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?"
Ever since she was a little girl growing up in Kentwood, Louisiana, Spears dreamed of having her own children. She considered the experience "the closest thing to God," she said in 2004 in a note on her fan site. "To be a really good mom, I feel your child needs to be your full-time job. I want to raise my kids and share all of those precious moments with them."
But things haven't turned out like she imagined. "I didn't think my husband was gonna leave me," she says, deadpan. She laughs to break the tension. "Otherwise, I'd be with my babies 24/7. But since they're almost like twins, they both take care of each other. I think they look like me," she says, going from affectionate to bitter as she gets distracted by thoughts of Federline, whom she sees only when one of them is picking up the boys. "They don't look like their father at all," she continues. "And it's weird 'cause they're starting to learn words like 'stupid,' and Preston says the f-word now sometimes. He doesn't get it from us. He must get it from his daddy. I say it, but not around my kids."
Of course, Britney hasn't quite turned out to be a model parent, either, and it was her own erratic behavior that led to her losing custody. During Britney's second trip to the psych ward, when her dad, Jamie, wanted to convince her to let him take control of her life, he told her he would help her get her babies back. He and attorney Andrew Wallet filed for a legal conservatorship that makes them responsible for overseeing her finances and her personal life — Britney today has about as many legal rights as when she was in the Mickey Mouse Club. She is watched over day and night by security guards Jamie hired (and she's paying for); it's also rumored that Britney's phone calls are closely monitored and that she's not allowed to drive her own Mercedes. Recently, says one source with ties to the Britney camp, Jamie fired a guard who let the singer use his phone. (Her rep denies the claim.)
"There's no excitement, there's no passion," the singer says in a rare outburst in Britney: For the Record, a documentary executive-produced by Spears' management team that is airing on MTV November 30th. "Even when you go to jail, you know there's the time when you're gonna get out. But in this situation, it's never-ending. It's just like Groundhog Day every day." She also says, "If I wasn't under the restraints I'm under, I'd feel so liberated."
Britney has clashed with her parents on and off for years. "She was scared they were going to come in and take away everything she had worked for," says one former friend. The real problems, however, go deeper: As her mother, Lynne, documents in her recent memoir, Through the Storm, Jamie's alcoholism had led to "knock-down, drag-out fights" during Britney's childhood, and he was often absent from the household, out drinking. "She felt like he was this scary guy who she didn't really know because he was never around," says one Britney pal. In 2000, Britney paid to have a house built in Kentwood for Lynne. The couple divorced in 2002 but have never fully severed their ties, and sources close to Britney say she felt betrayed by their reconciliations. "Sometimes she would call Lynne's house, and Jamie would answer the phone," says one source. "It made her feel like she was being taken advantage of."
Under Jamie's rule, however, Britney's career has risen from the dead. In April, he rehired her former manager, Larry Rudolph, a straight-talking Bronx native who started in entertainment law before discovering Britney in 1995. The singer had parted ways with Rudolph in April 2007, accusing him of joining with her parents to force her into rehab. Rudolph compares his own relationship with Britney to Elvis Presley's and Colonel Tom Parker's, but he gets uncomfortable when asked to explain how Jamie helped her get better. "I can't talk about him, because I'm not allowed to talk about the conservatorship," Rudolph says. "The only thing I can say is, in a general sense, there's a stability in her life right now that I think is a positive thing for her."
Within weeks of the conservatorship's being implemented, Britney started working out again. She and her dad went to Costa Rica on vacation with Mel Gibson, another recent rehab alum, and his wife, Robyn. For her good behavior, she earned expanded visitation with her sons in May. And by the end of the summer, with some 30 songs recorded for Circus, Britney Spears was officially back in business. "Some people are skeptical about her icon status at this point," Rudolph said in September, a couple of weeks after she received three awards at the VMAs. "But this album tells everybody that she's here to stay. This is going to be the album that cements her legend status."
