The ballad of Britney Spears
In spring 2002, THE FACE interviewed the biggest pop star in the world. As the #FreeBritney movement gets louder, the writer reflects on her encounter with a young woman already hurting more than we knew.
It’s nearly 20 years since I interviewed Britney Spears for THE FACE, but I remember it well. Not because her 24-minute testimony last week in a Los Angeles courtroom was triggering, a shocking revelation of what she’s been through during her 13 years of conservatorship, but because we met in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.
I went out as soon as I’d checked in to the hotel, straight after the 12-hour flight, exhausted but determined to see the parade. Instead, I got hit on so aggressively by a group of guys that I was back at the hotel within half an hour, scuttling past the doorman while they shouted after me.
I watched the parade on local TV instead, while the newscaster reported on the abduction and rape of two women from a Bourbon Street bar. I’m not bringing this up because I felt particularly traumatised; it just seems a pretty good introduction to what that time was like for women: superficially fun and liberated, as long as you weren’t too upset when someone called you a slut.
Britney was the only person I had a conversation with the next day. It was her last interview slot, which is a shitty time to meet anyone: she was tired after talking for hours and fed up of answering questions about Justin Timberlake. She basically rolled her eyes at me and I rolled my eyes at her with an interview that wasn’t particularly mean, but, I now realise, didn’t take her particularly seriously.
I wish I’d known that she was already suffering from anxiety attacks and that she would split from Timberlake a month later. Her parents would divorce two months after that. In that moment, when it looked like everything was perfect, the trajectory of her life was starting to wobble.
But Britney became famous at a particularly horrible time for women. There was a pervasive idea that sexual equality had been achieved. Feminism was a word game for academics and newspaper columnists. Sexualised references were everywhere, from hipster jeans and babydoll dresses to the idea that pole dancing was a valid exercise routine for women.
The media was a good reflection of the times: manipulative and misogynistic. It was also before social media blossomed, so celebrities felt they had to have a relationship with paparazzi to show fans who they were and keep their faces in the papers. This relationship was abusive and aggressive. No never meant no.
It also meant that before you interviewed someone famous, you couldn’t see on Instagram or Twitter what they thought or how they wanted to present themselves. All you could do was read other pieces by other journalists and then basically ask the celebrity what they thought about the last piece that had been written about them.
It must have been frustrating, to say the least, for the 20-year-old sitting in that hotel room.
Looking back, I wish I’d asked Britney more about her creativity. We met to talk about Crossroads, a teen movie that was her idea. She’d written more tracks on her third album, Britney, and was really proud of it. Britney herself seemed like a bigger story. She still does – and then some.
Most coverage of Britney’s recent statement concerned her contraception or hospitalisation. But she clearly felt like she was struggling to be recognised as a successful performer and choreographer. Describing the preparations for her 2019 Las Vegas residency (which was ultimately cancelled), she said: “I take everything I do very seriously. There’s tonnes of video with me at rehearsals. I wasn’t good – I was great. I led a room of 16 new dancers in rehearsals.” No wonder she feels like nobody’s listening to her, still.
For me, the worst part of her statement was her certainty that no one would believe what has been happening to her over the past 13 years. When is that going to change?
If the recent past has taught us anything, it’s that we need to listen to women, whether it’s Meghan Markle, Mel B, Paris Hilton, Naomi Osaka, a young British actress being auditioned by Noel Clarke or a student on Everyone’s Invited. Culture has moved on from the 2000s, but we’re only just acknowledging that women routinely experience violence, coercion and disrespect.
I hope Britney knows that everyone believes her and has listened to her now. And she didn’t have to sit in a stupid hotel room with another random journalist to do it. An open call with a judge followed by some judicious follow-up on Instagram did the job far better than any interview ever could.
She told me in 2002 that if she never had to do an interview again she would be on cloud nine. I hope she gets her wish.