There's an understanding among those who know Britney well: When she's blond, she's happy. When she's brunette, she's sad. When she's pink, she's crazy. Her hair was back to glowing and golden this fall, when she spent her time diligently shuttling back and forth from her Beverly Hills mansion to dance rehearsals and video shoots and recording studios, in preparation for her new album, Circus. It was a complete transformation, following a year in which she spent a month in rehab, endured a brutal custody battle with her ex-husband Kevin Federline and careened toward a massive — and very public — meltdown that culminated in two involuntary psychiatric hospitalizations in January.
"I feel like an old person now," she says one afternoon, as a manicurist applies rhinestones and girly pink lacquer to her chewed-up nails. "I do! I go to bed at, like, 9:30 every night, and I don't go out or anything, you know what I mean? I just feel like an old fart."
The beauty rest has done her well: In a Hollywood recording studio in September, dressed in black jeans, platform heels and a bedazzled hoodie, Spears looks more like her former self than she has in years. She has makeup on, but it's faded just enough that it could be yesterday's. She says she's considering lopping off the weave she's worn since shaving her head in 2007, and when she counts up her tattoos — "Seven! Oh, my God, y'all!" — she falls back into the couch giggling, kicking her feet in the air.
Spears has always been like this: silly, sweet, humble. She has never been very articulate, but she always tries to be accommodating. Tonight, she's listening to mixes and finishing work on a track called "Lace and Leather." When I ask how she knows if a song is going to be a hit, she says, "You just hear it, and you're like, oh, my God, if somebody else takes this song, you're gonna kill yourself, you know what I mean? Like, this one I'm doing tonight, I think it's good, and it's, like, really quirky and different and girly."
"A little naughty," says her manager, Larry Rudolph, 45, sitting nearby in a T-shirt and jeans.
"A little naugh-tay," Spears agrees, sounding half-embarrassed.
There are differences in Britney, too, from the last time I saw her, in 2006, when we hung out in her New York hotel room watching American Idol while her son Sean Preston crawled around on the bed nearby. She is shyer, more guarded, remote — like the old Britney but with the volume turned way down. Her last hit single, "Piece of Me," dealt with her public image ("I'm Miss Bad Media Karma/Another day, another drama"), but she says she's not sure she wants to include anything so revealing on Circus. "It's scary to put yourself out there and be like, 'Oh, God, is that cool?' If you're not going to really go for it, you can't just go there halfway." And then, as though changing her mind midthought, she adds, "But sometimes, when you go for it, you can't lose."
Of all the things Britney has lost in the past year, it's the custody of her sons, Sean Preston, 3, and Jayden, 2, that has shaken her hardest. "Every time they come to visit me, I think about how they're such special people," says Spears, who currently sees the boys three days a week, with one overnight stay. "Like, they're going to preschool now! I went there to pick them up on Friday, and seeing them in their little classroom and seeing Jayden being bad or not listening? It's like, those are mine, and it's just crazy, you know what I mean? And the things that are coming out of their mouths right now — they're learning so much, and it's new, and you never know what they're going to say, and they're so smart yet so innocent. They're obsessed with monsters, and every night we look outside, and we have to show them that there's no monsters out there. It's dark outside, but there's nothin' out there, you know?"
Ever since she was a little girl growing up in Kentwood, Louisiana, Spears dreamed of having her own children. She considered the experience "the closest thing to God," she said in 2004 in a note on her fan site. "To be a really good mom, I feel your child needs to be your full-time job. I want to raise my kids and share all of those precious moments with them."
But things haven't turned out like she imagined. "I didn't think my husband was gonna leave me," she says, deadpan. She laughs to break the tension. "Otherwise, I'd be with my babies 24/7. But since they're almost like twins, they both take care of each other. I think they look like me," she says, going from affectionate to bitter as she gets distracted by thoughts of Federline, whom she sees only when one of them is picking up the boys. "They don't look like their father at all," she continues. "And it's weird 'cause they're starting to learn words like 'stupid,' and Preston says the f-word now sometimes. He doesn't get it from us. He must get it from his daddy. I say it, but not around my kids."
