Simon Vozick-Levinson
September 24, 2010 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The young women who are lining the aisles of Austin’s Waterloo Records all seem to have one question on their minds. ”Is he still coming?” someone murmurs. ”Are you sure?” The crowd of around 150 fans explodes in cheers when Bruno Mars arrives promptly at 5 p.m. for an in-store performance and launches into ”Nothin’ on You,” his chart-topping duet with Atlanta rapper B.o.B. The baby-faced Hawaiian singer-songwriter-producer, 24, is all smiles in a white T-shirt, a varsity jacket, and his signature fedora. Posing for pictures with smitten admirers after the performance, he pauses only briefly when asked how he is feeling. ”Look,” he says. ”I’m happy now.”

Less than 48 hours earlier, Mars was locked up in a Las Vegas jail. He was taken into custody early on Sept. 19 after police allegedly found him with 2.6 grams of a narcotic (they believe it was cocaine) in a bathroom stall at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino following a performance. According to the police report, he ”admitted he did a foolish thing” when questioned by the arresting officer. (Reps for Mars declined to comment on his arrest.)

It was a surprising development during what should have been a period of celebration. Six days earlier, Mars had taken the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards, capping off a stunningly successful summer run: In addition to ”Nothin’ on You,” he has co-written, co-produced, and sung on Travie McCoy’s smash single ”Billionaire”; co-written and co-produced Cee Lo Green’s profanely catchy viral phenomenon ”F— You”; and scored a solo smash of his own with ”Just the Way You Are,” currently No. 3 on Billboard‘s Hot 100. With his debut album, Doo-Wops and Hooligans, due in stores Oct. 5, he is now closer than ever before to completing his lifelong project of becoming a megastar — unless, that is, his unexpected legal drama brings it all crashing down.

When not on stage, Mars spends most of his time at Levcon Studios, the cluttered Hollywood clubhouse where he and production/writing partners Philip Lawrence and Ari Levine (collectively known as the Smeezingtons) have created Mars’ best-known work. A week before his arrest, he’s at Levcon as usual, feeling on top of the world. ”I’m here from when I wake up to when I go to sleep, about six days a week,” he says, stretching out on a couch under a framed Billboard chart with ”Nothin’ on You” at No. 1. Lately, he’s been working Sundays, too. ”I haven’t had a day off in a long time. But I can’t complain. I’ve been chasing this s— forever.”

As a toddler in Honolulu, Mars (born Peter Hernandez) idolized his bandleader father and singer mother. By age 4, he was singing Elvis Presley and Frankie Lymon covers at local clubs. He flew to the mainland at age 6 for a bit part belting out ”Can’t Help Falling in Love” in the 1992 movie Honeymoon in Vegas. Mars’ next break came shortly after graduating from high school, when he came to L.A. and soon signed with Motown Records. ”I was just so young when I moved up here,” he says. ”You think it’s like the movies, like you get signed and Pharrell and Timbaland are working with you. But it wasn’t like that.” Feeling homesick and adrift in fast-paced L.A., Mars struggled to find inspiration. About a year after joining Motown, he says, ”the s— hit the fan” and he was dropped without ever releasing a record. ”It’s like I’m nothing,” he remembers thinking. ”I’m back to zero.”

Mars was close to moving back to Hawaii when Lawrence, a former *NSYNC backup singer whom he’d met while still on Motown, persuaded him to try writing and producing for other artists. Within a few years they were working with major-label acts like Brandy and Flo Rida. ”We said, ‘One day, these labels will hear the guy singing the demo, the guy writing and producing the stuff, and they’ll take a shot,”’ says Mars. Last year, it finally happened: Elektra signed Mars after hearing early versions of ”Nothin’ on You” and ”Billionaire.”

Those songs’ subsequent chart domination made Mars a coveted collaborator, though recording Doo-Wops has left him little time for outside work. ”He’s got a really refreshing and effortless voice,” says Travie McCoy. ”And this dude could write a hit record sitting on the toilet. He’s just got it in him.”

Mars’ arrest could punch a big hole in his image as pop’s clean-cut golden boy, but it’s unlikely it will hurt his career in the long term. For one thing, experts doubt Mars will land behind bars. ”Usually this is a situation that someone does not go to jail on,” says Scott Leemon, a defense attorney who has represented artists like 50 Cent and Young Jeezy. ”If it’s a small amount, then it would be considered for personal use.”

And so far, the bust doesn’t seem to have soured radio programmers on him. ”America is very forgiving,” says Rob Roberts, program director at Atlanta’s Q100. ”If we as an industry let every artist’s misstep affect the songs we play, there’ll be a lot more talk stations on the dial. This is an artist we need around for a long time. He’s exactly what the musical world needs right now.” (Additional reporting by Karen Valby)

Bruno’s Best

Mars’ long rise to fame quickly picked up speed with four key songwriting/producing credits he added to his résumé over the past two years.

The 1980s-sampling banger was a massive hit, but at the time Mars was still broke and unknown.

”NOTHIN’ ON YOU” B.o.b, 2010
Mars’ sweetly romantic hook helped take the pop-rap tune to No. 1 — and made him a star.

Mars cemented his place in the pop stratosphere by singing on the reggaefied daydream.

Foulmouthed lyrics and retro-classy production proved an irresistible combination.

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