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.
"I just say, 'Fee, it's stormy outside,' and she knows to clear everyone away and let me be by myself," says Spears.
She smiles. You tell her that she is much more of a kid than you expected, and then, a moment later, you ask whether you have offended her.
"No, not at all," she says. "It makes me feel good when people realize I'm just a kid, because people expect so much out of me right now."
There are ten buses in Spears' tour convoy, but it's not difficult to guess which one is hers. It is the one with the bedroom in back, complete with lace and candles and a queen-size bed that sports a lavender comforter and pillows that say BRITNEY.
We pile onto the bus to ride to the venue, and, although the trip is short, Spears insists on giving the rolling tour: the living room, the bunks, the tanning bed, her bedroom. It is obvious that great care has been taken to make Spears' home on wheels as comfortable as possible.
Spears was raised in Kentwood, Louisiana, a small town an hour outside of New Orleans. Her brother, Bryan, is four years older; her sister, Jamie Lynne, ten years younger. The family is tightknit, very committed to the Baptist faith, and both parents continue to hold down jobs. Her mother, Lynne, is a teacher, and Spears' father, Jamie, is a building contractor. Because the closest work for Spears' father is in Memphis, he only comes home every other weekend.
"I don't think people realize how hard it was on my family to have me do this," says Spears. "It wasn't overnight."
Some of the strains were financial. "It was really tough, but something always worked," says Lynne Spears. "We had just enough to make it work. Of course, we didn't eat very fancy."
And then there were the strains created by distance. When she was nine years old, Spears and her mother, who was pregnant, moved to New York so Spears could attend the Professional Performing Arts School. Eventually, with the arrival of Spears' baby sister, the three female Spears lived in Manhattan while the males resided in Louisiana.
"We had the clothes on our back and a few pictures," says Lynne of life in New York. "We'd get a sublet for a few months and then move on."
In New York, Spears landed an off-Broadway play and a few commercials, and she won as a contestant on Star Search. A year after that, she moved to Orlando for two years to be a member of the new Mickey Mouse Club. After a brief stint back in Kentwood, she was shipped back to New York to audition for Jive Records. This time, Spears left Louisiana for good.
"I was so bored," says Spears of Kentwood. "I was the point guard on the basketball team. I had my boy-friend, and I went to homecoming and Christmas formal. But I wanted more. I mean, it was fun while it lasted, but then I got the record deal, and I left."
Spears was in ninth grade. Today, she has completed high school correspondence classes up through grade eleven. You ask Spears why her parents allowed her to leave at such a young age.
"Because they knew I wanted it so bad," she says. "I thank God every day for my parents."
When Spears spoke to her mother this afternoon, her family had just laid the foundation on a new house in Kentwood. It is not a mansion, says Spears, but will be much bigger than the house she grew up in. Besides, fans have begun to come to the old house and knock on the door and steal dirt from the yard.
"I mean, what do you want with dirt?" asks Spears.
The plan is for Spears to head back home when her current tour winds down. You wonder if, after life on the road, without rules, she is subject to any ordinary eighteen-year-old's restrictions.
"I go through that," she says. "My mom will say, 'You have to be in by 11:30,' and I'll say, 'What?'"
Culotta's head swivels.
"Believe me, there are rules on the road," says Culotta.
She and Spears laugh.
"Because I have to answer to her mom," continues Culotta. "It's awful. I have to be her friend and her authority figure. She gets so mad at me."
"I sneak out," says Spears.
"So she has people who take care of her," says Culotta. "She has me, and she has bodyguards. She has people taking care of her."
We arrive at the venue, and Spears is immediately hustled onto the stage for sound check. When she finishes, she speed-walks down a long corridor, where her dancers and the members of LFO (one of the prepackaged teen dance-pop groups that is opening the show) stretch and bounce like escapees from a Tommy Hilfiger boot camp. Spears heads straight to her dressing room.
It is a large room that usually houses a minor-league hockey team, but tonight it has been transformed with flowers, two couches and floor lamps. A fluffy pink robe hangs from a wardrobe door.
Some nights, Spears spends time in the dancers' room, but usually she is alone. During the summer, her mother plans to come on tour. And hopefully Laura Lynne, Spears' cousin and best friend.
"I miss her," says Spears of her cousin. "Her mom has cancer. I'm going to fly her out and have her join me, to get her mind off things."
Spears' voice trails off, something it does often when she speaks of Laura Lynne. Or her mom. Or any of her longtime girlfriends.
"We've known each other since we were babies," says Spears of her group. "And I'm sure that when we get older, we'll all have kids at the same time." She pauses. "Well, that probably won't happen, but I would love that. That would be so nice."
"I guess it's easier not to think about it," she says. "I mean, it could happen... right?"
