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

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With her third album, Britney was told that she could change — a little. It was time to enter the "Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman" phase, but she was ready to leave it behind. All the gay dancers and stylists were always having dirty conversations around her backstage, and one day Britney piped up: "God, I want to have hot sex too! I want to have throw-down, hot sex!" Her primary creative collaborator on her tour, choreographer Wade Robson, agreed that it was her time to blossom, and she owned her new image by draping the proverbial snake around her neck while performing "I'm a Slave 4 U" at the 2001 VMAs. Her sexual curiosity got the better of her, and she reportedly began sleeping with Robson, a friend of Timberlake's who co-wrote 'NSync's "Pop" with him. (Both Britney and Robson have denied the affair.) In February 2002, Timberlake discovered a mash note from Robson in Britney's room. Britney and Timberlake were performing on Saturday Night Live that night, and they sat backstage, miserable — he refused to accept her apologies. The breakup was a terrible shock, particularly as it was followed by Britney's parents' divorce two months later. "No one took the time to say to Britney, 'Let's take some time off here, let's get you some counseling,'" says an ex-assistant manager. "They expected her to have the drive, to dust it off."

Britney realized that the machine wasn't going to bring her satisfaction anymore — she needed a man. She began desperately seeking love in nightclubs with inappropriate guys like Colin Farrell and in the studio, most notably with Fred Durst, who violated her trust by boasting about their exploits on The Howard Stern Show. Without a strong sense of self, she'd take on the characteristics of whomever was around at the moment, and after her kiss with Madonna at the 2003 VMAs, she decided they were soul mates. "Britney and Madonna became friends after the performance, and she started to think she was Madonna," says an ex-manager. "She said, 'Madonna calls her own shots, I can do that.' But Madonna doesn't need to be told what to do. Britney does." (Britney on Madonna: "Maybe she was my husband in another life.")

Britney returned to Kentwood for Christmas in 2003, staying in a small house on her parents' property with old friends, including childhood crush Jason Alexander, a junior at Southeastern Louisiana University. After fighting with Lynne one morning, she packed her pals on a plane for three days of partying in Las Vegas — cocaine during the evening, Ecstasy in the early morning and Xanax to sleep, according to Alexander. At 3:30 a.m. on January 3rd, 2004, after watching the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, she and Alexander took a lime-green limo to the Little White Wedding Chapel, where she strapped a white garter over her ripped jeans and held a small bouquet of roses in cardboard for their forty-dollar wedding. Eleven hours later, they called their parents to give them the big news. Lynne flew to Vegas, the couple were separated, and lawyers worked to annul the marriage. Shipped home with a false promise that Britney wanted to stay together, Alexander cracked under the national spotlight and dropped out of school.

This was to have been the new Britney, and she was genuinely disappointed, wearing a wedding ring in defiance. Lynne tried to circle the wagons around her furious daughter, keeping her in Kentwood on the day of the Grammys and taking her to a church service instead, but within a few months, the road called — Britney went back on tour with In the Zone a much more mature album with songs about early-morning sex and masturbation. By the time she filmed the video for the ballad "Everytime," she was down the rabbit hole: Her concept was to die in an overflowing bathtub with pills and booze strewn around, and get reincarnated as a baby. There were demons that she was battling, and she wanted everyone to know. Jive insisted on a different method of death, so she ran away from the paparazzi before drowning in the tub. Britney was compliant on the first day of the shoot, but on the second, she refused to leave her hotel room. "Finally, Britney agreed to do it, but first she said, 'I need three Red Bulls, and call my doctor,'" says a friend.

She found her soul mate a few weeks later, on the dance floor: Kevin Federline, a twenty-five-year-old cornrowed white boy who had been a dancer for Timberlake, a high school dropout and son of a Fresno, California, auto mechanic with one baby by his girlfriend, Shar Jackson, and another on the way. Nicknamed "Meat Pole," he was a fixture on the L.A. club scene, and one broke-ass dude: Before he met Britney, Federline's Chevy had been repossessed. Britney got stuck on him — "part of it was that she wanted to pimp Justin's dude, get his spot and throw it in Justin's face," says a friend — and invited him on her tour, where they got matching tattoos of dice on their wrists and filmed each other obsessively with video cameras, movies that would become the basis for their reality show, Chaotic. With little else on her mind, Britney was relieved when her knee gave out in the middle of the tour, and Jive announced that doctors had prescribed four months of rest. But the next week, she asked Federline to marry her (he refused, mock-horrified, and proposed a few minutes later), and they got hitched immediately, with Juicy tracksuits for the bridesmaids (in pink) and groomsmen (in white) embroidered with MAIDS and PIMPS.

Two weeks after the wedding, Britney fired her manager, Rudolph and Lynne. "Kevin convinced Britney that he was going to get the users out of her life, and they were going to run her business together," says a friend. Their life became the main business: They sold their wedding photos to People magazine for $1 million, and Britney began to blog on her fan site, charging a twenty-five- dollar club-membership fee. She popped out two kids quickly — Sean Preston, a year after she and Federline were married (the baby pictures were also sold for $1 million to People), and Jayden, one year later (she kept him under wraps for months, in hopes of a big payday, but a paparazzi caught her carrying him on a beach in Maui, Hawaii). Her interest in her recording career was minimal. She recorded three songs in three years.

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