It’s already shaping up to be a bad year for Justin Bieber — just one month into 2014, and the Canadian pop star has already been arrested twice, in two different countries, and now faces charges for driving under the influence, speeding and assault.
But some experts say the 19-year-old’s apparent fall from grace could actually turn into a rise to the top — as long as he plays his cards right.
Mark Sherwin, president of Toronto-based crisis management firm CorpWorld, says that celebrities behaving badly is nothing new.
“We’ve seen mug shots for years,” he says. “They’re certainly usually not very flattering and they come back and haunt that person, it seems, for years and years and years.”
While Sherwin says he doesn’t believe most celebrities would intentionally go out and break the law just for the attention, he says that once they find themselves in a bad situation, there are ways to make the best of it — and maybe even come out stronger.
“After the fact — once you have been charged with something, once there’s been an incident — I think the best way to use or leverage that exposure is to become very public about it,” he says, adding that showing remorse is key.
“Be contrite, have some contrition, and say, ‘You know what? I’ve kind of messed up here. I’ve goofed and I’m going to turn it around,’” Sherwin says. “People might really respect that.”
Robert Downey Jr. is one notable example of a celebrity who managed to turn his life around and boost his image in the process. After years of arrests, several stints in rehab and even a year in a California state prison on drug charges, the Iron Man actor eventually made a career comeback, even topping the Forbes list of highest-paid actors last year.
Throughout the journey, he was candid with the public and the press about his struggles.
”Years ago, he had drug problems and serious problems, but he seems to have really turned things around,” says Sherwin. “He was very public with that … going into rehab.“
Building a bad boy brand
Some cynics, however, speculate that Bieber’s eyebrow-raising behaviour over the past year, along with his most recent brushes with the law, are all part of an attempt to shed his squeaky clean pop star image and slip into the role of the dangerous bad boy.
Some have also pointed out that Bieber's once-dominant career may be on the downswing. His latest album, Journals, failed to crack the U.S. Billboard music charts, and his recent documentary film, Believe, only earned $6 million at the box office — far below the $73 million his first film, Never Say Never, took in.
After turning himself in at a Toronto police station Wednesday night for assault charges, a video appeared on his Instagram account promoting his latest music video.
But if all this is in fact a marketing ploy, some experts say he and his team are going about it all wrong.
“If that’s what they’re doing on purpose, they’re doing a bad job of it,” Bob Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said in an interview with CBC News Network.
“If you want to make yourself seem older and more dangerous, you don’t get caught for crimes that 10-year-olds do, like egging a house,” he said.
But just like Miley Cyrus, who infamously shed her child star persona with a raunchy awards show performance, Bieber will also have to find a way to transition into adulthood, Thompson says.
“I can understand how at some point, Justin Bieber, as he grows up, will have to change his image,” Thompson said. “And we’re going to have to see how Bieber does it. Will he make music like Justin Timberlake does that shows his aging persona? Who knows.”
He says the next three to six months are key in determining the future of Bieber’s career and his best bet is to lay low, stay out of the news and regroup — which, Thompson admits, could be a bit of a challenge for the high-profile star.
“If Justin Bieber’s manager sent him to his room for two months, there would be photographers outside his room taking pictures of him.”
Mythology of Justin Bieber and Rob Ford
The Grid’s online editor Stuart Berman, on the other hand, thinks a rebranding is in order. “If anyone could use a bad boy makeover, it’s the Biebs,” he says.
Despite the scrutiny and overwhelming media attention of his recent scrapes with the law, Berman thinks Bieber’s antics won’t do any harm to his career in the long run.
“Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with the likes of R. Kelly and Chris Brown, it doesn’t seem to matter what you do in the eyes of the law,” Berman says. “There will always be a vocal contingent of fans that will have your back, where morality doesn’t really play into their fandom.”
Just after Bieber’s arrest for speeding and DUI in Miami last week, the pop star’s legion of fans, called Beliebers, took to the internet to voice their support. #FreeBieber quickly became a top-trending hashtag on Twitter, and a photo he posted on Instagram of his release from jail prompted thousands of messages of encouragement.
In fact, Berman says Bieber’s behaviour may even win him a kind of cult following, much like Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, whose approval rating went up after police confirmed there was a video that allegedly shows him smoking crack cocaine.
“We see it with Rob Ford — the same kind of effect, where the more bad stuff you do, it kind of builds a mythology around you,” Berman says. “People always like to root for the outlaw and the underdog.”
Berman says that as long as Bieber keeps performing and producing music that his fans like, it won’t matter if he gets into a bit of trouble every once in a while.
“If the behaviour really starts to overshadow the musical output and his ability to perform that’s when I think people will lose their patience,” Berman says. “But if he can maintain the loutish lifestyle and keep pumping out the hits, I think for the most parts the fans probably won’t care.”
Recalling Paul McCartney’s 1980 arrest for marijuana possession and Britney Spears’ public meltdown’s in the mid-2000s, Berman thinks these kinds of antics can often turn out to be nothing more than blips in a career.
“It’s kind of what people expect out of our celebrities,” Berman says. “We want celebrities to live these fast-paced, glamorous, exciting lives and that involves getting arrested from time to time.”