In mid-September, "Womanizer," the first single from Circus, debuted at Number One on Billboard's Hot 100 chart, and in November, the video was the most-watched clip on YouTube, with more than 16 million views. Due out on Britney's 27th birthday, December 2nd, Circus is classic Britney pop, updated with the kind of electro-tinged dance-floor kitsch she explored on her past two albums. In addition to collaborating with producer Dr. Luke, who wrote pop-rock hits for Kelly Clarkson ("Since U Been Gone") and Katy Perry ("I Kissed a Girl"), she reunited with "... Baby One More Time" producer Max Martin, as well as the core beatsmiths from last year's Blackout: Danja and production duo Bloodshy and Avant. The album's also got an epic, gut-wrenching ballad on par with 2003's "Everytime": "Out From Under" is a cover produced by Guy Sigsworth and previously recorded by another singer for the Bratz soundtrack, but the pathos expressed in lyrics such as "I don't want to feel the pain.... I'll get it all figured out, when I'm out from under" is heavy with significance the way Britney sings them. It is, overall, a very good Britney Spears album. "We listened to, like, 9 million tracks from unknown people," says Britney, describing the recording process. "Sometimes it would take 10 minutes to write a song, like this Spanish twang song called 'Mmm Papi.' So we would just kind of crash-course at that for the first two or three weeks. And then you get a vibe with somebody and how you deal with them and how you work together, and then you go to somebody else, and you figure out how they work." "She always goes for the tracks that don't sound like what everybody else has done," says Los Angeles songwriter Nicole Morier, who wrote nine songs with Spears this summer. "She would come in, and right off the bat, she'd have ideas. She's not afraid to speak up or experiment. She's kind of quiet and sweet, but she's willing to jump on stuff." Though Spears' contributions as a writer vary from one track to the next, Morier says one of her favorite things about Britney is that she's not hung up on wanting to prove she can write an album's worth of songs on her own. "She's a pro," Morier continues, "and she knows her limitations."
"We tried to keep the bar as high as possible for these songs," says Britney's A&R woman, Teresa LaBarbera-Whites, who combed through hundreds of demos looking for Circus's tracks. "People ought to hear it on the radio and go, 'Yes, that is Britney Spears! She's done it again!' Whether you want to admit it or not, you have danced around the room in your bra and panties to her songs or you've been driving in your car singing along. We all have. So you want to get it out there and know that it is going to fucking knock people down."
Capitalizing on the public's fascination with Britney's wiggy personal ordeals may be a lucrative strategy for the celebrity magazines, but the Britney Spears brand always does better when she's, well, blond. The vast majority of her millions of young fans around the world just want their Brit to be happy — a sentiment they express with all-caps and lots of exclamation points on message boards and fan sites. Those who stand to prosper if Circus is a hit — the singer included — have a lot to gain from presenting an image of the Britney we once loved. As lawyers for the conservatorship argued in court that the singer is gravely disabled, she showed signs of being highly functional: She filmed two videos, shot the MTV documentary and joined Madonna to perform for 50,000 at Dodger Stadium. In the spring, she's expected to embark on an arena tour planned to look like an actual three-ring circus, complete with contortionists and live animals.
When I meet Jamie Spears backstage at the VMAs, he shakes my hand and says, "Take care of my baby." The "or else" is implied. A bear of a man with piercing blue eyes, Jamie — and the conservatorship lawyers — make it difficult to talk in-depth to his baby, and interviewing Britney was a rigorously micromanaged process. We were never left alone together, and my questions had to be submitted ahead of time for approval. Acceptable topics included her new album, her boys and that's about it. Her team said she wouldn't answer anything about the past year and vetoed a question as straightforward as "Do you have an opinion on the presidential election?"
Jamie declined to be interviewed, and when I sat with Lynne briefly in October, she stuck to platitudes. Asked how it felt to watch her daughter's downward spiral from a distance, when the two were barely speaking, she said, "Needless to say, I was heartbroken and hurting for my child. But that's a chapter that's closed. Dwelling and thinking about that kind of thing too much isn't healthy." With her True Religion jeans and frosted, layered bob, she could have been Sarah Palin on casual Friday, as she spoke in the slow, patronizing tone of a kindergarten teacher: "We're looking forward, and we've got nothing but good and wonderful things ahead."
"I was concerned when I saw a lot of the things she was going through," adds Rudolph, who was also on the sidelines during Britney's downfall. "But I think it's about the journey for Britney, and the journey has taken her to this place now, which is a much, much better place. I mean, she's not there yet, but she's in an infinitely better place, as you can clearly see. She's really getting it together. She's being productive, and she's got an amazing relationship with her boys. She's very happy now."
When the conservatorship was first put in place, in February, Jamie and Lynne issued a statement describing Britney as "an adult child in the throes of a mental-health crisis." The original plan was that it would be a temporary measure until the singer could get back on her feet. But Jamie's lawyers repeatedly returned to court to have the scope and duration of the arrangement extended to grant him greater authority over her legal and personal decisions. (It's very rare for a young adult who is not extremely ill to have their rights assigned to a conservator. But the conservatorship system doesn't conform to the same evidentiary standards as the criminal courts require, and many conservatees in California and elsewhere complain that the law unfairly deprives them of their civil liberties.) On October 28th, the lawyers won their bid to have the conservatorship made permanent — meaning that, uncontested, it could remain in effect until Jamie dies.
