By Shawna Richer
He is the biggest pop star on the planet right now, a sweet-faced Canadian teen heartthrob with multi-platinum albums and legions of hysterically screaming fans. What is it about Justin Bieber that attracts such devotion? Is he a flash in the pan or the real deal? Can he make the treacherous transition from teen idol to adult performer?

Toronto Star feature writer Shawna Richer followed the Believe tour to 11 cities across North America, to help answer these questions. She shared line-ups and concert details with the Beliebers, going deep inside their world, and what she found was surprising, inspiring and uplifting in all the ways music itself is meant to be.

Rollicking and insightful, OMG!JUSTIN! is a fascinating exploration of stardom in the 21st century.

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If there is one stop on my tour that feels like the epicentre of stardom and celebrity and all the precariousness of the entertainment business, it is Los Angeles.

The Kardashians — all of them — arrive in three separate black SUVs, tottering on sky-high heels and, to a person, gabbing on their cellphones. Paparazzi are stationed near the VIP entrance and flashbulbs fire. Heidi Klum, clutching her daughter, arrives with her new boyfriend. Selena Gomez, Jaden Smith, Vanessa Hudgens, Lena Dunham, Miley Cyrus, Lil Twist, Drake, Chris Paul of the Clippers, all arrive. Girls who are stationed near Bieber’s tour bus — some have been waiting all day for a glimpse of him — don’t know where to stand and some race back and forth until security chases them away from the entrance.

Meanwhile, as is typically the case, kids without tickets are blasting tweets to Bieber’s crew. Around the corner, Pattie Mallette quietly gives tickets to kids without any. And just like in Never Say Never, they shriek, thank her and run wildly away.

Inside, at the merchandise stand that sells $35 T-shirts and $20 “Believe” necklaces, I squeeze into the crowd to buy some T-shirts for Megan. Thirty minutes later I’m at the counter and a little girl who can’t be more than 10 realizes she’s $3 short to buy a pink shirt with Bieber strumming his guitar on the front. The merch jockey shakes his head. Her lip begins to tremble. Tears start to flow. I pull three ones from my pocket and hand them to her. She bursts into tears and clutches my arm blubbering “Thank you!” The merch jockey is bemused.

Tori Batterton is 16, from San Diego and arrived here at noon. Her friend Baley Schilper is 14 and came in from Orange County at 10 a.m. Both are accompanied by their moms. They’ve been fans since “the kidrauhl days.” (Bieber’s YouTube name.) They bought meet-and-greet tickets for $400 each on eBay earlier in the day. Money well spent; Bieber hugged them before their photograph.

“It was magical,” Tori says. “He’s just a really good hugger. And his face was so beautiful and soft.”

“You really just don’t want to let go of him,” Baley says. “And you want to say something big and meaningful to him. But I was like, hi, and he was like, hi. There wasn’t a lot of time.”

Tori also sings. She loves Bieber’s voice and says she relates to him completely. “All I see when I look at him is a kid who’s living his dream a little more extravagantly than me. The ones who aren’t Beliebers don’t know what they’re missing. He’s got a beautiful voice and he’s so down to earth. You could just melt, he’s so sweet. I just can’t wait to see what he does in the distant future.”

Tori’s mother, Martina Batterton, raised her daughter on her own. She ditched a lecture class (she’s studying to become a registered nurse and working full-time), and she loves Bieber because he was raised by a single mom and shows respect for people.

“He’s really into his grandparents,” she says. “So many of these young stars show no respect for anyone.”

She remembers liking Shaun Cassidy and Rick Springfield, and at 52 says Bieber helps keep her young.

“I love being here with my daughter. It’s always been just her and I since she was 18 months old. For someone like me a concert like this is a lot of money to afford. But Justin has gotten her through a lot. He’s gotten us through a lot.”

There is a point in Bieber’s concert, right after “One Less Lonely Girl” while he’s backstage for a costume change, that features a video message to fans.

It opens with Justin, just two years old, dancing in the kitchen he shared with Pattie. “My name is Justin and this is how I drum,” he says, pounding out a set of beats.

“You wanna be a drummer when you grow up?” Pattie asks.

“I can do it faster,” he replies, slapping his palms frantically on the ratty kitchen chair in a perfect pattern. “I’m going to show how I drum.”

“What do you want to be when you grow up,” Pattie coaxes.

“I want to be . . . I want to be a . . . I want to be . . . I want to be a crossing guard.”

It’s a video every self-respecting Belieber has seen. Then it cuts to Justin thanking the crowd for watching his YouTube videos, downloading his songs and albums, watching his movie, organizing buyouts and coming to concerts. He tells the audience he hopes he’s inspired them to chase their dreams before launching into “As Long As You Love Me,” a song about a star-crossed romance that sounds like it could also be a contract with the Beliebers.

Justin Bieber has a deal with his fans, and watching, it is difficult to believe relationships with pop stars were ever any other way.

As a young teen I loved the Bay City Rollers, Shaun Cassidy and Andy Gibb. The Rollers were cute, but goofy in their short tartan pants. Andy Gibb was a different story. Even at 13 I knew he was hot. I kept his album cover propped on the desk in my bedroom where it distracted me from my homework for several years. At night I slept with it under my bed.

This was decades before Twitter and iTunes, so there were some sleepy times between the music and news about my idols. A fan had to be patient. Vinyl records came from a bricks-and-mortar store on birthdays or Christmas or when I’d saved enough of my allowance. News came monthly in copies of Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine. Monthly!

I tugged out the posters and hung them all over my bedroom. But if I wanted to see the Rollers sing, there was no YouTube or Vevo or PVR on demand. I had to stay up past midnight to see their first North American television appearance on Howard Cosell’s Saturday Night Live. If I wanted to see Andy Gibb, I pushed bedtime to see him on The Midnight Special, NBC’s old musical variety show. Growing up an hour outside Toronto, which seemed awfully far at the time, I wasn’t catching Gibb in his Broadway show The Pirates of Penzance at the Royal Alex Theatre, or the Rollers’ concert in Nathan Phillips Square.

Exposure was severely limited and eventually I grew out of them. The posters came down and the records went into the back of the closet, replaced by rock and British new wave. But maybe it wasn’t me. Maybe it was them. The Bay City Rollers kept replacing band members and became unrecognizable. I don’t actually remember Shaun Cassidy fading away, and Andy Gibb died of a cocaine overdose.

None of them ever made me cry, or scream. I don’t remember even crying when Andy died.

“It was a different time,” my mother says gently the other day as we discussed whether I had a cold teenage heart and a superficial relationship with my idols. “You never saw them in concert. And they weren’t everywhere all the time.”

In the past decade, the way we hear, purchase, share and talk about music has changed dramatically. The savviest artists, like Bieber and Lady Gaga, have tapped into that and made it part of their strategy. And while the notion of fandom hasn’t changed much, the way we practice it has.

Mark Duffett, a senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Chester in England, whose specialties are fandom and Elvis, says Bieber has rewritten the rules of engagement, which puts him in a unique position to hold onto his fans in ways artists couldn’t have imagined even a decade ago.

“He’s built this idea of social networking into his stardom,” Duffett says. “What he’s constantly doing is referencing his affiliation with this new generation who has come up this way.

“Audiences can stay with those people for years. Those girls in 10 or 20 years time might still be showing the same loyalty to Justin.”