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

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Federline gave Britney license to fully embrace her white-trash side — walking into gas-station restrooms barefoot, dumping ashtrays out hotel windows, wearing novelty tees like I'M A VIRGIN, BUT THIS IS AN OLD SHIRT and, most notably, not strapping the kids into car seats. But he liked the high life, buying a $250,000 silver Ferrari with monogrammed rims and getting stoned in their home recording studio while cutting his rap album. "Kevin didn't step up to the plate and be a man to Britney in their relationship," says a close friend. "He was a boy to her, turning his back on her for his bros and that fame." He made her feel a lot of her old insecurities — loneliness, fear of abandonment — and she started partying and spiraling downward again, attributing her crying jags to postpartum depression. "When Britney had children, that should've been the end of her wild ways, and it wasn't," says a friend of Federline. "She turned into someone who only wanted to hear 'yes,' and if you're not going to say it, get the hell out of her way."

Meat Pole wasn't the one for Britney, and she asked him for a divorce by text message in November 2006. (His response: scrawling on the wall of the nightclub bathroom, "Today I'm a free man — Fuck a wife, give me my kids, bitch!") She rehired Rudolph immediately, and he took her ice-skating at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan for a photo op. But she wasn't ready to be a little girl again. Night after night, she hit the L.A. scene lost, vomiting in public, exchanging clothes with a strip-club cocktail waitress, and, perhaps most dangerously, hanging out with Paris Hilton — the two of them even splitting a pair of fishnet stockings, each wearing one leg, and she copied Paris' cootchie-flashing stunts three times before Rudolph quashed their friendship (Paris' nickname for Britney: "The Animal," because she doesn't think before she acts).

The Animal had to go to rehab: Eric Clapton's Crossroads, in Antigua, but she stormed out one day later, flying to Miami and then coach-class to Los Angeles to see her family. She arrived at Federline's house for her babies, but he had joined forces with Lynne and Rudolph, and wouldn't talk to her until she registered at the Malibu rehab center Promises. She circled his house three times, furious at having to concede to their demands, before pulling into a random hair salon in the Valley and taking her hair off in big clumps, less as a penance than a liberation. Then she stayed up for forty-eight hours straight, driving around, sucking down dozens of Red Bulls, afraid that she was being followed by demons, or that a cell-phone charger was taping her thoughts, and obsessively listening to the radio for news about Anna Nicole Smith's death earlier that month. That was her fate, she declared — she was next.

After rehab, Britney was deeply angry and cut out every person in her life who had argued for it — her parents, Federline, Rudolph, even old best friends. She claimed not to have a drug problem, and stopped returning calls to her disloyal subjects, changing her phone numbers. "She was queen of the ghost moves," says singer Keri Hilson, who did backup vocals and co-wrote "Gimme More." "She'd be in the booth one second and then security would come get her, and we wouldn't know she was gone." Britney's former bodyguard claimed in an interview with a British tabloid that she suffered a near-overdose with singer-songwriter Howie Day, whom she met at Promises, in a Los Angeles hotel room — the room was trashed, a glass pipe alongside a white substance that the bodyguard claimed was cocaine or meth.

Jive was cautious about booking Britney on the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards, but it was too good a promotional opportunity to pass up. Britney signed a new management contract with the Firm and started working out a few times a week. The day of the show, she arrived early to the arena. Timberlake was rehearsing. Suddenly, her face fell, and she started getting panicked, nervous, afraid — what was he going to think of her performance? What about the rest of her peers? She headed backstage and was pacing in her dressing room when Timberlake knocked on the door. She refused to come out. She didn't want to see him yet.

Soon, she was going to put on her hair, and maybe she would feel better. There was a wig waiting for her by master coiffeur Ken Pavés, who created Jessica Simpson's cascading fake tresses — it had been seven months since Britney shaved her head, and her real hair was less than six inches long. All she had to do was sit for the afternoon so the wig could be glued to her head, piece by piece, then remain very still for an hour so it could set, and she would be the old Britney again.

Suddenly, Britney declared that she didn't want Pavés to touch her. She asked for his assistant, but the assistant didn't want to betray Pavés. The hair divas turned on their heels, leaving the Firm to try coaxing them back while insisting to Britney that she must change her mind. When she finally granted Pavés entree an hour before the show began, it was too late to apply the wig, so someone grabbed Nelly Furtado's stylist, who glued on some straight blond hairpieces. Britney sat for those in her glittery black bikini and then stepped into the rest of her outfit, a Posh Spice-style corset-dress. Then she took it off, refusing to wear it. She wanted to go onstage without artifice, as naked as possible, and for us to love her just the way she was.

The edge of Mulholland Drive is the lip of a pit, a vertiginous fall into destruction. Britney's house sits at the top, jutting over the glittering city. It's a rainy weekday a couple of months after the VMAs. She knows she messed up her performance — "Afterward, she kept asking, 'Was I terrible? Was it terrible?'" says a friend. "This is just the way it is with her: It's circular, manic thinking" — and because she's not doing any promotion for Blackout, other than a seven-minute radio interview with KISS-FM, there's not much else going on. The Firm stepped down from managing her, without making a cent, because they were no longer able to speak with her directly: Her phone is now answered by Osamah Lutfi, also known as Sam, a jovial thirty-three-year-old who a friend of Britney's describes as her "life coach." They met at a party in 2007, and he called her then-assistant, Kalie Machado, to meet at a Santa Monica Starbucks. According to Machado, Lutfi told her that he worked for Federline as a private eye, and he knew that there was a tap on Britney's phone and a warrant to search her Malibu home for drugs. (Federline's rep has denied any connection.) Lutfi has had two temporary restraining orders issued against him for harassment.

It's Lutfi who has kept Britney together through the months, filling in as her assistant and trying to be a manager, talking to her record label, and driving her around town. There are constant breakdowns about all the people who have sold Britney out to celebrity magazines — the assistant she forgot to pay, the bodyguard who claims he's seen her do cocaine and regularly walk around the house nude, the twenty-one-year-old college kid she made out with topless in a hot tub on the roof of a hotel in downtown L.A. A new rumor crops up every day: She feeds soda in baby bottles to her toddlers (whose teeth she also asked a dentist to whiten), her choice of poison is the Southern rap scene's "Purple Monster" (vodka, Red Bull and NyQuil) and she has a sex dungeon in her Beverly Hills villa with spanking paddles displayed in a glass jar (and a large covered candy dish of lotions and toys she calls her "pleasure chest"). In this embattled state, Britney has become a recluse, in a way — she's never out to dinner or at a nightclub, spending most of her nights at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills.

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