You have to assume Britney Spears knows exactly what she is doing when she steps into a golden cage to sing Piece of Me, the second number of her new stage show. “I’m Miss American Dream, since I was 17,” she sings (or lip-synchs). “Don’t matter if I step on the scene/or sneak away to the Philippines/ They’re still gonna put pictures of my derriere in the magazine/You want a piece of me?/You want a piece of ME?” The audience erupts.
The princess of pop, railing against her fate from the gilded prison of her fame, yet still a force to be reckoned with - nobody could accuse the message of being subtle. For good measure, the new show is called Circus. Britney is dressed part of the time as its ringmaster, and you know that when she struts across the vast stage - blonde tresses flowing, Ultrabrite smile gleaming, skin-tight bustier glittering - her remarkably loyal and forgiving fans are ecstatic that she seems to be in charge again, that they are witnessing the most startling comeback in the history of pop.
More than 1m people will have seen the 60-date world tour by the time it ends; it will have grossed more than $100m. Yet only last year, Britney suffered an appalling and humiliatingly public psychological breakdown. She shaved off her hair. She attacked a car with an umbrella. She lost custody of her two young children because of her drug-taking. Finally, after a suicide attempt, she was carted off to hospital under police helicopter escort and placed in a psychiatric lockdown.
It was a horrifying train wreck, to which we were all somehow party. Every terrible moment of her 18-month descent into near oblivion was covered by the hovering, stalking paparazzi, scores of whom followed her every move, every minute of every day and night. In a weird kind of tabloid Stockholm syndrome, one of the snappers even became her lover. Mesmerised and appalled, people predicted that Britney, then only 26, would meet the same drug-induced end as Anna Nicole Smith, a grim fatality of the tabloid era.
Now, night after night, Britney Jean Spears is powerfully restating her claim to pop significance, while her management selectively releases photographs of the pop princess holidaying with her two young sons, Sean Preston, 3, and Jayden James, 2 - though the visits are supervised and she does not have custody of her children. She even seems to have a new boyfriend, Jason Trawick, who happens to be her agent at the William Morris Agency.
But is she really holding the ringmaster’s whip?
In a number of the photos released by Britney’s management, a heavy-set older man in a white, sleeveless working man’s vest can be seen hovering in the background. That’s her father, Jamie Spears, who took complete legal control of her life last year. It’s he who has the whip hand in Britney’s life now. When she went into meltdown 16 months ago - this time, the backing track to her misery was the Blackout album - Jamie had himself appointed her conservator, or legal guardian. Under the terms of the conservatorship, all Britney’s spending has to be approved by her father, all her phone calls and texts are monitored, she can see only friends approved by her father and she is not allowed to drive a car. She is under 24-hour watch - not only by Jamie, who seldom lets her out of his sight, but by her manager, Larry Rudolph, and a team of doctors, psychiatrists, child-welfare officers and bodyguards. According to some reports, Jamie even checks whether she is wearing underwear when she goes out in public.
Her handlers also keep her well away from the press. During the only interview she has given this year, Rudolph stepped in and stopped her answering questions about her state of mind. The only time she has apparently been able to talk about how she really feels is in the documentary Britney: For the Record, filmed at the end of last year. In it, she complains: “There’s no excitement, there’s no passion... Even when you go to jail, you know there’s the time when you’re gonna get out. But in this situation, it’s never-ending. It’s just like Groundhog Day every day.”
Some people who have been close to Britney in recent times are concerned that she has been pushed into recording and touring before she is psychologically ready. “How can they say Britney is sick, then shove her out on the road, with all that pressure?” says Alli Sims, Britney’s cousin, who was the singer’s assistant until last year, but is forbidden from contacting her. “This isn’t part of her therapy. It’s a world tour.” Others are concerned that, of all people, it’s Jamie - an alcoholic for most of his adult life, and a declared bankrupt - who has taken control of his daughter’s life and business affairs. People who know Britney well believe that many of her psychological problems stem from her deeply troubled relationship with her father. During her childhood and adolescence, he was a drunken, abusive and disruptive presence in the Spears family home.
