STRATFORD—Chaz Somers stretches out on the sofa, unfolding his nearly six-foot frame languidly –– a sleepy teenager on an end-of-summer day. It is 3 p.m. and Somers has been awake about an hour. Even an iced cappuccino has failed to make him completely alert; he yawns. He is 14 and another sun-drenched afternoon lies before him.
Downtown, tourists and locals mingle as light glints off the Avon River near where Ryan Butler is working. Butler has a perfect job for a 15-year-old, setting up and taking down equipment for the Stratford Summer Music festival, which showcases bluegrass fiddlers and opera stars including Ben Heppner.
A third member of their crowd, Nolan Murray, 15, has spent the afternoon in another summer teenage idyll, riding forest trails on a friend’s ATV. Later he watches a movie, before his mother, Andrea, drives him to his part-time job, washing dishes at Kelsey’s restaurant.
There’s someone missing from this group. His name is Justin Bieber, the 16-year-old pop star who performs Saturday night at a sold-out concert at the Air Canada Centre. Tickets were being offered for resale Friday at $515 each. Bieber, with the clear voice, sweet face and shiny sweep of bangs, is touring Canada and the U.S. this year — from state fairs to Madison Square Garden. He has 4.6 million followers on Twitter; the YouTube video of him singing with the rapper Ludacris has had 294 million viewings, the most recorded.
“One minute you’re walking around Canada’s Wonderland together and six months later, he’s performing there,” says Chaz, who will watch Bieber’s concert Sunday in London, Ont.
Chaz, Ryan and Nolan have been friends with Bieber since elementary school. They are energetic boys, who love being outside and are feeling the first stirring of freedom that comes in the middle teens. Athletic and competitive, they’ve played on hockey and soccer teams together — Ryan’s father, Martin, is still their coach. In the team photographs over the years, Ryan and Justin sit next to one another.
The boys can bike and skateboard along Erie Street and Downie Street, which have little traffic in the city of 32,000, and stay up late watching comical videos and sleep in late.
At least, they can if the phone stops ringing. The calls come day and night from teenage girls around the world — Ecuador, Australia, Germany — all fans of Justin Bieber.
“Hi, it’s Ashley. Is Ryan home?”
At Christmas, the Butlers turned their phone off for three days, the calls were incessant.
On Monday, Chaz’s family had 20 calls from girls struck with Bieber fever.
The week before, Nolan’s mother, Andrea, who works in inspection in an aircraft manufacturing plant, found a group of 13-year-old girls outside her house, asking for her son. “Can I help you?” she asked. She didn’t recognize any of them. “Does Nolan live here?” one of them said, before they fled giggling down the street. Nolan, meanwhile, is interested in his Norco single speed bike, which he bought himself and is customizing, with new handles, rims and pedals. “His bike is everything to him,” says his mother.
Sports, not music, have always been the bond between the boys.
“When we first met I didn’t know he was a singer,” says Chaz, now sitting upright, his MacBook perched on his cutoff jeans. “I knew he was competitive in sports. The first time I heard him sing was the national anthem.”
That made a memorable first impression on Chaz’s family, who had season tickets to the Stratford Cullitons junior hockey team. His mother, Lee, a quality specialist at an automotive parts factory, was making sure the boys had taken their hats off during O Canada. She was ready to poke the kids who weren’t singing: she looked hard at Bieber, a boy she didn’t know. “I got goose bumps listening to him. I could have cried.”
When Bieber told Ryan two years ago that he was going to Atlanta to meet music promoter Scooter Braun, now his manager, Ryan didn’t think much about it but wished his friend luck. He was aware by this point of Bieber’s prodigious gifts: he’d taught himself piano and he could play several instruments. He was motivated, busking around Stratford and posting videos on YouTube.
“I didn’t take it seriously at first, then when I saw he was signing contracts and getting bigger — I was really proud that he put himself out there and that he was found, out of millions of people.
“Still, I was going to miss him and felt sad that he wasn’t able to play sports like other kids and do the usual kid stuff.”
