I've never met Britney Spears. But we did breathe the same oxygen once. It was at the Tribeca Grand in NYC after the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards. I was trying my best to blend in on the dance floor (pause for laughter) when my coworker pointed out that Spears and her girlfriends were huddled together a few inches away. She was still wearing the same ill-fitting black leather dominatrix get-up from the show. I tried to ignore her, but come on. Britney. Jean. Spears. When she abruptly walked off the floor, I trailed directly behind her, just a half-step off her pace. Couldn't help it. I wanted to know how it felt -- if just for a moment --to be the most sought-after celebrity in all the land.
After chronicling her for the past eight years, I know the answer. It's frightening. Lonely. Manic. Depressing.
Tonight, Spears appears on Glee in her very own tribute episode. About 15 million people will watch her tousle that dyed blonde hair as she gamely re-enacts one of her iconic performances. (Judging from a singular promo shot, I believe it's her Madonna duet, "Me Against the Music." No lip-lock for this one.) I know it's a long shot, but I'm crossing my fingers that the show --which can deftly mix comedy, music, drama and tragedy -- addresses the long, troubled road Spears took to get to McKinley High. It's infinitely more interesting than any overproduced performance involving school-girl uniforms.
The backstory is still mind-blowing. In 2007, a dazed and bloated Britney Spears checked into rehab in Antigua. She fled, took a flight back to L.A., then shaved her head. She impulsively changed outfits in nightclubs, hung out with shady guys with names like Osama and Adnan, and listlessly lip-synced her way through a live performance on MTV. A few months later, she was admitted into the UCLA psychiatric ward and lost custody of her young sons. At Us Weekly, writing about the Britney-is-krazy saga was like the celebrity version of an STD. Nobody wanted to catch it. This wasn't some fleeting romance gone awry. She was a young pop star gone dangerously off the rails and in need of help.
Most insiders say Spears turned her life around when her dad became her conservator or when she started dating her agent -- or even when she landed the Glee coup. But it's not that cut-and-dry. For all her fame, keep in mind that her career peaked in 1999. She was 17. Her songs have since dropped from heavy radio rotation as her CD sales slip and slide down the charts. (Meanwhile, her childhood sweetheart and ex boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, took a break from his singing career and is also getting buzz this week for an acting project. Oscar buzz.)
Even more perplexing, Spears has only revealed scant traces of her true personality throughout her career. In her heyday, her goody-goody sound-bites were as choreographed as her flashy music videos. No Taylor Swift-type musical confessionals either, thanks to Max Martin's Swedish music factory. Even now, she rarely, if ever, opens herself up in interviews. Not even a softball EPK for Entertainment Tonight! Who is this girl who eloped in Las Vegas, got an annulment, then married Kevin Federline? Would she do it all over again? Does she even watch Glee?
Yet there is such goodwill for Spears, it's impossible not to root for her personal and professional success. This is more than a celebrity redemption story. Certainly Spears didn't claw her way back against devastating adversity, a la Tina Turner, or take charge of her life on sheer determination, a la her idol Madonna. But don't underestimate the fortitude it takes to go from a young gymnast from Kentwood, Louisiana, to platinum-selling star to single mother of two.
No matter where she goes from here, Spears can take heart knowing she has already paved the way for a generation of pop princesses and teen idols. The least we can all do is follow her.