The troubled star's new world tour suggests pop's greatest comeback, but who's really pulling the [Marionette] strings?
You have to assume Britney Spears knows exactly what she is doing when she steps into a golden cage to sing Piece of Me, the second number of her new stage show. “I’m Miss American Dream, since I was 17,” she sings (or lip-synchs). “Don’t matter if I step on the scene/or sneak away to the Philippines/ They’re still gonna put pictures of my derrière in the magazine/You want a piece of me?/You want a piece of ME?” The audience erupts.
The princess of pop, railing against her fate from the gilded prison of her fame, yet still a force to be reckoned with — nobody could accuse the message of being subtle. For good measure, the new show is called Circus. Britney is dressed part of the time as its ringmaster, and you know that when she struts across the vast stage — blonde tresses flowing, Ultrabrite smile gleaming, skin-tight bustier glittering — her remarkably loyal and forgiving fans are ecstatic that she seems to be in charge again, that they are witnessing the most startling comeback in the history of pop.
More than 1m people will have seen the 60-date world tour by the time it ends; it will have grossed more than $100m. Yet only last year, Britney suffered an appalling and humiliatingly public psychological breakdown. She shaved off her hair. She attacked a car with an umbrella. She lost custody of her two young children because of her drug-taking. Finally, after a suicide attempt, she was carted off to hospital under police helicopter escort and placed in a psychiatric lockdown.
It was a horrifying train wreck, to which we were all somehow party. Every terrible moment of her 18-month descent into near oblivion was covered by the hovering, stalking paparazzi, scores of whom followed her every move, every minute of every day and night. In a weird kind of tabloid Stockholm syndrome, one of the snappers even became her lover. Mesmerised and appalled, people predicted that Britney, then only 26, would meet the same drug-induced end as Anna Nicole Smith, a grim fatality of the tabloid era.
Now, night after night, Britney Jean Spears is powerfully restating her claim to pop significance, while her management selectively releases photographs of the pop princess holidaying with her two young sons, Sean Preston, 3, and Jayden James, 2 — though the visits are supervised and she does not have custody of her children. She even seems to have a new boyfriend, Jason Trawick, who happens to be her agent at the William Morris Agency.
But is she really holding the ringmaster’s whip?
In a number of the photos released by Britney’s management, a heavy-set older man in a white, sleeveless working man’s vest can be seen hovering in the background. That’s her father, Jamie Spears, who took complete legal control of her life last year. It’s he who has the whip hand in Britney’s life now. When she went into meltdown 16 months ago — this time, the backing track to her misery was the Blackout album — Jamie had himself appointed her conservator, or legal guardian. Under the terms of the conservatorship, all Britney’s spending has to be approved by her father, all her phone calls and texts are monitored, she can see only friends approved by her father and she is not allowed to drive a car. She is under 24-hour watch — not only by Jamie, who seldom lets her out of his sight, but by her manager, Larry Rudolph, and a team of doctors, psychiatrists, child-welfare officers and bodyguards. According to some reports, Jamie even checks whether she is wearing underwear when she goes out in public.
Her handlers also keep her well away from the press. During the only interview she has given this year, Rudolph stepped in and stopped her answering questions about her state of mind. The only time she has apparently been able to talk about how she really feels is in the documentary Britney: For the Record, filmed at the end of last year. In it, she complains: “There’s no excitement, there’s no passion... Even when you go to jail, you know there’s the time when you’re gonna get out. But in this situation, it’s never-ending. It’s just like Groundhog Day every day.”
Some people who have been close to Britney in recent times are concerned that she has been pushed into recording and touring before she is psychologically ready. “How can they say Britney is sick, then shove her out on the road, with all that pressure?” says Alli Sims, Britney’s cousin, who was the singer’s assistant until last year, but is forbidden from contacting her. “This isn’t part of her therapy. It’s a world tour.” Others are concerned that, of all people, it’s Jamie — an alcoholic for most of his adult life, and a declared bankrupt — who has taken control of his daughter’s life and business affairs. People who know Britney well believe that many of her psychological problems stem from her deeply troubled relationship with her father. During her childhood and adolescence, he was a drunken, abusive and disruptive presence in the Spears family home.
“Looking back,” says Lynne Spears, Britney’s mother, in her recently published memoir, Through the Storm, “I’m almost positive staying with Jamie was not the right thing to do for the kids. Our children saw far too many knock-down, drag-out fights.” Lynne recounts the terrible toll that Jamie’s alcoholism and abuse, verbal if not physical, took on the family over more than two decades, eventually driving them to bankruptcy and financial ruin. “I squandered my money on wild women and beer,” Jamie has admitted in an interview. In the end, it was Britney who pushed her mother into divorcing her father after 24 years of marriage.
Although Jamie insists he has conquered his alcoholism — he went into rehab six years ago and claims to have been sober ever since — people who know the Spears family doubt he is the right person to be taking care of his psychologically fragile daughter. They also wonder whether a man whose small construction business went bankrupt should be overseeing an incredibly complicated, multi-million-dollar empire. Britney is estimated to be worth anywhere from $50m to $100m.
Even more troubling to some is that Jamie and the lawyers involved in Britney’s conservatorship appear to have such a strong financial interest in maintaining the arrangement. In the 11 months until December 2008, Jamie received $168,790 from his daughter’s estate — the SJB Revocable Trust — far more than he has ever made in his life, particularly in recent years, when he has worked as a caterer and chef on about $50,000 a year. Andrew Wallet, the exquisitely named lawyer who is the co-conservator, was paid $409,849 in the same period. The lawyer appointed to act for Britney — she has been deemed unfit by the court to choose her own — took $405,990. A total of 17 lawyers made about $3.7m from the conservatorship. An accountant who has looked at the figures says: “You can see why stars die broke.”