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Britney Aims for Second Act, As an Adult

 
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PostPosted: Thu Oct 10, 2002 2:49 pm    Post subject: Britney Aims for Second Act, As an Adult Reply with quote

Source: NY Times

Britney Spears, the pop star who brought sizzle to the schoolyard with glitter T-shirts and short shorts, strode onto a Milan runway last Tuesday evening in a $23,000 rainbow-spangled gown by Donatella Versace.

Ms. Spears, who turns 21 on Dec. 2, was flaunting her inner grown-up, turning to the makeover queen of couture for a quick fix. "She wanted something sophisticated and glamorous," Ms. Versace said. It was the culmination of Ms. Spears's two-month intermission from work, ostensibly to relax but in reality to begin the process of refashioning herself for a new career. It will take more than one body-hugging dress and some nude chiffon to do the job.

Ms. Spears, who made her debut as a wholesome bubblegum star with a penchant for sweetly flashing her belly button, is caught in a vicious conundrum of fame acquired young: the qualities that made her accessible and popular as a teenage star may be precisely the ones choking her career as an adult, leaving her looking like an unseemly parody as she tries to become a grown-up recording artist.

After her appearance in leather regalia at the MTV Video Music Awards in August, Steven Cojocaru, a fashion critic for People magazine, wrote, "Was Spears planning on doing a Village People tribute?"

Ms. Versace, who says she has known Ms. Spears for two years, said: "She understands that she has to change. We had a long discussion about it."

The movement she led, said Craig Marks, the editor of Blender, the music magazine, is "very five minutes ago."

"She needs to come back with a new second act," he said.

While Ms. Spears has sold 52 million albums worldwide in the last four years, sales have nose-dived, from 24 million for her first album, to 19 million on the second, to 9 million on "Britney, " which was released last November, according to her manager. For any other artist 9 million would be a blockbuster, but for Ms. Spears it shows her popularity has seriously eroded.

Her appeal with listeners on radio is waning, too. Tom Poleman, program director for Z-100 in New York, perhaps the most influential Top 40 radio station in the country, said his station played the sultry 2001 single "I'm A Slave 4 U" fewer times than any of her previous singles. "We played it, but it didn't have as much staying power," he said.

Brandon Holley, the editor in chief of Elle Girl, said she gets e-mail from hundreds of teenage readers about Ms. Spears, whom the feminist author Camille Paglia once described as "Lolita on aerobics."

"They are really tired of that sausage-casing look, that busting out all over the place, and they are very anti-midriff right now," Ms. Holley said. "It's a Britney backlash."

It is a pop-star crisis shared by a number of her peers, including Christina Aguilera, 'N Sync, the Backstreet Boys and a host of Britney clones, as they try to make the often hazardous shift from teen idol to adult superstar without alienating their loyal fans.

"The teen pop thing is mostly synthetic," said Jonny Podell, a co-founder of Evolution Talent Agency, which represents Ms. Spears and other young stars. "The majority don't get to the next level."

Ms. Spears has been challenged by a raft of grittier teenage singer-songwriters who play guitar and wear dime-store T-shirts and ties instead of snug bustiers.

Dubbed the "anti-Britneys," they include the tough rocker Pink, the soulful Michelle Branch and the skater girl Avril Lavigne, young women who eschew the overt yet out-of-reach sexuality Ms. Spears has cultivated. Ms. Holley said Ms. Lavigne and Ms. Branch in particular have replaced Ms. Spears among her readers.

From the looks of things, the Britney backlash has been picking up speed. A Web site is devoted to tracking what appears to be the fluctuating size of her breasts. Two executives who have worked with Ms. Spears said they were dismayed to see insinuations in the tabloids that she is facing a Mariah Carey-like emotional breakdown.

Her personal life has also been troubled. Her parents divorced this year, and she broke up with her boyfriend, Justin Timberlake of 'N Sync. Her aunt, with whom she is close, is being treated for ovarian cancer.

"She is not having a breakdown," said Larry Rudolph, one of her managers. "This is a girl who has been on the most unimaginably wild roller coaster ride for the last five years without a break," Mr. Rudolph said. "She was going to stop being the public Britney Spears and start being the private Britney Spears."

Her handlers say that over the last two months she has been trying to live like any 20-year-old albeit one who has grossed $40 million to $50 million a year for the last four years. She has been doing yoga and going shopping. She is not hanging at the mall but at the spring fashion shows in Manhattan and Milan. (In Italy, Ms. Spears selected several Versace outfits and received the usual treatment accorded big celebrity guests: the designer paid.)

Ms. Versace who also restyled Baby Spice and Chelsea Clinton invited the singer to spend five days as a guest of the Versaces at their villa on Lake Como. She is not confused about the need for change, Ms. Versace said. "She's very, very sane."

Next week, Ms. Spears will return to the recording studio in Los Angeles, "looking at new ideas," Mr. Rudolph said. "She knows she will be changing."

There are no set plans for the next album, but Mr. Rudolph said Ms. Spears might take a more overtly sexual approach, echoing songs on her recent album, like "I'm a Slave 4 U" and "Boys."

Her break was probably well-timed, said James Harris III, the producer known as Jimmy Jam, who has worked with Ms. Carey and Janet Jackson. "The thing I found is an artist has to have a chance to live life. As we saw with Mariah, if you don't shut down it gets the better of you." To be sure, pop culture history is thick with the stories of teenage stars who aimed for longevity but saw their high-flying careers evaporate.

Consider a pop princess of the 1980's, Debbie Gibson, who continues to record albums although she has not had a big hit in more than a decade. She now performs as the more grown-up-sounding Deborah, an acclaimed musical theater actress. Ms. Gibson said she knows Ms. Spears and believes her challenge is to decide how sexual she wants to appear on stage.
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