At 12, Bieber – who teaches himself to play piano, trumpet and guitar in his native Stratford, Ontario – places second in a local talent competition. His single mom Patricia Mallette uploads the footage of his performance on YouTube for family and friends to watch, but the video attracts strangers as well.
Soon after, YouTubers request Bieber to sing songs, and his covers of Usher, Justin Timberlake and Chris Brown attract an online following. "People always say, 'Did you try to get famous off YouTube?' I'm like, 'Not at all,'" Bieber tells PEOPLE. "I was just doing it for fun." Meanwhile, Atlanta-based music exec Scooter Braun discovers Bieber's YouTube channel. "My gut was going crazy," Braun recalls. "So I tracked him down."
Now Bieber's manager, Braun flies the young singer and his mom to Atlanta, where he records demos and more YouTube videos, grabbing the attention of both Usher and Timberlake who are interested in signing Bieber. Eventually, Usher prevails, signing Bieber to Island Def Jam records. "His voice was magical and his personality was so keen," says Usher, adding, "Sometimes he's like a little brother or a son to me."
With "swagger coaching" by Usher and his online followers behind him, Bieber releases his first album, My World, which debuts at No. 6 on the Billboard charts on the strength of his single, "One Time." "What I have is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Bieber tells PEOPLE. "And I'm having a blast."
After opening for Taylor Swift, singing for the Obamas, and topping the albums charts with My World 2.0, Bieber makes his cover debut on PEOPLE. "I have so many things, but where'd this come from?" Bieber marvels of his stardom. "Out of nowhere. Someone, like, pinch me."
Bieber amasses more than 5 million fans and counting on Facebook and Twitter, which is reminiscent of another fan-driven pop presence. "It's like Beatlemania," says Bieber's road manager and stylist Ryan Good. "Mass hysteria. Loud screaming, crying, passing out. It's amazing." The tween dream's fans are so fanatic that a Twitpic of Bieber with Kim Kardashian, garnered the reality star death threats. "Ladies calm down," he wrote. "No need 4 threats. Let's all be friends and hang out often."
After playing coy about his romance with Selena Gomez, Bieber and the Disney star are caught kissing during a Caribbean vacation in St. Lucia. "She's really cool. She's an amazing person," he told MTV News in December, adding, "I gotta keep some things to myself."
Bieber makes his big screen debut (and takes himself 3D!) with his performance documentary, Never Say Never, which follows his Canadian beginnings to his sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden. "I wanted people to know that I'm not just some product, that I'm just a regular person, and I've been a musician my whole life," he tells The New York Times of his film, which takes in $30 million, just a million shy of toppling Jennifer Aniston's No. 1 flick, Just Go With It.
After almost two years of dating, Bieber and Gomez part ways amid speculation about their rocky romance, which included cryptic Twitter posts, breakup rumors and sightings of the Canadian pop star with other women in recent months. "I don't know really what's even going on in my life," he says as word of the split breaks. "To even assess that doesn't make sense."
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