For more than half of his life, 27-year-old Drake Bell has called Hollywood home. First as an actor, most famously as the star of Nickelodeon’s insanely popular Drake & Josh, which ran from 2004 to 2008, and more recently as a musician.
“There’s just a lot of really young, entitled people,” he told BuzzFeed. “I don’t think a lot of these young people have to work very hard. They’re found on YouTube and, boom, thrown into the studio so they think they can get anything they want. Ariana Grande is a billionaire before she’s been an artist. You have to work to be able to appreciate what you have … what work did she ever have to do in her life?”
That atypical (for Hollywood) candor landed Bell in the headlines earlier this year for promoting a petition to have Justin Bieber deported as a result of his legal troubles, and repeatedly voicing his distaste for the pop star on Twitter. While the initiative failed and his outspoken nature has turned him into the constant target of Bieber’s furious fans, Bell isn’t backing down from this fight.
“I can’t stand that, with a lot of the pop stars, there’s this idea of Are you in our clique?Are you a Direction-er or are you a Belieber? Oh, you’re not in our gang? Then you’re not cool and you need to go in a hole and die,” Bell said. “I don’t understand it. And what’s worse is artists like Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber don’t come out and say, ‘I love having you as my fans, but you shouldn’t be acting this way.’ They just eat it all up, and I think it’s repulsive.”
The idea of artists assembling legions of loyal fans to defend them from online haters, music critics, and anyone with a dissenting view has become the norm — and now, their passion is even being celebrated with awards. But, according to Bell, this tacit acceptance only exacerbates the issue.
“If I catch one of my fans saying something improper, a gay slur or any derogatory term, I instantly tweet directly at them and say, ‘This isn’t how we do it,’” Bell said. “Lady Gaga, who says she’s so anti-bullying, was on [Howard Stern’s SiriusXM show] and Howard read all of these awful, awful tweets her fans had been sending him, [and] asked how she responded to her fans doing the exact antithesis of what she stands for. She said, ‘You have to understand, Howard, it comes from a place of love. They don’t want to see me get hurt.’ I couldn’t believe she didn’t take a second to address her fans and say how disgusted she was they’d do something like that. But none of them do that. Justin Bieber just tweets, ‘Yeah, Beliebers, go hard’ when they’re attacking somebody. Ariana Grande’s fans told Perez Hilton that he and his son needed to die and get cancer, and she just fed it. It’s disgusting.”
Though it may seem Bell is the lone voice of dissent, he’s fine taking heat for speaking his mind. “It’s hard for me to be something I’m not,” he said.
That mantra is one of the biggest reasons Bell felt compelled to voice the lead character in Birds of Paradise, a new animated movie (now on DVD). “I really liked the fact this movie says you don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not,” Bell said. “With kids today, there’s so much concern about having the right clothes and being in the right clique. This movie tells young people that, Whatever you’re into doesn’t make you a nerd; it makes you cool.”
It’s unusual to hear an entertainer approaching his thirties so actively courting the pre-teen fanbase. In fact, traditional Hollywood career trajectory says Bell should have jettisoned his younger fans following the 2008 cancellation of Drake & Josh, as someone like Lindsay Lohan did before him and Miley Cyrus did after him. But Bell did the exact opposite, and recently completed the High School Nation Tour, which brings artists to public schools for lunchtime concerts.
“A lot of artists try to run away from that fanbase so quickly, but I would rather have my audience grow with me than to suddenly turn my back on them because I’m an adult now, because I take my clothes off, smoke weed, and fucking drive fast cars,” Bell said, citing Paul McCartney and Billy Joel as his professional role models. “I hope my fans will grow with me. I want to be like Michael Jackson — 5-year-olds love his music and 75-year-olds love his music.”
But Bell hasn’t been without his own legal issues, which he only commented on when pressed. Unlike other former child stars, he hasn’t been arrested for a DUI or gone to rehab, but he did file for bankruptcy in February 2014. “That financial stuff could have happened to anybody,” Bell said. “There’s decisions that have to be made as far as business, but as long as you really care about the craft and remember why you originally started in this business, it comes back.”
For Bell, his motivation was always to evoke emotions from an audience, like his idols Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and The Beatles. “I knew I would never write a novel that changed the world or become president, so the best way to affect people and share my thoughts with the world was through entertainment,” he said.
And Bell believes many of his contemporaries take that responsibility lightly. “We didn’t sign up to be role models, but we are,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Artists like Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga have more sway over popular minds than a politician. They could get on a pedestal and say, ‘This is how you should treat people,’ but instead [Bieber’s] going around telling kids that as long as you have enough money and swag, you can do whatever you want,” he said with a sigh. “Instead of working to change the world, [he’s saying,] Work to get as much money and power as possible because then you can do whatever you want and no one can say anything to you. I just think that’s a gross, awful, terrible message.”
As for Bell’s message, he said, “I’m all about unity and loving your neighbor… If somebody told me when I was growing up that the music I was listening to was stupid, and I listened to them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I just think it’s so much more rewarding and important to go around the world and bring people together, as opposed to pushing people away.”