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All Eyes On Britney

The 'Oops' girl pulls out of Paris (and the rest of Europe) on the eve of the release of her high-stakes CD 'In the Zone.' So what's bugging Britney Spears?

''Breet-a-nee, she iz not 'ere. ze show, eet aas bean can-sealed.''

This surprising late-breaking news is delivered by a French cabbie -- complete with that surly little smirk they must all learn at the same driving school -- idling in his taxi at the entrance of a Paris club called Espace Cardin. Inside, on this drizzly October evening, the world's most obsessed-about pop star is supposed to be taping a French TV special in front of a crowd of adoring, gyrating Parisian partygoers. But outside, the scene now is much more grim, with workmen sullenly lugging huge amplifiers and other heavy stage equipment onto waiting trucks while clusters of fans malinger under umbrellas looking tres miserables. The smirky cabbie didn't have to say a word: It's all too obvious Britney Spears isn't here.

Instead, she's just up the street, ensconced in a suite at the superluxe Plaza Athenee. In fact, Spears hasn't left the hotel since she checked in two days ago and began canceling her every public appearance, press conference, and interview, leaving some 350 frustrated journalists from across the Continent and elsewhere (including one from EW) cursing in a dozen languages. Strict orders have been left not to disturb her. Even calls are being severely screened. About the only outsiders allowed near her have been the stream of French doctors making the house calls of a million teenage boys' (and dirty old men's) dreams.

Britney Spears has the flu. And her sneezes are sending shock waves across France -- and beyond.

They're feeling them at Jive Records in New York, that's for sure. Executives at Spears' label must be watching in horror as their grand plans for the singer's whirlwind two-week European publicity tour -- to promote the Nov. 18 release of her fourth album, a pulsating dance disc called In the Zone (see review on page 82), on which she moans and groans to a more grown-up and blatantly sexual beat -- shiver and cough to a halt. Spears has made only one stop on the tour before Paris, five days and at least one allegedly shaky night in London. Now the rest of her jam-packed itinerary -- showcases in Germany and Spain, a much-anticipated appearance in Scotland for the MTV Europe Music Awards -- is about to go up like a puff of nasal spray. The singer will spend only one more day in Paris before abandoning the tour entirely and returning to the States to convalesce at her mother's house in Kentwood, La., the sleepy Southern backwater where the singer was spawned way back in 1981.

Of course, from time to time everyone gets the flu. But in this particular case, it's impossible not to wonder if something less viral and potentially more serious (at least to her career) is what's bugging Spears in Paris -- 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 (will anyone still buy Britney records now that she's outgrown the plaid skirts and kneesocks?). 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.

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