Oops! The unravelling of a pop princess
EVEN by Britney's standards, the behaviour was bizarre. Hours after a judge told her she would lose her children - Sean Preston, two, and Jayden James, one - if she didn't take control of her drink and drug demons, the former child star was out partying at her favourite Hollywood club.
The pictures in last week's tabloids - of Spears giggling hysterically, messily eating an ice-cream and sucking on a baby's dummy - were not as embarrassing as those of her flashing her nether regions or driving with her baby sitting on her lap. But coming in a week during which her manager and lawyer gave up on her and her former bodyguard, Tony Barretto, turned up at court to testify against her in a child custody hearing, they show how far from reality Spears has drifted.
Yesterday a disastrous week for the 25-year-old star culminated in her being charged with a hit-and-run and driving without a valid licence. She is accused of hitting a parked car and driving away from a Los Angeles car park on August 6, and could face six months in jail if convicted.
As the very public unravelling of the pop princess continues apace, even her former squeeze, Justin Timberland, has declared himself bewildered by her behaviour, telling The Oprah Winfrey Show that despite dating her for three years, he has no idea what is going on in her head.
So what's behind Spears's decline? Is she the hapless victim of an industry that chews up and spits out its stars when it is done with them? Or a spoiled brat who refuses to take responsibility for her life, even when her children's wellbeing is at stake? And will she ever get a grip on her excesses and regain her star status?
Spears's life has been skidding off the rails ever since she split up with her second husband - and the father of her children - Kevin Federline less than a year ago.
In February, as he launched a custody battle against the 25-year-old singer, who found fame with hits such as 'Hit Me Baby One More Time' and 'Oops, I Did It Again', she seemed to suffer a catastrophic breakdown, rashly shaving off all her hair in a Los Angeles salon (allegedly because Federline had threatened to have it drug-tested) and getting a lips tattoo on her wrist.
With rumours about her increasingly erratic behaviour rife, she spent the summer competing with actress Lindsay Lohan for the title of 'celebrity most in and out of rehab'.
Magazines such as Heat and OK have charted her bizarre exploits on an almost daily basis, from her unprovoked attack on an empty car with an umbrella to her ban from LA's Chateau Marmont Hotel for "walking up and down the corridors, smearing food on her face".
Then, earlier this month, Spears's career reached a new low when she kicked off the MTV video music awards with an embarrassing, spaced-out rendition of her latest single 'Gimme More', dressed in less than was advisable: a sequined bikini top and pants combo that showed off her post-pregnancy flab to perfection. The watch-through-your-fingers performance, in which she failed even to lip-synch in time to the music, is now a favourite on YouTube with those who take pleasure in other people's misfortunes.
So far, so very rock'n'roll gone wrong. Spears is hardly the only female celebrity whose excessive lifestyle has threatened her professional career: Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen and Paris Hilton often make the news with their drink and drug-fuelled scrapes rather than their achievements.
What makes Britney's breakdown particularly unsettling, however, is that there is the welfare of her children to consider. Even before her recent decline, her mothering skills were questionable. She once almost dropped Sean while tottering around on high heels, and then drove with him on her lap, drawing comparisons with Michael Jackson, who famously dangled his baby son over a balcony so the crowds could get a better look at him.
A former nanny claimed Spears gave Sean coffee and gum and forgot to brush his teeth, while another former helper claimed she drank in front of the children. "At first, the drinks would help her loosen up and not be so angry. But she'd inevitably drink too much and be out of it, at which point the nannies would take care of the kids," she said.
Now there are claims Spears took drugs in front of her boys. Her own mother has been critical of her parenting abilities. And as a "secret witness" in the custody case, Barretto signed a declaration detailing "drug use, nudity and safety issues". Last week, the judge ruled both Spears and Federline must abstain from drugs for 12 hours before taking charge of their sons and that Spears must face twice-weekly random drink and drug tests.
But her insouciant response to his decision means there are those who fear the Britney Spears story could have a gruesome end. Some close observers worry she will follow in the footsteps of Anna Nicole Smith, the former model who died of a drug overdose at the age of 39, weeks after her 20-year-old son had done the same.
"I think, if [the judge] thought she really had a substance abuse issue, he should have taken away custody until such a time that she could prove he was no longer using alcohol and/or substances," said Barretto's lawyer, Gloria Allred.
There are plenty of people who see Spears's suffering as no more than an excuse for cheap gags. Indeed, there is a plethora of Britney jokes, all trading on her perceived stupidity, circulating on the internet. In the wake of her MTV performance, Joy Behar, the co-host of ABC's The View, likened Spears's body to that of the morbidly obese Sopranos star James Gandolfini, while comedian Sarah Silverman called her children "cute mistakes".
