From time to time, of course, everyone gets the flu. But when the ailing is Britney Spears -- holed up in a Paris hotel after canceling all her public appearances, press conferences, and interviews promoting her fourth album, ''In the Zone'' (Nov. 18) -- it's impossible not to wonder if something less viral and potentially more serious (at least to her career) is what's bugging her. Something that might be more accurately diagnosed as growing pains.
After all, ever since her breakup last year with first love Justin Timberlake (who later cast a Britney look-alike in a none-too-flattering role for his ''Cry Me a River'' video), and that much-publicized but never-materialized yearlong hiatus she promised to take, there have been plenty of highly visible symptoms. Like her tear earlier this year through virtually half the nightclubs in New York (where she couldn't even light up a cigarette without tabloids making a huge fuss). Those rumors of a fling with the balding 32-year-old Limp Bizkit singer Fred Durst were pretty shocking too. (Durst went on ''Howard Stern'' and gallantly described Spears' pubic region to millions of listeners.) Add to all that the legitimate anxiety over her musical staying power.
And throw in all the other stresses and strains of being the world's most scrutinized 21-year-old pop star -- the grueling video shoots, the countless interviews, the big-dollar endorsements, the endless grind of disrobing for magazine covers, not to mention the hurtful backlash from conservative Brit-haters like Kendel Ehrlich, the governor of Maryland's wife, who announced her desire to ''shoot'' Spears (while speaking at a domestic-violence conference, of all places) -- and it's easy to see why the poor girl got the flu.