Chasing the Britney Spears story means become acquainted with the star's ever-changing circle of friends, assistants, love interests and collaborators -- and doing a lot of fast driving. Click here for a guide to Spears' universe over the past few years, which includes everyone from Justin Timberlake and her parents to current paparazzo boyfriend Adnan Ghalib. And keep reading for an interview with cover story writer Vanessa Grigoriadis, who discusses the lengths she traveled to track Spears, why she thinks our culture is so obsessed with the minutia of Britney's life and how the troubled star's story is like Lost.
RS: What did you learn about how the paparazzi work?
VG: Every outlet has a team of three or four people who are working on it. When you see these paparazzi shots and you can't believe that they can get her all the time, the reason they get her all the time is they triangulate her. They have one guy sitting up at her house and he works with two or three other paps. As soon as she moves, he has a Nextel walkie talkie and tells those other guys, "She's coming down Rodeo. She's taking a right.â€ And they catch up with her and they know pretty much every place she's going to go because she goes to the same places. She's very habitual in where she goes. No matter which way she gets out of the car, they're gonna catch her because there are three or four dudes who are coming at her from different directions in the city. That's the way in which it's really like a PacMan game.
RS: What do you think about that?
VG: You can't say a man in a car with a camera who is driving down the street in the same direction as a celebrity is a criminal. While on one hand, it's complete, utter craziness when the paparazzi are around her, on the other hand, they are kind of respectful. They don't ram her car. They don't get up in her face to the point where she has to literally slap cameras out of her face. These people are chasing her. She is the one who is driving erratically.
RS: You talk about that in that story. She zooms down the road, drops her assistant off at the supermarket and then zooms back. It seems like she enjoys his chase.
VG: Beyond what you can even imagine. Being around her feels like you've just taken some insane upper or something. That's just the way the energy is around her. I'm a journalist who didn't go to Iraq because I didn't want to die. And I was like, 'I'm going to die on a Britney Spears chase and that's just going to be too pathetic to be believed."
RS: Why is America continually fascinated with her?
VG: The main reason is that she's somebody who went from being one of the most highly managed stars ever to being somebody who has zero management, and during the course of that evolution she began to live her private life in public and that has just been continually shocking for people -- the fact that she will just go out looking like hell, going to Wal-Mart. It's just so contrary to the kind of red-carpet glamour that we're used to seeing stars do about four to five years ago. So she really was one of the first people who made that transition. And people were really interested in her when she married Kevin because he was such a clown. The soap opera became does she really like Kevin? Is he cheating on her? Like, how can this be happening? She was our sweetheart.
She became the most important person to blogs and all the new media -- she was always available because she didn't run away from the paps. She didn't care -- if she wanted to get her Starbucks she was gonna do it herself! At the same time, she has far greater staying power than someone like Paris Hilton, where we've all realized that she courts the paps and courts the fame. Everything is staged with her. It's all for maximum appeal. Whereas with Britney, it seems as if she's being authentic. This is really who she is. People like to say, "there's only one Madonna." And Britney Spears could never possibly be Madonna. But look what Britney Spears did. At the time that it was hip to be abstinent until marriage, she was that. Then when raunch culture and porn culture started taking over, she had this really dirty album. And then when it was all about popping out babies and being in celebrity magazines, she did that. And now that it's all about the complete collapse of our culture, and you have to have a public downfall to even be heard, she's doing that! She did this thing on MTV and no one even remembers that Rihanna performed at the MTV music awards! It's all about her -- she's like the Bigfoot of the culture.
RS: Im the story you say the closest you got to her was at the mall. Did you get closer?
VG: No, that was between the two hospitalizations.The mall was the last time I saw her other than being outside her house when they took her out in an ambulance. I saw her maybe five times. I did run after her one time and I was able to be like 'Hi! My name is Vanessa' and she was gone.
RS: If you get five minutes with her what do you ask her about?
VG: Well, I don't know. A few weeks ago my question would definitely be 'Are you on drugs? Is that the problem?' I'm not as convinced as everybody else that she's bipolar or has multiple personality disorder or all these things people want to throw on her. I just think she suffers from a toxic combination of a lot of different things. Some underlying genetic problem, like bipolarity or borderline personality disorder, some amount of prescription drugs that are maybe over-prescribed by a rock doc kind of person. Obviously drinking way too many Red Bulls and too much caffeine. She's narcissistic, she's selfish and she's confused and used to be too trusting and is not at all now. She's over-sensitive and she takes everything too hard. Everything becomes this crazy crisis.
The Britney story works because it moves at the speed of light. But every week there's a new story, so earlier it was 'she's on drugs.' And then there was this week where everybody was saying multiple personality disorder. And then it was, i's all about her parents. Now it' all about Sam controlling her, drugging her. It's almost like doing this story makes you feel like you're on Lost or something. Like the island is Britney and you'e all trying to figure out what's going on with it.