“Looking back,” says Lynne Spears, Britney’s mother, in her recently published memoir, Through the Storm, “I’m almost positive staying with Jamie was not the right thing to do for the kids. Our children saw far too many knock-down, drag-out fights.” Lynne recounts the terrible toll that Jamie’s alcoholism and abuse, verbal if not physical, took on the family over more than two decades, eventually driving them to bankruptcy and financial ruin. “I squandered my money on wild women and beer,” Jamie has admitted in an interview. In the end, it was Britney who pushed her mother into divorcing her father after 24 years of marriage.
Although Jamie insists he has conquered his alcoholism - he went into rehab six years ago and claims to have been sober ever since - people who know the Spears family doubt he is the right person to be taking care of his psychologically fragile daughter. They also wonder whether a man whose small construction business went bankrupt should be overseeing an incredibly complicated, multi-million-dollar empire. Britney is estimated to be worth anywhere from $50m to $100m.
Even more troubling to some is that Jamie and the lawyers involved in Britney’s conservatorship appear to have such a strong financial interest in maintaining the arrangement. In the 11 months until December 2008, Jamie received $168,790 from his daughter’s estate - the SJB Revocable Trust - far more than he has ever made in his life, particularly in recent years, when he has worked as a caterer and chef on about $50,000 a year. Andrew Wallet, the exquisitely named lawyer who is the co-conservator, was paid $409,849 in the same period. The lawyer appointed to act for Britney - she has been deemed unfit by the court to choose her own - took $405,990. A total of 17 lawyers made about $3.7m from the conservatorship. An accountant who has looked at the figures says: “You can see why stars die broke.”
A lawyer Britney secretly contacted last year, asking him to free her from the conservatorship, has filed a number of lawsuits trying to get it lifted. In one, he stated that the control exerted over her medication and every other aspect of her life was a “near total deprivation of civil rights”. The singer seems aware she is paying too heavy a price for the problems she suffered last year. “I think it’s too in control,” she complains in For the Record, bursting into tears. “If I wasn’t under the restraints I’m under, I’d feel so liberated. When I tell them [her father and managers] the way I feel, it’s like they hear, but they’re really not listening. I never wanted to become one of those prisoner people. I always wanted to feel free.”
Is it possible, as one pop insider suggested to me, that she is only doing the tour to free herself from the cage of the conservatorship and regain custody of her sons?
Steve Lunt still has the audio cassette an unknown 15-year-old singer from Louisiana called Britney Spears sent to a number of record companies 12 years ago. Lunt was on the A&R team at Jive Records in New York, responsible for finding and developing new talent. “I heard one of her demos - a cover of a Toni Braxton song,” recalls Lunt, a boyish 58-year-old who is originally from Birmingham. “It had been done in one of these karaoke recording studios, and it was in totally the wrong key for her. But there was one part, when her voice went up into a higher register, and suddenly she sounded really soulful and appealing. I thought maybe there was something there.
“Then I saw a photo of her, sitting under a tree in cut-off shorts, holding a puppy dog. It was too American for words, but you could see where the appeal would be.”
The Spears family lived in Kentwood, Louisiana, a small, close-knit town. Their home was a quarter of a mile from the Baptist church where they were regular congregants and Britney sang in the choir. The tabloids have billed the Spears family as “trailer trash”; but Britney’s mother was an elementary school teacher, while her father worked in construction.
“I had to go down to Kentwood and meet her parents,” says Lunt, who worked with Britney until 2005 and has stayed in close touch with her family and manager. “I’ve met a lot of stage parents, and they were not stage parents. This was all because Britney wanted it. She was highly ambitious in a very quiet, Southern-girl way. It wasn’t abrasive and in your face, like Madonna’s ambition. But she was driven for one so young. She really had the eye of a tiger.” Although most people were stunned when Britney’s first single, ...Baby One More Time, went to No 1 in November 1998, Lunt wasn’t. “It was a one-listen smash,” he says.
