I’m way too old to be a Belieber but there I was on a snowy Saturday afternoon driving slowly up towards Justin Bieber’s boyhood home in Stratford, Ontario. I’ve never bothered to investigate the legacy of musicians that I actually like, so why was I paying homage to a kid whose fan base wasn’t even born when I graduated from college? Call me crazy, or worse, but how can you not be curious about an 18-year-old who has earned well over $50 million and has 7 million more Twitter followers than the President of the United States?
Stratford is a prim, artsy town in Western Ontario that, until Bieber burst into the popular culture, was known as the home of the Stratford Festival, one of North America’s premier venues to see live Shakespeare productions at five area theaters. But these days, legions of tween and teen girls from all over the world descend on the place to walk in the footsteps of their hero. Two years ago, tourism officials in the town teamed up with Bieber’s grandparents to create a “Bieber-iffic” map with 24 of the lad’s local haunts.
But the Bieber home people flock to is a couple miles outside the tourist friendly zone on a nondescript, working class street behind a strip with chain restaurants and some big box stores. As soon as I stepped out of the car and snapped a photo of the home, I felt like a stalker and furtively ducked back into the car.
If I was a 12-year-old girl, my mission would have been perfectly understandable, but as a middle-aged guy, I felt ridiculous. Still, as we drove away, I wanted to know if Bieber’s family still lived in the house, so I pulled over and asked a pair of teens who were walking on the slushy street.
“Oh no, they moved,” said the girl, who was probably about 14.
“Well are they still in Stratford or did they leave town?” I asked, as my wife swatted me in the stomach.
The girl had no idea and as we drove off, my wife, who was blissfully unaware of what a large detour I had taken us on to follow in Bieber’s footsteps, lost what little interest she had in the crusade.
“This is so embarrassing,” she complained. “You’re a grown man asking teenagers on the street about where Justin Bieber’s grandparents live? People are going to wonder what’s wrong with you. “
If only my sons, who are 3 and 5, were a bit older we could have plausibly claimed we were visiting the Bieber Trail on their behalf, but alas they were too young to serve the purpose. Around the corner from the Bieber house on a typically suburban stretch of strip malls and fast foot outlets, we pulled into the parking lot of King’s Buffet, a “Chinese & Canadian” buffet, where young Justin apparently spilled spaghetti and meatballs all over himself on his first ever date.
My wife refused to come in with me and as I approached the maître d’s podium, I couldn’t decide if I should simply ask about Bieber’s first date or explain that I was writing a story about the Bieber Trail.
“I read that Justin Bieber had his first date here,” I blurted out, sheepishly, thankful that the place was almost completely empty. “Do you know anything about that?”
“Sure, we get groups of young girls coming in here all the time for that,” said a young man with spiky hair who was dressed in black.
“Really? What do they say?” I asked.
“They just come in and start giggling and squealing,” he said. “Most of them want to know where he sat, who was the girl, what did they order. But unfortunately we don’t know any of the details.”
Hoping to find someone with a bit more information on Bieber’s connection to the town, I went to Stratford’s Visitor’s Information office and struck up a conversation with Aaron Wybrow. He told me that the two most popular stops on the trail were City Hall, where Justin performed his first ever recorded song and the Avon Theatre, where Justin supposedly used to make upwards of $200 per night as a busker. (A bronze star honoring Him is now emblazoned on the sidewalk in honor of this legacy.)
Wybrow is often the first person that Beliebers meet in Stratford, so I was curious to know what it was like to encounter these ferociously loyal, some would say psychotic, young women.
“They’re hard to control and hard to talk to,” he said, standing next to a display case with an autographed Justin Bieber guitar. “They want to see everything about Justin so they’re asking every question under the sun and before you can answer, it’s another question.”
As we were talking one of his colleagues, who was manning a visitor’s information desk the city had set up at a regional girls pee-wee hockey tournament, stopped in to restock his supply of Justin Bieber maps. The demand was so great that it was his third reload of the day. (The visitor’s center has distributed more than 20,000 Justin maps since they were produced in 2010.)
Wybrow explained that the Beiber Trail had been created in consultation with Justin’s grandparents, who had just one condition for their cooperation: that their home address wouldn’t be listed as one of the stops. They have since moved to a neighboring town, but the visitor’s information office still won’t tell people where Justin lived because they don’t want stalkers, like me, to trample the place.
Wybrow mentioned that when Beiber returned to Stratford last summer with girlfriend Selena Gomez there was a media feeding frenzy.
“And there’s a rumor going around now that Justin’s in town right now,” he said. “But I don’t know if it’s true.”
That nugget added another delicious little element to my quest. Perhaps we’d meet Justin. Who knows, maybe we’d run into Him at one of His old haunts or perhaps He’d play an impromptu gig somewhere in town or busk at the Avon Theatre for old time’s sake?
“Tell me, am I the only guy who has ever come in to ask about Justin Bieber sites?” I asked.
