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Britney Spears Is Finally Sober. So Why Does She Seem So Sad?

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Acting out is no longer consistent with Britney's billion-dollar brand.

By Sam Lansky

06/08/11

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After her fourth album, In the Zone, months passed without a single, video, or tour, but photographs of Britney appeared in tabloids with ruthless regularity. And as Britney’s musical career plummeted in relevance, so her ubiquity skyrocketed. Newsstands were plastered with pictures of Britney, Britney, all the time. In Vegas, marrying a high-school beau, and annulling the marriage days later. In Cancun, bloated and blotchy, a Kool Mild dangling limply from her maw. And there Britney was in New York City, where I had moved as a teenager following my parents’ divorce. She shielded her face from the cameras, gripping Paris Hilton’s bony arm as they raced down 10th Avenue toward another crush of paparazzi. As Britney sank deeper into hysteria and caricature, she seemed at once more human and less real, as though the circus of her life was too tragicomically outlandish to exist.

I was in high school while Britney was unraveling, and like hers, my life as a drug-loopy Manhattan dilettante was becoming more glamorously chaotic. At dawn one snowy morning, still half-drunk from being out all night at a club in the Meatpacking District, I caught a cab uptown with some girlfriends. They changed from their slinky Cavalli cocktail dresses into men’s dress shirts and ties, replacing their stilettos with slouchy boots. We emptied out of the taxi in a cloud of smoke, fragrance and tousled hair, popping Adderall, suckling on breath mints, blinking Visine tears, huddling outside the Gothic wooden doors waiting to be let into school.

My friend Lara exited a cab and approached the front door. She explained to us that the previous night at Marquee, Britney had vomited directly onto her in the line for the coat check.

“Britney fucking Spears puked on you?” This was how I most often referred to Britney, as though Fucking could be her middle name. (I knew that it was, in fact, Jean.) “Shut your fucking mouth you fucking liar."

“Swear to God. All over my mom’s Fendi fur. She’s gonna kill me,” Lara said giddily.

“I’ve never been so jealous of anyone in my life,” I said.

I lurched further out of control, buoyed by the exotic thrill of glittering nightclubs and charity benefits and one-night-stands at the Plaza. I, too, was starting to feel the consequences of growing up too fast, a dull mourning for the childhood I had squandered in pursuit of a lifestyle that had its own unique cost. My initial apathy toward Britney had yielded to a postmodern quasi-interest in her cult of celebrity, but as I continued to spiral, this feeling blossomed into genuine empathy. It felt inevitable that I should love Britney. In so many ways, it seemed, I was Britney—or at least, it seemed that we were losing control in eerie simultaneity.

After graduating from high school, I matriculated at Vassar College, where I continued blacking out and making messes for other people to clean up. I only lasted two months before it was clear that I needed to go to treatment—as evidenced with particular clarity by the condition of my hair. In the hazy half-light of cocaine benders and mornings chewing Ambien for breakfast, I’d neglected to maintain my coif, once a source of pride, and my thick brown hair had grown long into an unintentional mullet. In a liberal arts enclave like Vassar, ironic hipster mullets were de rigeur, but mine had the unshorn look of exactly what it was: the accidental style of an addict who had forgotten to care.

“I need a fresh start,” I told Aurelia. Aurelia was a Swiss banking heiress who had won the unofficial title of “Most Notorious Freshman” due to her proclivity for having threesomes with upperclassmen in the sixth-floor shower. Like me, she was prone to dipsomania and histrionics. We meshed well. “I need to do something different. Something radically different.” I tugged at my hair.

“Let’s shave it,” Aurelia said, eyes gleaming with the promise of a project.

“I’d better do some more Dilaudid first,” I said, reaching for my razor.

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