Maddie followed Austin everywhere she could: on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Austin's online army isn't the largest—he has 2.5 million Twitter followers (and about the same number of Facebook fans), compared with, say, Bruno Mars' 16 million—but it may be the most engaged and active audience in all of social media. Over a 10-day period at the end of March, for instance, Austin's Instagram posts received a remarkable 70,000 comments. "As a marketer, I know how devoted and powerful the Mahomies are," says Charlie Walk, the executive vice president of Republic Records, which handles marketing and promotion for Team Mahone. "You can laugh at the Mahomies, but they're serious. They're snipers."
Maddie and her fellow Mahomie Alyssa, chaperoned by Maddie's mom, have road-tripped from Dallas to whoop for Austin tomorrow at Houston's Reliant Stadium and to have their pictures taken with him this afternoon. "I have a very unhealthy obsession with Austin," Maddie says with a nod and a smile, comparing cell-phone snaps with Alyssa. Maddie's mom winces a little thinking about the hugging surcharge, but she smiles, too.
The previous day, I meet Austin and Michele at the modest condominium they're renting in Hollywood, Florida. Austin is recording his debut album in nearby Miami, where his management firm is based, and so the Mahones have decided to relocate here from San Antonio. Crates of unopened fan mail are stacked in front of the living-room sectional, the only visible sign of Austin's teen-idol standing. "He's getting so much I had to hire a girl to open it all," Michele says. She calls to Austin, who's tucked away in his bedroom playing NBA 2K12 with his videographer, like I'm his coach picking him up for Little League. "Awww-stin . . . The wriii-ter is here."
Austin, in a Red Wings snapback and Nike sweats, leads me back to his room, notable only for a walk-in closet filled floor to ceiling with sneakers. "I like to have a pair to match every outfit," he says nonchalantly before slumping into a chair. This is the first time Austin has lived outside Texas. He was born in San Antonio and has lived in or around there all his life. Austin's father, described by Michele as a "real cowboy" who rode bareback at a near-pro-rodeo level, committed suicide when Austin was 2. Michele would remarry, divorce, and then, when Austin was in sixth grade, remarry again and move to La Vernia, a small town 30 miles east of San Antonio. "There's no bowling alley in La Vernia," Austin recalls. "There's no movie theater. There was nothing in that town for me to do."
Out of sheer boredom, in the summer of 2010, Austin and his school friend Alex Constancio began making videos and posting them to YouTube. Inspired by a young YouTube demi-celebrity named Ryan Higa, whose doofy comedy clips have now attracted 8 million subscribers, Austin and Alex would film themselves horsing around: shooting hoops, dancing like fools, whatever. "The first video was us fighting in his bedroom," Austin says. "We were just punching each other."
In January 2011, Austin, who'd had no training or experience as a singer, set up his own YouTube channel and started posting his music videos. "People came up to me in the school hallways," he says, "people I didn't know, telling me, 'Wow, you're so good, please post another video.'" He went from 800 subscribers to 20,000 in a matter of weeks. As word of a "baby Bieber" spread, Michele fielded requests for Austin to appear at local birthday parties and teen clubs. The day after performing at one fan's Sweet 16 party in Chicago, Austin tweeted that he and his mom would be hanging out at a nearby coffee shop in an hour, so why not come say hi? He says he expected no more than a handful of girls to show. "I walked around the corner to the Bean," he says, "and one girl jumped out of the bushes and screamed, 'Ahhhhh!' Once that scream let out, all these girls started sprinting as fast as they could, over bushes, around poles. The cops said there were over a thousand girls there. They had to sneak me into a police car and take me back to my hotel."
After that, what had been a lark turned into a career. Michele left her job as a loan officer in the fall of 2012 to tend to her son's burgeoning enterprise full-time. She pulled Austin out of public school in favor of homeschooling, then went shopping for a professional management company, eventually settling on Chase Entertainment, which represents the Auto-Tune savant T-Pain. Austin now splits his days between homeschool study, vocal coaching, choreography lessons, rehearsals for his first tour (a 13-date sprint opening for Taylor Swift), and recording his debut album, set for a fall release. The original plan was to drop it in April, but Austin's manager Rocco Valdes says they were having trouble figuring out what the debut should sound like. "We were getting tracks in from so many great writers and producers"—established hit-makers like Max Martin, RedOne, Steve Mac, and Savan Kotecha (One Direction) among them—"and it was all over the place," he says. "I think Austin's lane is pop. I want this album to sound like the pop I grew up on—'N Sync, Backstreet Boys, Britney—only updated." To provide some cohesion, Valdes has persuaded RedOne, who produced the Lady Gaga breakthroughs "Just Dance" and "Poker Face," to executive-produce. "It's been a little challenging," Austin says, "but I know my fans are gonna love it."