Now their lives have changed in many ways — on one hand, they can step into a teenage fantasy temporarily, on the other, intrusions into their privacy are irksome. But their friendship with a boy who became a superstar appears, at its core, unchanged.
Some of the Stratford boys have gone on tour with Bieber, for as long as three weeks this summer. Ryan, who had his braces removed six months ago, smiles widely as he describes flying to Atlanta on his own. He’s made about 10 trips to visit Bieber in the last 18 months.
He and other Stratford teens were flown to Los Angeles for the singer’s 16th birthday party in March. Some have met Bieber’s new friends. Chaz was astounded to find himself playing basketball with Shaquille O’Neal at his home court. Ryan was calm meeting Miley Cyrus and Will Smith, but when he met Eminem at his Detroit studio, he was admittedly star struck.
A confident, look-you-straight-in-the-eye, athletic boy, Ryan shook the famous rapper’s hand. “Hey,” he said.
“Justin was showing him his music and I was sitting behind, taking it all in.”
“I find all that stuff fun,” says Chaz. “Justin is being such a nice guy to bring us on the road — most of the time he has a friend with him. I found that this summer was one of the best ever. But I was happy to be home. I missed my mom and dad and being with all my friends.”
The boys are deeply protective of Bieber.
“Almost every single person I talk to, Justin comes up,” Chaz continues. “Even teachers will ask, ‘How’s your buddy, Justin?’ Some have asked for autographs for their kids or tickets for shows.
“I try to ignore that, not face-to-face, that would be rude, but sometimes they ask me nonstop. They don’t realize it bugs me. I don’t blame them, it’s an interesting topic, but I get asked all the time.”
The frequent phoners, their instinctive wariness of people who see them as a conduit to Bieber, seeing the inner workings of the ferociously competitive music business, have made it clear that Bieber’s life is not all glamour. Would they want that life themselves?
“He’s a millionaire, we have to apply for jobs and earn $10 an hour,” says Ryan in a matter-of-fact way. “But still he’s working hard. Really, I’m more proud than jealous.”
“To be honest, I don’t feel that,” says Chaz. “It’s hard work and I wouldn’t want it. I’m shy. I’d rather do something other than perform in front of 10,000 or more people.
“I keep looking for things I can better than him, but he’s so good at a lot of things. I’ll show him stuff that I can do and 20 minutes later, he’ll be doing it better than me. Things like a new video game or those finger skateboards.”
They have had to struggle with new identities in which they are known as Justin Bieber’s friends, on the web and at home. “That’s what I’m known for in Stratford,” says Ryan, the eldest of three brothers. “But I have my own normal life, working and going to school.”
If he’s introduced as Justin’s friend, he’ll extend a hand and say, “My name’s Ryan.”
The boys’ parents, meanwhile, try to keep them content in their own world. “It’s our job to keep him grounded,” says Martin Butler, an IT systems administrator.
The web has been particularly troublesome. Hackers have broken into the boys’ Facebook, Twitter and email accounts. They’ve had to change their passwords or open new accounts, fallout from their famous friendship.
In some ways, Bieber’s departure marked the end of the singer’s childhood freedoms. His friends still devotedly practice wheelies, fret about their bikes and play summer league soccer. When they head back to high school next month, he will be criss-crossing Canada and the United States in a tour that will see him perform 46 concerts before Christmas.
“But the friendship hasn’t changed,” says Martin Butler. That may be the point.
Chaz’s mother, Lee, remembers when Bieber came say goodbye before moving to Atlanta in 2008. It was night and he was visiting his friends; Chaz was the last. Lee noticed Justin was emotional about his imminent departure.
Chaz was in the basement playing video games so she spoke to Bieber quietly in the kitchen about friendship, reminding him obliquely of the strength of his roots — his grandparents still live in Stratford — and childhood bonds.
“You’re going to be just fine, you have a ton of friends in Stratford,” she told him. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. It might not work out; you might come back. Just remember who your friends are.
“They will always be here for you; they will always be your true friends.”