It's hard to believe we're here again. In a 2003 cover story that ran just as the world's biggest pop star was pulling out of a publicity tour for her latest album, Entertainment Weekly asked, ''So what's bugging Britney Spears?'' A year later, we were questioning whether her ''tabloid antics'' (the quickie Vegas marriage, the canceled tour dates, the barefoot jaunts to gas-station bathrooms) were ''tripping up her career.'' But even Spears' most ardent defenders and they seemed to be dwindling by the day were hard-pressed to explain her latest bout of weird behavior.
On Feb. 16, reports emerged that the increasingly troubled singer, 25, had checked herself into Eric Clapton's Crossroads Centre rehab clinic in Antigua and checked back out less than 24 hours later. That evening, she resurfaced in L.A. first at a hair salon, where she shaved her own head, and then at a tattoo parlor, where she reportedly asked to have a pair of lips inked on her wrist. As a massive media crush ensued, Spears showed up two days later at Hollywood hot spots wearing a blond wig to hide her now-infamous hair-don't. On Feb. 20, the all-but-expected statement came from her manager, Larry Rudolph: ''Britney Spears voluntarily checked herself into an undisclosed rehab facility today. We ask that the media respect her privacy as well as those of her family and friends at this time.''
This latest fiasco couldn't have come at a more inopportune time for the singer. Since filing for divorce from husband Kevin Federline last November, Spears has been locked in a continuing legal battle over spousal support and custody of their two children, Sean Preston, 17 months, and Jayden James, 5 months. And it's not as if she has any fresh music to distract the public from her latest series of strange moves; more than three years have passed since she dropped an album of new material. (Her last two CDs 2004's Greatest Hits: My Prerogative and 2005's B in the Mix, The Remixes were basically compilations and adaptations of previously released songs.) While she's reportedly been working with everyone from singer-songwriter Ne-Yo (Beyoncé's ''Irreplaceable'') to producer Jonathan ''J.R.'' Rotem (Rihanna's ''S.O.S.''), her fifth studio disc is only half finished.
What's worse, early reaction to her new tunes isn't promising. ''After playing [a song] three times, the dance floor was dead,'' says DJ StoneRokk, who was spinning at a club at the Palms in Las Vegas one night in November 2006 when owner George Maloof handed him two new Spears tracks to preview for the crowd. ''But...no one likes new music. They just want to hear something familiar.'' And, he says, ''she was there. I think she had a wig on.''
For an artist who's sold more than 70 million albums and easily transcended the bubblegum pop trend to become a bona fide diva, Spears' downward spiral is astonishing. ''There seems to be some really special glee the media has about Britney's fall,'' says publicist Liz Rosenberg, who knows from scandal since she's long handled the up-and-down career of Spears' idol, Madonna. ''It's sad and so bizarre. I hope she gets help.''
At press time, Spears was apparently doing just that. But even a stint in rehab won't automatically cure her career woes. According to numerous industry insiders, what Spears really needs isn't a drastic makeover it's a firm dedication to getting back in the studio and reminding her fans why they fell in love with her in the first place. ''My recommendation would be to lay low for several months and return lucid, humble, and gorgeous, with a cutting-edge pop smash single,'' says Epic Records exec Keith Naftaly. ''I'd reteam her with [producer] Max Martin,'' who worked on Spears' biggest hit, ''...Baby One More Time,'' and Kelly Clarkson's ''Since U Been Gone.'' Producer Jimmy Jam (Mary J. Blige's ''No More Drama'') thinks it's the perfect time for Spears to explore her personal frustrations and struggles in her music rather than taking them out on her hair. ''She's obviously lived a lot of life,'' he says. ''It's great inspiration if she wants to start writing and get with producers that'll nurture that.''
But what Spears really needs to remember is this: The American public often seems willing to forgive. And despite her ongoing struggles, Spears is still poised for the mother of all comebacks if she wants one. ''Everyone is interested in Britney,'' says MTV exec Amy Doyle. ''Those of us who loved her music are still curious. If she comes back with a hot song, a great video, and a great look, then all will be forgotten. That's her winning formula. Go back to that, and we will welcome her back with open arms.'' (Additional reporting by Michael Endelman, Shirley Halperin, Vanessa Juarez, and Tim Stack)
CHAOTIC: BRITNEY'S POP LIFE
A look at the ups and downs (and oh, there are many) in Britney Spears' very public spectacle of a career.
After a brief run on Ed McMahon's Star Search, perky Louisiana native Britney Spears joins The Mickey Mouse Club alongside future boyfriend Justin Timberlake, future rival Christina Aguilera, and future Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling.
Spears becomes an instant pop-music icon (and hero to loose Catholic schoolgirls everywhere) when the video for the title track from her 14-million-selling debut album, ...Baby One More Time, debuts.
Her second album, Oops!...I Did It Again, moves 1.3 million copies in its first week, setting a record for most albums sold by a female artist in one week. Buoyed by the title track and singles ''Lucky'' and ''Stronger,'' it's eventually certified 10 times platinum.
Spears introduces her third album, Britney, with an infamous performance of the lead single ''I'm a Slave 4 U'' at MTV's Video Music Awards, python and all. The disc sells 4 million copies.
Did she learn nothing from Glitter? Spears' film debut, Crossroads, earns poor reviews and a Razzie Award for its star, which she shares with Swept Away's Madonna. The following year, the two finally get a chance to celebrate the honor by making out at the VMAs.
Her electro-tinged fourth album, In the Zone, sells 2 million copies and earns Spears her first and only Grammy, for the top 10 single ''Toxic,'' which is named Best Dance Recording.
Wait, what?! Spears gets hitched to childhood friend Jason Allen Alexander at Las Vegas' Little White Wedding Chapel and then quickly annuls the marriage. Always the traditionalist, she wears a trucker hat and ripped jeans.
Spears announces her engagement to dancer Kevin Federline. Three months later, the couple get married. The following year, their antics are revealed to a horrified public in the low-rated UPN reality show Britney and Kevin: Chaotic.
Britney and Kevin welcome their first son, Sean Preston. Spears gives birth to their second son, named Jayden James, in September 2006.
On Dateline, a teary Spears speaks with Matt Lauer about rumors of a failing marriage and accusations of poor mothering. Her ill-fitting outfit, clumpy mascara, and constant gum-chomping hamper any positive spin control.
Spears surprises David Letterman on his talk show when she walks out sporting a sleek new hairdo and post-pregnancy bod. The next day, she files for divorce from Federline. Her joyous fan base begins crowing about a comeback.
On Feb. 16, Spears reportedly enters an Antiguan rehab facility and exits after less than 24 hours. In L.A., she shaves her head, visits a tattoo parlor, and soon begins donning a blond wig. Her manager announces on Feb. 20 that she has checked into rehab.