These days, Britney Spears has been thinking a lot about sex. This is probably because, these days, a lot of people have been thinking about Britney Spears in a sexual way.
Perhaps it is the perpetually bare midriff. Or the cleavage-baring gown she wore to the American Music Awards. Or maybe the cleavage-baring jumpsuit she performed in at the Grammys. Maybe fans have caught the skintight number Spears wears in her new video for "Oops!... I Did it Again." Whatever the reason, a trend has developed.
"I've been finding that there are a lot of older guys in the audience lately," she says. "The other night we had a show, and I was walking around before I go off, and this guy jumps up on the stage, takes his shirt off and comes running. I think the crowd thought it was supposed to happen, but security jumped on the stage and got him off."
Spears claims that she never meant her public persona to be sexual. You don't believe her. As evidence, you offer her first Rolling Stone cover, when she was seventeen, on which she wore hot pants and a push-up bra.
"It was about being in a magazine and playing a part for that magazine," says Spears. "It's like on TV, if you see Jennifer Love Hewitt or Sarah Michelle Gellar kill someone, do you think that means they go out and do that? Of course not. You know, I've taken millions of pictures. That's not me."
The struggle to separate public and private selves is a difficult one for any celebrity; it is all the more difficult if you happen to be a teenager with considerable sexual power. On her own time, Britney is still a jeans and T-shirt girl. In public, however, there are the revealing outfits, which help to sell a product, which happens to be herself.
"When I look at Britney, I see both a woman and a girl," says Lynne Spears. "When she's home, at night she sleeps with me. She has her own bedroom, but she wants to sleep with me. She's a little girl. But then I hear her on the phone with her business, and she is such a taskmaster."
So you ask Spears, the girl, what she thinks of older men who respond to her more sexual image.
"I don't like to think about that," says Spears. There is a long pause. "I don't think about that. I don't want to be part of someone's Lolita thing. It kind of freaks me out."
Makeup takes at least an hour. Part of the reason is that much of the work time is taken up by girl talk (tonight's topic: Who is gay and who is anorexic), but mostly it is because transforming a fresh-faced eighteen-year-old into a full-blown object of desire is not a paint-by-numbers process.
"OK, sit still a minute, I'm doing your eyes," the makeup artist says. "Good. So, check out this picture."
She holds up a celebrity magazine.
"How in the world can they tell us they don't think she has an eating disorder?"
"It's so sad," says Spears.
And with that, they go back to applying heavy mascara.
The stage show that Spears is being primped for plays equally on her innocence and her sexuality. It begins with Spears' dancers emerging from school lockers and cavorting in the halls until a homeroom bell rings. They sit at desks. Roll is taken. And when the teacher calls, "Britney Spears?... Britney Spears?" she emerges, in a cloud of smoke, dressed in white stretch pants and a fringe top, her midriff bare, ready for school.
As the music starts and Spears begins to sing, however, the enormous video projection of her is out of sync with the music.
"There's a delay in the screen above me, so if you listen to the music and watch the screen, they don't sync up," says Spears. "I think that confuses people. But I'm singing every song. I'm singing my ass off."
Spears is right. She is singing (her ass off) every song. Once in a while, however, she has some assistance.
"There are times during the show, when I'm dancing so much, where I get out of breath, and we have a signal where I'm dying and they'll help me out," says Spears. "Believe me, I'd give anything to do a show where I just sit there and sing."
The question of lip-syncing is just one of the rumors that has swelled around Spears (for the record, she calls talk of breast implants "ridiculous"), but it is symptomatic of a larger issue. She is, in many ways, a child, and it is difficult for the public to view her as anything but a puppet of professional teen-idol makers. The depiction leaves Spears frustrated.
"I wish stories were more about my music instead of the personal questions," says Spears. "It's not about that, it's about the music."
You tell Spears the problem: that beyond generic adolescent longing and turbulence, the songs on...Baby One More Time do not offer much insight into her psyche; that to analyze them is to delve into the minds of the primarily Swedish writer-producers who wrote and masterminded the album, and this is a trip that neither you nor many others are willing to make.
"I see what you're saying," says Spears. "But with the first album, I was sixteen, and I think anybody that was first signed would have left it up to the record company. But as I'm getting older, I totally have control over everything that goes on the album. Because I was clueless at first. But I am the one in the studio singing."
Spears has been writing a great deal lately and has been surprised to find that her songs turn out more like those of Macy Gray or Sheryl Crow than the work of her dance-pop peers.
"I always have melodies in my head," says Spears. "Usually in the bathtub, I'll be playing around with melodies and ideas."
She flips through a folder of CDs and pulls out Gray's album, On How Life Is. It is Spears' favorite disc of the moment, and she listens to it almost every night in her dressing room.
Ironically, both Spears and Gray lost out to Christina Aguilera for this year's Best New Artist Grammy.
