WHEN the Britney Spears circus rolled into town earlier this week Film Critic Tony Earnshaw was there to meet it.
AS she is hustled to her seat one realises that Britney Spears is smaller than she looks on TV.
The hair is shiny blonde, the teeth capped and impossibly white, the breasts heaving above a low cut suede top that looks like a ragged, over-large chamois leather.
Yet this is indeed she – the manufactured American pop phenomenon whom this week follows the likes of Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey into movie theatres with her first film.
Leaning towards the microphone, her eye-popping cleavage seeming to rest on the edge of the table, Spears looks every inch the groin-teasing princess of pop. When she speaks, however, it rapidly becomes evident that the crotch-grabbing, thigh-stroking act is entirely that – an act – and that her virginal image has been left untarnished by the scandal sheets.
Ah yes, the virgin thing. Seconds before Spears arrives we are warned to steer clear of three distinct types of question: those querying her virginity, anything regarding former beau Justin Timberlake and, peculiarly, the September 11 attacks last year.
The warning prompts the assembled hacks to consider how all three illegal elements could be combined to create, under the circumstances, the most offensive question possible. The arrival of a ten-strong entourage and a massive bouncer the size of a dump truck quickly put paid to such thoughts…
Pop’s reigning princess sits primly before the Press with a worryingly bovine look and a fixed smile that wavers only when questions slip too close to the mark.
Anything that even vaguely touches on sexuality, boyfriends, relationships or similar is expertly brushed off. Only the most anodyne of questions gets a response.
Asked why she decided to make her film Crossroads, Spears flashes her pearlies and rattles off a well-rehearsed retort: “You know what, I really liked the whole package of Crossroads. I liked the story, I was really inspired by the script and the friendship that the girls had. Just knowing that they had their differences but that, at the end of the day, they had each other that they could talk about. I really put my heart into it.” Soundbite number 1.
I ask why there are so few songs in the film. I’ve barely finished speaking before Spears is gabbling again: “At the very beginning we wondered whether we were going to have any music. I wasn’t even gonna sing. My initial thing was to just concentrate on the role. Then we started re-writing the script and I thought that if I sing a little bit it would be cool.” Soundbite number 2.
It’s arguably the longest answer in a succession of one-liners, single words, umms, aahs and doe-eyed glances. The girl may have a fine pair of lungs but she’ll never be a brain surgeon.
Ok, that was mean. Britney’s film is hardly Shakespeare (though it appears to be against Mariah Carey’s Glitter, a 90-minute blast of Mogadon if ever there was one) and she is acutely aware that it’s just another throwaway teen flick.
In essence she’s responding in kind to some desperately inane questions, not least “What do you like to do in London?” “What makes a great Pop Idol?” and, my favourite, “Are you accident-prone with candles?”
It’s grindingly, mind-bogglingly tedious. One almost – almost – feels sorry for her.
One perspiring lech compliments the still-grinning songstress on an early scene in the film where she appears in just a pink bra and panties, adding “Thanks for that”. Britney just smiles some more. She must be on autopilot.
Any attempt to dig deeper than surface level is skilfully deflected, while the questionmaster helming the Press conference breaks up the potential for anything more than a two sentence answer by slipping in questions to Britney’s co-star Anson Mount – surely a porn star’s nom-de-plume? – and producer Ann Carli.
Spears gives ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers to questions about working with her sister, collaborating with Kylie Minogue (who she appears to be unaware of) and whether she ever wishes she wasn’t Britney Spears. It’s all done with irritating cheerfulness save for the final question, sneaked in under the wire, asking whether she’s ever been in an intense relationship.
Momentarily, the mask slips. A flicker of doubt crosses that flawless face. Then, with another blinding smile she is up, out of her seat and gone.
“Was she for real?” someone asks as the room breaks up into a cacophony of chatter.
And therein lies the most difficult question of all for a closeted young woman who, as long as she is Britney Spears, will never know the reality that exists outside of her own peculiar little bubble.
(Originally published in 2002)