Image from Britney Spears' Instagram.
In a recent interview with UK paper Metro, singer LeAnn Rimes spoke about Britney Spears and her super public, super poignant mental health issues. LeAnn said she had “been in those shoes too,” and that while she didn’t shave her head surrounded by a mob of drooling paparazzi, and have the images plastered on the cover of every single tabloid ever, she did have her moments.
“I totally understand it,” she said. “I didn’t go there, but I definitely had the feeling of it I’m sure at some point.”
Of course, this has provoked a number of articles with headlines like “LeAnn Rimes Almost Had a Breakdown Like Britney Spears.” Because people can be, um, the worst.
It’ll be ten years next February since Britney reached her breaking point in a salon in Tarzana, California, before taking to a photographer’s car with an umbrella. All in full view of an hysterical crowd.
At the time, reports said she was complaining of her hair extensions being too tight, and that when asked by one of the salon’s employees why she’d done it, she'd responded: “I don’t want anyone touching me. I’m tired of everybody touching me.”
It doesn’t exactly take a hyperactive imagination to appreciate why, after a lifetime of controlled environments, rigorous and demanding schedules, and a frightening lack of privacy, a person might flip. It’s not “crazy” or “insane” for somebody in Britney’s position to eventually say “fuck this, I can’t do it.” If anything, it’s kind of strange that it didn’t happen sooner, or more often. Perhaps because she was the first of her kind.
Britney’s struggles with mental health, which eventually came to a head in 2007 and 2008, were the most public the world, and pop culture, had ever seen. At the height of her fame, Britney couldn’t even go to the bathroom without being followed. Her every move was pulled apart in telephoto-lense snaps, Perez Hilton proto-think pieces, and endless tabloid covers. Everywhere you looked, you’d see Britney robbed of her privacy. Mocked, chased, insulted, embarrassed, harassed, and defamed. A violating upskirt photograph of her crotch made worldwide news for weeks.
She was 26. And a mother of two.
The world watched, and fed off her instability. They egged the madness on. What could be more salacious than the world’s biggest pop star buckling under the pressure? What could sell more copies of People than Britney Spears losing her goddamn mind?
Nothing. Because juicy and perverse makes money. In Vanessa Grigoriadis’ 2008 Rolling Stone feature piece “The Tragedy of Britney Spears,” we were invited to meet The Real Britney. "The Tragedy of Britney Spears." As if she were a play, not a nuanced and complex human being.
“She is not a good girl” Grigoriadis wrote. “She is not America's sweetheart. She is an inbred swamp thing who chain-smokes, doesn't do her nails, tells reporters to ‘eat it, snort it, lick it, fuck it’ and screams at people who want pictures for their little sisters.”
Buried between Grigoriadis’ petty reductions, and accounts of Britney's many unusual business relationships that seemed nothing if not manipulative and toxic, the profile unearthed stories of Britney being forced to work when she was unfit, and told of her father’s emotional abuse and drug addiction that Britney witnessed as a young woman. Yet Grigoriadis’ piece failed to find any empathy for her.
Instead, Britney was the scathing, indignant fame whore, who took advantage of us for her own gain. We were the victim, and she had failed us.
Britney on the cover of V Magazine.
The Rolling Stone cover story did give us something, though: a record of red flags. We see obvious signs Britney was losing her ability to cope with her own super-sized fame. Accounts of her behaviour changing over time, from the All-American “good girl,” who was endlessly polite and a joy to work with, to a snappy, cagey, and increasingly paranoid woman who wouldn’t even give a fan the time of day. She, understandably, felt like nobody could be trusted.
Still, in Grigoriadis’ closing paragraph—less than a hundred words after the part about her possible attempted suicide, when she'd overdosed on prescription drugs in 2007—we were told that “after blaming everyone else for her problems, Britney's finally starting to realize the degree to which she's messed up, but her sense of entitlement keeps her from admitting it to herself, or to anyone who is trying to help her.”
