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Britney Spears Returns: Rolling Stone's 2008 Cover Story

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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."

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