Justin Bieber was blackmailed for years with an embarrassing video
Like him or loathe him, Justin Bieber is the undisputed king of pop. He has sold an estimated 140 million records - as many as there are people in Russia - and speaking of records, he also landed eight world records with a single tour.
Having transitioned through the painfully predictable coming-of-age period, Bieber somehow managed to maintain his appeal in spite of a spate of offences including drugs, drink driving and criminal damage.
Bieber is now marketed as a repentant and reformed character. However, at the height of his rebellion, a piece of footage emerged which was so unequivocally abhorrent it caused a PR disaster. Now surrounded by a diverse entourage, the racist clip threatened his reputation, his career and some of his closest friendships.
It was released by British newspaper The Sun however, TMZ had obtained the clip, thought to be from the Never Say Never documentary, years before. Despite others’ protestations, a 15-year-old Bieber goes ahead and tells the threatening and racist joke, receiving a mixed reaction. Curiously, Bieber knew he was being filmed but clearly didn’t bet on the footage landing in the hands of TMZ.
In an article, TMZ bitterly explains: “The video was shot backstage at a promotional event early in his career ... where Justin cracked this terrible joke ... ‘Why are black people afraid of chain saws?’ His punchline, repeatedly saying, ‘Run N****r.’”
“TMZ got this video 4 years ago but we decided not to post it ... in large part because he was 15 and immediately told his friends what he did was stupid. People connected with Bieber say one African American was present at the time he told the joke, although that really doesn't matter much.”
Rather than release the footage, the website reportedly used the it as leverage - persuading Bieber to do countless phone-ins and exclusive interviews. "TMZ has been sitting on this video for 3+ years," a source who worked at the website told Gawker. Furthermore, TMZ had never denied being in possession of the footage.
Bieber was said to be distraught and embarrassed, which is surely the only reaction, and to this day, there are many fans who haven’t forgiven him. TMZ added: “Sources connected with Bieber say he is ‘frustrated and sad’ and now wants to address it publicly, which we're told he will do in the next day.”
However, this certainly isn’t the first time that a publication has extorted a celebrity. In the UK, the Leveson Inquiry made public the details of a murky and dishonest newspaper industry which hacked and blackmailed celebrities, regardless of why they were famous.
The enquiry was set up after it was revealed that former tabloid paper the News of the World had hacked the voicemail inbox of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler and deleted messages - giving her family false hope that she might still be alive.
The enquiry found that dozens of people in the public eye had had their phones hacked by journalists in order to illegally obtain information. This was then either published or used to extort said celebrity.
Speaking of the Bieber video, a source told Gawker that TMZ had “been using it as essentially ransom so that Bieber and his team would cooperate with them and give them scoops. It was very close to being released initially, but his team was able to convince them not to by giving them access and compliance." A TMZ spokesperson denied the allegations, stating that the claim is "absolutely not true".
However, according to reports, the deal was struck one day before Bieber appeared for an interview with TMZ. Usually the reserve of C-list celebrities, it was highly unusual to have such a famous star in the studio. Furthermore, where the setup or situation behind a celebrity interview would never usually be broadcasted, 16-year-old Bieber explained that he had decided to pop in after bumping into "my boy Harvey" at a local sushi restaurant.
The video clip came out in 2014, when it was published by the Sun. Bieber was involved in a subsequent scandal whereby he was recorded singing his song One Less Lonely Girl but replaced the word “girl” with “n****r”. This particular tape was released by Bieber himself, suggesting that a publisher may also have been in possession of it at the time.
Clearly, the process of developing into a fully fledged adult with a multifaceted personality isn’t without its pitfalls. Furthermore, Bieber has aged with his audience - leading to accusations that any and all digressions are part of a carefully controlled stunt and therefore somehow worse.
Regardless, racism is never acceptable and it’s intriguing that Bieber has managed to weather the storm with so few consequences. Perhaps it shows just how easily his PR team is able to wash away a scandal with damage control and careful apologies.