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

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For weeks, she slept there almost every night, and Lutfi is often downstairs at the hotel, like everyone else who is working this story — the red-carpeted lobby bar has become the de facto center of Britney operations, with reporters, paparazzi and lawyers from the child-custody case holding meetings with hope that the object of everyone's desire might come wandering by. It's like the United Nations in this bar, with folks from myriad ethnicities, and everyone acting deadly serious. I have coffee on separate occasions with two men from Federline's attorney's team: Aaron Cohen, a former Israeli operative, who served the subpoenas to some of Britney's friends, including Lutfi — along with his regular job, which is training SWAT teams in Israeli anti-terrorism techniques. "With Britney, I penetrated the inner circles of Hollywood," he tells me. "It was not unlike counterterrorism, in that I worked with both enemies and friends." I also meet with Michael Sands, the media liaison for Kaplan, who gives me a key-chain light stamped with a picture of the Pentagon, an FBI lapel pin and another from the CIA, and a commemorative Navy coin — one might think he works for one or all of the agencies. The rumor flies around the lobby that the government is looking into Lutfi, curious about his connection to the Saudis.

Britney's Danish pal Claus makes an appearance at the Four Seasons as well, with two business associates. They'd like to talk about the $2 million, which now, for some reason, everyone is talking about as $1 million. This is how it will go, they explain: I will give them the money, and the cash will be held in escrow. Britney will know that she won't get any money until she completes the interview and photo shoot (they will take a ten percent finder's fee, payable whether or not she shows up). They will be at the shoot, making sure Britney is happy — I will have to bring five photographers, five stylists and five makeup artists in case she is not. They do this all the time: They just took Paris to Moscow, and did the deal for Britney's New Year's Eve 2007 appearance at the Vegas nightclub Pure, the one where she passed out. "My guy was behind her, holding her up that night," boasts one guy.

Ryan Seacrest stops by the table. "Hey, guys, what's up?" he asks.

"We made Ryan $3 million last year," they say after Seacrest leaves. "It's all friends, so friendly."

The next night, Claus, again in his FUCK REHAB! shirt, has a new plan: He will tell Britney that he's going to give her $1 million. I'll give him the $1 million, and then he'll give it to her. "This way, no one will ever know that Rolling Stone bent over to pay Queen Britney," he says. He is very pleased. He calls Lutfi to tell him. "Sam says that OK! magazine was going to pay $2 million for an interview with Britney," he says.

Claus takes off for Citizen Smith, a rock bar in Hollywood, to meet Lutfi and Britney's twenty-six-year-old cousin, Alli Sims — a naive climber with hopes of releasing her own album. It's a birthday party for Jason Kennedy, an E! reporter who may or may not be dating Sims.

"We really just want someone to tell the truth," says Sims. "Britney's such a good girl." She screws up her face, thinking about nice things to say. "Britney never talks bad about anyone behind their backs, ever, seriously," she says.

"That is one of her best characteristics," agrees Lutfi. He turns to me. "Just to let you understand something as far as her psyche goes, she really doesn't need to do another thing in her life. Her big thing with me is that she doesn't want me defending her against anything fake in the magazines. But she understands that's the way they make their money, because it's the way she made hers too. She really doesn't care anymore."

"We're going to need pre-approval over the article," says Claus.

"Also, Britney has a friend who is a photographer whom we would want to shoot the photos," says Lutfi. He thinks for a moment. "You know, this is so much more than a magazine article — we've been doing dictation, she's been telling me her story, and I've been writing it all down. It would make a great book!"

It's 1:30 a.m., and the bar is closing. The lights flick on, and we hug goodbye.

After explaining to Claus that there is no money, I write to Lutfi many times, explaining that we are still very interested in interviewing Britney and telling her side of the story.

No response.

As 2007 comes to a close, Britney starts to really enjoy her paparazzi chases. She races around the city for two or three hours a day, aimlessly leading paps to various locations where she could interact with them just a little bit and then jump back into her car. A Britney chase is more fun than a roller coaster, but with the chance that the experience could cause lasting harm. "Britney is the most dangerous detail in Hollywood," says Levin of TMZ.

There are twenty paps in the core Britney detail, a bunch of hilarious, slightly scary thugs who use expert drag-racing skills to block off new guys who try to get in the mix. It's like a game of Frogger, with everyone jostling to be the first car behind Britney, the better to shoot all over her when she stops (and then watch their feet, because several have found themselves on crutches after she speeds away). "She's nuts," says Craig Williams, a photographer for Hollywood.tv. Williams, a former beatmaker for Death Row Records with a long braid slithering down his back and multiple silver rings on his fingers, gets in front most of the time, riding her Mercedes SL65 hard. Almost all the paps drive rental SUVs, most with dents and scrapes on the sides, because no one wants to get their real cars messed up. A plastic bag swings from the door to the trunk of the SUV in front of us — the pap had been using it for trash all day and forgot to dump it.

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