Her debut became the biggest-selling album by any teenager in history. Within a couple of months, at a mere 17, Britney was an international pop sensation. But it wasn’t only because of the music. There was the astonishingly inflammatory combination of her apparently virginal innocence and her burgeoning, jailbait, pubescent sexuality.
“When we took the first bunch of publicity shots, she looked more like a Lolita, that sexy look without trying to look sexy that girls just have at that age,” Lunt recalls. “But Clive Calder, who owns Jive Records, said, ‘No, I want this to be girl-next-door.’ Hence the image on the cover of the first album, ...Baby One More Time. But you can’t keep the sexiness away from someone like Britney.”
The reaction to “the schoolgirl-on-heat persona”, as one writer described it, especially in the ...Baby One More Time video, which featured the 17-year-old Britney dressed in a schoolgirl outfit with her shirt tied up revealingly, was explosive. Britney’s management was accused of exploiting her underage sexuality. “It wasn’t us force-feeding this teenage girl sexual ideas,” Lunt insists. “It was the other way round! We were trying to stop it. It was Britney who wanted to wear the sexy schoolgirl uniform. She was the one who tied up the shirt to show the belly.”
A few months later, the cover of the April 1999 issue of Rolling Stone magazine caused even more controversy. It showed Britney lying on her childhood bed at home, a telephone to her ear, a Teletubby clutched to her breast, her shirt open to reveal polka-dot silk panties and a black bra that appeared to be doing little to contain her swelling breasts, which many people believed had been surgically enhanced. Britney later denied this. “I did not have implants,” she said unconvincingly. “I just had a growth spurt.”
Lunt draws an interesting parallel between Britney and Elvis Presley. “They both have that unique Southern blend of sex and the church. Elvis could be a Bible-thumping Christian boy and the biggest sex symbol on the planet. As Elvis was in his time, so Britney became.”
Dr Drew Pinsky, an addiction specialist in LA who works with chemically dependent celebrities, says you can trace the roots of Britney’s calamitous downfall last year to this flaunting of her teenage sexuality.
“I am sure on some level she might have felt empowered and good about it, but on another she would have felt empty and exploited,” says Pinsky, who has researched the relationship between celebrities and sexuality in his book The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America. “Generally speaking, when a woman’s worth is built on her sexuality, she ends up having flimsy self-esteem.”
The first bars of Britney’s gilded cage were in place.
For the first few years, Britney’s success was the kind millions of young girls dream of - three albums debuting at No 1, a $3m house in the Hollywood Hills, a loft in New York and, of course, a dreamy boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, her fellow Mouseketeer in The All New Mickey Mouse Club when they were in their early teens. Yet Lunt says that as she became more successful, Britney became harder and harder to deal with.
“When artists become successful when they are very young,” he says, “they realise they missed out on their whole childhood by working so hard. And when they hit 20 or 21, they think, ‘I missed everything between 15 and 20, so I have to catch up.’ Suddenly, learning about life becomes more important than the music. In Britney’s case, when she wanted to learn about life, there were always 300 cameras watching. To think it doesn’t take a toll on someone’s psyche is very naive.”
People who know Britney well believe she has never fully recovered from the end of her four-year relationship with Timberlake, when she had just turned 21. Bad enough to have paparazzi cameras documenting your distress; then Timberlake made embarrassing, even humiliating, revelations, discussing on a radio station how he and Britney had had oral sex, and acknowledging in a television interview that they had “done it”, although Britney was still claiming she was a virgin. Her pristine image was given a further pounding by a rancid interview the Limp Bizkit front man, Fred Durst, gave on Howard Stern’s radio show, in which he talked about having sex with Britney and even discussed her pubic hair. Around that time, the tabloids began speculating that she might be dabbling in cocaine and other drugs.
