Britney Brings It
Fourteen years ago, Britney Spears first topped the charts. Now, with two loving sons, a sweet fiancé and a gig serving up one-liners on The X Factor, she’s at the top of her game.
Britney Spears loves her sons, Jayden james and Sean Preston, and her fiancé, Jason Trawick. But if you want to know what Britney’s really like, it’s maybe more illuminating to look at what she loves rather than whom: Britney Spears loves Pirate’s Booty, Adele, Pantene Pro-V conditioner and bouncing on the trampoline with her kids. If you want to know what Britney’s like, well, the truth is she’s a lot like you.
Perhaps that is not an entirely fair assessment. After all, she has sold more than 70 million albums, won 228 awards and appeared in her own reality show and now, alongside Simon Cowell, L.A. Reid and Demi Lovato, judges the hit show The X Factor. Her name also graces nine perfumes, and her face is on a new version of Twister. So let’s say she’s like you in the sense that she’s a normal person with modest tastes who just happens to be one of the most famous people in the world. We meet at the photo shoot at Milk Studios, a concrete and glass bit of Dwell magazinitude sparkling like a diamond in the hot, flat part of Hollywood that movie stars look out on from the elevated majesty of their homes in the hills. Spears arrives early in a black Mercedes sedan, driven by Trawick. She’s in khaki shorts that show off truly awesome legs, a white T-shirt with orange sleeves—a stylish version of a baseball shirt—wedge heels and just a little bit of mascara. She’s drinking a Starbucks hibiscus tea. Her attitude during the shoot is one of pleasant, detached efficiency, a MILF doing errands rather than a superstar maintaining her empire.
Without hesitation, she tells me that the best thing about being Britney Spears is all the free makeup: “I get, like, these giant boxes of lip gloss and nail polish, and it’s like candy.” Not that she actually wears all of it. “I really just wear mascara all the time. And powder, because I have zits.” (Zits are not in evidence. Maybe zit, singular.) Her favorite anti-zit product? “I love Clearasil face wash,” she says in the same way she professes her love of Pantene Pro-V: eye-rollingly dismissive of super-fancy, expensive elixirs. “I’m old-fashioned,” she says. Stylewise, she admires J.Lo, whom she calls “a classic beauty,” and Sarah Jessica Parker. “Her looks are really bright and funky and young.”
With the aspect of an obedient student, Spears nods politely as she listens, her brown eyes wide and attentive, and speaks without a trace of her Kentwood, Louisiana, upbringing or L.A. upspeak. After two seasons as a Mouseketeer and 14 as a mega pop star, her only real provenance is show business. She and her mother started traveling to auditions in New York City when she was just eight. “It was so exciting! The way people talked and ate and how expensive it was … It was such a huge change for me.” You wonder if back in those days she ever daydreamed about what it might be like to be famous, and she says, “As a child, when you think of being a superstar someday, you picture it like a dream world.” One hopes that young Spears’ fantasies about stardom were pleasant, because she certainly didn’t have long to entertain them. In 1998 the world got one look at her giant brown eyes and Catholic school uniform in the “ … Baby One More Time” video, and boom, she was famous. I ask her if being a star resembles in any way the dream world she envisioned as a child, and she says, “There is a part of it that’s like what I pictured, but a lot of work goes into what I do. Great things don’t come easy.”
Spears’ career trajectory is now as familiar to us as George Washington’s encounter with the cherry tree. It’s over-recounted and under-real. But in just 31 years, Britney Spears has managed to live at least four lives. It seems the life she is living now—engaged to her former agent Trawick, taking care of her sons, costarring on The X Factor—is one she could conceivably have for a while. It is certainly sustainable. “I work out. I swim. I play with the kids, I cook and I garden. We play Connect Four. We play Candy Land. Last night we read The Night Pirates.”
Spears wears a giant engagement ring, but its size is not commensurate with her willingness to discuss the man who gave it to her. Trawick became her agent in 2009, her boyfriend in 2010 and her fiancé in December 2011. Asked if there is one thing that set him apart from her previous boyfriends (and two husbands), Spears says, “He was sweet.” For example: “He says he doesn’t mind that I sit around in sweats all the time.” She’s less reserved when it comes to discussing her kids. These days she’s been paying special attention to how they’re processing the growing awareness that their mom is Britney Spears. “They’re in the middle right now of trying to figure it out. They try to figure out where I go when I go to film X Factor. They’re like, ‘Mommy’s going off to be a superhero.’ And then I get back, and they just see me as Mommy. And then when I’m back working on the show, they say, ‘Oh, Mommy’s a superhero again!’ ” Spears actually is kind of a superhero on The X Factor. In each episode, she delivers a priceless assortment of one-line dismissals to aspiring vocalists, including “I want to know who let you onstage,” “I think you’re like Vanilla Ice meets Lauryn Hill meets West Side Story” and, more simply, “You need a new teacher to teach you how to sing.”
In the show’s early days, Spears’ judging style was touted as meaner than professional meanie Simon Cowell’s. “I actually think Demi is a little harsher than me,” she responded, and in subsequent episodes, Spears softened (though recently she told a contestant with a Southern shtick that she was afraid she was related to him). She’s certainly never sadistic; only straightforward and uncalculating, which seems to be part of her DNA. When I ask her what she’s into fashion-wise, she says, “Big, stupid earrings, like with loops and feathers.” Her fashion secret? “I never wear socks. I hate socks.” When I ask how many pairs of shoes she has, she looks terrified and says, “I don’t know. A lot.” When I press her, she stammers, “I don’t know, 50.” And then, when I laugh, because I thought she was going to say 500, she says, quickly, “Is that not enough?” She looks stricken, as if this were the wrong answer, as if I have found the ways that she is ordinary, a disappointment. When I tell her that I have maybe 10 pairs of shoes, she puts her hand on her heart and sighs with relief.
Spears says that she herself is accustomed to having to balance Britney the person and Britney the icon. “It’s just something that you get used to in this business.” As far as the fact that she’s had a colorful life, and much of it in public, she says, “I think most people are their own worst critics. I’m a perfectionist. I want things done a certain way. I am hard on myself but not regretful.” Even if she has no regrets, does that mean that she’d encourage her kids to get into showbiz? “If there was something they really wanted to do and were passionate about, I’d encourage them to follow their dreams,” she says. “But I’d also be there behind the curtain saying, ‘No, don’t go out there.’ ”