Through a plexiglass case, I stared into the golden-brown eyes of a taxidermied fox. It had seen better days. The tips of both ears were missing, and it stood on three legs. Also in the case was its once-attached fourth leg, elevated on its own acrylic platform. If this were any other museum, it’s unlikely such a fox would have made it in. But Justin Bieber had wrecked this fox. And this was a museum exhibit about Justin Bieber.
“What’s the story behind this?” I asked John Kastner, General Manager of the Stratford Perth Museum in Stratford, Ontario. The museum, situated just outside of downtown in a mega-size modernist barn attached to a three-story Victorian house, showcases the Canadian town’s history, with exhibits highlighting its former status as a railway hub, and its heritage as host to the famous eponymously-named theater festival, and, since February 2018, its pride about being Justin Bieber’s hometown. “Justin Bieber: Steps to Stardom” honors the city’s most famous son by telling his life story through his personal artifacts and memorabilia. Initially slated to close at the end of 2018, the exhibit has already been extended three times and will, according to the museum’s website, continue “at least” through the end of the year.
Standing nearly eye level to the top of the fox’s display case, Kastner, dressed in a floral-print button up shirt with the cuffs rolled up, leaned back on his heels, his arms crossed. I followed his gaze to the wall behind us, to where an eight-by-10-foot projection of the 2011 documentary about Bieber’s rise to fame, Never Say Never, was playing. “He gives the camera crew a tour through the grandparents’ house, and there’s this fox where they broke the leg off the fox [sic] playing Mini Sticks,” Kastner said, referencing a form of hockey that’s played by kids in basements and garages across Canada. Serendipitously, a 16-year-old Bieber came on screen, explaining to the camera how he and his buddy broke the fox and tried taping it back together. He held the leg up as a visual aid.
Every bit of Bieber paraphernalia within the museum’s most expansive rooms comes with a story. The signed Stratford Public Library card was Bieber’s first autograph. The Rubiks cube was solved by Bieber in Never Say Never (according to the signage in the case, he can solve the puzzle in under two minutes). The white laptop covered in stickers was used by Bieber’s mother to upload his early videos to YouTube. There’s Bieber’s first pair of drumsticks, his 18-karat gold, deer-shaped trophy from Germany’s BAMBI awards, and two pairs of black boxer-brief underwear with “Ellen” printed in white around the waistband that were given to Bieber by Ellen DeGeneres.
In the museum’s collection room away from public view, not far from a wooden stroller built for a pair of children with polio, are stacks of boxes labeled “J.B.,” followed by inventory numbers. I read through fan letters simply addressed to “Justin Bieber, Stratford, Ontario.” Kastner showed me three pairs of Bieber’s old Supra and Balenciaga sneakers and Bieber’s 2012 high school diploma, which he earned from Stratford’s St. Michael Catholic Secondary School on the road with tutors. Kastner and I looked through one of the swag bags that Bieber and his wife, the model Hailey Bieber (née Baldwin), gave guests at their wedding last September. Inside the bag was a plastic water bottle labeled “Hailey & Justin,” a pair of white slippers from Bieber’s fashion label, Drew House, and a cream Drew House sweatsuit with “The Biebers” printed on the sweatshirt along with the wedding date (“September 30th”) and location (“Palmetto Bluffs, SC”). Kastner carefully unsealed a plastic package, also in the swag bag, which contained a Drew House long-sleeve T-shirt. When he held up the T-shirt, we saw that it too said, “The Biebers.”
Bieber’s grandparents, who attended the wedding in South Carolina, brought the swag bag and other items from the wedding to the museum the day they got back to Stratford. On the day I visited the museum, under a large framed, black and white photo of The Biebers, the gift shop included a display case with personalized dinner menus from the reception listing “Grandma Dale’s Bolognese” as the second course, brass candle holders featuring the couple’s names, a “Hailey & Justin”-branded save the date and hotel room key, and a small drawstring bag with the words “hangover kit/in sickness and in health” printed in red under a medical cross, which at one time included travel-sized packages of aspirin and Tums.
Everything in the Bieber exhibit, with only a handful of exceptions that have come from supportive locals within the community, was donated by Bruce and Diane Dale, the very proud grandparents of Justin Bieber. Lifelong Stratford residents, Diane worked for the city as a custodian and Bruce spent his career at an automotive factory, making them like many in the 30,000 person Canadian town, where according to Canadian census data, the median after-tax income is $25,375 and the chief industry is manufacturing. Meeting them at the museum two days after Bieber publicly announced he had Lyme Disease, Bruce choked up when he talked about their relationship. “He’s been with me since day one,” he said, his voice cracking as he wiped away tears. “We did soccer. We did hockey. Everything he did, it was with me.” It was in the furnace room of Bruce and Diane’s basement where Bieber practiced on his first set of drums, which are currently on display at the museum.