In November of 2008 the world was invited to go deeper still, with the intimate documentary Britney: For the Record. A collection of interviews and behind the scenes footage, For the Record showed us a side of Britney’s fame that we weren’t really ready to see.
This is what it was actually like to be Britney. Not the girl next door, the “...Baby One More Time” Britney. But the Britney who was going through a heartbreaking divorce. The Britney who was attempting to rehabilitate after a major mental health crisis. The Britney who’d had her child knocked out of her arms by unrelenting photographers, trying to get to her car to escape them, only to have the photo of her “dropping her baby” spread like wildfire, on every front page, and used as an example of her incompetence.
In one particular scene (the one that everyone always talks about) we watched Britney try to make sense of the recent months—her marriage to Federline, her custody battle, the hair thing. She breaks down, cries, and says “I’m sad.” This was meant to be her comeback film.
In the documentary’s deleted scenes, we saw an even more disturbed Britney. “If I wasn’t under the restraints that I’m under right now,” she’d said, referring to the strict confines of her day-to-day life, “I would feel so liberated. And when I tell them how I feel it’s like, they hear me… but they’re really not listening.”
“Even when you go to jail, there’s always the time that you know you’re going to get out. But in this situation,” she starts to cry, “it’s never-ending.”
Since then, reports have smattered the pages of papers and have popped up online, claiming that all manner of indecencies were plaguing Britney and her camp during this time, including her being drugged and controlled by her former manager Osamah “Sam” Lufti. Following a popular trope of inexperienced right-hand-man to an impressionable superstar a la Brian Wilson and Anna Nicole Smith, the moment they met, Britney's life spiralled further out of control.
Britney met Lufti in a club through a mutual friend. He was a “consultant” at a gas company at the time. Lufti told Britney he’d manage her affairs for an extremely casual 15% of her $800k a month salary. That’s a paycheck of $120,000 a month. He apparently printed their contract off the internet.
Britney’s father eventually took out a restraining order against him, fearful that he was trying to control her assets, her timetable, her music: basically, her life. He moved into her house, he cut the phone lines. Several people close to Britney believe to this day that Lufti was slipping prescription drugs into her food. Sam Lufti has had three other restraining orders taken out against him.
To this day he is still trying to take Britney to court, claiming financial retribution and labelling her as a “meth addict.”
Looking back on what happened to Britney—what still happens to Britney, if you’re in the habit of Googling her and coming across articles that say things like “it's hard to remember when she was famous for making music and not for being crazy”—you’d think we’d have learnt our lesson. But if Amanda Bynes and Lindsay Lohan are anything to go by, we’re still as predatory as ever. And that is a pretty depressing thing.
Image from Britney's Instagram.
LeAnn Rimes also said in her interview with Metro that she admired Britney. “I look at her and think it’s really amazing what she’s overcome. It’s nice to see someone come out the other side and be successful again.”
That’s the quote that deserves follow-up articles. That’s the quote. Because Britney Spears is still one of the most successful women in pop.
If you have to, forget the guts it took for her to step back into the spotlight, back out on stage, knowing full well the ridicule and speculation that would come with it—that some people were probably expecting her to fail. That kind of strength is pretty incredible, but that's not even the story here.
Since 2008, we have seen three full-length albums from Britney Spears, and there's another, Glory, on the way. She has toured the world twice—pause on that for a moment. The world. Twice—and has performed her Piece of Me stage show, AKA her residency in Vegas, fifty times a year for the last three years. That is insane.
She also appeared as a—mind-blowingly screencap-able—judge on season two of U.S. X Factor, and was the highest-earning judge on a singing competition series in history. She was also named music’s top-earning woman in 2012 by Forbes Magazine.
Most importantly, she told People magazine that she’s the “happiest [she’s] ever been.” No matter how much the world wanted this woman to fail, she didn’t.