When Justin Bieber stepped out on a hotel balcony in an upscale Toronto neighbourhood a few days ago, young "Beliebers" waiting below were agog at the chance to wave, scream and otherwise share their adoration for the young teen idol.
But then the 19-year-old, whose global fame has taken him a world away from life as a schoolboy in Stratford, Ont., apparently saw fit to spit on those same devoted fans.
Or maybe not — his representative told entertainment website TMZ.com on Tuesday (five days after the alleged event) that "Justin didn't spit on anyone." But TMZ, which spread the spitting story in the first place, doesn't buy that comment and says its photos of a spitting Bieber are the real thing.
Whatever the truth, there's no doubt the reputation of the teen heart-throb who once had a squeaky-clean image has hit a rough patch over the past year or so. Unless he is deliberately trying to cultivate some sort of bad-boy persona.
Headlines have screamed of everything from his racing his white Ferrari down a residential street in California to relieving himself in a restaurant mop bucket.
Yes, some of those headlines may have been somewhat overplayed. But they have all made some of those who watch celebrity culture with great interest think it's time Bieber got a good talking-to from those close to him if he wants to ensure his fan base remains solid.
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"The representatives owe him the truth, even at the expense of their positions," says Howard Bragman, vice-chairman of Reputation.com, an online reputation and review management firm.
"He needs to understand that if he doesn't clean up his act he might be playing state fairs in 10 years."
Canadian success story
Bieber is, by every account, a Canadian success story on a global scale. The young singer, described by the New York Times as "the defining teen star of recent years," has gathered upwards of 42 million Twitter followers — the greatest following amassed on the social media giant — and is in the midst of a 15-month "Believe" tour that will take him from Dubai to Beijing and about 150 others cities around the globe.
For the last year, though, he's been periodically grabbing headlines that cast him in a less-than-positive light. And while there could be endless armchair analysis of the difficulties of growing up in the media glare, there's also no doubt he's raised eyebrows for some of his antics.
Alanna Glicksman, a Toronto-based public relations consultant and entertainment blogger, points to Bieber's meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper last year, where the superstar showed up wearing overalls, a wardrobe incident that went viral.
"It sparks controversy because it's a sign of disrespect and it shows his age. Justin Bieber is very, very fortunate. He's had a very good run and he will probably continue to see massive success,” says Glicksman.
"However, he needs to be a lot more diligent about how he portrays himself in the public eye."
How any star is portrayed in the public eye is inevitably a mix of the image crafted by handlers, combined with whatever spontaneous moments may occur when in full view of fans or media cameras.
In Bieber's case, his recent visit to Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam seemed like one of the planned ones, though it caused an outcry when he wrote in the museum guest book that Frank, who died in a Nazi concentration camp, "would have been a Belieber."
'Make yourself stand out'
For young stars, Glicksman says most of the image management happens at the beginning of the career.
"There's so much competition right now, there are so many talented people, so constructing an image is really a way for you to break out of the crowd and make yourself stand out."
But if fame hits, it can become harder to manage the image of person whose profile has grown and who attracts attention wherever he or she goes.
"With things like social media coming into play, the star has a lot more control over their own image as opposed to in the past," says Glicksman.
"With some celebrities, of course, you'll see that their managers are the ones that actually manage their social media profiles. However, with some of younger stars like Justin Bieber, they're really in control of it."
That can reap benefits for the star and fans alike, who see pictures of their star and then feel they have an inside track on the life of the person they are following so closely.
But there's also a downside.
"It's not always done in maybe the best way and it doesn't always paint them in the right light," says Glicksman.
"Partying pictures don't necessarily portray a good boy image that a manager might hope their star is seen as."
No more quirky haircut
Glicksman considers Bieber a good example of a star who was strictly managed as his career started to take off.
"When we saw him, he was very innocent. He had his little quirky haircut that everyone was a fan of," she says.
"As he became more famous and his legions of Beliebers got more and more intense, his image changed a bit. He also became a different person. He started this journey as a child. Now he' a young man. He wants to have more freedom."
For Bieber, in the wake of the recent antics, which even saw him apologizing to former U.S. president Bill Clinton after being caught on tape dissing him, Bragman sees a need for some sober self-analysis.
"In his case it's clearly part of a bigger issue. He is a successful and talented 19-year-old multimillionaire who doesn't seem to take criticism well.
"He needs to understand that his personal life is getting in the way of his career; that parents [of fans], who control the spending, are not supportive; and that instead of building new fans his fan base is potentially shrinking."
Glicksman agrees that Bieber needs to have a very frank talk with his managers.
"They need to explain the danger of what he's doing to his brand."
Show some humility
And in Glicksman's mind, that includes a more careful approach to how he portrays himself on social media. Pictures or postings that show appreciation to his fans are good, but the late-night party shots need to go.
"Social media … really does have the power to grow a fan base and really help stars connect with their fans, especially these young stars," she says.
"However, the controls do need to be put there and any managers, publicists, anyone helping to guide and build this personal brand or the stars should really be explaining how these tools should be used."
Bieber will also be the target of comments by others on social media, and Bragman says criticism levelled against any artist through those channels and in the blogosphere comes with their career territory.
Looking ahead, Bieber needs to be ready to cope with that, too.
“When he was booed by his peers at the Billboard awards, that has to hurt," says Bragman. "And the correct answer is not, 'I think I'm doing OK.' It involves a little humility, gratitude and respect for others."
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