Bruce and Diane are Bieber’s grandparents on his mother’s side (technically, Bruce is his step-grandfather, but they’re so close that the distinction is essentially meaningless). Growing up in Stratford, Bieber split time between his grandparents’ house and in a low-income housing unit with his mother, Pattie Mallette (Bieber has three younger half-siblings through his father, Jeremy Bieber).
“We didn’t even know he was a singer,” Bruce said. The first time they knew he could sing was in the beginning of 2007, when Bieber was 12 years old and entered a local singing competition called the Stratford Star (he won second place). “Some of the first songs when he was in that Stratford Star competition were really precious,” Bruce said. “I mean, you have to watch the song where he drops the microphone, then goes, ‘Oops.’” That summer, Bieber also started busking with a rented guitar on the steps in front of Stratford’s Avon Theatre. Bruce and Diane would go along with him, watching from across the street to make sure no one messed with him or took his money. “He’d set up and he’d be there for the first hour, hour and a half before the theater started. And he’d come outta there with $150, $200 a night,” Bruce said.
A year later, in 2008, a 13-year-old Bieber moved to Atlanta with his mother to start working with Scooter Braun, the then-ascendant music-industry power player who still serves as his manager today. In 2010, a 16-year-old Bieber would be on his My World Tour, performing in 128 cities worldwide, grossing more than $53 million. Bruce and Diane traveled with Justin across North America, where he sold out 65 of his 78 shows.
Part of the exhibit’s draw lies in the fact that Bieber himself sometimes shows up unannounced. Beliebers have caught wind of this, and the most devout among their ranks have been known to call the museum asking when he’ll be there next. Once, Kastner had to dissuade a fan from traveling five hours because of the off-chance that Bieber might be there.
The first time Bieber visited “Steps to Stardom” was with Bruce, Diane, and his mother Pattie at the end of April 2018, coming after-hours and spending nearly an hour taking it all in. In the foreword Bieber wrote for Kastner’s book about the exhibit, also called Justin Bieber: Steps to Stardom, he described his first time seeing the exhibit, saying, “I couldn’t believe that my grandparents had kept all my stuff. I gave my grandpa a big hug when I saw some of the things he and my grandma had kept and loaned to the museum.” (He goes on to mention Bruce teared up then, too.)
In total, Bieber’s visited the museum about five times so far, including once with Jaden Smith and another with Hailey. When Bieber visits, Kastner usually receives a cryptic text message from Diane or Bieber’s mother along the lines of, “I’m going to bring somebody by this afternoon. Are you there?” There have been times when Kastner hasn’t got a heads-up, though, like the time Kastner came into the museum and the desk attendant told him that a young man had stopped by her desk and told her he was going to look through “his” exhibit.
His trip to the exhibit with Hailey, on September 30, 2018, inadvertently caused a brief frenzy in the celebrity gossip world when the museum’s Instagram memorialized the pair’s visit with an Instagram post thanking Hailey, “along with her very special husband,” for their visit. By that point, the pair had been engaged for two months and were rumored to have married in a private ceremony, but hadn’t publicly confirmed their relationship status (their formal wedding took place roughly a year later). The press began blowing up Kastner’s phone in search of a story. He said one of the calls was from TMZ. “And they said, ‘Wife? Wife?’ I said, ‘All I’m going to tell ya [is that] he introduced her as his wife. That’s all I know.’”
While the museum had casually considered erecting something to memorialize Bieber’s Stratford roots for years, “Steps to Stardom” began germinating in the summer of 2017, when Peter Van Loan, a then-member of Canada’s parliament, visited the museum with his family and pointed out there was no mention of the star in the entire place. That’s when Kastner felt it was time to approach Bruce and Diane to do an exhibit about their grandson. The couple had already known Kastner for years through his first career at The Beacon Herald, Stratford’s local newspaper, which had been covering Bieber since before he was famous.
With their grandson’s stuff filling their house — leaning against the walls of their basement, tucked away in Justin’s bedroom upstairs — Bruce and Diane had been looking for a way to display their collection. “We knew we had to get it out for the kids to see,” Bruce said. (By “the kids,” he meant his grandson’s fans.) They considered renting a storefront downtown so that those interested could see it all in one place, but that would have only been a temporary thing, and they weren’t looking to manage something on their own.
Kastner and Micaela Fitzsimmons, the manager of collections and exhibits for the museum, went to Bruce and Diane’s house for the first time together to see what they might have for an exhibit. On the drive over to the multi-million dollar house Bieber purchased for his grandparents outside of town, Kastner told Fitzsimmons that if all they had were scrapbooks and family albums, they would politely decline. “We walk in the grandparents’ house, and I go, ‘Holy shit,’” Kastner said.
