Oop's, she's done it again


Britney Spears has built an industry on a mix of apple-pie wholesomeness and brazen sexuality. With her latest album topping 17 million in sales and her début film hitting the screen, Arminta Wallace finds a star trapped at the wrong party

With red-liveried doormen and imposing rococo façade, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in London's Knightsbridge is not the sort of emporium which, on a normal day, encourages milling about on the pavement outside. But on the day Britney Spears is due to give a press conference on the topic of her soon-to-be released début movie, Crossroads, a raggle-taggle band of indeterminate age is loitering, slack-jawed in the sunshine, hoping for a glimpse of the teen queen of pop. Inside, in a suitably regal reception room - all crystal chandeliers, white-and-gold walls and red-and-gold carpet - a band of assembled hacks is also waiting, though with considerably less reverence.

There is a good deal of shouting into mobiles and the occasional mutinous muttering.

"Same old boring questions asked by the same old boring people, I suppose," somebody says. A blonde girl with a mountain of recording equipment turns over a fresh page of her notebook and writes, in large black letters, "Britney Presser".

After a while, a mild-looking man in a sweater stands up and introduces himself as press conference chairman. "And the film company has asked me to say," he adds, "that there are three things you're not to ask questions about." He pauses for dramatic effect, then ticks them off on his fingers. "Virginity; Justin Timberlake; and September 11th." Everybody laughs, but they might just as well have wept.

Because, while the world is no longer convulsed by the knowledge that Britney was en route to Australia when the World Trade Center was attacked and there's really nothing much to say about the fact that Britney has broken up with her boy-band boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, Britney and Virginity have become synonymous.

She sprang to prominence at the age of 17 when, dressed - or mostly undressed - as a schoolgirl, she invited every male on the planet to "Hit Me Bay-bee One More Time". None, if her now-famous declaration that she's a virgin and proud of it is to be believed, has yet succeeded; though the sceptics among us like to point out that having announced, "I want to wait to have sex until I'm married", Britney added the caveat: "I do. I want to wait. But it's hard." Indeed.

When Madonna sang Like a Virgin, she made it plain that she was anything but. Britney's virginity is, by comparison, a complex construct - a startling mix of apple-pie wholesomeness and brazen sexuality. On the cover of her new CD, she gives copious thanks to all her friends, family and supporters, first on the list being her best pal, God: "I want to thank the Almighty Creator from up above for giving me so many beautiful gifts . . ." On the facing page, the most corporeal of those gifts are on display as she gyrates in a manner more often associated, frankly, with "down below".

The tracks, meanwhile, boast such titles as Boys, I'm Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman and I'm A Slave 4 U. Didn't the Pope once say that thinking about sex was the same, pretty much, as doing it? And has His Holiness - who, in his innocence, invited Britney to contribute to an album of Christmas prayers - seen what she can do with a python?

All this harping on about sex has, needless, to say, inflamed the sales of everything connected - however remotely - to her nubile young body. Virgin or not, Britney is a mistress of market penetration.

The eponymously-titled new CD has sold 17 million copies worldwide; an Internet survey revealed that she was the most searched-for female on the Web last year; and as for merchandising, well, should you want or even need to, you can buy a Britney doll whose willing limbs can be manipulated into a variety of positions. This year's Superbowl telecast featured Britney doing much the same thing while performing a ditty entitled The Joy of Pepsi - for which the soft-drinks company paid her a reputed £63,000 sterling per second.

Only Hollywood can take hype to more ludicrous levels, so a film début was inevitable - as, in retrospect, was the film's subject matter; teenage girl leaves over-protective, ambitious father and runs off into the happy ever after with monosyllabic hunk who turns out to have heart of gold.

"Spears's character, Lucy, is the personification of that teenage girl on the edge of growing up and becoming a woman," gushes the Crossroads press release. Sound familiar?

At the Crossroads press conference, the politeness of the hacks is astonishing. Nobody so much as hints at the v-word. Nobody points out that the film is cliché-ridden rubbish. Nobody asks hard questions - partly because Britney is patently having trouble with the easy ones. Though she is dressed as sassy Britney, acres of bare flesh cunningly revealed by skimpy scraps of fabric, she comes across as a rather panicky teenager upon whom it is gradually dawning that she is trapped at the wrong party.

She begins almost every answer with a tiny squeal or a jittery: "You know what?" She often resorts to nodding her head sagely, like a toddler on the telephone. Her efforts are full of emphasis, but so empty of actual content that they make her romantic lead, Anson Mount - the man we all suspected was chosen more for his looks than his linguistic abilities - appear to be a paragon of personality.

He, at least, has come armed with funny stories - and he can improvise dialogue, too. He's asked whether it's true that when he first read the script of Crossroads aloud, Robert de Niro - with whom he was working on a film called City by the Sea - read Lucy to his Ben. It's true, he says, and tells the story. Which scene did they do, his questioner persists. "I can't remember," comes the reply, "but I know it wasn't the kissing scene - thank God."

Britney, in contrast, is floundering in a sea of "ahm's" and "I dunnos". "You've done music. You've done movies. You've written a successful book," one hack informs her, making it sound like some form of serial murder. "Is there anything else that Britney Spears would like to do before she gets, well . . ." He fades to a diplomatic mumble. "Oh!" shrieks Britney, making everybody jump. "There's a lot! I would love to do more films, and challenging roles, to challenge myself. I'd love to do more albums, maybe produce, um, you know - who knows? Oh my God."

We all look up, fearing she has injured herself, but she's just, it seems, overwhelmed by possibilities.

"I've got so many things I wanna do." Yes, but is there another genre she'd like to try? The word "genre" doesn't appear to be one she has encountered before. "Who knows? Who knows?" she exclaims, in a higher key each time, tossing her honey-coloured hair and shrugging her honey-coloured shoulders. "I change my mind every day."

How nerve wracking was it, making her first film? "Ah, you know, right, I was really nervous at first, you know?"

The film is called Crossroads - had Britney experienced a crossroads in her own life, at all? "Personally, ahm, I think that the crossroads in my life happened a few years ago when I left my small town and went to the big city to pursue my dreams . . ."

Would she like to win an Oscar? "That would be very nice."

If she makes another movie, what sort of movie would she like it to be? "Ahm . . . I dunno. I love romantic comedies. I'd love to make people laugh." If she had to choose between movies and music, which would it be? "You know what? Music is my heart and my soul. It's what I was born to do."

And you know what? Nobody even groans.