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

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Lynne became transfixed on her talented daughter, partially as a way of relieving some of the marriage's pressure. By age three, Britney was enrolled in choir, dance and gymnastic lessons, and by six she'd won Miss Talent Central States. At eight, daughter drove with mom eight hours to an audition for The Mickey Mouse Club in Atlanta. She was too young for the show, though Lynne tried to pass her off as nine, but Britney caught the casting director's eye, and he recommended a New York talent agent. The family began to fall into debt as Jamie's construction business took a downturn, but they decided to wager their fortunes by sending Britney to Manhattan. Over the next few years, she and Lynne would split their time between New York and Kentwood as Britney booked commercials, played the lead in a Broadway play, Ruthless, and performed on Star Search. The family declared bankruptcy before Britney attained her dream: At twelve, she landed a role on The Mickey Mouse Club, alongside Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake.

After thriving in Disney's world of chaste adolescence, Britney applied her skills to a nearly identical demographic with a rapidly changing sense of what modern teenhood meant. Thanks to the Gen Y boom, teen music began to explode with the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls, the perfect music for America's pre-9/11 optimism. Britney was picked up by Larry Rudolph, an entertainment lawyer turned manager who was in the process of packaging 'NSync with Johnny Wright, manager of New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys. They sent Britney to Sweden to record with Swedish pop maestro Max Martin, who had already written her future smash, "...Baby One More Time." Then Britney headed back to her Christian day school in Mississippi. She loved it: She had basketball practice and a handsome boyfriend, Reg Jones. She reportedly lost her virginity to him at fourteen. (Britney denies this.)

If true, this was a secret she couldn't share, particularly because Rudolph's plans included marketing her as the teenage Lolita of middle-aged men's dreams. In January 1999, Britney emerged on the national stage with the video for ". . . Baby One More Time," as a Catholic schoolgirl in pink pompom hair barrettes. The genius stroke of her creation was that her next single was a ballad, with a video featuring her dancing in a white outfit on a pier: By emerging as a vixen and then reverting to a child, she allowed the world to breathe a sigh of relief that her temptress act was make-believe. She played along. "All I did was tie up my shirt!" she said to Rolling Stone. "I'm wearing a sports bra under it. Sure, I'm wearing thigh-highs, but kids wear those — it's the style. Have you seen MTV — all those girls in thongs?"

On the road, Britney was humble — washing her dishes, doing her laundry, calling older female assistants "ma'am." "We would wake up Britney at 6 a.m., and she'd work on a video for three or four days straight for twenty hours a day," says Abe Sarkisyan, her driver for five years. "She was a kind, generous sweetheart with a big heart and no poor habits." An unedited goofball and girlie girl who wrote flowery notes to friends, burped a lot and liked practical jokes, Britney was almost comically naive — she covered "Satisfaction," but when she found herself in an elevator with Mick Jagger, she had no idea who he was. Lynne retained a minor management role over the years, but she disappeared from Britney's side, enjoying her newfound wealth and laying the star-machine groundwork for Jamie Lynn, a tomboy more interested in her scooter than becoming a star. Jamie was not in the picture. "It was upsetting for Britney to be around her dad," says a friend. "He came backstage one night, and he was wasted. She was devastated." Britney would tell friends that her father was emotionally abusive, and in 2006 she wrote a poem about "sins of the father": "The guilt you fed me/Made me weak/The voodoo you did/I couldn't speak."

The first big blow to Britney's golden-girl image was her breast implants. According to a source, she and Lynne had made the decision for her to get them, on the assumption that the culture demanded it, but the press leapt on her scornfully. (Britney has denied having implants.) "When Britney saw the papers, she was crying in the bathtub uncontrollably, asking, 'Why is everyone being so mean to me?'" says a friend. "It was very hurtful for her to go through something so private so publicly." Britney regretted the implants, particularly because her chest was still growing, and when her natural breasts became larger, she had the implants removed. "When other girls did their boobs, they were like, 'Yeah, I did my boobs, move on,' but Britney was brought up to lie about herself," says Darrin Henson, the choreographer of several videos from Britney's first album and Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle." Gradually, she began to lose her confidence. "Britney would come offstage after performing in front of 15 to 16,000 people and start crying because she thought she was terrible," says Henson. "The girl doesn't know who she is."

Britney's first two albums sold more than 39 million records, making her part of a teen-pop trifecta, with the Backstreet Boys and 'NSync, that comprised the best-selling acts in Jive's history. Some in her camp argued that Britney was too young to be pushed so hard, and wanted her to return to Kentwood to reconnect with girlfriends. "There were meetings where people would fight about giving Britney a break, but in the end the machine always won," says a friend. "Britney wanted it too, but she wasn't aware of the price tag." Those who advocated too much were shoved aside. Even though she had a squeaky-clean image, things changed backstage. "There were all these slick businessmen for Britney who let seedy people come around, offering her drinks and drugs, and she thought it was fun," she says. "If Britney wanted to party to blow off stress, that's what her team wanted her to do."

Britney's savior was Justin Timberlake, whom she started dating around 1999. "Justin had his head screwed on so straight, and he rescued her from that world," says a friend. "He became the great force in her life, but it started a pattern — she began to look for guys to help her get away from the people who control her." Even though Britney was one of the biggest stars in the world and Timberlake was still just another guy in 'NSync, the power balance in their relationship was solid. "She wasn't competitive about attention," says a close friend. "She just wanted to be in love with him." Once again, her manager gave her instructions: The partnership was to be kept under wraps, and they had to tell everyone they planned to stay abstinent until marriage. "They were always running in between each other's buses, and one night Justin came back to the bus and said to me, 'Dude, smell my fingers,'" says Henson. "Justin slept with her that night." It was another year before they admitted publicly that they were a couple.

Although the world thought Britney was an innocent sexed-up for the cameras, she was always lobbying to appear sluttier, which she thought would make her appear more mature. From the time she was young, Lynne and Jamie let her walk around the house naked. "Every girl in America was wearing crop tops and booty shorts, and Britney felt like she was being held back," says a friend. "She would joke about wanting to do videos topless." Her managers didn't want to scare off her fan base. "These middle-aged guys were so intense about her not being sexual that they pushed her the other way," says the friend. "They'd tell her to put on a bra or that her lip gloss was too dark. They were literally picking out her panties for her."

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