The first real indication that something was seriously wrong came with the shock news, in early January 2004, that Britney had married Jason Alexander, a childhood friend, at the Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas. As quickly as they got married, they sought and got an annulment. Britney Jean Spears’s first marriage lasted only 55 hours.
Three months later, Britney met Kevin Federline, a backup dancer for Timberlake and others, in a Hollywood club. Just three months after that, the pair announced their engagement. Unfortunately, Federline was already in a relationship with an actress. They had one child and she was eight months pregnant with their second. The feeling that Britney was using her pull as a rich, sexy pop star to deprive two children of their father marked a turning point in the way the tabloids treated her.
When a five-hour documentary cut together from the newlyweds’ home videos, appropriately called Britney and Kevin: Chaotic, was broadcast on American television in May 2005, the reception was disastrous. The New York Times said the show revealed that Britney “has the mind of a child trapped in the body of a blow-up doll”. Her maturity was again challenged in February 2006, when she was photographed driving with her young son, Sean Preston, on her lap, not in a car seat. In April she was questioned by the LA Department of Children and Family Services after the child was badly bruised, apparently because he fell out of a high chair; and in May, Britney was snapped nearly dropping him in the street.
By the time Britney announced she was pregnant again, there were already tabloid rumours that the marriage was on the rocks. Britney was said to be angry that Federline was trying to parlay his new-found celebrity into a career as a rap singer. Jayden James was born in September, and barely two months later Britney filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. Federline was dubbed Fed-Ex, and Britney hit the party scene, seemingly most nights of the week, sometimes in the company of one of her new friends, Paris Hilton, sometimes, as the tabloids enthusiastically and frequently pointed out, minus her knickers.
Her mother believed she was suffering serious postpartum depression, but it also became obvious she was drinking heavily and, according to people in close contact with her, using drugs. Then began the gavotte of checking into rehab centres for 24 hours, then checking out, with time out for shaving her head and attacking a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella. She returned to rehab for a month, but less than a month after she was released, she fired Rudolph.
With her management and family banished, Britney’s closest companions became the paparazzi. Tony Barretto, one of her bodyguards during that time, later testified to a court deciding on custody of her children just how disturbing things were in the world of Britney Spears. He later said that not long after she had left rehab, she nearly overdosed in a hotel room with the singer Howie Day, whom she had met in the clinic.
“She was in a terrible state, just sweating and shaking,” said Barretto, who was worried she was going to die. “Her pupils were huge - I’ve never seen her so bad. There were half-eaten plates of food everywhere. On the surface of the dresser, I could see mounds of white powder and a straw on top. I suspected it was cocaine or powdered methamphetamines. By the side I spotted a glass pipe, which I knew from my drugs training was often used with crystal meth.” Barretto said he gave evidence to the court because he was extremely concerned about the wellbeing of Britney’s young children. “She’s not a good mother,” he said. “She has mental problems. Often she would scream and cry uncontrollably.”
In May 2007, Britney tried to explain what was happening in her life in a meandering post on her website. “I truly hit rock bottom,” she admitted. “Till this day I don’t think it was alcohol or depression. I was like a bad kid running around with ADD. I realised how much energy and love I had put into my past relationship when it was gone because I genuinely did not know what to do with myself, and it made me so sad. I confess, I was so lost.”
“She jettisoned everybody out of her life who was offering her good advice,” Lunt says. “It was her way of saying, ‘I want to make my own decisions, even if they’re bad ones.’ I personally believe she has low self-esteem. And when you are a famous person, to have low self-esteem makes you extremely vulnerable to the leeches of the world.”