Kastner and Fitzsimmons, who has a postgraduate degree in museum management, ended up taking pictures of it all and creating an inventory, picking out items with the strongest stories for display. The exhibit was announced by The Beacon Herald on the Wednesday after New Year’s 2018. The next day, Kastner arrived to work to find television crews waiting for him; within two days international headlines were running stories about the exhibit. As the museum fielded calls from fans from as far away as India asking if they could buy advance tickets for the exhibit’s opening on February 18th, Fitzsimmons and Kastner realized their initial plan to fit “Steps to Stardom” into a 120-square-foot room wasn’t going to cut it. “At first we thought it was going to be a small exhibit,” Fitzsimmons told the Herald shortly before it opened. “We really were looking at putting in a feature that would highlight Justin for our regular visitors to the museum.”
With seven weeks before Bieber fans descended upon the museum, Fitzsimmons took to reworking the exhibit into something big enough to fit them all. She designed a new, 1,000-square-foot concept that would lead museum-goers through Bieber’s life story, starting with his childhood in Stratford, documenting his rise to fame and current status as a megastar, culminating with a gallery of fan art, posters, drawings and flags, and a blackboard wall where visitors could leave messages for Bieber. (Bieber and Hailey have each signed the board; the museum has covered their signatures with protective sheets of plastic for posterity.)
On Sunday, February 18, 2018, fans — who had come from as far as France — started lining up five hours before the museum opened. The gift shop sold 496 Bieber T-shirts in two days, and that year would go on to sell $77,000 Canadian dollars (about $58,000) in Bieber merchandise alone. Referring to what Steps to Stardom contributes to the museum’s bottom line, Kastner said, “It does about 70 percent of our admissions, then about 95 percent of our merchandise.” He added, “I can’t imagine this ever going away.” When I asked if the museum has had any critics of the exhibit, Kastner said, “Not really.”
According to Cathy Rehberg, Marketing Manager for Stratford Tourism Alliance, Stratford residents had become accustomed to Bieber’s fame, and to seeing his fans come through town long before “Steps to Stardom.” When we met at her office, sitting on couches in the lobby near a display case with an electric guitar signed by Bieber himself, Rehberg recalled how fans would ask things like, “Where is Justin? Have you seen him? When’s he coming back?”
Part of the reason the museum has extended the exhibit three times is that Bieber’s family keeps giving them more stuff. Kastner told me that Bieber’s mother had recently moved back to town and informed him she has “200 or 300 [Bieber] things” in storage that the museum can have if it wants, while Bruce and Diane have continually supplied the exhibit with fresh items since its opening.
“As long as we can keep getting the stuff, we’ll keep bringing it in,” Bruce said, adding, “It’s better stored here than it is at my house.” (They recently downsized from the multi-million dollar home to a condo in town.) On Valentine’s Day, Bieber will be releasing a new album titled Changes, which he’ll be following up with a tour that kicks off in May, which will provide ample material to keep the exhibit fresh. Diane said, “We should get more stuff this year with the touring because Hailey’s gonna make sure we get stuff. And we’re going to travel with him a little bit, too.” (Bieber gets Bruce and Diane their own tour bus when they join him on tour.)
Kastner had story after story of Bieber fans — i.e., Beliebers — visiting the museum. A mother and daughter once flew from Iran to Toronto, took a two-hour train to Stratford, and then walked two and a half miles to the museum. A family from Australia celebrated their daughter’s high school graduation there. Groups from Japan, Brazil, Singapore, Germany, Australia, and Thailand. He’s also seen Beliebers sob and/or tremble as they walk through the exhibit. The first time I walked through the exhibit with Kastner, we startled a woman singing along to a video of Bieber performing “Baby” while she read the Michelle Obama letter.
In 2013, Kastner’s first year at the museum, there were 853 visitors in total. In 2018, the year “Steps to Stardom” debuted, there were 1,000 visitors with advanced tickets, and just over a hundred walk ups during the opening weekend alone. That year, the museum had 22,000 visitors. (Kastner told me that he doesn’t yet have attendance figure for 2019, but anticipates that it will be just under the 2018 numbers.)
Shortly before I left the Stratford Perth Museum, I was approached by a visitor who asked me to take her picture with a cutout of Bieber busking in front of the Avon Theatre. After a mini photo shoot, we talked about her life. She gushed and giggled about Bieber, his voice, his looks, stopping to break down his music and career with an almost academic precision. As I listened to her rattle off how this song fit in with these songs on that album and how this period in his life was reflected on that tour, a line I’d heard Kastner repeat more than once flashed through my brain: “I don’t get it, but I don’t really need to get it to get it.”
Before we parted ways I told her, “They have the fox,” without any further context. Her eyes lit up.