"I got to perform in front of Whitney Houston, all those people, showing them what I could do," says Spears of the Grammys. "Of course I wanted to win. But it was more of a disappointment to me to be letting the other people around me down. My mom wanted me to win so bad. And my dad. I felt kind of sad that I let them down. And then I talked to them, and they were worried for me. My mom said, "Baby, I could care less if you win or not. I love you.'"
There is a difference, of course, between a loyal mother and a loyal fan base, and, before her moment has even peaked, Spears finds herself answering questions on whether she is afraid of being washed up by the age of twenty.
"What people don't realize is that as long as I keep coming up with good music, I'll be here," says Spears. "It's not about my personality. People couldn't see me through the radio. So if I keep making good songs, which I think I will, I pray I will, then I'll be OK."
Spears stands. Her makeup is complete. Hair will be done later. It's six o'clock. Spears' show is set for nine, but right now there is still more work to be done.
Of all the rumors that hover around Spears, the most persistent, least-denied-but-never-confirmed tale is that she is dating Justin Timberlake of the boy band 'N Sync.
The two have know each other since their days in the Mickey Mouse Club, but today, in their new incarnations, they delight in giving veiled, elliptical or evasive answers, as if keeping a secret of national security, rather than, say, gossip in the cafeteria. You set out to put a stop to it.
It is not difficult to get Spears to talk about love. "I wish I had a serious boyfriend," she will say, out of the blue. Or, "I have a hard time meeting boys." At one point, she tells the story of meeting a cute boy in a clothing store but being afraid, because of her celebrity, to ask him out.
And so you start by asking about Spears' one love thus far, a high school sweetheart.
"I was so sure I was going to marry this guy," she says. "Now I look back, and — I don't regret it at all, but I'm just like, 'Wow, I thought I was going to be with him forever?'"
The two broke up when Spears recorded...Baby One More Time and no longer talk.
"It just got to be too much," says Spears. "I was changing as a person, and he was, too. We just grew apart."
Or you were growing and he was in the same place?
"Well, yeah," says Spears. "I mean, if I fall in love tomorrow with a guy who runs a McDonald's, I'm going to follow my heart. But I think it's easier if you're with someone who is in the business, because they understand."
You spy an opening, a chance to put the rumor to rest and let the nation get back to its own affairs.
"I thought you did date someone in the business," you say.
Spears laughs and begins to change the subject. You can't take it anymore.
"Let's face it," you blurt out. "You go out with Justin from 'N Sync. Everyone knows it. What's the point in not admitting it?"
Spears laughs. "OK," she says. "Why am I smiling?...OK.... I adore him. He is the cutest thing in the world, and we talk, but it's nothing serious."
You ask if they are boyfriend-girlfriend.
"I wouldn't say we're boyfriend-girlfriend," she says. "We hook up every once in a while, and we'll talk. We're closer than me and Lance and Joey and the other guys in the group. Me and Justin are closer, just because we've known each other forever. We talk all the time, but we're not boyfriend and girlfriend. We just hang out."
But when you hang out, do you do things like, say, kiss?
"Sometimes," says Spears. She screams. "Oh, my God. My manager's going to kill me."
She screams again.
"Oh, God," she yells. "I'm blushing."
It is a cathartic moment.
"Hi there," says Spears. "Aren't you adorable." We are in a maintenance area beneath the Worcester Centrum Center, and Spears is talking to a shy eight-year-old girl. Around us, trucks and buses jut at awkward angles. To the side, 181 people stand in line, waiting to get their picture taken with Spears.
"Look at you," continues Spears. "Can you smile?"
The girl grins. A camera flashes. The girl is quickly shuffled away.
"Hi there," says Spears.
A family of four has huddled next to her, grabbed her around the waist and leaned in close. The line is now at 176. A camera flashes.
"Hi there," says Spears.
When the line is gone, Spears is rushed to a nearby freight elevator. A button is pushed, we ascend, and Spears steps out into a banquet room. A line of 100 people is waiting.
"Hi there," says Spears.
A camera flashes. And another. And ninety-eight more. When Spears is finished, her manager whispers in her ear. Spears nods. A second later, she walks to the window. A large crowd has gathered underneath, and they scream when Spears comes into view. She waves and blows a kiss, then walks back to the freight elevator. A button is pushed. We descend.
"Two-hundred and eighty-one in twenty-five minutes," says her bodyguard. "That's gotta be some kind of record."
The doors open and Spears moves quickly down the hall, flanked by her team of handlers. Occasionally another team member will breeze by and Spears will bounce or spin, but mostly she moves briskly, eyes straight ahead.
This current tour is technically just a small excursion, almost an after-thought to ...Baby One More Time. The real work will begin on June 20th, once Spears gets set to embark on a fifty-three-day tour for her new album.
