Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- Catching up with Bruno Mars before an August show at the House of Blues, it was clear he was a star on the rise -- with songwriting chops, a megawatt smile and an irresistible tenor that tapped right into the sweet spot of "Nothin' on You," his duet with B.o.B., and "Billionaire," his hit with Travie McCoy.
"It's been a long journey, and I'm finally getting my shot," said the 24-year-old Hawaii native.
Then in September, Mars was busted in Las Vegas, Nevada, for drugs. Police allege he had 2.6 grams of cocaine in the left front pocket of his jeans. Just as critics wondered whether the arrest would hurt his career, his latest single, "Just the Way You Are," shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
His highly anticipated debut album, "Doo-Wops & Hooligans," hit store shelves four days after Mars -- whose real name is Peter Hernandez -- found himself charged with felony posession of a controlled substance. His label, Elektra Records, issued this statement: "We congratulate Bruno Mars on his chart topping success, and provide him with our full love and support."
Mars' career as an entertainer began when he was 2 years old, in a Vegas-style revue his parents headlined in Waikiki. At 4, he was a miniature Elvis impersonator.
"Didn't sound, didn't look anything like Elvis, but I was this big (he holds his hand 2 feet off the ground), and it was a big gimmick, and tourists ate it up," he laughs.
At the moment, Mars sits poised on the brink of international stardom -- which could be complicated by fallout from the drug charge. If convicted, he faces a possible four years behind bars, though since he's a first-time offender, a lesser punishment is likely.
Still, the conviction could lead to visa issues when traveling abroad for concerts and appearances.
CNN spoke with Mars before his recent legal troubles.
CNN: It seems as though you were somewhat of an overnight success, but most artists have a hard luck story.
Bruno Mars: I came to California and got signed at a young age. And it's not like you see in the movies, where you start rubbing shoulders with Timbaland and Pharrell, and you become a giant pop star. I just wasn't ready yet. I was too young, and I didn't walk into the label with any product.
CNN: You actually got your break behind the scenes, writing for other people and producing them.
Mars: Because the artist thing wasn't happening, me and my partner Philip Lawrence -- we write everything together -- we were so broke. I said, "Phil, I think we should really start getting in the production side of things, because I can play, I can come up with chords. We can do this." And he said, "Let's go." (Besides writing the hooks on "Nothin' on You" and "Billionaire," they also lent their skills to K'naan's World Cup anthem, "Wavin' Flag" and Cee Lo's recent viral smash, "F**k You!")
CNN: Do you ever wish you'd held those songs back for yourself?
Mars: There's always a bittersweet kind of thing, but I feel like everything had to work out the way it is. Everything that had to happen, happened.
CNN: What have you learned in the meantime?
Mars: You gotta know what you are, who you are and how you want to be portrayed.
CNN: Who are you, and how do you want to be portrayed?
Mars: As the greatest of all time (Laughs). No, I want people to be interested in knowing what I'm going to write next, what I'm going to say next, because my music is a little unorthodox. "Nothin' on You" is a hip-hop record. "Billionaire" is a reggae record. I just want people to be interested in "that guy." "Who's that guy singing that song?"
CNN: Do you think your eclectic musical style has to do with growing up in Hawaii, which is a melting pot of sorts?
Mars: Absolutely. In Hawaii, we have Top 40. They listen to Kanye out there and Lady Gaga -- they have all that, but it's also a very magical place. It's so musical. Every time you go to a barbeque, someone's got a guitar and everyone's singing. I think that throughout my childhood, that probably helped me out a lot.
CNN: Did you ever meet Don Ho?
Mars: Yeah, I used to work right upstairs. He used to do his show downstairs, and I used to do our show upstairs. Great man. Family guy, you know. Typical Hawaii, that's what he was.
CNN: Do you have a list of goals?
Mars: Yeah, listen to "Billionaire!" (Laughs) My goals are -- I don't need much. I'm a simple man. I think that success is having fun. And when I'm having fun doing music, I'm happy. If I can make a little money on the side doing it, I'm really happy.
CNN: What did you do with your first substantial paycheck?
Mars: I bought instruments. There was a point in my life where I had to sell everything I had to stay up here [in California]. So I sold my guitars, I sold my drum set, I sold my MPC, which is a beat machine where you make beats. So the first check I got, I bought everything back, basically.
CNN: There's a rule in this business where the more money you make, the more you get stuff for free.
Mars: Isn't that weird? I'm getting stuff every day in the mail now. Where were you when I was broke?
CNN: When you were a kid, did you sing in front of the mirror with a hairbrush?
Mars: Every day I was in front of the mirror singing to myself, "I'm gonna make it, I'm gonna make it!"
CNN: Could you visualize it?
Mars: Yeah, you have to visualize it. Someone told me something that stuck with me: "You have to envision your life, and then go backwards." I've been living by that motto for a while, so I see where I need to be. Now I'm just backtracking and trying to get back up there.