Gossip websites are constantly on her back, mocking her decision to launch her own perfume (who would want to smell like Britney now? A rancid brew of stale booze, vomit, deep-fried food, regret, bitterness and self-loathing) to her apparent inability to open up her child's buggy."Some people won't be happy until she's dead," says Peter Robinson, editor of the website Popjustice.
Not everyone is unsympathetic to her plight. When Craig Ferguson, the Scottish host of CBS's The Late Late Show, refused to tell Britney jokes, speaking frankly about his own battle against alcoholism and his distaste for those who satirise the vulnerable rather than the powerful, he was deluged by supportive e-mails.
Robinson, too, sees Spears as more sinned against than sinning. "Whenever Britney has succeeded in doing something, someone else is credited with making it happen," he says. "She is often portrayed as a puppet, so I think it is a bit rich for people now to blame her personally for the fact that her support network has failed her," he says.
Robinson insists that, like many female artists, Spears suffers as a result of other people's double standards. "When Justin Timberlake goes out and gets drunk, or if he was to shag a lot of women, then that would be seen as par for the course. But if Britney does it, she's a slag. That's the way it's always been. And of course, the fact she's a mother makes that worse because there is a certain view of the way mothers should behave." A household name from the age of 11, when she joined the Mickey Mouse Club, Spears always had minders telling her what to do and when. And being pursued by flanks of photographers quickly became the norm for her.
"For the first time she doesn't have that backbone of support and she has fallen apart," says Michelle Davies, assistant editor of the glossy weekly Grazia magazine. "It is quite clear she needs someone who cares about her to take control, but the more erratic her behaviour becomes, the less anyone is prepared to do that."
It doesn't take a degree in psychology to deduce that what Spears should do now is to lie low for several months with her children, regaining her strength and her mental health in preparation for the release of her next album. The problem is, however, that when it comes to attention-seeking, Spears rivals Princess Diana at her neediest.
Far from seeking seclusion, she seems desperate for the limelight."We hear stories of how she actively courts the paparazzi," says Davies. "She will get in her car and drive 100 yards and pose for photographs. She needs constant validation, but it's a vicious cycle, because what she gets instead is criticism, which makes her need for validation all the greater."
Of course, some would argue Spears is deliberately sabotaging her career. In July, rumours circulated that she had turned up to a photo shoot with OK magazine so out of it her eyes were rolling in the back of her head "like a zombie". Having allowed some friends to do her make-up, she apparently demanded a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, which she ate before smearing grease down her designer dress.
There is something wilful about this kind of meltdown that suggests that maybe she doesn't really want to recover. Robinson, however, believes that with a bit of support from her "real" friends, it is not too late for Spears to regain her status as a pop princess.
"Before 'Toxic' was released, people were already saying Britney had lost the plot - then they realised the music was good and all that stopped," he says. "The same thing is happening this time round. It's clear that in performing at the MTV awards she rushed the comeback. Her album is not due out till the spring and it could have waited until then.
"But the latest material like 'Gimme More' was really quite good. I think Britney's professional future will stand or fall on the quality of the songs. People are fickle. If the music continues to be good they will overlook a lot of the other stuff."
In the meantime, Britney the drunk, Britney the druggie and Britney the unfit mother will continue to be a spectator sport of the most horribly compelling kind.
Celebrity parents in the dock
Kerry Katona: The former Atomic Kitten star was branded a "bad mother" by ex-husband, former Westlife star Brian McFadden, who claimed Kerry had a new man every month. Nanny Debbie Price said Katona's daughters Molly, six, and four-year-old Lilly-Sue were neglected, while 'friend' Joanna Goodier threw an accusation of cocaine addiction in just for good measure.
Sadie Frost: The actress's reputation as a mother took a pounding after her two-year-old daughter Iris swallowed an Ecstasy tablet at a children's party. Although the drug was not hers, and Iris, one of her three children with Jude Law, recovered, doubts continued to be cast over her suitability as a parent due to her hedonistic lifestyle at the heart of the so-called Primrose Hill set.
Kate Moss: Where to start? Some feel Kate's cocaine habit make her a less than ideal mother to five-year-old Lila Grace. That and the orgies with Sadie Frost and others from the Primrose Hill set. Oh yes, and her fixation with Babyshambles frontman and heroin addict Pete Doherty.
Anna Nicole Smith: Model-turned-reality TV star Smith's drink and drugs issues led to her being viewed as a problem parent. Her 20-year-old son Daniel died of an overdose last September and she followed suit months later. Among the more lurid accusations was that she deliberately underfed her baby Dannielynn to keep her thin.
Michael Jackson: Dangling your baby over the balcony of your hotel room is never a good way to impress social services. Nor is placing a veil over your children's heads. Or admitting you've invited young boys to share your bed.
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