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By Alix Strauss
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Alix Strauss
All rights reserved.
In the Beginning
We open in a small, friendly town in Kentwood, Louisiana. Here, apple pie is actually baked fresh in the A.M. and left out to cool by an open window. There's no smog, no dirty garbage or empty soda cans strewn all over the street, no barking horns from frustrated drivers — just a mellow sort of bliss.
A little girl of three years old is dancing around the living room, acting out groovy songs and singing into a hairspray bottle, a suitable stand-in for a mike. In another part of the ranch-style house, a mom is going batty hearing her daughter perform the song for the umpteenth time. But in all honesty, she doesn't really mind. The girl, of course, is Britney Spears, and by the time she reaches the ripe old age of 16, almost everyone will know her name, her voice, and her music.
"I drove my mom crazy, but she got used to it," Britney shares in Girl's Life. "One day I was jumping on my trampoline singing, and my mom realized I could carry a tune. I think that's when I first thought about going into entertainment."
Her mom, Lynn, a second-grade schoolteacher, was pleasantly surprised. According to Britney, the only other artistic person in their family is someone who plays an instrument on her mother's side — not a good sign. Still, no one thought much about the incident. No one could have guessed what lay ahead, or what would happen over the next decade. Not her parents, older brother, younger sister, or even Britney.
Aside from having a memory for songs and an inner, almost inherent, connection to music, as a child Britney had a personal desire and a big dream. She wanted to be a pop star.
She had her heroes picked out early on. Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Prince were her team captains. She sang their songs, practiced and copied their voices, and taught herself their dance steps. The singing bug had bitten Britney hard. She was consumed by music. She put her vocal cords to work by singing in school plays, in recitals, in talent shows, the shower, while walking to school, while coming home from school ... anywhere possible. At age four she gave her first public appearance. At seven she took gymnastics and dance classes, and before age ten she was on national TV. As if she were preparing for her future, Britney seemed to be in a constant state of rehearsal.
Because of all of her early accomplishments, super sound, and hip dance tunes, Britney's been compared to some of the most successful artists and commercial vocalists today: Alanis Morrissette, Tiffany (anyone remember her?), Toni Braxton, and the Spice Girls to name a few, but don't be so quick to pigeonhole her. Even Debbie Gibson would be slightly jealous. The two, however, are not synonymous. Aside from their young age and that they both sing pop songs, "our music is totally different," Britney tells one interviewer. "I'm a lot edgier." Lucky for us, Britney's totally original and impressively unique.CHAPTER 2
Home Sweet Home
Located off the cuff of Louisiana, teetering on the edge of the Mississippi border, you'll find Kentwood, a charming, small community where everyone knows everyone, and all are like family. Britney grew up in a rural town, very much like Laura Ingalls did on Little House on the Prairie. Okay, obviously it's more modern than that, but not by much. Kentwood is really small. How small is it? It's so small that has only two main streets. It's so tiny that the town has a few grocery stores, a post office, a furniture shop and a funeral home — that's all. It's so very little that only 2,400 people live there. That's almost the amount of people it takes just to keep Madonna happy. "Everyone is like family," explains Darlene Hughes, Britney's third-grade teacher. Not only does Mrs. Hughes still educate at Park Lane School, Britney's old stomping ground, but she also spreads glowing reports and updates the kids about her little prodigy, just like a proud parent. "There are lot of dairy farmers and churchgoers; everyone sticks together." A tight group composed of neighbors and friends — it's not Mulberry Street, but it's the closest thing to it.
Britney is a giver of sorts, to her family, her fans, even to her hometown. "I like having people hear my music," she says to Pop magazine. "If I can entertain them and bring them some pleasure, that's the greatest satisfaction that I can have." In fact, Britney helped put Kentwood on the map. It's become as famous as she is — well, almost. MTV, VH-1, and Rolling Stone have all made appearances at her school. Endless articles, interviews, and radio shows have all mentioned where Britney grew up. In return, Kentwood has given something back to the superstar in appreciation, an official Britney Spears Day. How cool is that? Having a whole village celebrate your special day. Talk about being king of the world — well, maybe that's queen. "The town celebrates her birthday at the ball field," Mrs. Hughes says, "There's a banner that hangs over the road when you get off the interstate." It reads proudly "HOME OF OUR STAR, BRITNEY SPEARS."
