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The Tragedy of Britney Spears: Rolling Stone's 2008 Cover Story

She was a pop princess. Now she's in and out of hospitals, rehab and court. How Britney lost it all

March 29, 2011 3:00 PM ET
The Tragedy of Britney Spears: Rolling Stone's 2008 Cover Story

A pop star at the mall is an eternal cause for happiness, especially on a Sunday afternoon in the Valley. One moment, shoppers in the Westfield Topanga mall are living in the real world, monotonously selecting a new shade of eye shadow or rubbing perfume on wrists, but upon the rapture of Britney Spears, they are giggling, laughing, orgasmic, already sharing their secret on cell phones. "Her legs are actually really skinny," an adolescent whispers into her Sidekick, as Britney beelines for the Betsey Johnson boutique, pseudo-punk designer of evening dresses and splashy heels worn to suburban high school proms. In person, Britney is shockingly beautiful — clear skin, ruby lips, a perfectly proportioned twenty-six-year-old porcelain doll with a nasty weave. She cuts through the crowd swiftly, the way she used to when 20,000 adoring fans mobbed her outside a concert, with her paparazzi boyfriend, Adnan Ghalib, trailing behind.

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Only a few kids are in the store, a young girl with her brother and two blondes checking out fake-gold charm bracelets. Britney rifles the racks as the Cure's "Pictures of You" blasts into the airless pink boutique, grabbing a pink lace dress, a few tight black numbers and a frilly red crop top, the kind of shirt that Britney used to wear all the time at seventeen but isn't really appropriate for anyone over that age. Then she ducks into the dressing room with Ghalib. He emerges with her black Am Ex.

This article appeared in the February 21, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

The card won't go through, but they keep trying it.

"Please," begs Ghalib, "get this done quickly."

One of the girls runs to Britney's dressing room, explaining the situation through a pink gauze curtain.

A wail emerges from the cubby — guttural, vile, the kind of base animalistic shriek only heard at a family member's deathbed. "Fuck these bitches," screams Britney, each word ringing out between sobs. "These idiots can't do anything right!"

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Ghalib dashes over to console her, but she's already spitting, growling, throwing a big bottle of soda on the floor so that it begins to spill underneath the curtain, and then she's got a box of tissues and is throwing them on top of the wet floor along with piles of discarded merchandise. A new card finally goes through, but by then Britney is out the door, leaving her shirt on the ground and replacing it with the red top. "Fuck you, fuck people, fuck, fuck, fuck," she keeps screaming, her face splotchy and red as she crosses the interminable mall floor, the crowd behind her growing larger and larger. "Leave us alone!" yells Ghalib.

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The siblings run after Britney to get a video to put up on YouTube, and some of the shopgirls run after her to hand off the merchandise she left behind, and there's an entire bridal party wearing yellow T-shirts who have pulled out camera phones too. A crush of managers in black shirts and gold name tags try to keep the peace, but the crowd running after Britney gets larger, and now the shopgirls have ­started to catch up to her, one of them slipping spectacularly in her platform shoes, grazing her elbow. She pulls herself up, mustering the strength to tap Britney's shoulder. "Um, I'm from the South too," she mumbles, "and I was wondering if I could get a picture with you for my little sister."

Britney turns to Ghalib and grabs his arm. "I don't want her talking to me!" she screams. She whirls around and stares the girl deep in the eyes, her lips almost vibrating with anger. "I don't know who you think I am, bitch," she snarls, "but I'm not that person."

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

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