In four chaotic, self-destructive, fateful years, Britney Spears hit rock bottom … and kept on falling. Here, the inside story on all that went wrong—her missteps, her meltdowns and what friends say may be her last hope for rescue.
Christmas lights dangle from tree branches in front of the Raffles L’Ermitage, the Beverly Hills hotel where Britney Spears slept last night—and where the paparazzi who keep watch over her now sit waiting. Although she owns a mansion in L.A., she often crashes in hotels because, the press speculate, her cupboards at home are bare: She likes to order room service. Spears is the only celebrity in the world under photographers’ 24-hour watch, a surveillance mode usually reserved for prisoners and suicides. Some of the core group of 15 or so lensmen who call themselves “her paps” pass the stakeout hours online, chatting with women via wireless laptop connections. Some smoke pot. Felix, the team captain for X17, the paparazzi agency with the closest ties to Britney, occasionally looks down at his phone to find a text message from Sam Lutfi, Spears’s confidant and de facto manager since last summer. Felix reads aloud: “She is inside.”
“Britney is money,” says another X17 photographer, standing next to the BMW that pictures of Britney have bought him. Someone tells the story of the day they followed her halfway to Las Vegas. She got takeout from Taco Bell at a rest stop in the desert. Then she turned the car around and drove home. “Britney is crazy,” says another, bemused.
We have been waiting since about 10 A.M., and the thrill, at 8:39 P.M., as two hotel security guards appear at the entrance to the garage, is libidinal: When Britney’s 612-horsepower Mercedes SL65 AMG shoots out of the driveway, rips west on Burton Way and up Foothill Road, it’s sweet release.
Britney drives like a rabbit being chased across a field. Trailed by 15 cars, she signals right, then turns left. Glides into a left-turn lane, makes a right. On Wilshire Boulevard, slows from 50 miles per hour down to 15, then bangs an illegal U-turn into brake-screeching traffic. The driver in the lead mutters, “Bitch.”
Then he’s cut off by a Mercedes SL500 steered by Adnan Ghalib, a daredevil-fearless paparazzo who usually rides at the front of the pack.
If Britney has been in hiding all day and her paps have gotten no pictures, they hope for a red light at the top of Coldwater Canyon, the last intersection before her house. Tonight they’re lucky. Britney stops; Ghalib pulls his Benz into the oncoming traffic lane, slams into park and the gang crowds around her car for just less than a minute.
Thus surrounded, Britney, wearing the same outfit she wore last night, doesn’t look at the photographers but focuses on a point in the air a few inches in front of her nose, slowly pivoting her head on the axis of her neck, clicks and flashes dicing her movement like a strobe. She seems to be basking, and she seems to be trapped. Even her vehicle looks resigned: A smashed headlight has been out for weeks, and she’s still driving on a spare tire from a flat she had in October. (Her paps changed it for her.)
When the light turns, the paps scramble back to their cars, Britney turns right, guns it and they let her go. The white car shrinks into the darkness, wriggling up Mulholland toward the gated community where she lives.
The Britney chase feels like a video game where, every moment, you’re sure you’re going to die; yet against all odds, despite all carelessness, nothing kills you. Even the photographers who do this every day admit that they’re scared by it. One X17 videographer warns, “Someone is going to get hurt, man.”
Without prompting, he mimes holding up a camera with one hand and dialing his phone with the other—explaining that the video of an accidental death cannot legally be sold, unless the cameraman can prove he was calling 911 at the same time. Clearly, he’s given this endgame some thought. There’s no way not to ask: Would a video of Britney’s death be the ultimate prize?
“That would be horrible,” he says. “No, no. Nobody wants that.”
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