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

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Britney wasn't allowed to see her kids in January, and it is unclear when she will get them back. Under the terms of their prenup, Kevin Federline was due only $1 million of Britney's estimated $30 million fortune, and his sole route to future riches is custodial support, although his intentions are widely considered to be more honorable. Federline currently receives $20,000 a month, and his hope is to keep at least part-time custody — a goal his lawyer, diminutive powerhouse Mark Vincent Kaplan, is well on his way to achieving in the court of Commissioner Scott Gordon. In her legal case, as otherwise in her life, Britney has alienated those trying to help her — her divorce attorney, Laura Wasser, dropped her a few months ago, and her current legal team of Trope & Trope requested removal at one point. "You can tell Britney all day that she has to follow court orders to get her kids back, and she will lucidly and rationally listen to what you have to say," says an attorney. "But there's a disconnect, and she'll be right back to asking, 'Why does this fucking flea need to take my deposition for me to mother my children?'"

There is one group of people who love Britney unconditionally, and whose love she accepts: Every day in L.A., at least a hundred paparazzi, reporters and celebrity-magazine editors dash after her, this braless chick padding around town on hilariously mundane errands — the gas station, the pet store, Starbucks, Rite Aid. The multibillion-dollar new-media economy rests on her slumped shoulders, with paparazzi agencies estimating that she has comprised up to twenty percent of their coverage for the past year. It's not only bottom feeders running after Britney — a recent memo leaked from the Associated Press, which plans to add twenty-two entertainment reporters to its staff, announces that everything that happens to Britney is news (they have already begun preparing her obit). The paparazzi feed the celebrity magazines, which feed the mainstream press, while sources sell their dirtiest material to British tabloids, and then it trickles back to America. "She is by far the top person I have written about on my Web site, ever," says Perez Hilton. Harvey Levin, founder of TMZ: "We serialize Britney Spears. She's our President Bush."

This mob lurches around town after Britney, descending on her with its notepads and cameras, and passing wild speculation from outlet to outlet. New players enter the gold rush by the minute, with people from around the world getting into the game: The flashiest new player is Sheeraz Hasan, a Pakistani-British immigrant who recently founded Hollywood.tv with backing from investors for His Highness of Dubai. A devout Muslim who can be found at the mosque on Fridays for prayers — and also drives a yellow Lamborghini — he was on the hajj to Mecca when he stopped in a small town on the side of a mountain for a bottle of water, and there he saw a newspaper, and on the cover was Britney. "It seemed to me she was the number-one star in the world, not Tom Cruise, not Will Smith," says Hasan. "Everything Britney does is news — Britney pumps gas, Britney forgets to put milk in her coffee — and there's a war going on, man!" Hasan realized it was his calling to build a paparazzi agency and brand with Britney's soap opera as the centerpiece: "By the blessing of God, my logo is on AP, Entertainment Tonight and CNN," he says, looking prayerful. He leans in and confides, "I'm going to take Paris to Dubai — the sheiks said any amount of money she wants is fine — and next I'm going to take Britney," he whispers. "She can have her own island!"

Trying to get an interview with Britney is a whole other level of craziness: A friend of a friend sets me up with a guy she says will introduce me to Britney, but it has to happen right away. The man insists that I have a signed contract from Rolling Stone, and he's also going to want money. I tell her to make the meeting. An hour later, a good-looking Danish guy, Claus, pulls up to a Beverly Hills street corner — he was the host of Britney's twenty-sixth birthday party, at his swag event, the Scandinavian Style Mansion (Paris Hilton and Sharon Stone attended). He's the kind of guy who gets the celebrity boutique Kitson to open its doors for Britney at 2 a.m., like he did in January (in yet another shocking image of Britney, she arrived in fishnet tights and without a skirt, her white panties visibly stained with menstrual blood). He gets out of a blue Porsche in a T-shirt that reads fuck rehab! It seems to be an unironic shirt. I grab my laptop case.

"Is that the contract?" he asks, pointing at my case. He leans in, "For the interview, are you offering $2 million?"

Of course, I have zero dollars to offer him, but I decide to play along. He tells me to get into his car.

"Britney and I are really, really good friends," says Claus. "That's my contract for her, for a million-dollar deal. But it's all friends. We're going on vacation together soon, on the jet to a supersecret location." He zooms down winding streets. "I'm so sick of everyone in this town thinking that they can get celebrities to come to their events for a free tube of lip gloss. My celebrities get free furs and diamonds. Britney is a queen." He sighs. "You know, the media probably made $12 million off the pictures they took of Britney at my party, and what do I get?" he says. "At least someone could reimburse me for the birthday cake."

These days, Britney may not care much what we think of her, but when she was younger it was all that mattered. Britney was a sort of JonBenét baby, encouraged to enter the pageant circuit early by Lynne, the daughter of a strict Baptist dairyman and a British war bride with dreams of escaping the small-town life of Kentwood, Louisiana. Lynne was raised in the town of 2,200 with Britney's dad, Jamie, a young rogue who popped wheelies on his motorcycle in front of the VFW and divorced his first wife two weeks before he married Lynne. His own mother committed suicide when he was fourteen. An hour inland of New Orleans and the dairy capital of the South until the Seventies, Kentwood was in the death spasms of a faltering economy during Britney's childhood, with few new businesses opening other than a mineral-water bottling plant. Lynne worked as a second-grade teacher, and Jamie as a contractor, with projects in Memphis, a few hours' drive away. He generally came home on weekends and drank too much. "Jamie is clean now, but when Britney was growing up he was a horrible addict," says a former manager. "She is the product of some very, very bad genetics."

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