Lunt is specifically referring to Osama “Sam” Lutfi, who insinuated himself into Britney’s life in October 2007 and started calling himself her manager. Lynne Spears later issued a restraining order against Lutfi, saying he “essentially moved into Britney’s home and has purported to take control of her life, home and finances”. Lutfi said he began a business relationship with the singer “out of concern for Britney and her wellbeing”. But he had also cultivated a close and presumably lucrative relationship with the celebrity photo agency X17. Brandy Navarre, vice-president at the agency, said Lutfi communicated with them by e-mail and text messages. X17 always seemed to have photographers strategically placed wherever Britney - and Lutfi - were. The photos were then sold to tabloids around the world for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“When all of this stuff crashed around her,” Navarre says, “and she didn’t have a strong support system, she found it in the paparazzi. It sounds so strange, but we were the only people there for her all the time.” The situation became even more bizarre when Britney one night invited a paparazzo into her car and began a sexual relationship with him. The paparazzo, Adnan Ghalib, a Brit of Afghan background, started brokering his own photos and videos of the singer.
Who was Lutfi? He claimed to be a film producer, among other things, of a B-movie called Bug Buster. The film’s real producer says he was just his assistant. “He was a hustler type, a fast-talking kid.” It later emerged that Lutfi had a troubling background and that at least two people had filed restraining orders against him. One complained that his harassment of her had become “an overwhelming nightmare”.
In a lawsuit he later filed, Lutfi claimed that Britney’s parents saw his relationship with their daughter as a “threat to their lifestyle” and started to “drive him out of Britney’s life. Jamie and Lynne set out to destroy anyone and anything that came between them and Britney, first by pressuring and cajoling Britney into annulling her marriage to longtime friend Jason Alexander, and later by interfering with Britney’s marriage to Kevin Federline”. Lutfi also claimed that Britney had appointed him as her manager in October 2007, and that she had agreed he would be paid 15% of her income - which he put at about $800,000 a month - for four years.
In a restraining order against Lutfi filed in early 2008, Lynne gave a very different and disturbing picture of his relationship with her daughter. During a fight between them, she claimed: “Sam had told Britney she was an unfit mother, a piece of trash and a whore.” She also said that Lutfi told her he “grinds up Britney’s pills, which included Risperdol [Risperdal is a drug used to control manic episodes] and Seroquel [a mood stabliliser also used for bipolar mental illness]. He told us he puts them in her food and that was the reason she has been quiet for the last three days”.
Lynne said Lutfi “told me that if he weren’t in the house to give Britney her medicine, she would kill herself. Then he said to me, ‘If you try to get rid of me, she’ll be dead and I’ll piss on her grave’”. According to Lynne, Ghalib called her and told her that Lutfi would hide Britney’s phones and tell her he’d lost them. “He also hides her dog, London. She looks for him all over the house, crying, and then Sam brings the dog out from the hiding place and acts like her saviour.”
Lufti disputes all these assertions and has issued a libel suit against Lynne for repeating some of them in Through the Storm.
“As far as I’m concerned, people like that are just the scum of the earth,” Lunt says. “To see them taking advantage and trying to control someone you feel protective towards is heart-breaking and frustrating, because there is nothing you can really do. And if I felt like that, imagine how Britney’s parents felt, having their daughter brainwashed and shut out by these people. That must be the worst feeling in the world.”
In September 2007, Britney lost custody of her children because of her “habitual, frequent and continuous use of controlled substances and alcohol”, the judge ruled. On January 3, 2008, Britney, who had not slept for days, refused to give her children back to Federline. According to newspaper reports, she locked herself in a bathroom, “sobbing uncontrollably, repeating that she would kill herself”. Finally, in a terrible scene, Britney was taken from the house on a gurney and driven to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in an ambulance, under a police car and helicopter escort. There, she was placed under an involuntary 72-hour psychiatric hold.
“She had a life-threatening psychiatric illness,” Pinsky explains. “You don’t get locked in a 72-hour hold unless you have a profound psychiatric disorder. They are the most ill patients in a psychiatric hospital.”
