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Behind the Britney Story: A Conversation With Writer Jenny Eliscu

December 11, 2008 10:10 PM ET
Rolling Stone contributing editor Jenny Eliscu first interviewed Britney Spears in RS 877, when the pop star appeared on her third cover. Here Eliscu talks about the changes she's seen in Britney over the years, and what it was like getting access to the singer for her new story, Britney Returns.

When did you first meet Britney?
It was in summer of 2001. She had just moved into a new house in the Hollywood Hills and she was decorating it with her mom. She was dating Justin at the time. We went into her bedroom, and in the walk-in closet there was a shirt that was obviously Justin's. It was a cowboy shirt. It was hanging by itself — I looked at it and I remember thinking, "That's Justin's! He must sleep over here!" And she was very down-to-earth and friendly and silly — I was charmed by her immediately. She was easy to be around. She was just in jeans and a T-shirt and her eyeliner was from last night — which always seems to be the case with Britney. We went to the studio together, and she was working with producer B.T. She got in the booth and sang, and it was surprisingly effortless for her.

How would you compare the girl then to the girl now?
What's most different was the experience. I had interviewed her a handful of times since that first story, and we'd even talked about doing a book together a couple years ago. I mean, she used to send me Christmas cards and thank-you notes and stuff. Which, by the way, is super rare for anyone to do after you've written about them. Given all this background, I was really suprised by the restrictions on my access to her. I was like,"'What's the problem here?" That made me immediately uncomfortable. So to answer your question is tough, because compared to my previous experiences with her, this one was so much more micro-managed. I saw her several times over the course of September and October, but I was only allowed to speak with her on two of those occasions. My impressions are based on the very limited constraints that were put on us. That said, the first time I saw her on this story, my first impression was that she looked great. She looked like Britney. But there was much more of a sense of "can we get this over with" and her manager had to sit in. It wasn't possible to engage with her in the ways I was used to, both in my past interviews with her and compared to what it's normally like in general to talk in-depth with a subject.

You've heard her quote from the documentary Britney: For the Record about how she feels like a prisoner. Did you get that vibe from her?
The thing is, when I met with her, I wasn't looking for that. I had started to feel uncomfortable with all the restrictions, like submitting my questions for approval and not being left alone with her. And whenever I asked who was making these rules, I was told it had to do with the conservatorship. Like most people, I didn't know much about conservatorships or how they're supposed to work. Of course, the funny coincidence is that the most famous conservatorship in recent years isn't even Britney's: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were being run by a government conservatorship. And we see how brilliantly that turned out.

Anyway, I had done some preliminary research into it, but I was not yet aware how hard Britney had tried to fight it initially and why. As my research progressed, it started to become clear to me that this might not be something that should still be in place. Because it is designed, ideally, to protect people who are seriously ill. We're talking about people who are non compos mentis, according to the lawyers I consulted. Or they're in a vegetative state. Or they're just so old that they can't take care of themselves anymore. But Britney? It was making less and less sense as time went on.

So, as I say, it wasn't until after my last meeting with her that I realized how far beyond the scope of my interview this level of control extended into all facets of her life. And so, unfortunately, I wasn't, like, checking to see if she blinked out an S.O.S. code or whatever. But in hindsight, I did have a new understanding of the quote of hers at the end of the story, which is the last thing she said to me, in the context of being interviewed. She was describing this song she wrote about artistic expression and masquerade — pretending to be other people and putting on shows. And she says, "Through this, you create your world." The song is about a girl who likes to live in a world of make-believe, and she's got all these people trying to come into her world that she didn't invite in. It's pretty telling. When you think about it, Britney Spears is an artist — a pop artist, in the truest sense — and sometimes artists do crazy things. I'm not sure why Britney isn't allowed to act out in the ways that we normally consider acceptable from artists. And we're guilty too because we created this Britney Spears character and we won't let her change.

What do you think will happen next? Is this conservatorship thing going to be a problem for Britney in the future?
It's a problem for her now. And the commissioner recently granted their request to make it permanent. If something doesn't change — if somebody doesn't contest it — it would theoretically remain in effect until her father dies. So far, Britney has failed in her attempts to hire her own lawyer.

Why do you think the court keeps approving the conservatorship?
One credible theory goes that the conservatorship manages to remain in effect due to political pressure on the courts to keep Britney off the streets. Her reckless behavior definitely was a problem for tax-paying Los Angelenos, who deserve to be able to drive their roads without fear of being run down by a Britney-led paparazzi chase, you know? She was creating mayhem, and it's fair to consider the impact on her neighbors and community. But I also think it's important for conservatorship not to be manipulated into a form of censorship. As Britney herself notes in that documentary, the punishment for her antics ought to fit the crime. At this point, it's like we're punishing her for acting shamlessly. and for being tacky. And this is America! If Britney is famous for acting tacky, we've got no one to blame but ourselves.

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