Of course, Britney hasn't quite turned out to be a model parent, either, and it was her own erratic behavior that led to her losing custody. During Britney's second trip to the psych ward, when her dad, Jamie, wanted to convince her to let him take control of her life, he told her he would help her get her babies back. He and attorney Andrew Wallet filed for a legal conservatorship that makes them responsible for overseeing her finances and her personal life — Britney today has about as many legal rights as when she was in the Mickey Mouse Club. She is watched over day and night by security guards Jamie hired (and she's paying for); it's also rumored that Britney's phone calls are closely monitored and that she's not allowed to drive her own Mercedes. Recently, says one source with ties to the Britney camp, Jamie fired a guard who let the singer use his phone. (Her rep denies the claim.)
In a new clip from Britney Spears' forthcoming documentary, "For the Record," that has made its way online, the singer opens up about her two-year marriage to Kevin Federline, and how in retrospect it probably wasn't the best decision she could have made at the time.
"I think I married for all the wrong reasons," she says in the 90-minute documentary, set to air on MTV on November 30, just two days before the release of her new LP, Circus. "Instead of following my heart and, like, doing something that made me really happy. I just did it because ... for just, like, the idea of everything."
In the clip she also talks about what the album means for her, after several tumultuous years in the spotlight. "It's weird because your music is a reflection of what you're going through," she says. "It's such a part of me, the record, 'cause of what I've gone through."
In another clip, Spears talks about how she uses her work as a dancer and singer to deal with the stress of her life and how it helps her deal with her emotions. She said that for her, dancing is like therapy. "If I have a lot of nervous energy, when I start dancing it all goes away and I just feel emotion. It's like a rollercoaster," she says. "People think that when you go through something in life you have to go to therapy. For me, art is therapy, because it's like you're expressing yourself in such a spiritual way.
"Sometimes you don't need to use words to go through what you need to go through," she continues. "Sometimes it's an emotion you need to feel when you dance, that you need to touch. And the only thing that can touch it is when you move a certain way."
In previously released clips, Spears addresses her reasons for making the special now. "There's a lot people don't know about me that I want them to know. ... I've been through a lot in the last two or three years. I've grown up, bigtime," she says.
She also talks about being a public figure and having every moment of her life documented by the media. "I don't think anyone can prepare themselves for what stardom brings," she says, adding, "Do I know my life is weird? It's all I've ever known."
I've had a couple of days to absorb these new clips - my first reaction was irritation. She divorces a guy at pretty much the worst possible time and in the worst possible way and then claims it was him who left her. He was literally in the middle of interviews about how they would last. Rumor has it the text message he got wasn't even from Britney, it was from a friend who saw it on the news. But the initial reaction is gone, and now I'm just feeling a little sad and disappointed.
Britney may say she's grown up, I'm not seeing it. It's still about "what I've been through," I'm not seeing that she has too much of a sense of what she has put others through, including her children. Instead of regret, it's just a childish lashing out because some things happened that she didn't like. In her mind she probably does see it as Kevin leaving her, because that way she doesn't need to take any responsibility. Based on more rumors, I think she probably wanted him back after filing for divorce and he refused, so in a way it's true. But she seems to have no sense of her role in the end of the relationship. And even her responsibilities as a parent seem strange to her. As for the beginning of Kevin and Britney's relationship, I don't doubt she was in a rush to get married. Lucky for her she picked a decent guy who is now capable of taking care of their children. It would be nice if she appreciated that.
Despite all that, I'm happy for Britney's professional success. I hope it makes her happy and I hope it will be good for her healthwise. I'm no longer hoping for a Kevin and Britney reunion, for Kevin's sake, I think he can do much better. But I hope they can continue to work on their relationship as co-parents and possibly even friendship, I don't see a lot of progress so far, but there is always the future.