If there were such a thing as "new-house smell." Britney Spears' Hollywood Hills home would reek of it. At the top of a steep driveway, evidence of recent construction — two-by-fours, bits of concrete — sits in a refuse pile next to the garbage pails. The three-story structure that the singer bought in January for a reported $3 million seems almost like a hotel — it's got that just-cleaned, not-lived-in feeling. In the kitchen, full sets of plates are topped by rolled-up linen napkins, as if they haven't been used since they came out of their boxes.
Neither flashy nor cute nor particularly fashionable, Britney's house is awash in neutral colors and deep, rich maroons that Martha Stewart would approve of. The living room is crowded with two overstuffed beige couches; on a bookshelf sits a solitary photo: a shot of our hostess smiling prettily next to actress Susan Sarandon, one of her favorites. Framed pictures of game birds decorate the walls, and candles are liberally strewn around each room. The Southern-gothic décor is cozy without being dowdy, but mostly it's just very grown-up.
Britney's bedroom has its own set of sofas forming a sitting area adjacent to the regal-looking four-poster bed. A glass door leads out to a modest patio where Britney says she does most of her entertaining. "We just hang out," she says, relishing her role as tour guide. "You know, listen to music. Party. Just have a fun time. I don't like to go to clubs out here because everybody's always looking you up and down." As she heads back toward the kitchen, her footfalls muted by cushy white slippers, she seems to trail off into a daydream. "I love showing off my house," she says. "I can't wait to start having dinner parties here." For most of this summer, she had her cousin (and best friend) Laura Lynne staying with her at the house. "We never imagined that she'd be living in something like that or that we'd even get to stay somewhere like that," Laura Lynne says, amazed. "It's weird, her having her own place in the world."
Much as she might seem like she's playing house, Britney is no longer a little girl. As the nineteen-year-old prepares to release the first single from her new album in early September, exit her teens in December and make her film debut in February, adulthood is as new and strange to her as this house, 2,000 miles away from her childhood home in Kentwood, Louisiana.
Ever since she first graced TV screens looking like a naughty Catholic-school girl in her "... Baby One More Time" video, Britney has alternated between doe-eyed ingénue and midriff-baring sexpot. She's the quintessential girl-next-door — the one with the bashful "Who, me?" smile who never lets on that she knows you think she's hot. She has looked at adolescence from both sides now, and as she becomes a bona fide grown-up in the coming years, that provocative image won't be available to her anymore. For now, though, Britney and her image are one and the same — she is as much of a delightful contradiction as she seems. She's old enough to own real estate (she's also got a loft in New York City, currently occupied by her twenty-four-year-old brother, Bryan) and to have sold more than 37 million records worldwide, but she retains a goofy sense of humor and a childlike gracelessness. When she walks, her swaying hips reveal her potent sexiness, her shuffling feet recall a kid wearing her mother's heels. She may not be that innocent, but she's no devil in disguise, either.
"Lately, I feel wiser and more centered and more settled with myself," she says, sitting at her kitchen table with a bowl of edamame in front of her. "I'm from the South, so I'm a very open person, and I've had to teach myself to not open up to too many people."
It's a typically hot and hazy July afternoon in Los Angeles, and even though it's a Saturday, Britney has to go to work. Tomorrow, she'll fly on a private jet to catch the kickoff of Madonna's U.S. tour in Philadelphia, but today she's in the midst of recording her new album, and her mountainous bodyguard Rob is getting impatient to drive her to the studio. She goes into her bedroom to freshen up, which means changing from her slippers into a pair of platform flip-flops and putting on a smear of pale lipstick.
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