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.