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

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Britney pulls into her driveway, and Williams waits down the street. He puts Blackout on his CD player. "Let's summon Britney," he says. "She's gonna come back out after she does her drugs or changes her clothes, whichever comes first," he jokes, lighting a cigarette. "She didn't get enough chase today."

An hour later, the white Mercedes whizzes by, and it's on: up and down Coldwater Canyon and across Mulholland Drive for one hour, with paps jostling behind. Then she flips a bitch and heads right back where she came from. The other cars get lost as she circles a Ralphs supermarket twice, dumps her assistant at the Starbucks and zooms down the street to a red light. Williams pulls out his video camera.

She waves hi. "Hey, Brit, I listened to that new album," says Williams. "It's awesome! Good album. Good job. Vocals were tight, girl."

"I know," Britney yells. "I'm the shit."

Williams laughs. "You the shit!"

"I know it, baby," she yells, with a coy smile. "It's hard to be this hot."

"Tell me about it," says Williams, laughing. "It's Britney, bitch!"

This kind of flirtation is a daily occurrence, and she starts to prowl the pool for a dude — of all the guys, Adnan Ghalib is the hottest one, and she knows it. He's a British Afghani who has claimed he fought for the Mujahdeen and has the shrapnel scars to prove it, a smoldering thirty-five-year-old in Gucci sunglasses (far more appealing in person than he is on the news). Once Britney asked him into the bathroom of a Quiznos; his wife has filed for legal separation, and he has said that he plans to marry Britney and get her pregnant. The unimaginable happens one night right before Christmas, when Britney decides that she's had enough of being lonely — she pulls over on the Pacific Coast Highway, jumps into Ghalib's car, pops on her pink wig and takes him to the Peninsula hotel for a late "lunch," as he called it.

For the past few years, Britney has begged friends to help her run away, to leave everything behind and become a stylist or schoolteacher, or move to an island where she can work as a bartender. Ghalib helps her achieve her goal, evading the paparazzi for weeks on violent, terrifying chases. The relationship is just starting to build when Britney is taken to the hospital for the first time, and as soon as she comes out, Ghalib absconds with her to crisscross the West Coast, listening to their favorite music in the car (her: Dixie Chicks and Janet Jackson; him: System of a Down), making stops in Palm Springs and Mexico with his buddy, a paparazzi who would shoot the two of them for exclusive sale by Ghalib's then-agency. The other agencies are having nervous breakdowns. Ghalib gets on the phone with Rolling Stone because he's a fan of the magazine. "You must understand something about Britney," he says, in arguing her side of the story. "People turned on her. They were only there when the getting was good. She has become very Columbo-esque — she acts a certain way so that people don't think she's intelligent, and then people volunteer information, and she is able to put together what is going on. It's not the blogs or magazines or the people on the street she cares about. She knows that the people who had a responsibility to support her bailed out and is very hurt by their actions."

A tug of war begins between Ghalib and Lutfi for control of Britney, and on January 20th, when Ghalib goes to a funeral in Northern California, Lutfi invites a few paparazzi from a friendly agency, X17, over to Britney's house, and shows them what he claimed was a restraining order against Ghalib. "He folded it over so they couldn't see what he was showing," says Ghalib, chuckling. "I'll give it to you, he's good, he's very good at what he does." Lutfi has spread rumors that Ghalib sleeps on the couch when he's at Britney's house. A pap catches a text message: Lutfi writes, "You're a manic trigger. If you continue to have any contact with her, you'll kill her. It's your decision."

Britney finds herself right where she used to be: Again, there's control, pressure, fighting. She argues with Lutfi, and Ghalib rushes in to save her, but Lutfi calls security to keep him off her property. Lynne arrives, dragging her daughter around town, and Britney begins to spin out, staying up for sixty hours straight. On January 30th, she arrives back home after a day at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and meets with a psychiatrist, according to X17. They put out the news at 11 p.m.: She's attempted suicide.

Seventy-five paps gather around the entrances to Britney's gated community, stamping their feet in the chilly winter night, as a police helicopter circles overhead. "You don't want an ambulance to roll out with a body bag and miss that," says a French photographer, checking his battery. These guys are jaded after all that's happened. "Man, Britney can't die, because then I don't get my money!" says a guy in a Famous Stars and Straps baseball hat. Someone starts running down the block, and everyone runs after him; they hide in a driveway and laugh when everyone catches up. Although she doesn't seem to have tried to commit suicide, the doctors are on their way again: Police and paramedics descend as the LAPD blocks off all exit paths from her house, stations twenty cops in her driveway and takes her out (her code name: "The Package") without a single picture. The next day, her parents file a restraining order against Lutfi.

A world without Britney, where she is set aside in rehab or a psychiatric center, is hard to contemplate: She's the canary in the coal mine of our culture, the most vivid representation of the excess of the past decade. She didn't think there was a tomorrow worth saving for, and neither did we. After blaming everyone else for her problems, Britney's finally starting to realize the degree to which she's messed up, but her sense of entitlement keeps her from admitting it to herself, or to anyone who is trying to help her. We want her to survive and thrive, to evolve into someone who can make us proud again. Or maybe, we just don't want the show to end. "Look at George Foreman: He's the oldest heavyweight champion ever," says Ghalib. "That's what Britney's going to be. She said it best to me: She refuses to live her life anymore reflected in the eyes of others." Then he gets very quiet. "Be gentle to her," he says. "That's a personal request."

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