Music Article

Toxic

As Britney Spears re-enters rehab, an EW senior writer reflects on the girl he met five years ago and the troubled woman we see today -- and remembers her imagining her own downfall

AHEAD OF THE CURVE When Nashawaty asked her in 2001 to imagine a future Behind the Music about her, Spears looked at him like he…
Image credit: Bauer-Griffin
AHEAD OF THE CURVE When Nashawaty asked her in 2001 to imagine a future Behind the Music about her, Spears looked at him like he was insane

The day Britney Spears' imagination ran wild

Five years ago, I drove to Lakeland, Fla., to meet Britney Spears. I bring this up because I've been thinking about that trip a lot lately. Specifically, what the hell happened to make the girl I met back then seem so bats--- insane now?

Lakeland wasn't much of a town then, and I suspect it's not much of one now. It was really just an endless archipelago of drive-thru fast-food joints, midway between the first-class kiddie glitz of Orlando's Disney World and the blandness of Tampa. But back then, in the late fall of 2001, Lakeland was the epicenter of a teenage youthquake. It's where boy bands like 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys worked out the kinks of their road shows before kicking off their world tours.

That's exactly what brought me face to face with the world's most famous 19-year-old. Britney had just released her third album and was about to kick off a grueling string of concerts. It was an awkward moment in her life, onstage and off. Up until then, Britney had masterfully finessed the weird dichotomy of being a wholesome teenager claiming she was saving herself for marriage, and a grown-up pop sex kitten. In fact, she'd just released the single ''I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,'' which seemed to sum up that moment in time to a T.

And that's exactly how I found her that day in Florida — a petite clusterbomb of mixed signals. Britney was a girl in pink sweats, wearing a plastic ring on her finger that opened up to reveal a cache of lip balm. And she was also a woman whose blue thong played peekaboo above the waistband of her pants, and who just a few months earlier did a bump-and-grind on TV with an albino python wrapped around her neck.

Now, aside from getting nostalgic for a time when Britney actually bothered to wear a thong (or underwear of any kind), I look back on that day as the innocent ''before'' picture to what's become a tabloid trainwreck. I have to confess, I was as riveted as anyone this past weekend watching the video footage of Britney buzzing off her locks. (Well, maybe not as riveted as Pat O'Brien, who introduced the footage twitching with the giddiness of a kid on Christmas freakin' morning.) But then, I suspect like a lot of you, I was also a bit creeped out. With her eyes still red from crying, Britney shaving her head didn't just seem like a cry for help; it felt like a bloodcurdling scream.

The pictures from the past few weeks of the 24-year-old mother of two caught flashing her south-of-the-border junk for the paparazzi, or entering and exiting rehab as if she were going through a revolving door, or coming out of clubs at 4 a.m. covered in what looked like her own vomit, were bad enough. The fact she now makes her ex K-Fed look like the less trashy one is mindboggling.

Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but there's something about the whole hair-cutting episode that scares me and makes me queasy. It felt like I was watching Anna Nicole Smith in the days before her death raiding a fridge full of methadone and Slimfast. How did America's sweetheart turn into such a ticking time bomb?

On that day in Florida five years ago, I sat with Britney in her dressing room. There, on top of a giant TV and surrounded by candles, was a framed photo of her then-boyfriend Justin Timberlake. It was like a puppy-love shrine. Something as innocent as Joanie Loves Chachi. The lights in the dressing room were muted by draped pink scarves. The place smelled like vanilla. That day, Britney Spears was still very much a girl and not yet a woman.

After an hour or so, I asked her to imagine how her charmed life could go wrong. At the time, she had No. 1 records, fame, millions of dollars in the bank, and Justin. What would happen if, 10 years from now, they decided to make a VH1 Behind the Music episode about her? What would the detours and missteps have been? How would she have fallen from grace?

Britney looked at me like I was insane.

''Oh... my... God!''

After thinking it over for a minute, she unspooled the Britney crash-and-burn.

''First, the worst thing that could happen is if my boyfriend would break up with me. I would be totally devastated,'' she said. ''And then, after the depression, maybe I did some dorky movies that were just bombs. Then... I don't know, maybe I did another album that didn't do very well. And then, I went back to working at my granny's deli — back to rolling quarters and boiling crawfish and smelling like fish on my dates.''

Britney exhaled, then broke into a fit of giggles. It was the only unscripted moment of the interview. And when she was done with her worst-case-scenario repsonse, she gave me a look as if to say, ''That was fun!''

Well, it's not so fun anymore. Here we are, not even 10 but five years later. And everything, except for the deli part, has come to pass. And maybe in the long run, that's what it will take for Britney to get back on track: move away from the paparazzi glare of Los Angeles and back to Louisiana, rolling quarters and boiling crawfish, getting her s--- sorted out before it's too late.

Originally posted Feb 20, 2007