The Britney Spears Circus

“There’s only two types of people in the world,” Britney Spears sings in “Circus,” her newest album. “The ones that entertain and the ones that observe/I’m a put-on-a-show kind of girl.” She’s been putting on a show for a long time, but it certainly hasn’t made her happy. It’s safe to say the fame that flourishes under Britney’s Big Top isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. We can certainly learn a lot about the type of mega-fame Britney has and what it actually brings into a person’s life. In her case, it has trapped her completely-she is the least free person I can think of.

When you consider that Spears has sold more than 83 million albums since 1999, it’s no surprise that “Circus” turns the pop diva’s troubled life into twisted pop songs. In the title song, “Circus,” Britney compares her need to be watched to an addiction – which, like all addictions, has both its highs and lows.

The highs include public adulation. She told Glamour magazine in its January 2009 issue that the 2008 Video Music Awards, where she picked up three trophies, “… showed me how much love is out there.” There does seem to be plenty of attention for the 27-year-old. Even in a year with an historic presidential election and a devastating economic crisis, Britney Spears was still the #1 name search, according to Yahoo’s yearly ranking of popular search terms. For the seventh time in eight years, Britney Spears is the winner of the public’s fascination with this troubled star.

The downside for Britney is most exemplified in the fact that the court has given her father Jamie Spears indefinite control of her personal and financial affairs, and she’s lost custody of her two young sons with her ex, Kevin Federline. Although the conservatorship had been set to expire at the end of 2008, Britney agreed not to oppose what could become a lifetime arrangement. In part, this happened because the L.A. Superior Court Commissioner said that Spears has shown she is “susceptible to undue influence.” The fact that she agreed to the arrangement may also have to do with a Florida court case in which one of Spears’ former managers is suing the singer to make her undergo a deposition. Her father and his attorneys got the Commissioner to approve a protective order at least through February of 2009, which shows one benefit of the conservatorship. It also may provide a safe umbrella for Spears to gain more visitation rights with her children.

Addictions are prisons. So many people wish they had Britney’s fame. They think of the perks-the money, the shopping, the cool boyfriends or hot chicks they could date-but rarely of the prison of fame. From simple things like not being able to go to the grocery story or walk with your kids down the street without being mobbed to the bigger issue of having every aspect of your life splashed across the media, Britney’s type of fame is like a steel cage. In “The Tragedy of Britney Spears” cover story for Rolling Stone, Vanessa Grigoriadis said that “more than any other star today, Britney epitomizes the crucible of fame for the famous: loving it, hating it and never quite being able to stop it from destroying you.”

Would you really want to be in Britney’s position? On one hand, she feeds on the public adulation and really needs the paparazzi. On the other, she is totally trapped by it. In her documentary “Britney: For the Record” for MTV, which was actually more of a commercial to sell her fragrances and an effort to make us feel sorry for her, Britney is tearful as she says, “There’s no excitement, there’s no passion. … I have really good days, and then I have bad days. Even when you go to jail you know there’s the time when you’re gonna get out… But in this situation, it’s never ending. It’s just like Groundhog Day every day…” She continues, “… if I wasn’t under the restraints I’m under, I’d feel so liberated….”

I do, in fact, have sympathy for this Southern girl who is basically so unhappy. She admits it. Being in the center of media attention may feed her desire to be seen, but she lives in fear that it will one day be gone. “You’re scared that it’s gonna be taken away, you know? So it’s better just not to feel anything at all and to have hope than to feel the other way,” she says. Better not to feel anything? Britney, that’s a sure recipe for disaster later in life, if not already. As I know full well from my work with thousands of people in live events, suppressing or repressing your emotional pain leads to difficulties with health, relationships, finances, you name it. The wounds we hide come back to haunt us.

Britney already knows the downside of fame full well. In the entertainment business since she was 11 years old and on the Mickey Mouse Club, Spears’ life has been a circus sideshow for the last several years. Since her divorce from Federline, she has indulged in wild acting-out that has made her a hit with those who like to watch train wrecks: two trips to hospital psychiatric wards, shaving her head, bashing car windshields, run-ins with the paparazzi and an affair with one of them, stints in rehab, and her disastrous appearance at the 2007 Video Music Awards, to name a few of her slides down the ladder in full public view. At one point in her documentary, she asks plaintively, “What the hell was I thinking?” She was obviously thinking: Get me away from the pain; I don’t want to feel like this. And so she partied and drugged and drank to forget the grief and the anger.

Now the hope is that she is on her way to recovery. She’s fully engaged in singing, dancing, and recording, with the spotlight once again shining on her as the main attraction in the big tent. With the release of “Circus” on her 27th birthday in December, a blond Britney is on the road to a comeback. As Rolling Stone pointed out: “When she’s blond, she’s happy. When she’s brunette, she’s sad. When she’s pink, she’s crazy.” And dancing makes her happy. When she’s in a dance rehearsal with her choreographer, it’s one of the only times she can feel free, which she can’t ever be out in public. Dancing is a boon-keeping her focused in the present moment. In the same way that exercise can help us all to release stagnant or repressed energy, the movement of her body and the discipline of dance affords her an effective way to reconstruct her life.

The L.A. Times, when reviewing Britney’s “Circus,” said: “Spears remains a New Marilyn, embodying lust and disaster in every swing of her hips.” It’s an apt comparison, although hopefully not a fatal one. We can’t stop watching her: some with an expectant eye towards the next disaster, and some cheering her on as the comeback kid. As a matter of fact, 3.7 million viewers watched her MTV special. And millions more watched her celebrate her 27th birthday under the Big Apple Circus tent in Manhattan before the cameras of Good Morning America. Her concert tour for “Circus” begins in her home state of Louisiana in New Orleans on March 3rd. Her loyal fans are thrilled to have the “old Britney” back. Once again, she’s full on in the media-thrilled at the upside of having all eyes on her.

If she really wanted to get away, she could, but she’s addicted. As much as any junkie is addicted to their substance of choice, Britney is addicted to the attention she receives. And like any other addict, she has created her own prison. She can’t give up the substance she’s addicted to. The only way out is cold turkey-get out of the public eye-but she can’t leave the only life she’s ever known. In many ways, she’s very much like her idol and mentor, Madonna. My hope for Britney is that as she ages, she’ll begin to understand what’s truly important in life, and how her emotional wounds have dictated the terms of her imprisonment. If she grows in wisdom as well as years, if she learns to love herself and stops needing constant outer attention and applause, perhaps one day we can hear about a happy Britney, content with her life-and minus the circus.