If it weren’t for the walls covered in handmade signs drawn in bold, glittery letters by hundreds of obsessed teenage fans declaring love and devotion to him, the San Antonio bedroom of Austin Mahone wouldn’t be much to look at.
Barely 8×10 feet, with a futon that folds out to a bed and a few basic items of furniture, this is where the 16-year-old burgeoning pop star has slept since he and his manager mom, Michele, moved in with her parents last spring, after she and Mahone’s stepfather divorced.
In the past year, he has spent most of his time in this room, facing his laptop, which sits on a rollaway cart adjacent to a professional-quality photographer’s lamp he uses for his weekly video chats. Above Mahone’s bed there’s a framed poster of Michael Jordan on a Wheaties box and another of Justin Bieber that Mahone’s grandmother gave him. While that floppy-haired pop star is obviously a role model – as evidenced by Mahone’s straight-up pop voice with a little R&B crooning thrown in, and even his wavy hair with its Bieber-like swoop – Mahone doesn’t see it that way and has demurred that he’s “not trying to copy Justin Bieber” on descriptions of his first videos. Yet a Bieber doll stands on a shelf in the corner – “I didn’t buy that,” the 5-foot-9 greeneyed teen says, blushing – along with a plaster bust of Austin’s head, made by a fan, with a rose in his mouth.
When I visit him at home in late March, he keeps his two iPhones – one for business, one for pleasure – on the desk in front of him while we talk, responding to his mom as she texts him from the next room. Mahone, an only child, tends to be quiet but carries himself with a confidence you might expect from a kid who has been showered with praise by tons of adoring girls. I ask him if I can watch him Skype with a fan. Mahone conducts exclusive Skypes with female fans – for a fee, now $50 for a 10-minute call. (“We’ve changed the prices so many times because we wanted to be fair,” says Michele. “We don’t want to gouge people, but the demand was so high.”)
The Skyping idea initially came to him because, he says in a half mumble, “I thought it would be cool to Skype with fans on their birthday and spend, like, a half-hour with them. I did a couple of two-hour Skypes. I just hang out with them and play songs and stuff. At first they’re kind of shy, but after a while they open up.” Mahone adds, “I’ve had a lot of people tell me I’m doing something no one has ever done before.”
He randomly starts calling fans who’ve contacted him in the past, then posts his Skype name via Twitter. Getting up to go to the bathroom, he says, “The Skype name is out. I’m gonna have to make another Skype now” to control the volume of calls. Within seconds, his computer starts blipping as calls roll in by the hundreds. He finally answers a call from a softspoken teenage girl who retains her composure by nervously fiddling with her long hair. “How was your day at school?” Mahone asks. She tells a story about one of her teachers calling her out for being a “Mahomie” – Mahomies are what his fans call themselves, like Justin’s “Beliebers.” “Can I play you a song?” he asks before picking up his guitar and playing alt-rock band Lifehouse’s 2005 ballad “You and Me.” Strumming his guitar and improvising vocal riffs, there is something genuinely magical about the spell he’s casting. Calls keep coming in while he sings, and there’s a constant beeping sound, but Mahone never loses his cool. When he’s done, he thanks the girl for talking to him, says goodbye and closes his laptop with an emphatic slam.
Kara DioGuardi, the former American Idol judge who is trying to sign Mahone to Warner Bros. Records via her production deal with the label, says the thing he’s doing most right is connecting with fans online in a way that feels authentic. In addition to his paid Skypes, weekly video chats and the clips he posts on YouTube, the onslaught of tweets and Instagram self-portraits (not a few shirtless), Mahone reaches out to individual fans, responding directly to their comments with heart emoticons and smileys, thanking them for their support, promising to never forget anyone who tweets or retweets.
Says DioGuardi: “He knows how to connect. I think people feel attached to him because he’s so genuine. He lets them into his bedroom and talks to them in his videos. He’s got their notes on the wall. He’s got his mother, his grandmother there.
It’s very much what they’re going through at that age.” Plus, “When you see him perform,” she adds, “it’s like he’s singing to you.” It’s working: Mahone has 700,000 Twitter followers, 450,000 Facebook fans, 350,000 followers on Instagram and 72 million views for more than 100 of his homemade YouTube cover versions of songs by pop artists from Bieber and Bruno Mars to Adele and rapper Drake. He has sold hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise bearing his name, ranging from hoodies to sticker packs (some that sport the catchphrase “Haters gonna hate. Mahomies gonna love.”). Sometimes, when he goes to his favorite San Antonio mall, he has to bring his bodyguard in case he is recognized and swarmed by screaming teens. Recently, $60,000 worth of tickets for his concert at New York’s Best Buy Theater sold out in less than an hour.
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