Despite her position as Queen of Teen, Spears does not fully endorse the current wealth of youthful movies that her friends flock to. "Party movies," she calls them. She prefers Kleenex-intensive fodder like Stepmom and Steel Magnolias. She reads Cosmopolitan.
She used to follow Dawson's Creek, but she finds that regular habits like television watching and churchgoing are impossible to maintain on the road. Spears does pray nightly, however, and she catches random bits of TV. She has seen one episode of South Park, which she found "sacrilegious." Tonight, the opening titles of Felicity appear on the family television as she talks. The show is a touch too neurotic for Spears' tastes.
The Spears' house itself resembles a sitcom set, with several neighbors and relatives making unannounced cameos. Britney's eight-year-old sister, Jamie Lynn, drags a broom into the middle of the floor and treats everyone to a spirited reading of "It's a Hard-Knock Life" — the version from Annie, not Jay-Z's hip-hop revision. Above the kid's head, on top of the TV cabinet, is a forest of trophies. Many represent the athletic feats of Jamie Lynn's big brother, Bryan, now twenty-one, but most were won by Britney at talent shows and gymnastics meets (that's Britney back-flipping in the "...Baby One More Time" video).
As Mrs. Spears dishes out portions of a neighbor's Mississippi mud pie, Britney quietly listens to one of Felicity's soliloquies. "Isn't she breathtaking? So cute!" Britney says. She met the show's star, Keri Russell, when they were Mouseketeers together.
The Britney Spears phenomenon is no overnight creation. Even before she tasted the hard-knock life of children's talent shows, Spears was preparing for greatness. From age two she would hog the family bathroom, singing passionately into a hairbrush. "I was in my own world," she says. She made her stage debut at five, singing "What Child Is This" at her kindergarten graduation. "I found out what I'm supposed to do at an early age," she explains.
"She was always singing — she would never hush," coos Britney's mom, a diminutive forty-three-year-old with large brown eyes. Kinesiology student Bryan Spears remembers his sister dancing in front of the TV, trilling Madonna's "Like a Prayer." "It was very annoying," he confirms.
Before she was ten, Spears had pretty much nailed the talent-show racket. "Those little competitions got really old," she says. At age eight she impressed judges at an open call for the Disney Channel's revival of the Mickey Mouse Club, but she was deemed too young for the show. So she did TV ads and an off-Broadway play, Ruthless, attending New York's storied Professional Performing Arts School for three summers. Then, finally, came a two-season Mouseketeer stint in Orlando, where Spears palled around with Russell and future 'N Sync members JC Chasez and Timberlake.
In contrast to most child-performer scenarios, it was Spears who got her parents to set up the Mickey Mouse audition. Jeff Fenster, Jive Records' senior vice president of A&R, who signed Spears, was quite surprised when he saw the family dynamic at work. "Her parents were not pushing her at all," he says. In other words, Britney Spears is her own stage mother.
Upon the show's cancellation, Spears handed back her mouse ears and returned to Kentwood, enrolling at the private Park Lane school in nearby McComb, Mississippi. Park Lane's rules felt stuffy, and Spears' fellow pupils seemed, frankly, a bit provincial. "Remember that opening scene in Clueless with all the cliques? That's what it was like," says Spears, who made friends with cheerleaders and burnouts alike.
Britney Spears is well-regarded in Kentwood, a close-knit community of 2,600 where one can feel like a Satanist just for living in the wrong ZIP code. A local high school has a sign outside: DRIVE CAREFULLY, LIVE PRAYERFULLY. "Pretty much everybody here likes her," says Kentwood High student Lucas Thornton, 17. "When I went down to Mardi Gras, I had a Kentwood jacket on, and lots of people were asking did I know her."
Spears' ticket out of Kentwood arrived when music-business lawyer Larry Rudolph got her — in timeless showbiz style — an audition for Fenster. "It's very rare to hear someone that age who can deliver emotional content and commercial appeal," says Fenster of his first impressions.
There was more. "For any artist, the motivation — the 'eye of the tiger' — is extremely important," says Fenster. "And Britney had that. This is clearly a self-motivating person from a very young age."
From the second that Jive heard Britney Spears' first sessions with appointed producer-writer Eric Foster White, her fate was sealed. The singer's development deal was ramped up to a recording contract, and Jive began the kind of capital-intensive promo blitz more commonly associated with new products from Disney or Coca-Cola.
First came the Britney Web site, e-mail address and 800 number, advertised on several hundred thousand postcards. In summer 1998, about six months before she released her record, Spears performed at twenty-six malls across the country, schlepping with her two dancers and multiple costume changes. The outing was underwritten by leading teen magazines — Spears was signing autographs before she had ever been on the radio.
The Britney Spears cross-promotional bandwagon rolled on with a Sunglass Hut tie-in, a Tommy Hilfiger modeling gig and a warm-up slot on 'N Sync's tour. When... Baby One More Time was finally released, the hidden track was Britney flacking for label mates Backstreet Boys.
Impressive though Jive's promotional effort is, the company lays much of the credit for its success at the feet of the talent. "I have never seen an artist so focused on what she needed to do," says Kim Kaiman, Jive's marketing director. On Spears' mall tour, for instance, Kaiman was astonished at the way her charge cheerfully embraced grueling promo duties at retail chains and radio stations. "One of the reasons that radio fell in love with her is that she's so very Southern, so sweet and gracious," says Kaiman. "And that's really warming to a programmer's heart."
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