“We have had guys come in,” Wybow said. “But they always say they’re just asking for their girlfriends. I’d say that about 98 or 99% of the people who came in to ask about Justin are girls.”
Feeling very much like a member of the 1%, we repaired to the Café 10, where Ana Staffen, a 16-year-old girl, waitress and cashier served us some great food and even better Bieber gossip. The restaurant isn’t listed on that Bieber Trail but she still fields plenty of inquiries from Beliebers.
“When I tell them that I live right near Ryan, who’s like Justin’s best friend, they just start screaming and freaking out,” she said. “One time, I was telling one of them that I had once been to a party that Justin was at and she just started shaking and, like convulsing like she was going to collapse. Then she wanted to take my picture.”
Ana was keen to tell us everything she knew or had heard about Bieber. She claimed that he’d transferred schools after just one semester in high school because he was being bullied. A few of his best friends still live in the town and some of them thought that being a member of the Bieber entourage made them like royalty.
During Bieber’s visit to Stratford last summer, Ana and a group of about 30 other teens gathered in front of his grandparent’s residence and sang and chanted for hours, hoping to coax Bieber out of the house.
“He came to the window and looked at us, but he never came outside,” said Ana, who said she saw Bieber’s movie three times even though she doesn’t really care for his music. “But eventually Kenny Hamilton, his bodyguard, who is also pretty famous, just because he’s Justin’s bodyguard, came out and everyone wanted his autograph and their photo with him.”
After a few hours, the vigil was broken up when a neighbor called the police, who came and dispersed the crowd.
One of Ana’s male colleagues said that “not many” people in Stratford were fond of Bieber, though few could deny that his popularity was a boon to the city’s tourism industry.
“He went to meet the Prime Minister and he wore overalls,” he said, explaining his disdain for Bieber. “Who does that?”
Over at Long & McQuade, the music shop where Bieber used to rent guitars, Aimee Jesso didn’t seem surprised when I asked her about the store’s Bieber connection.
“We’re stop number six on the map,” she said. “We get all kinds of Beliebers in here.”
“Tell me about them,” I asked.
“They scream,” she said. “They scream. They cry. They ask questions.”
“They cry?” I asked.
“They cry!” she insisted. “I mean full out tears.”
Jesso said that the Beliebers want to know if HE touched anything in the store, if she had ever met Him, when was the last time He came to the store, and just about anything else you could imagine. The store has an autographed guitar that Justin once rented but it’s kept on a ledge about 15 feet off the ground for very good reason.
I asked Jesso if the rumors that Bieber was in town were true and she had no idea but gave us a clue of what to look for.
“You’ll definitely know his car when it’s parked out along the street,” she said. “It’s like a Batmobile.”
We spent a few hours wandering around Stratford’s atmospheric streets, taking in some of Justin’s old haunts, but saw no sign of Him or his Batmobile. But His smiling visage was in all the shops. A bookstore had an entire shelf full of books about him. A gift shop had a whole corner of the store devoted to Bieber-related products, and even the town hardware store had a whole section of Bieber items, including cups, plates, bags and pillows bearing His likeness.
We left town without ever having seen Him, but walking in His footsteps somehow didn’t seem that creepy or shameful by the time we reached the border crossing just outside Sarnia, Ontario.
“Where are you going?” asked the U.S. border patrol agent, who barely looked away from his computer screen to see who we were despite the fact that it was late in the evening and no one else was in line to cross into the U.S.
“We’re heading back home to Chicago after a visit to my parents in Buffalo,” I said.
“So you just transited through Canada then, you didn’t stop?” he asked.
“Well, we went to Stratford just to see Justin Bieber’s hometown,” I said, betraying no shame whatsoever.
“No you didn’t,” he countered, jerking his head away from his computer screen to get a better look at me.
“We were passing through anyways,” my wife interjected defensively, perhaps fearful that we were about to be denied entry back into the U.S. “We didn’t go to Canada just to see Justin Bieber’s hometown.”
I didn’t mention that the Bieber trail had actually been a major detour. No one in their right mind drives from Buffalo to Chicago via Stratford, Ontario.
“Are you sure you’re Americans?” the agent asked shaking his head, half kidding and half serious, before waving us back in.
Back home in Chicago, it occurred to me that I’d never actually heard a Justin Bieber song, or if I had, I didn’t know it was Him. I felt about 99.9% certain that I wouldn’t like the young man’s music, but I hadn’t even given Him a chance. After traveling in His footsteps, I owed him that.
And so, on Sunday afternoon as we put up our Christmas tree, I dialed up his latest album and some tracks from his Christmas album on Spotify, which spares one the indignity of having to actually pay to hear the kind of music you’d be ashamed to be caught with in a shop.
The verdict? Spending time in Bieber’s hometown hadn’t turned me into a Belieber despite my wife’s claims to the contrary. Listening to his work confirmed that it wasn’t my cup of tea. But when I listened to his rendition of “Silent Night,” I had to admit it was good. Not good enough that I’d be sent into a convulsive fit if in the presence of someone who once stood near Him, but pretty, pretty good.
[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]