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

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If there is one thing that has become clear in the past year of Britney's collapse — the most public downfall of any star in history — it's that she doesn't want anything to do with the person the world thought she was. She is not a good girl. She is not America's sweetheart. She is an inbred swamp thing who chain-smokes, doesn't do her nails, tells reporters to "eat it, snort it, lick it, fuck it" and screams at people who want pictures for their little sisters. She is not someone who can live by the most basic social rules — she is someone who, when she has had her one- and two-year-old sons taken completely out of her care, with zero visitation rights, appeared at Los Angeles' Superior Court to convince the judge to give her kids back, but then decided not to go inside, and she's someone who did this twice. She's the perfect celebrity for America in decline: Like President Bush, she just doesn't give a fuck, but at least we won't have to clean up after her mess for the rest of our lives.

If Britney was really who we believed her to be — a puppet, a grinning blonde without a cool thought in her head, a teasing coquette clueless to her own sexual power — none of this would have happened. She is not book-smart, granted. But she is intelligent enough to understand what the world wanted of her: that she was created as a virgin to be deflowered before us, for our amusement and titillation. She is not ashamed of her new persona — she wants us to know what we did to her. While it may be true that Britney suffers from the adult onset of a genetic mental disease (or a disease created by fame, yet to be named); or that she is a "habitual, frequent and continuous" drug user, as the judge declared; or that she is a cipher with boundless depths, make no mistake — she is enjoying the chaos she is creating. The look on her face when she's goofing around with paparazzi — one of whom, don't forget, she is dating — is often one of pure excitement. "For years, everyone manipulated Britney," says a close friend. "There was always a little game. If she didn't want to come out of the trailer, the label would come to me, saying, 'Please talk to Britney, make sure she performs, and we'll take you on a shopping spree.' Now this is her time to play."

More than any other star today, Britney epitomizes the crucible of fame for the famous: loving it, hating it and never quite being able to stop it from destroying you. Over the past year, it's looked several times like she was going to get it together, but then girlfriend messes up again. She started off with a bang — the head-shaving, plus attacking a paparazzi car with an umbrella — followed by rehab, a magazine shoot where she let her dog poop on a $6,700 gown, a hit-and-run (the charge was dropped), an investigation by the Department of Children and Family Services, the sad performance at the VMAs and her hospitalizations on January 3rd and January 31st. Even Michael Jackson never deteriorated to the point where he was strapped to a gurney, his madness chronicled by news choppers' spotlights. Before her first hospitalization, Britney shut herself in the bathroom with her youngest son for three hours, wearing only panties, arguing with cops who tried to give her a sweater. "Don't cover me up," she said. "I'm fucking hot" — meaning warm, although the other interpretation of the word is funnier. Britney's assistant told police she demanded her "vitamins" (Britney's code for pills), though it's not known what kind she is taking.

Today, Britney is alone: Arrogant, anxiety-ridden and paranoid, she has lost faith in everyone. "She goes through people like she goes through dogs," says a close friend. "There's one instant with everyone where she freaks out and suddenly says, 'I don't trust you, and I don't know what's going on.'" She does not have a manager, agent or publicist (Jive Records no longer speaks to her directly, and the publicist at the label assigned to Britney refused to participate in this article). She has no stylist, image consultant, crisis-control manager or driver. She has pushed away her family: her brother and father ("It is sad that all the men in my life do not know how to accept a real woman's love," she explained); her sister Jamie Lynn, whom she speaks to on the phone and sees rarely; and, most important, her preening, difficult mother, Lynne, whom Britney considers poisonous. Famous for two saccharine books about her fabulous relationship with Britney, Lynne is now desperately trying to help her family, but her attempts have fallen flat: She was the force behind selling Jamie Lynn's pregnancy photos to OK! magazine for $1 million and encouraged Dr. Phil's visit with Britney in the psychiatric ward of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Ironically, it may be Britney's family who succeeds in retaining control of her now, in collaboration with doctors who are advising that she remain in a hospital setting as long as legally possible.

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