There's an understanding among those who know Britney well: When she's blond, she's happy. When she's brunette, she's sad. When she's pink, she's crazy. Her hair was back to glowing and golden this fall, when she spent her time diligently shuttling back and forth from her Beverly Hills mansion to dance rehearsals and video shoots and recording studios, in preparation for her new album, Circus. It was a complete transformation, following a year in which she spent a month in rehab, endured a brutal custody battle with her ex-husband Kevin Federline and careened toward a massive — and very public — meltdown that culminated in two involuntary psychiatric hospitalizations in January.
"I feel like an old person now," she says one afternoon, as a manicurist applies rhinestones and girly pink lacquer to her chewed-up nails. "I do! I go to bed at, like, 9:30 every night, and I don't go out or anything, you know what I mean? I just feel like an old fart."
The beauty rest has done her well: In a Hollywood recording studio in September, dressed in black jeans, platform heels and a bedazzled hoodie, Spears looks more like her former self than she has in years. She has makeup on, but it's faded just enough that it could be yesterday's. She says she's considering lopping off the weave she's worn since shaving her head in 2007, and when she counts up her tattoos — "Seven! Oh, my God, y'all!" — she falls back into the couch giggling, kicking her feet in the air.
Spears has always been like this: silly, sweet, humble. She has never been very articulate, but she always tries to be accommodating. Tonight, she's listening to mixes and finishing work on a track called "Lace and Leather." When I ask how she knows if a song is going to be a hit, she says, "You just hear it, and you're like, oh, my God, if somebody else takes this song, you're gonna kill yourself, you know what I mean? Like, this one I'm doing tonight, I think it's good, and it's, like, really quirky and different and girly."
"A little naughty," says her manager, Larry Rudolph, 45, sitting nearby in a T‑shirt and jeans.
"A little naugh-tay," Spears agrees, sounding half-embarrassed.
There are differences in Britney, too, from the last time I saw her, in 2006, when we hung out in her New York hotel room watching American Idol while her son Sean Preston crawled around on the bed nearby. She is shyer, more guarded, remote — like the old Britney but with the volume turned way down. Her last hit single, "Piece of Me," dealt with her public image ("I'm Miss Bad Media Karma/Another day, another drama"), but she says she's not sure she wants to include anything so revealing on Circus. "It's scary to put yourself out there and be like, 'Oh, God, is that cool?' If you're not going to really go for it, you can't just go there halfway." And then, as though changing her mind midthought, she adds, "But sometimes, when you go for it, you can't lose."
Of all the things Britney has lost in the past year, it's the custody of her sons, Sean Preston, 3, and Jayden, 2, that has shaken her hardest. "Every time they come to visit me, I think about how they're such special people," says Spears, who currently sees the boys three days a week, with one overnight stay. "Like, they're going to preschool now! I went there to pick them up on Friday, and seeing them in their little classroom and seeing Jayden being bad or not listening? It's like, those are mine, and it's just crazy, you know what I mean? And the things that are coming out of their mouths right now — they're learning so much, and it's new, and you never know what they're going to say, and they're so smart yet so innocent. They're obsessed with monsters, and every night we look outside, and we have to show them that there's no monsters out there. It's dark outside, but there's nothin' out there, you know?"
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