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07 Dec 2008 07:43
The year did not begin well for Britney Spears, the one-time princess of pop. On 3 January, after not sleeping for four days, and at the end of a period of intense personal turmoil, the police were called to her Malibu home.
Spears had refused hysterically to hand over her children to aides of ex-husband Kevin Federline—who had custody of them—and was eventually strapped to a gurney and hauled out of her house.
She was driven to a psychiatric ward, trailed by a parade of paparazzi.
The entire scene was broadcast on TV.
To many, that shocking incident seemed to spell the end of a career that had once dominated global pop music.
But, as this year draws to a close, Spears has stunned many by riding the wave of one of the most remarkable comebacks in the history of pop music: she has a critically praised new album; is poised to launch a new tour; is giving media interviews; and appears healthy and well. ‘Yes she can! Britney returns’ blared the latest issue of music bible Rolling Stone, which put her on the cover two weeks ago. By any standard it is a stunningly unexpected turn of events.
Yet behind the good news of a career back on track is the controlling hand of the pop star’s father, Jamie Spears. The former chef and building contractor now controls almost every aspect of Spears’s life and multimillion-dollar fortune. He has been given legal control over his daughter, who is now in a state of “conservatorship” with few powers to spend her own money, see people outside her inner circle or choose how she lives her life.
It is a situation that has some Britney-watchers wondering at what price her new success has come and what the real motivation behind her career’s relaunch might be. It might be less about the rebirth of a pop megastar or a daughter’s return to mental health, but the desperate need to keep the cash flowing into the Spears family coffers. “Some people worry that Britney’s family are using her for all the wrong reasons,” said Michelle Lee, editor of celebrity magazine In Touch Weekly.
Last week Spears celebrated her 27th birthday in Manhattan. At a swanky party held in the Tenjune nightclub, Spears appeared in a revealing dress that instantly set cameras flashing. It marked another milestone in a young life that nevertheless feels like it has contained a very long career. The “old Britney” might have used the occasion for serious and out-of-control partying, generating a slew of bad headlines, but instead the scene was sedate. Spears was kept inside the VIP room, away from most of the guests.
Access to her was tightly controlled. One guest present at the bash said her father was acting like “the secret service” in shepherding his daughter around.
But, almost certainly because of that stern discipline, there seems little doubt the relaunch of Spears is working. Aside from Rolling Stone, Spears’s face has stared out from other American magazine covers over the past month. She is once again good cover-girl material, and this time for the “right” reasons that fuel celebrity culture: fashion faux pas, new singles, video appearances and speculation about whom she is dating and her relationship with her ex-husband. She has topped the Yahoo! list of terms most searched for on the internet, easily beating her pop rivals and even defeating president-elect Barack Obama.
In others words, Spears’s life is back to “normal”, as far as that can be applied to a globally famous pop star. Looking trim again and giving interviews—including a highly regarded MTV documentary in which she talked frankly about her experiences of the past few years—she also has a hit single, Womanizer, and her new album Circus is being hailed as her best for years. She is preparing to embark on a tour to promote the album—one of the most eagerly awaited musical events of 2009. She also seems to have won back her place in American hearts.
“People are cheering her on,” said Mary Beth McGee, who writes top celebrity blog INF Daily. “The public really do want to see her do well.”
McGee believes Spears needed her father’s firm hand in her life to save herself and her career.
“The fact Jamie Spears both controlled her estate and had her on lockdown is what really made the whole healing process happen,” McGee said.
But there is little doubt that the nature of Jamie’s role in his daughter’s life is raising unsettling questions about what sort of control is needed to save Spears from herself. Under the terms of the conservatorship—which Britney had originally fought unsuccessfully in the courts—she does not have much more control over her life than a child star does. Her father hires bodyguards to watch over her day and night.
Jamie has brought back her old manager, Larry Rudolph, to reshape her career. Reports claim she does not drive her own car and her phone calls are monitored. Her dates are chaperoned and carefully screened. Jamie went on holiday with her earlier this year to Costa Rica, unwilling to leave her alone abroad. He controls all her finances and decides how her money is spent. Her media interviews are micro-managed to the nth degree and kept to a strictly limited series of questions. She is no longer allowed to sit down with journalists alone. Jamie also recently won a court decision making the conservatorship permanent. That means he could end up in total control of his daughter until the day he dies.
Fatherly love undoubtedly plays a huge role in his involvement—it must have been devastating to have watched a daughter go off the rails in such a public fashion. But there are also clear financial reasons, too. Spears is one of the biggest brand names ever to have emerged in music and she is a brand every bit as much as she is a person. She has sold 83-million records worldwide in her decade-old career—making her the eighth-best-selling female artist in American history—and has been performing professionally in public since she was eight and has long been the main source of income for most of her family.
She is not just a singer or a daughter or a sister to the Spears clan—she is also an industry and a product.
That has some worried about her, even as they applaud her comeback. “When you reach that level of fame, it is hard to see whether the people around her are there for the right reasons,” said Lee.
But whatever the strangeness of her current situation, there is no doubt that it is a turnaround from a life that had gone from fairytale to nightmare. The small-town girl from Kentwood, Louisiana, had sprung on to the world stage in 1998 with the song ... Baby One More Time. Her brand of faux-innocent flirty pop gradually grew up into a more clubby, sexualised brand of music. But the hits kept on coming and she became a hugely successful star, touring the world.
There was a high price to be paid: denied a normal life, she gradually fell deeper and deeper into a pattern of hard partying and drunken escapades. “She was someone who had the really dangerous world of fame open to her at a young and impressionable age and it basically all came crumbling down upon her,” McGee said.
In the last few years Spears had seemed to be losing all control. There was a drunken first marriage (annulled after 55 hours) in Las Vegas to a childhood sweetheart. Then a swift romance with Federline that rapidly produced two children. Numerous incidents and clashes with photographers occurred as Spears became more famous for her clubbing, crotch-flashing and bad driving than her music. Her short second marriage ended in a bitter divorce and she embarked on a life of hard partying. She behaved increasingly erratically, eventually losing custody of her children. A pack of paparazzi permanently trailed her around Los Angeles from one PR disaster to another. They seemed to be waiting for the ultimate tragedy to befall her.
Seemingly oblivious, Spears started dating one of the photographers, casting off all contact with her family and the previous management that had made her famous. She popped in and out of rehab like so many seemingly doomed celebrities. Then she seemed to be flirting openly with mental collapse when she shaved her head at a suburban hair salon in Los Angeles. As usual photographers were there to capture the humiliating moment. Eventually it all culminated in that dreadful night at the start of this year that ended with her being committed at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre.
Yet now she is back. “I’m so glad for her. We have all had our worries about her,” said Lee. But, despite her current triumph, it is not clear whether Spears has escaped the hellish and surreal existence that her fame has created for her. Or that she ever will. The conservatorship of her father may keep her on the tracks, but does it make her happy? Or more normal? In the recent MTV documentary Spears tearfully confessed to being “sad”, despite her new-found success. “She feels in a prison. She has no control over anything,” said Lee. Fame, it seems, still comes at a high price.
The rise, fall and rise again of Britney Spears
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