Under the conservatorship, Britney lost her right to hire her own attorney, instead being paired with court-appointed lawyer Samuel Ingham III, who gets paid up to $10,000 a week of Britney's money to represent her. To date, she has not appeared in court to raise objections, though she initially balked at the arrangement. On February 6th — the same day UCLA released her early because the doctors said she had stabilized enough that they could not continue to hold her against her will — she hopped in a paparazzi's car and headed to the Beverly Hills Hotel for a meeting with her then-business-manager, Howard Grossman, and afterward to the office of lawyer Adam Streisand, whom she had asked to fight the fledgling conservatorship proceedings. In a strongly worded e-mail dated February 2nd, Streisand had written to Jamie's conservatorship attorneys, saying, "I am told that you called [Spears' former custody lawyer] Ron Rale and told him that Britney has been adjudged incompetent. That is false, and you know it. You further stated that Mr. Rale has no right to see his client without approval from the temporary conservators. That is also false." He then accused the conservatorship of orchestrating "nothing more than a hostile takeover of our client for improper purposes." A few days later, in court, Streisand said Britney "has expressed a very strong desire that her father not be appointed conservator. He has been estranged from her, and this is causing her even more stress." The court, however, agreed with Jamie's lawyers, who argued that Britney was not competent to retain her own counsel; they threw out Streisand's petition to have co-conservatorship shifted to Grossman, and Streisand stepped away from the case.
On February 14th, Britney's brother, Bryan, 31, won his motion asking to be put in charge of the trust Britney had set up in 2004 as the primary repository for her earnings. Britney and Bryan were fairly close at the time, and she had named him a successor co-trustee. Bryan argued that the appointment of conservators over his sister proved that she was not able to control the trust. Around the same time, the singer had a friend conference-call attorney Jon Eardley to discuss contesting the conservatorship once more.
"I basically just want my life back," Britney can be heard saying in a tape of the call. (In her world, people sometimes tape each other's phone calls.) "I want to be able to drive my car. I want to be able to live in my house by myself. I want to be able to say who's going to be my security guard."
The conservatorship has clearly helped restore Britney's life to some measure of normalcy: She now has access to her children, she is working again, and she no longer spends her nights racing around L.A., trailed by a pack of paparazzi. But is Britney really happy or even well-adjusted? That's hard to say. "Britney lives in a world that very few people can imagine," Rudolph notes. "Everybody thinks, 'She's rich, she's famous. She should be happy. She shouldn't complain.' She's not a complainer, but the pressures that are on somebody like her are unimaginable to the average person. And they are real, and they can chip away at you in a way that people just cannot imagine. Her job is to be Britney Spears, and unfortunately, that job also bleeds into her personal life and creates this odd situation where she needs to have security people around her all the time. It's not something that comes naturally for her, and I think she grapples with it on a daily basis."
Rudolph says that the next step in Britney's recovery is a new boyfriend — "She's a relationship girl," he says — and she's already started dating. So far, no winners in the race to become the next Mr. Britney Spears. On one recent outing — with her assistant, Brett, and Rudolph's colleague Adam Leber in tow — she says she ordered dessert first, just to get the date over with sooner. "Right when we got there, we just knew it was just bad," she says, loosening up. Boys have always been one of her favorite topics of conversation, and she immediately relaxes when she gets a chance to dish. "He looked like an older version of Harry Potter but skinnier," she says. "And we just started crackin' up, like, oh, my God. So I had to get dessert first. And the other date I had, the guy was really, really tall and a lot older. Right before we got there, Brett was like, 'What do you think he's going to be like?' And I was like, 'I bet he turns out to be very L.A.-suave.' And he was. We're trying to ask him questions, like, 'OK, you're into martial arts, so what kind of martial arts are you into?' And he was like, 'Oh, all kinds.' Then he started saying how for 10 days he's going to Baghdad to teach the troops, and I started thinking, 'Is this guy full of shit?' Like, what does he do? But you know how silly we are, so we were just cracking up."
Sometimes, Britney's veil lifts enough to catch her old sparkle. The last time I see her, she's covered in sweat, wearing a rhinestone-encrusted tank top and blue velour workout pants, while she practices the steps for her "Circus" video at Hollywood's International Dance Academy. She is at ease, surrounded by seven dancers her own age, all sweating just as hard to learn the same routine. She borrows a red baseball cap from a baby-faced backup dancer named Tucker: Using it in place of the top hat she'll be wearing in the clip, she tosses the cap aside with mock bravado. Later, she struggles to figure out how to crack her lion tamer's whip. "I don't want to do it that hard," she demurs, blushing, after a couple of failed attempts, then lifts her arm confidently and — thwack! — she busts up laughing at herself.
In that moment of make-believe, the singer seems finally happy, liberated by her ability to become someone else. Even Britney recognizes this about herself. She describes to me a song she wrote last summer, "about artistic expression and the masquerade of people acting and putting on shows," she says. "Through that, you create your own world. The song talks about how other people are coming into this girl's world, but she didn't invite them in. So she's saying, 'Why are you here, if I didn't invite you?' It's complicated, but you can tell it's me who wrote it, because it's in my voice, and there's a difference."