"It was so ridiculous, because I had one week to record half the album," says Spears of Oops!...I Did it Again. "I was so busy. And then I went to L.A. for the Grammys, and I recorded the other half of it. It was just boom, boom boom."
"Oops!...I Did it Again" is about romantic misunderstanding (she made him believe she wanted to be more than just friends). The proclamation that the singer is "not that innocent" is sure to turn a few heads. There is also an R&B cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," a few ballads and "Dear Diary," Spears' first effort as a songwriter.
"It has all kinds of different moods," Spears says of Oops!... I Did it Again. "Some of the sounds on this album are just out of this world, stuff that people would never expect me to do. It's so diverse. People ask if I feel pressure because... Baby One More Time did so well, and, well, yeah, I do. It's hard to top that, but I'm off to a good start with the stuff I've recorded. It's better."
Spears reaches the dressing room, and her handlers disperse. A moment later, she and Culotta slip inside.
"The new album is really hot, but I just know how much better it could be," she continues. "I think about the third album, and I'm so excited because I know I'll be able to have, like, six months. I want to be able to be in the studio 24/7 and just do my thing. I won't be having to do the commercials and all that. I'll just be motivated by one thing."
In the meantime, there is the tour. And movie offers. Recently, Spears met with a team of writers about potential scripts. She likes the idea of updating Roman Holiday or Dirty Dancing. Agents and acting coaches hand her their cards every time she attends an event. Yesterday, producers called to discuss Spears' starring in Grease 3. "I really want to get into films," she says.
It is sixty minutes to show time. You step out of the dressing room to allow Spears the one hour of scheduled quiet in her day. As you do, her bodyguard pulls a chair in front of her door and sits silently, guarding her privacy.
It is near the end of the final interview when you ask Spears which of her qualities she'd most like to see portrayed in an article.
"I don't want to say," she says. "Why don't you tell me what you think of me?"
You strike a deal: that she will tell you her ideas if you, in turn, tell her yours.
"OK," she says, sitting up on her hotel bed. "I'm someone who's really focused. This isn't all fun and play."
She pulls her knees to her chest and rocks.
"The reason why I say that is that in the interview in People magazine, when people write back after the article, they wrote the most hurtful things ever," says Spears. "The interviewer made it seem like all I talked about was Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck, which isn't true at all. So they wrote all these degrading things. I'm really serious about what I do. And I'm someone who is down-to-earth and comes from a good family. I love my family...."
She stares at the bedspread for a moment.
"OK," she says. "Your turn."
You start slowly, saying that you agree with much of what she said — that she is sweet and hardworking and down-to-earth. You also tell her that she seems very lonely.
There is a long pause.
"I think you're right," she finally says. "Keep going."
You tell her that it seems as if part of her wants to be a normal kid, yet being a normal kid has always been boring to her. That she loves where she's from but doesn't want to live there, and, together, this makes her feel guilty.
"That's just right," says Spears. "I want to be by my family, but I don't think I can live there. I'm so used to all these things that these other places have to offer, so I would be miserable there."
Again her voice trails off. You ask her if she's scared that, by wanting her current life, she's alienating the people who are closest to her in the world. She musters a smile.
"That's so right, it's scary," she says.
When Spears' concert finally starts, it begins in a school setting, but things soon devolve in ways that are not particularly scholarly. There are students talking back in class, explosions and erotic dancing. At one point, Spears flies halfway across the auditorium on a makeshift magic carpet.
It is a short set: one hour, nine songs, five costumes. Spears works the crowd with charm and poise, dancing and singing with a childlike abandon.
One of Spears' tour sponsors is Polaroid, which is headquartered in nearby Boston, and at one point, midshow, Spears walks to the drum riser and grabs one of the company's products.
"I want to take y'all's picture," she says to the crowd. "I'm making a scrapbook of every place I visit. Let me just take a few pictures with my brand-new Polaroid camera."
The children in the crowd scream and shove, struggling to be part of the special moment. Later, when Culotta tells this story to Spears' manager, they will both have looks of awe. "She's so smooth," Culotta will say. "She's a pro," he will agree. But for the moment, Spears stands before her fans, camera in hand.
"Say cheese," she says.
In a flash Spears is back to work, moving in time with her dancers. When the show finally ends with ". . . Baby One More Time," the audience goes wild.
Spears says her thank yous and rushes offstage, straight to the parking facility, where her bus sits idling. She jumps onboard, still sweaty from the performance, and before her fans have even left their seats, Spears is on the road, a police escort leading the way. Some time during the night, she will be told that she has been asked to both host and perform on the May 13th Saturday Night Live, but, for now, Spears is simply in motion. It is a nine-hour drive to Baltimore, where tomorrow, Spears will repeat the events of today almost point by point. She is eighteen years old, and this may be her only moment, so she is working like there's no tomorrow.