I knew that teen culture had fully dovetailed with mainstream culture when my ex-boyfriend approached me at a bar to say that he'd heard that I met Justin Bieber and could I tell him about it, please?
I was so surprised that my ex knew who the Biebz was that I forgot to be surprised that he wanted to talk to me in the first place. I'd been pretty sure that only 12-year-olds were interested in the "celebrities" I interviewed. It was 2009: the Glee pilot was just about to air, that YouTube video of the wedding party dancing to "Forever" was the hottest thing on the internet, Obama had just been inaugurated, and Justin Bieber was not yet a given.
At the time, I was 22 and blogging for Seventeen, my first job out of college. I interviewed minor characters from CW and Disney shows (my favorite was the 30-year-old man who played Hannah Montana’s brother, simply because it was so nice to talk to an adult), and I wrote quizzes ("Which Twilight Guy/Harry Potter Hottie/Gossip Girl Guy Should You Date?"), a task I took very seriously, remembering how seriously I had once taken them.
Generally, I was living my 8th grade fantasy life, down to living in “an apartment just like the one on Friends” (in that it had brick walls) with my coolest friend from middle school, a girl who talked like Daria but looked like Jane. In the interest of re-entering the teen mind space, I wore my old too-short Forever 21 dresses with neon tights, listened to Taylor Swift’s Fearless on repeat, read all the Twilight books, convinced myself that Miley’s music was good, and wiki-ed the shit out of every low-level celebrity on my schedule.
On the early September day that I met Justin Bieber, I'd been doing this for a year, living off of free shampoo and cupcakes, and he was just another random singer being promoted by a major label. I didn’t even bother looking him up; I had a ton to do, and was covering the press event as my boss's favor to a publicist. I took the train down to the Nintendo store at Rockefeller Center. When I got close, I saw police tape and a crowd of anxious girls. I entered the horde and started pushing my way toward the door.
I only made it about two feet before being stopped by an NYPD cop, who was not happy about spending his afternoon corralling parentless tweens. Our exchange went a little something like this:
Me: I’m on the press list.
Cop: Where’s your NYPD press pass?
Me: Um, I work at Seventeen.
Cop: You can’t get past without a press pass.
Me: I work at Seventeen! We’re not usually covering, like, crime scenes.
He took a look at me—my bangs, my little dress—and determined I was a wily 15-year-old trying to con my way to Bieber. “Get back!” he shouted. I got a little shaky. I hate being yelled at, especially for things that aren’t my fault. My little sisters used to make themselves cry and then accuse me of hitting them. My biggest fear, after untimely death, is getting in trouble for something I didn’t do.
So I re-entered the throng of girls, all of us waiting for a glimpse of that floppy hair—only the first 100 or so people had gotten in—and tried to calm myself down as I figured out what to do. The chatter around me went like this:
Every adult walking by: “What’s going on here? Who is this for?” “Damned if I know.”
Every girl in the crowd: “Oh my god, don’t they KNOW??? It’s Justin Bieber!!!!”
I desperately wanted to get this event over with and go back to work. I called my editor, who called the publicist, and the publicist called me. I told her that the police wouldn't let me in. I saw her at the door of the building, and I tried to head over, but got stopped and berated by the police again. I was on the verge of tears when the publicist called a cop over to her, pointed me out, and got him to escort me safely through.
But it was already one of those days where everything adds up—the donut shop is out of donuts, your work email password expired and you can’t figure out how to change it, you realize that in New York you are defined by your job and your job is to pretend to be an adult while inhabiting the space of babies—and little by little you reach a critical mass. I could feel the floodgates about to open, and knew that anything could push me over the edge.
That thing, it turned out, was the relief of finally making it inside. As soon as I got inside the building I started uncontrollably crying. Baffled, the publicist led me up the stairs, where Justin was signing autographs over to the left. Someone asked me if I needed a glass of water. I nodded through my tears, realizing that no one really knows what to do with a hysterically crying adult.
They brought me the water and I gulped it down, still crying. I knew everyone was embarrassed by me and for me, so I tried to stop, but I couldn't. I sort of hiccupped back at the staff's kind questions and tried to explain: police, bad day, busy. The publicist brought over Justin’s manager to say hi, and he told me, “I can’t wait to tell Justin that he made Seventeen Magazine cry.”
When Justin was finished signing autographs, his manager brought him over to meet me. He was about four feet tall, wearing his soon-to-be iconic purple hoodie, and had more swagger than he’d yet earned. “Justin, you made Seventeen cry.” He shook my hand with his tiny child hand. “Um, nice to meet you," I said, sniffling. "I’m, uh, just stressed out.” Justin Bieber couldn’t have cared less. He gave me a little nod and then wandered over to play the video games set up on display.
As I calmed down, I found out that the staff were all equally astonished by the whole day: the cops, the screaming girls outside. They had thought maybe 100 people would show up, but there were over 1,000. No one at Seventeen had even heard of him until that week.
After that, you know what happened. It took just little while for him to surpass the preteen demographic and move on into pop super-stardom. In that brief window of time, I interviewed Usher. I wasn’t allowed to ask any personal questions (he had just gotten divorced amid reports of infidelity), but no one was ever scared to be interviewed by Seventeen. As my hard-hitting interview was wrapping up, I mentioned that I had just met his protégé, Justin Beiber, and said, “Hey, I think that kid’s going to be huge.” Usher just nodded and smiled.
By then, I had vowed to leave Seventeen. The third Twilight movie was about to come out. The teen zeitgeist was changing. Miley wasn’t cool anymore. Gossip Girl was getting bad, and I was too tired to learn a whole new batch of kids.
My last week at work, I sat in on a meet & greet with an upcoming artist who had the same publicist as the Biebz. On first glance, I didn’t remember the publicist, but she remembered me, the mess from Seventeen who had an uncontrollable meltdown in front of one of her now biggest clients. As she got up to leave, she said, “You need to watch Jimmy Kimmel tonight.”
I didn’t watch. I couldn’t. I was too afraid he was going to talk about me on TV. But I also had to know. The next day, I watched online and saw, instead, another little girl whose claim to late-night notoriety was that she too had cried hysterically over Justin Bieber. When she met him, even the three-year-old held it together better than I did.
Molly Finkelstein lives in Portland, Maine and still overanalyzes every new Taylor Swift video.