You don't need to know them personally to see how family-oriented and close the Spears are. Britney comes from a very supportive home — any more wholesome and you'd confuse them with the Cleavers or a smaller version of 7th Heaven, before the birth of the twins. Dad's a contractor, Mom's a second-grade teacher. They have three kids, all well adjusted, sweet, and happy. Bryan, who's 21, is five years older than Britney, and Jamie Lynn (her name is a combination of both her parents' first names) who just turned eight, is nine years younger than her sis. Britney may be a middle child, but she's no Jan Brady. "Britney and Bryan take after their dad in the looks department," says one family friend. "Her sister, Jamie Lynn, has more of her mom's coloring." They have three dogs, probably some fish, maybe a bird, and, chances are, a sign which reads "HOME SWEET HOME" hanging somewhere in the kitchen. But Britney says, like most families, they can drive her crazy. Still, as you could guess, her family are her biggest fans. How big? Well, many years ago, the Spears' living room mantle was stacked with Britney's prizes from pageants, talent shows, and gymnastics competitions. There's even a big silver trophy for winning the Miss Talent USA pageant in Monroe, Louisiana. It resides on the floor because, at 58 inches, it's probably taller than young Britney was when she won it. Now the family's mantel is full of picture frames with newspaper clippings, press releases, and photo ops with big-name stars.
Not everyone thought the Spears should have let Britney travel so far away at such a young age. Many people from her hometown were concerned, and thought the Spears might be making the wrong choice, sending their little girl out into the cruel, crazy world of music. But Britney is living proof, her parents made the right decision, and in turn, she gives them a lot of credit. Not only was it a difficult choice to make, and a family-altering judgment that would affect everyone involved, but it was hard to know if they were actually doing the right thing. "It was unheard of," Britney admits in an article. "I come from a really, really small town and they were like, 'You're sending your daughter to New York? Are you crazy?'" But worry not. Britney has a trustworthy adult, Felicia Culotta, a family friend who travels with her and keeps a watchful eye. "They made such a great effort to keep life as normal for her as possible," reports Mrs. Hughes. "Her parents were always very supportive." Mom helped make sure Britney kept up with her schoolwork. Mrs. Hughes would fax lesson plans, homework, and tests to her while she was working in New York.
Luckily, Lynn's no stage mother or Mommy Dearest. On the contrary, she's totally the opposite. Still, that doesn't stop her from being concerned. After all, worrying is in a mother's job description. "I worry about her terribly," her mom admits to People magazine. "But I'm so much happier knowing she's doing what she really wants."
Ironically, Britney is the real driving force behind the idea. "Most parents are the one pushing the child. I was the one who wanted it," Britney confides to AOL's Entertainment Asylum. "I'm thankful because they were so supportive." They truly went the extra mile that most parents don't always go. They let Britney make some mighty large decisions but had enough faith in her and believed that this was something she had to do, a calling she needed to fulfill. There is an enormous amount of passion required to take hold of what you want. Britney had family endorsement, desire, and drive, but most important, she had belief in herself and in her talent.
There were a few times, however, when Britney thought her ambitions and desires for a singing career were just a fantasy. Who was she kidding? Everyone dreams of becoming rich and famous. Everyone wants to be a superstar. And everyone wants to make a record and become a pop sensation. But she'd shake that voice out of her head, the one that said, "You can't, you're not good enough, it's just a dream" and replaced it with "You've got to go for it. You've got to try. You go girl."
Because Britney seemed so hard on herself, her parents didn't need to put any additional pressure on her. Rather, she put enough on herself for everyone. "When I was younger, I would cry if I missed gymnastics," says Britney, "and my mom was always like, 'Brinnie, are you sure this is what you want?'" She'd dry her eyes and nod that she did. And like a champ, she'd make sure she was ready next time.
Lynn might be Britney's biggest fan, but the feeling is mutual. "My mom is so sweet," says Britney in a Girl's Life interview. "She helped me become who I am, and she taught me to have strength." The two talk daily. Mom visits a lot, and when possible, Jamie Lynn comes along for the ride.
Brother Bryan, who is at college majoring in kinesiology, the study of how mechanics and anatomy make the human body move — ugh! that sounds hard — at Southeastern Louisiana University, remembers Britney having an ache for acting and drama early on. "She would put on makeup," he tells an interviewer, "and sing to herself in the bathroom mirror." Bryan recalls his kid sister as being "basically a pain." Not a surprising or an uncommon answer coming from an older bro.