Although she was released, on January 31, on the orders of her psychiatrist, she was removed from her home again, this time by 20 police officers, and placed again in involuntary psychiatric lockdown. That committal, which the Spears family believe was initiated by Lutfi, gave them the ammunition they needed to file a restraining order against him, and on February 1 Jamie applied for and was granted temporary conservatorship over Britney. It has since been extended and remains in force 16 months later.
“It’s really because of them stepping in, getting a conservatorship, doing all these aggressive manoeuvres that Britney is alive today,” Pinsky says. Yet, though alive, how well is she really?
Given how physically gruelling her Circus tour is, it’s not surprising that recent photos of Britney on the beach show her in the best shape she’s been in for at least five years, slim and toned. Her stamina is remarkable, but some critics feel there is something vacant and disengaged about her. People magazine said there was a “lack of joy in her performance”.
Navarre, of X17, agrees: “When I look at the pictures and see her perform, which is when she’s supposed to be at her happiest and her best, she just doesn’t look happy. She doesn’t have that same smile, that same spark, that she used to. She seems closed and cold. She’s almost been turned into a robot. I don’t know what kind of medication she’s on, but she isn’t herself.”
And, if she is in good enough health to be engaged in one of the most gruelling tours in pop history, why is she still subject to the extremely restrictive conditions of the conservatorship? William McGovern, a law professor at UCLA who was asked to look at the issues of Britney’s conservatorship, says he finds “the restrictions on her personal freedom very odd. Not being able to receive telephone calls? You’re supposed to be able to hire your own lawyer. How can you hire your own lawyer when your telephone is cut off? The whole thing smells fishy to me”.
Last year, a lawyer who wanted to help free Britney from the conservatorship, but has so far been banned from doing so by the courts, released a message the singer had left on his voice mail. “Hi, my name’s Britney Spears,” she said. “I called you earlier. I’m calling again because I just wanted to make sure that during the process of eliminating the conservatorship, my father has threatened me several times, you know, he’ll take my children away. I just want to be guaranteed that everything will be fine with the process of you guys taking care of everything, that things will stay the same as far as my custodial time. That’s it, bye.”
Although few people would defend Lutfi, many might agree with what his lawyer, Bryan Freedman, said when filing a suit against the Spears family. “Why would a loving father, who deems his daughter to be incompetent, thrust her into a massive world tour only to subject her to the very limelight that threatened to shatter her life, for something other than his own personal gain?”
“You have to wonder why Jamie would be so interested in getting her back to work so quickly,” Navarre says. “Some people would argue that he needed to keep the cash flowing, so he put the show pony out there and stuck her on the road again.”
Lunt, however, believes that Britney may have needed to work and tour to heal. “I have a theory about people who get up on stage,” he says. “Usually there is a hole somewhere in them that can only be filled by 20,000 strangers chanting their name. She’s not getting up there just so her father can have money. She’s getting up there because she wants a career. Her career defines who she is. And she would rather be known for being a performer than for being somebody who shaves her head and sticks an umbrella through a car window.”
Despite his praise for Jamie’s intervention, Pinsky has serious doubts about how effectively Britney is being treated for her psychological problems, especially while she is under such tremendous pressure on tour. “My concern is whether there is an addiction lurking, and when the reins are let up slightly, are we going to see that re-emerge in some fashion? If that happens, then her prognosis shifts again, to very poor.”
Pinsky is troubled by something else: that Britney asked for DVDs of her favourite Marilyn Monroe movies to be in her hotel room at the Dorchester while she is in London. “Here’s the reality: Marilyn Monroe was a profoundly disturbed, sexually abused opiate addict who died of her addiction. For Britney to idealise that, or even in any way wish to emulate or identify with it, is very troubling. It concerns me mostly because the last time we saw that clear phenomenon was with Anna Nicole Smith, so if that’s an indication of what this means...”