There are nine songs, five costume changes and 10,000 screaming fans. Explosions erupt from each side of the stage, eight dancers writhe suggestively in unison, and in the center of it all is one small girl.
The songs are from her debut album,... Baby One More Time, a record that has sold more than 9 million copies and helped to fuel a phenomenon. A new album, Oops!... I Did it Again, is due on May 16th, and the plan is for an upcoming tour to be twice as lavish as the one she is currently headlining. At a time when indistinguishable teen acts clog the air-waves, she has managed to separate herself from the masses and become the nation's prom queen.
Onstage, she sings "Oops!... I Did it Again," which is yet to be released at the time of tonight's show. Despite the fact that they have never heard it before, the audience members scream in deafening unison.
And when it is all over, the girl sprints from the stage to a waiting bus, still sweaty from the performance. She climbs onboard and, within seconds, before the fans have even left their seats, the girl is on the road, a police escort leading the way. Her name is Britney Spears. She is eighteen years old, and this may be her only moment, so she is working like there's no tomorrow.
It's easy to excuse Britney Spears. Last night's drive from Chicago to Worcester, Massachusetts, took sixteen hours, so it's only natural that, when you arrive to meet her, she is wearing pajamas in the middle of the afternoon.
You step into her hotel room, and her eyes immediately dart from the clutter to her outfit. "Look at me," she says, displaying her tank top and flannel bottoms. "I look like such a goob."
Britney Spears is a teenager. She is wide-eyed and sweet. She has crushes on a movie star or two, a penchant for romance novels and a Yorkshire terrier puppy named Baby. She also has a 350-pound bodyguard named Robert, a tour bus with a fully functional tanning bed and well over a million dollars tucked away for a rainy day. It's 1:30 in the afternoon. She seems tired.
At the moment, Spears is where she is every day at this time: in a hotel room, somewhere in America. Specifically, she is on the floor, underneath a table on which a plate of browning fruit sits untouched. Dog toys and stuffed animals are strewn about; Baby wanders in endless circles; and in the corner, Felicia Culotta, Spears' assistant, is making a cup of General Foods International Coffee.
"Felicia makes coffee exactly the way I like it," says Spears in a soft Southern accent.
You mention that it is instant coffee, that the only skill required to make it is an ability to boil water.
"I know," says Spears. "But somehow it tastes better when she does it."
Culotta grins. She is a family friend, a thirty-five-year-old former dental assistant who serves as Spears' surrogate mother and best friend when Spears is on the road. Which is to say, almost all the time. She hands a cup to Spears.
"Thanks, Fee," says Spears.
"You got it, Boo," says Culotta in a matching Southern accent.
Spears takes a calming sip and looks around the room.
"Since the beginning of this year, I've been such a worrywart," she says. "My anxiety has just been crazy. At the beginning of last year, when everything was rolling and everything was good, it was so new and exciting to me. Maybe I'm just changing and getting older, but I find I need to have my downtime, just to myself, or I'll go crazy."
There are several ways Spears deals with her stress. When she is alone, she writes in a prayer journal. When she and Culotta are together, they play a game in which Spears pretends to be someone else. Some days it is Ashley Judd. Other days she is Lenny Kravitz. But there are also times when the crowds press in on Spears, in dressing rooms and at photo opportunities, and the pressure of all those people and those expectations gets to be too much. In those moments, she and Culotta have a special code.
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