Britney Gets Graded

C'mon, Britney Spears wasn't all that bad, was she? After all, her heavily hyped performance helped boost the ratings for the MTV Video Music Awards by 23 percent over last year. And her single, "Gimme More," popped up into the top 40 in the days after the show. But then she started getting the kind of lousy reviews we haven't seen since K-Fed tried to rap. Even Dr. Phil jumped on the anti-Britney bandwagon. Can this career be saved? To find out we asked "Dancing with the Stars" judge Carrie Ann Inaba, who knows a thing or two about helping seemingly hopeless cases, which is a polite way of saying she's choreographed her share of Miss America pageants. She talked with NEWSWEEK's Ramin Setoodeh.  Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Did you watch the VMAs?
Carrie Ann Inaba:
Yes, I did.

What do you think of Britney Spears's performance?
I watched the second broadcast, so I read the reviews before I saw the show. All the stuff came out that was so negative about her performance. I saw some stills and thought she didn't look so terrible. How could it have gone so terribly wrong? When I watched it, I think they gave her a great place to make a comeback. I liked the choreography. It was sexy but not raunchy. There were a lot of things to look at. There were guy dancers around her as well as female dancers. It was more mature than we've seen in the past. The thing that was unfortunate is that the center of the performance was Britney, and she was only giving about 30 percent. That's why it fell short. The backup dancers focused all the energy right to Britney, and she was the weakest link.

What do you think happened?
I think fear got the best of her. Out of all the pop singers out there, Britney is one of the best dancers. The old Britney, what was so amazing about her, when she got out there on the dance floor, she owned it. She was fully committed. She has the sensual, oozy style and the rounded movement that I love. That's still there. I saw it. But she's not in the right mindset. She just didn't do the moves. She didn't follow through. The one thing that I learned throughout my years in dancing is the body doesn't lie. How you're feeling about yourself comes out in your body. When you're uncomfortable about your body or you're feeling insecure or out of sorts, it all shows. Everything that Britney's going through showed in her body that night. She's insecure. She's not steady. She doesn't have a sure foot to stand on. She has no ground support. The way she walked you could tell she's off balance. That's all a reflection of her life right now. She doesn't have a grounding. She needs to get grounded.

What did you think of her costume?
Everyone says she looked so terrible. I disagree. That girl just had two children. But she looked uncomfortable. I think they could have created levels to her performance. She didn't have to start with that much revealed. Then it could have given her different levels to grow. We need our security blankets when we're performing. She didn't have any security blankets. It would have served her better if she'd covered herself up more.

There was a moment in the performance when she seemed to stop moving.
Have you ever been onstage? When you're onstage and you look out and the audience isn't enjoying what it's seeing, or looks at you like you're a freak show, it affects you. The trick when you're performing, you have to rise above it and make them like you. That's what you do. When she looked out, they showed a lot of the crowd shots. A lot of people were a little bewildered and looked like they didn't know how they wanted to respond to her. I think she saw that, and that might have thrown her off. I'm sure she was a bundle of nerves that day. She was fully aware that most people were waiting for her to fall.

What advice would you give her for her next performance?
I would take her away from any sort of media right now. She's too concerned with what other people are thinking. As a dancer, I've used dance many times to cope with my life—when things are frustrating or depressing. Dance is a release. When I look at her—the way she dances and the amount of passion she had—I think she needs to get back into dance therapy. Use dance as part of her life, not just as a performance tool. Use it to help her cope.

Would you want to work with Britney?
I would love to work with Britney. She's got great choreographers right now, but I think she needs some support as far as being a woman in this world. I struggle with my life too. Just because I'm a judge doesn't mean I know everything, at all. I don't dare claim to say that. I have my own issues. But I do feel like she could use someone who understands her point of view a little bit to talk to and get centered and remember the good things in her life. She's on her way to come back if she wants to. But she needs to fight for it next time.

What score would you give the performance?
I'd give the performance as a whole a six plus. Britney I would have to give a three.

How long have you been dancing?
I've been dancing since I was three. My first professional job in the United States was as a Fly Girl for "In Living Color." I toured with Madonna. I've done stuff with Ricky Martin. I'm lucky. Everything I am comes from dance. I know that sounds a little corny-like, of course you're going to say that because you're a dance judge. But I am who I am because of dance.

What can we expect next season on "Dancing with the Stars"?
I'm more excited this season than I've ever been. It's an intriguing cast and a lot of unlikely people. Plus, we have Wayne Newton and Marie Osmond, who are incredible performers.

Last season was my favorite, because of Heather Mills.
I was nervous last season before we got to the show. I wasn't sure what Heather was going to be like or if it would be awkward to judge. When you're judging someone who's got a handicap you've got to be very careful, be supportive yet fair. I was amazed by what she did. She blew me away. But we never talked outside the show. As much as we spend all that time together, we don't get to know them, as judges. I'm sensitive to the fact that their feelings must get hurt during the critiquing process. If anyone wants to contact me at the end of the season, I leave the door open. But so far nobody really has.

What have you been doing all summer?
I took the whole summer off. I didn't do anything but spend time with my boyfriend and get ideas for how to decorate my house.

Who's your boyfriend?
He was on "So You Think You Can Dance." Artem Chigvintsev. He's a Russian ballroom dancer.

How did you meet?
We met on "So You Think You Can Dance." Before I did "Dancing with the Stars" I choreographed their opening titles. We met there. Nothing happened. We were working. A year later we did a charity event for Leeza Gibbons and we realized there was an attraction going on. We went out. After our third date we were inseparable.

You're also doing a new show for ABC?
ABC has picked it up for six episodes. It will air in January. Drew Lachey is going to be hosting. Bruno Tonioli [another judge on the show] and I are creating two different groups, like a Black Eyed Peas or Pussycat Dolls. I put one team together; he puts one team together. America votes on which performances they like better.

I had no idea you were in "Austin Powers."
"Fook you!" That was me. That was the funniest job.

I hope they do another Austin Powers movie.
They can call it "Return of the Fooks."