of the Avon Theatre for the tourists who flock to the town of 30,000 in summer; the one who sang “his little heart out” on the youth centre’s karaoke machine until he had to be nudged out at the 9 p.m. close.
“And he’s still a kid. Remember that,” says Mimi Price, chief executive officer of the Stratford-Perth Family YMCA.
Justin grew up at the YMCA, says Price, playing sports here, hanging out at the youth centre across the street. In 2010, he came back with a film crew to shoot some scenes for his Never Say Never concert film, released the following year.
She has a tattered placard with photos of a young Justin performing karaoke. An autograph tacked to it has been touched by countless gushing young females. They often sob when Price pulls out the signed YMCA T-shirt that, yes, Justin wore, here in this photo on her bulletin board.
“We’re 100 per cent behind him,” says Price. “He’s one of our own, he’s one of our kids and we take care of our own.”
Price remembers telling the film’s producers of her worry for him, out there in the spotlight, without even an accompanying band — a la, say, N’Sync or the Beatles — with which to share the glare.
The producer told her, not to worry, there were good people around Justin.
“After they left, I thought, ‘Yeah, and everybody’s looking for a pay cheque,’” says Price. “This whole community is worried. It’s worry and anger, it’s a tricky set of emotions we’re feeling because … we want to make sure he’s O.K. And how do we do that?”
Martin Ritsma, principal of Justin’s former high school, Northwestern Secondary, says Justin was an everyday student who loved sports and music. Now, a trio of photos of Justin is framed in the office.
“I don’t think anybody at that time thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this kid is a music wizard,” he says. “Here’s a young man that most people saw had average ability that went out and did something, when given the opportunity, he went out and conquered the world.”
A sign on the wall above Ritsma reads, ‘Anything is possible’ below his name.
Justin has had his slips and falls, says Ritsma. But so do most teenagers. It’s just that most don’t get noticed around the world.
“I see young men and women making mistakes every day,” says Ritsma. “Obviously, with Justin, because he’s already in the (international) spotlight, it is going to make international news.”
But at the school of about 1,150 on the north edge of town, Justin is trotted out as an example of achievement, striking out for dreams, in the spirit of Ritsma’s motto upon the wall.
“We’d be foolish not to say, ‘Wow, look at what one of the boys or girls that walked this hallway achieved.”
In Features Restaurant, a narrow eatery on Ontario St. that’s listed on a Stratford tourism map as Justin’s favourite breakfast joint, Jeff Clayton has fielded questions from reporters from as far away as China.
Clayton dated Justin’s mother’s roommate. He’s known the kid his entire 19 years, used to babysit him.
“He’s always been a kid that gets a little scuffle going,” says Clayton, adding that if he had a yellow Lamborghini, he might drive it too fast, too. “But he’s a good kid, all in all.”
And the antics aren’t all that different from what a lot of kids in Stratford pull in their teen years, says Clayton.
“It’s just kids being kids,” he says. “He’s gotta learn, like everyone else did.”
A couple storefronts away at Treasures shop, Jackie Catania designed those “To Bieber or Not to Bieber” T-shirts.
Stratford has long been a tourist town, drawing a mostly older crowd for its world-renowned theatre that’s seen the likes of Christopher Walken and Christopher Plummer on stage.
Justin has brought a younger dynamic, says Catania.
“We do have (Bieber) naysayers,” she says. “Some people are ‘Not to Bieber’ and some people are.”
Across the Avon River and up a slight hill, Madelyn’s Diner is adorned with kids’ drawings on the walls, teal and turquoise tabletops and a busy grill where cooks slide plates of Tear Jerker burgers, Hearty Delight breakfasts, Chicken Humungous, under the warming lamps.
It’s been here for 29 years, owned and operated until 2011 by Madelyn Carty. Her daughter, Krista Moore, runs it now. Both women have known Justin and his family for years, as he came in the tow of his mom or grandparents.
Moore sighs as she slides into a booth. She’s getting a lot of calls about Justin these days. The diner is listed on the tourist centre’s “Bieber-iffic!” map to Stratford.
“He’s a real person to us,” says Moore. “When I see it all, I just think, ‘What have they done to him?’”
She mentions a recent Facebook post by the father of one of Justin’s childhood friends. It was about Kayla Baker, a 15-year-old clinging to life at a Toronto hospital just after Christmas this year. Justin bowed out of his holiday in Stratford and went to see her. Kayla’s mother described him to the Waterloo Region Record as “very sweet.”
Kayla died a few days later.
“That’s the piece that people forget about — he does a lot of good, too,” says Moore. “He’s just a kid with too much money, too fast.”
Moore has just got off the phone with her mother.
“Her big thing is he’s going to die, if someone doesn’t get a hold of him and get him some help, because he’s just on a bad path. No amount of money is worth that.”
She gets asked a lot what her advice would be to Justin, if he were looking for any.
“Just for him to come home,” says Moore. Then she looks away and brushes her cheeks.
“I don’t know why every time I say that, I feel like I’m going to cry.”