Britney, of course, remembers it being the other way around. "He was the pain," she claims, contradicting his comment, in a recent interview. "He's like the overprotective brother, which is good. You want that in an older brother." He too seems totally comfortable with his kid sister out in the real world doing her singing thing. Though he is often caught playing the fatherly role, always looking out for his kid sister. "When I come home it's different," she assures MTV News. "Like he trusts me out 'cause he can't do anything about it. So when I come home, he's like, 'Where are you going? What are you doing?'" As if Kentwood were more dangerous than New York? Like Britney could get into more trouble there! Bryan has also been quoted as claiming to have taught Britney everything she knows. Yeah, right. Let's reverse that one. "My brother is such a country boy," she says during an interview. Britney probably taught him all he knows.
Youngest on the Spears' family tree is Jamie Lynn. What does she think about her big sister's blast into stardom? She thinks it's totally cool. In fact, she can be found running around singing her older sister's songs. She even sang the same number as Britney did in her church show. Jamie Lynn's friends think Britney's cool, too. They get a little starstruck when they see Britney. "When my sister's little friends are over, it's so weird because they'll see me and come and give me a really big hug, and they're, like, staring at me. It's kinda funny."
Being in the spotlight hasn't affected Britney or given her a swelled head. Even though Britney is a pretty famous pop singer, she doesn't consider herself one. In fact, meeting famous people is what makes her most nervous. "When I meet famous people I get so star-struck I can't say anything to them," she confides to AOL online. "One time I saw Ashley Judd after I had just seen Kiss The Girls. My friend started talking to her, and I just stood there like an idiot. It's scary to meet someone, because you might be disappointed." No one would be displeased when meeting Britney. Part of her balance and grounding comes from her friends and family. When she comes home, to them she's just a Louisiana girl. "We love her and everything," says Robbey, a 16-year-old junior who went to school with Britney. "But when she's here, she's just Britney Spears, not 'Britney Spears "... Baby One More Time."'" It's as if time has stood still and nothing much has changed. "My friends are like my sisters." Since she's known them all her life and has grown up with them, when she's home, life is rather normal. She doesn't worry about them treating her any differently. And they never do. She's close to all her cousins too, especially her best friend and cousin, Laura Lynn. "In friendship I look for someone you can really trust and who is really honest with you and can tell you the truth even if you don't want to hear it. Someone who is a lot like you who can laugh and [you can] have fun together. I have a lot of friends like that," she tells AOL. Her aunt also plays two kinds of roles. She's not just a relative, she's the president of The Britney Spears Fan Club, that she runs that out of her home. Even Grandma gets in on the family thing by living close and visiting often. (FYI: She owns a seafood shop that sells all sorts of fresh fish.) The Spears are really a close knit group.
Her small town and close family relationships have helped to keep Britney grounded. Her family has instilled good values, and she's got a strong head and a lot of ambition. "I know what I want out of life." she tells an interviewer over Christmas, having taken a break from touring with 'N Sync. "My morals are really strong and I have major beliefs and I think that has helped me." Her mom looks at this experience in a positive light as well. "There's a lot of kids that this would ruin, but I feel sure that this will make an even better person out of Britney," says Lynn to a reporter. "Britney could win the Academy Award in three different movies and she would still have a humble spirit."
"Britney was always very sweet," says Amy Miller, secretary at Britney's old elementary school, who used to fax Britney her homework while she was in New York. "The Spears have always been a nice family."
Britney's family and fans are not the only ones beaming with praise of her accomplishments. The entertainment industry is also stunned by the pop star, too. The reviews from writers and the press are just glowing. "Britney could fill Ginger's shoes as Normal Spice," writes Amy Sciarretto, in a recent review of the artist and her music. "You don't have to worry about Britney stealing your boyfriend. You can eat ice cream and cake with her. You can wear a green mud mask on a Friday night with her." And that's so true. In fact, that's one major quality that helps make her so real and likable. When she hurt her knee and couldn't make the Grammy's, MTV threw her a slumber party. A bunch of her friends hung out, did girly stuff, and had a grand old time. Though there was no freezing of bras, they did discuss music and the nominees.CHAPTER 3
"Darlene" Britney's mom told her daughter's third-grade teacher one afternoon, "we found out Brinnie can sing." That was all it took for word to get around. And in a small town, word spreads fast. "It was common knowledge that she had a talent that others didn't possess," confirms Mrs. Hughes.
Her school years were spent at the Lane Academy in Mississippi, where Britney, as her teacher puts it, was a model student. "She did her homework, never made a C, studied, and did everything a teacher wants a child to do," Mrs. Hughes says reflecting back to Britney's early days. "I still have her workbooks. I held on to every little thing she did." This includes notebooks, cards, letters, even a party gift Britney gave her daughter. "I knew she would be something special. She had a future."
Excerpted from Britney Spears by Alix Strauss. Copyright © 1999 Alix Strauss. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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