How do you learn to become a superstar? Well, the best way must surely be to ask one who did it. Even better, get them to be your mentor.
And Usher, with 45 million record sales, is undoubtedly a superstar. Justin Bieber may have a way to go — but his ascent already looks certain at the tender age of 16.
Bieber’s success may partly be down to the business deal the pair struck in 2008 when a former music executive brought the youngster to Usher’s home town of Atlanta, Georgia.
Bieber’s YouTube performances of songs by Usher and Justin Timberlake were yet to become an internet phenomenon. But Usher instinctively knew he was in the presence of a precocious talent, not unlike his younger self.
Usher, 32, is contemplating this as we talk backstage at London’s O2 Arena, where he is performing for five nights as part of his UK tour.
‘The day I met Justin was special,’ he tells me. ‘I saw that he had a raw talent — and he was cute, girls would like him. I thought OK, if this is properly nourished it could become huge. But I didn’t know how huge.
‘At that time, there was a pop phenomenon that was all very Disney and Nickelodeon. But here was a guy who was the antithesis to all that. He had introduced himself to the world online. I knew if we could guide him then we’d have a product that is the Justin you see.’
Usher, who glows with the confidence that only true success can bring, started out at the same age as Bieber — 13 — signing with respected producer Antonio ‘L.A.’ Reid.
But even then, he still insisted on entering a TV talent show called Star Search.
‘I didn’t have to do the show. Reid asked me: “Are you sure you want to do this, as you can actually lose?” I said: “I’m not planning on losing, I’m going there to win.” ‘Nobody pushed me to do anything. Aged 12, I told my mother: “Listen, this is what I want to do with my life and I need your support.” I felt I had a great talent.’
Usher has never been troubled by self-doubt — though his career and life have not been without hiccups.
His father left home when he was one-year-old and later died as a result of cocaine abuse. But aside from this, his childhood was stable. His hard-working mother Jonetta, a former medical technician, took her son’s ambitions seriously, moving the family from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Atlanta, Georgia — then a hub of rhythm and blues music.
‘I didn’t have a rough childhood. I’m not from the ghetto,’ he says.