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."
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