BRITNEY Spears has been shackled and silenced for 13 years, but I believe she was temporarily rescued by Simon Cowell.
In 2012, while Britney was firmly under Jamie Spears’ control, I travelled with the singer for several weeks across America. To rebuild her career, she agreed to be hired by Simon Cowell as an X Factor judge.
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Cowell, a shrewd judge of the pop industry, was convinced that Britney was a giant trophy.
Over those weeks, Britney emerged from her shell and gave us a glimpse of the empowerment which fuelled her current protest for freedom in Los Angeles. Sadly, her liberation in 2012 was snatched away – and it’s been a bitter journey ever since.
Cowell appreciated celebrity madness. Those artists who could survive for a decade qualified, in Cowell’s opinion, to become super stars.
"I like artists who take charge of their careers," he repeated. "Game changers are those prepared to die while trying." Britney had come closer to the edge than most.
In September 2007 she appeared on American Idol, Cowell’s hit-show.
"There’ll be no rehearsal," Britney’s managers announced as they walked into the studio. "She’s on medication. The studio must be in lockdown."
Having demanded two Winnebago luxury trailers – every star is normally assigned just one – Britney demanded Cowell’s own dressing room and refused to meet her host.
"She’s frosty and I haven’t got a clue why and I don’t care," said Cowell. "I love all this stuff."
When Cowell finally entered the diva’s dressing room, he recalled: "She was just staring at me. I said, 'Have you ever watched the show?'.
“'No' she said. And I said, 'Touch me I’m human' and I think that broke the ice."
But not even Cowell had anticipated that Britney would mime ‘Womanizer’, her new single, for three minutes during the live show.
"She forgets her lines," her minder explained.
"She’s a plain Jane," Cowell concluded after a disastrous appearance. He walked out of the studio, abandoning the singer. But the freak show won a record audience.
Four years later, in 2012, Britney agreed to re-join Cowell in the American X Factor.
Cowell, the recent creator of One Direction and Little Mix, was convinced that her army of fans would guarantee millions of new viewers of his trail-blazing show.
Britney was paid $15million in the belief, Larry Rudolph, her manager told me, that the X-Factor season would boost her annual income to £200million. By then, Spears, most estimates agreed, had earned over $2billion.
"She’s not damaged goods," Rudolph, told Cowell. "She can perform properly."
Cowell got the opposite opinion from Howard Stern, the famous American Radio Shock jock. "She’s going to be a train wreck," Stern predicted, "who will sit there and eat a lollipop and wear a sexy outfit".
My first sight of the brilliant singer alongside Cowell in a Broadway theatre was an anti-climax. Cowering in the corner of a dimly lit rehearsal room, Britney stood against the wall pulling heavily on a series of Kool cigarettes.
Although it was billed as the glittering launch of the X Factor series to the media, the singer looked utterly miserable.
"It all starts now," chirruped Cowell. "From now on we’re going to have fun. We all look so good together. It’s incredible. It’s going to be a new decade."
Pushed onto a stage, Britney shivered nervously. Wearing a tight white dress and noticeably over-weight, she forced smiles towards the bank of photographers unaware that one snapper’s lens was focused on her nails – heavily bitten and bloody.
Her traumatic past had made her insecure and lonely. Worse for Cowell was Britney’s silence.
"She’ll do no media interviews during the series," Rudolph told Cowell.
"She’s not spoken to the media for years. She doesn’t need to. They create things about her medical history, just twist things and take pot shots. It hurts her when she reads things which are not true."
The celebratory dinner one hour later in mid-Manhattan’s ABC Kitchen was desultory.
"It’s all strangulated," whispered someone at the table. Every eight minutes, Britney got up and walked outside. No one knew whether she would return.
"It’s her nervous energy," explained Rudolph. Each time she came back, she looked more miserable. Cowell looked terrified. And on the road, it got worse.
At the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas for the first show, thousands of girls erupted in screams as Britney walked into the spotlight and headed towards the dais.
LIVING IN ISOLATION
Within fifteen minutes, bursting out of a fluorescent pink dress, Britney was visibly pained. Her face was blotched, she was over-weight and she could hardly speak. Unexpectedly in the middle of the show, she stood up, left the stage and disappeared.
"I don’t think I can do this," Britney told Cowell. "I can’t do what the job requires."
Judging people was too much for the legend. "For years," Ruldoph told me. "She only said politely 'Yes sir' and 'No sir' and now she’s gotta go onto the stage and explode. I knew it would be tough start. She’s overwhelmed. She needs to get her sea legs."
Spears, Cowell realised, was not suffering from any of the fancy disorders mentioned on the internet like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Association. Instead, she was smarting from fear.
For years, he reckoned, Spears had lived isolated from the public, behind closed doors.
During performances, she had been kept far apart from her fans. She had never performed seated in one place for more than a few minutes.
With Cowell, I watched tapes of Spears’s reaction to the crowds in Kansas. When a contestant, just ten feet away, shouted ‘I love you Britney,’ her face contorted in embarrassment. "She’s not at all narcissistic," Cowell realised. "Just shy."
In his unthreatening manner, Cowell educated America’s Sweetheart about her strengths – showing genuine emotion. There was mystery and depth about a woman which Cowell had not previously encountered.
"This isn’t about money for her. She’s proving a point."
Britney's not at all narcissistic. Just shy.
After a week’s holiday with her children in Hawai, she re-appeared in LA looking better.
She had lost weight, her facial skin tone was better, the dark hair roots no longer showed and her mood was playful. To help her diet, she visited the gym daily with her bodyguard.
Every day, her staff brought six portions of fresh chicken soup, six salads and six passion fruit ice teas to her dressing room.
At the show in Miami, I walked with her from the windowless dressing room through a grim tunnel to the concrete steps leading into the auditorium.
Standing at the top of the stairs listening to 4,500 shrieking girls, I saw that Britney was transformed. Waiting for her name check on the tannoy, she wriggled her rear, then forcefully she wriggled it again and again. Confidently she stepped into the spotlight.
Finally, she was enjoying herself. She was on the road back to normality. But then, it all went into reverse.
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