Cover Story

Sex & The Singles Girl

Virginal idol no more, BRITNEY SPEARS is playing the vamp--and toying with her million-dollar image

Pythons don't bite.

At least that's what they told her. Then again, they told her only what she needed to know. And the fact that pythons kill by slowly squeezing every last breath out of their victims' lungs was not, apparently, something Britney Spears needed to know.

So there she was on Sept. 6, just seconds after slinking her way out of a cage with a tiger: a 19-year-old girl, all tarted up, bumping and grinding on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards, blissfully unaware of the coiled reptilian killing machine around her neck. As for whether she was also unaware of the dizzying array of sexual semiotics and jackhammer-subtle innuendo she was giving off by having a seven-foot albino python wrapped around her neck is, of course, another matter entirely.

''We thought the whole thing was going to be about the tiger. I mean, I'm in a cage with a huge tiger! But no one says anything about that. The image of me with the snake -- that was the big thing.''

How could it not be? After all, as America's reigning taboo temptress -- again, she's 19 -- Spears couldn't have picked a tidier metaphor for the forbidden than wrapping herself with a giant snake, despite the fact that her slithering dance partner was so ''sticky'' and ''slimy'' that it made her break into hives after she touched it for the very first time.

But you wouldn't have sensed the squeemishness watching her writhe around to her new single ''I'm a Slave 4 U'' in a teensy emerald-green top and matching short-shorts -- the two separated by miles of tanned midriff with a lone jewel beaming out of her belly button like a thousand-watt spotlight. Or, for that matter, seeing her bucking on the arched back of one of her male dancers. To be honest, if she weren't singing, you might have thought you were witnessing a floor show in a Bangkok gentlemen's club. Because there it was: America's most famous virgin in a giddy, frozen moment of pure carnal excess. Backstreet Babylon. And when she opened her mouth to sing, out came the cooing mantra of the new Britney Spears. The all-grown-up Britney Spears...

All you people look at me like I'm a little girl...

Really?

Somewhere between the first-class kiddie glitz of Orlando's Disney World and a lower-budgeted pit-stop attraction on the outskirts of Tampa called Dinosaur World lies the town of Lakeland, Fla. If you're a teenager here, there isn't a whole lot to do other than troll the drive-thru windows of an endless archipelago of fast-food joints. Unless, of course, you're Britney Spears, in which case there's more going on in Lakeland than you could possibly want.

For starters, there's the matter of ironing out the last-minute choreography kinks for her 32-date North American tour

kicking off in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 1 (the start was bumped five days when Spears got the flu, and later, one more day because of a logistical snafu). Then, less than a week after hitting the road with 17 semi trucks jam-packed with arena gear, there's the release of her funkier, more mature third album, Britney, on Nov. 6. Next, there's a live HBO concert from the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas on Nov. 18, where she'll be prancing and preening through waterfalls and bungee-jumping. And when all of that madness is finally over, she'll have to kick-start Britney Inc. all over again when her feature-film debut, Crossroads, rolls into multiplexes in February.

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