It has been called the reality show to end all reality shows. Its star will be Britney Spears, the all-conquering Queen of Pop, who is about to embark on a raunchy summer tour of European concerts.
Promising a ‘fly on the wall’ glimpse into six weeks of Spears’s tour, the television series is being discreetly pitched around major networks. Dubbed OnTourage, it aims to reveal the backstage shenanigans of Spears and her troupe of young, attractive dancers. The asking price is a reported $1 million an episode – but there have been no takers so far and the tour starts in London on 27 April. So someone needs to move fast – or the price needs to come down.
The TV series is the latest effort by Spears (and the legion of advisers, consultants and family members around her) to move her career forward. But experts are surprised reality TV is the chosen vehicle. The genre has so far rejuvenated only the careers of ailing celebrities, such as wrinkly rocker Ozzy Osbourne. Generally, reality stars are has-beens and never-wases – not megastars. Surely Spears, aged just 22, is not that desperate yet?
Spears’s presence is everywhere in celebrity magazines, television and the tabloid press. But her career is at a turning point. There is a fierce struggle to evolve her image. She is battling ever more obviously to put to rest her teen pop past. She and her managers desperately want to appeal to an adult audience and turn her bubblegum pop into something more sophisticated. In short, Spears aspires to be Madonna, her close friend whose musical career lasted decades at the top without faltering.
‘Madonna is her playbook. That’s what she’s going for in terms of transformation. There’s no doubt about it,’ said Irving Rein, author of High Visibility, a book on the marketing of celebrity. But repeating Madonna’s feat will not be easy.
Britney Jean Spears has been famous for almost as long as she can remember. Born to a Baptist family in Kentwood, Louisiana, she was a child star. Backed by a pushy showbiz mother, she auditioned for the Disney Channel’s Mickey Mouse Club at eight years old. She was turned down as too young. Undeterred, she went to a New York dance school, was in a Broadway play at 11 and the same year was at last admitted to be one of Disney’s Mouseketeers.
She burst on to the music scene in 1998 with ‘Baby One More Time’, which featured the now classic image of Spears in a mini-skirted school uniform, dancing with bare midriff and bunches. Her debut album shifted millions of copies and she swept the 1999 MTV awards. The hype was incredible (one advert compared her talent to that of Mozart) but it also defined her as a teen pop star. ‘She has a brand. A very powerful brand. But that brand is for 14, 15 and 16-year-old teenagers,’ said Rein.
With the mass teen audience came a global obsession with every aspect of Spears’s life – especially the claim that she was a virgin and had not slept with pop star boyfriend Justin Timberlake.
It is easy to know the most trivial details of Spears’s life: her brand of cigarettes (Marlboro), her credit card (a black Amex) and the name of her childhood Yorkshire terrier (Bitzi). By 2002 Forbes Magazine named her as the world’s most powerful celebrity. Louisiana now has a Britney Spears Museum. Fans steal dirt from her garden.
But her fame is still based on the schoolgirl image.
The figure that last month slithered down a fireman’s pole on to a stage before a screaming crowd in Miami did not look like a schoolgirl. Or a virgin. Wearing knickers, suspenders and a bra, Spears was unveiling the red-hot dance routines that will be seen all over Europe this summer. She kissed a male dancer, writhed on a bed and dirty-danced with a woman dressed as a French maid. She finished her act in a bath tub. It was an emulation of the scandalous dance routines of Madonna in the early 1990s.
There are other parallels. Spears’s lyrics are openly sexual now. Her songs touch on issues such as masturbation. She has had a string of celebrity lovers and confessed – finally – to trying out smoking, drinking and even drugs. It is all part of the process of holding on to the teenage fans who have matured into adults.
Spears does have things going for her. Her fan base is huge. So is her name recognition. Yet so far attempts to sever her teen queen past have not worked. Where she has courted controversy it has been the wrong kind. She took a tabloid pasting when her new video was revealed to end with a scene in which she dies in a bath with her wrists cut. Predictably this brought howls of condemnation from youth counselling groups. But instead of thriving on the story, the Spears camp rapidly pointed out the depicted scene was meant to be an accident, not a suicide.
Spears’s private life is making headlines for the wrong reasons. While Madonna’s tempestuous early romances, with actors Warren Beatty and Sean Penn, were fiery relationships between equals, Spears seems to have the knack of picking badly. Rock bad boy Fred Durst kissed and told after a one-night stand and Irish hellraiser actor Colin Farrell appeared to refuse to be her boyfriend after a few dates.
Then followed a night with dancer Columbus Short, whose wife was heavily pregnant. Instead of cultivating a more adult image, Spears’s affairs just looked tawdry.
Unlike Madonna, Spears appears a creature trapped by marketing men and the tight grip of record company bosses. Her credibility as a serious artist has also been hit by the huge sponsorship deals she has done with Pepsi, clothes label Tommy Hilfiger and the Sunglass Hut.
The toll of fame has been a heavy one. It reached its nadir with her disastrous marriage to childhood friend Jason Alexander after a two-day drinking binge in Las Vegas. The bride wore a baseball cap, jeans and a croptop. He wore a white T-shirt. The $120 all-inclusive wedding package was charged to Britney’s black Amex. If Madonna had married in Vegas, it would have been a statement. Spears’s wedding looked like a cry for help.
After the union was annulled, there were signs of a possible breakdown. Spears was spotted shopping while clutching a book entitled Listening to Prozac. She abandoned her interest in Kabbala mysticism (which Madonna introduced her to) and went back to her Baptist roots.
It is often quoted that the phrase ‘Britney Spears’ is the most searched-for on the internet. It is less well known that Spears has more hate websites than any other celebrity. More than Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake and Jennifer Lopez combined.
Rein has a piece of advice for those trying to manage Spears’s increasingly shaky transformation. ‘I would just take her off the market for a few months. Perhaps longer. Let her come back as something different and fresh.’
But there is little chance of that. Spears is a lucrative cash cow for many, not least her record label. Her American tour is already under way and her European dates beckon. Tens of thousands want to see their idol. Millions of dollars is at stake.
She has to change to a new, maturer audience or her career could die. ‘A transformation like that is the holy grail of celebrity,’ said Rein. And Spears’s future is not guaranteed.