Bringing Up Britney

Britney Spears rips open a bag of extra-cheesy Doritos, dips one into a bowl of tuna salad, crunches loudly then wipes off the excess orange dust on the thighs of her hip-hugging jeans. "Sorry, I'm just stuffin' my face here," she says in a perky Louisiana accent, then jams another chip into her mouth. It's one of the few breaks the performer gets today between rehearsing numbers for "Saturday Night Live," posing for a magazine photo shoot and taping an upcoming Britney special for ABC. She takes a swig off her Pepsi (not Diet), then looks at her cracked, unpainted, stubby toenails. "I do need a pedicure, don't I," she says. But who cares--when the scantily clad, hip-gyrating, crotch-grabbing Spears hits the stage, no one in America but Britney's choreographer will be concentrating on her feet.

Sex appeal is to Britney Spears what special effects are to "The Matrix." Just last week Madame Tussaud's unveiled a wax figure of the star--it doesn't sing, but it straddles a pole and has inflatable breasts that heave to the music. Since she debuted as a pigtailed 16-year-old in 1998, the former Mouseketeer has morphed from a schoolgirl heartthrob to a lap-dance fantasy. And the music? Does it matter? Spears has sold more records in four years than Madonna has in the last decade. Though each Britney CD has sold fewer copies than the last, her celebrity stature continues to climb. She's appearing bottomless on the cover of Esquire and shirtless in Las Vegas. Britney will always be bigger than the critics who hate her.

This latest round of overexposure (aimed at the postpubescent crowd this time) coincides with her fourth album, "In the Zone," though it's hard to say if anyone will notice the great soundtrack behind the perpetual peep show. The record--created by everyone from Moby to R. Kelly--is actually pretty amazing. Its beats are crisp and club-savvy, its production inspired. All that's missing is the singer: Spears's breathy voice and orgasmic groans are simply decoration.

OK, so Madonna can't sing, either--and she might be Spears's greatest role model. "I remember being in my living room and watching her on TV. I'd dance around in my short tops and sing and dream about being her." But Spears isn't quite Material Girl material. The 21-year-old icon is in an awkward phase--somewhere between a puppeteered kid act and savvy pop seductress. It's hard to tell who, if anyone, is under all the shifting images. In person, the hunt doesn't get much easier. Backstage in her "SNL" dressing room, a chatty Spears checks her makeup frequently in the large mirror. She is super-amped after sucking down a Starbucks Frappuccino, even bouncy in a pep-squad sort of way. She'd be annoying if she weren't so sweet and hospitable. But all the caffeine doesn't make her really talk. Britney avoids answering "tough" questions directly, bobbing and weaving like a politician. Q: Do you feel you have more control of your career now than when you were a Svengali-ed teen act? A: People talk about teen this or that, but in the end, it's just pop music, which is popular music, and it can only get better. Q: What effect do you think your steamy performances are having on kids? A: It's a visual thing. That's why I'm here right now, because I dreamed of these moments. Kids need that. If they don't dream, they have what? That's what makes you feel spiritual, connected with God. But don't take it too literally. Just watch the performance, be drawn in. And if you don't like it, change the channel.

For better or worse, Spears got media training early on. When it pops up in otherwise casual conversation, it sounds like a beauty contestant's rehearsed monologue: "I love children. My ultimate dream five years from now would be to have kids, have a husband." The most unrehearsed moments are slightly sad--revealing a strangely cloistered kid who seems to have spent way too much time performing and not enough time living. When Spears talks about the South Asian musical influences on "In the Zone," she says she's "been into a lot of Indian spiritual religions." When asked if one of them is Hinduism, she says, "What's that? Is it like kabbalah?"

Spears entered her first talent show at the age of 6 and moved from Kentwood, La., to Orlando, Fla., when she became a Mouseketeer at 11. Along with such prefab creations as the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, she was signed to Jive in 1996 and promoted ad nauseam by a grunge-weary MTV. The most titillating of the teen pack--a professed virgin who was dating the cutest guy in 'N Sync--she outgrew the grade-school audience after her first album and lost them when the news broke that she had finally, you know, done it. "Justin said it on 'Barbara Walters'," says Spears. "The world knew after he frickin' told them all. What am I supposed to say, 'No, I didn't'? Can you say I'm a little bitter with men? Just a little."

Spears's affair and breakup with Justin Timberlake was a tabloid event of Bennifer proportions. "It was really hard," she says. "There was a time when I was like, 'OK, I'm over men. They're mean.' For like six months, not a single thing happened. Not like they weren't drawn to me, but there wasn't a single real attraction. I'm like, 'What's happening? I know I'm not a lesbian'." Now it's reported that she's hooked up with a married backup dancer. Spears says she's not dating anyone. "My personal life is no one's business," she says. "But I can understand the infatuation. I mean, s--t, I'm a fan. Me with Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. I'm like, 'Oh my God. They are so cute!' "

Not everyone thinks Britney's so cute. Kendel Ehrlich, wife of Maryland's governor, recently told an audience at a conference against domestic violence that she would shoot Spears if she had a gun. Many a mom in the audience applauded. "Why? Why are they mad at me?" Spears says, claiming not to know about the incident. It's hard to tell if she's actually this clueless or if she's pulled the emergency rip cord labeled denial. "Why are they not going at Christina [Aguilera]? Have they seen what she has on? I know I'm acting like a 4-year-old right now, 'Well, look at her!' But Beyonce dresses provocatively. Why don't they say something about her? What is too sexy to them? My family, we walked around the house naked, we really did. By the time I was 13, my dad was like, 'Uh, Britney, it's time to start covering yourself up.' I'm very free like that."

For Spears, freedom is sometimes just another word for nothing left to lose. At the "SNL" rehearsal, she finishes a frenetic dance number and plops down on the stage, her legs wide open to a crew of at least 30 people, mostly men. She appears oblivious to the effect she's having. But is she really always this uncalculating? She, or the people around her, must be aware that her current push to be viewed as an adult is attracting a whole new kind of fan who can smirk at her music while leering at her body. Take that Esquire cover shoot. "I did feel kind of weird after those photos," says Spears, sounding sheepish for the first time during the interview. "I was in a moment. I had, like, eight Red Bulls and said, 'OK, let's do it.' I learned my lesson and you won't see me like that for a while. I'm kinda over it myself. Not that it's dirty or tacky, but it is really revealing and I wouldn't want my kid, at 21, to be dressing like that."

And she probably means it. She really is an all-American, Dorito-eating girl--or would like to be. But then she'd have to stop being Britney.