OPINION - The Woman in Me by Britney Spears review: they wanted the body of a child and the cynicism of a woman

 (Simon and Schuster)
(Simon and Schuster)

Britney Spears's memoir, The Woman in Me, is in two parts: the numb (part one) and the raging (part two). I wish I was surprised by her story, but it’s the story of female stars, particularly child ones. They are archetypes, devoured by expectation.

She was born in small-town Mississippi to an alcoholic father and a mother who wanted more. “Doors were left unlocked, social lives revolved around church and backyard parties, kids were put in matching outfits, and everyone knew how to shoot a gun.” They took a lot of speed. Her father was from a family of abusers. Her paternal grandfather was a paedophile who sectioned two of his wives, one of whom later shot herself on her son’s grave. Spears was a happy girl: or so she says. The prose has a varnished quality, as if her memories have been fed into AI. It doesn’t feel real. She would hide in cabinets, waiting to be found.

Justin Timberlake dumped her by text and said she was unfaithful to him for PR for his new album

When she was 10, she was invited to be a contestant on Star Search. The host, Ed McMahon, asked her if she had a boyfriend. “No sir,” she said. At 13 she drank White Russians and daiquiris with her mother. At 15 she had a recording deal with Jive Records, and then she was a superstar in school uniform singing the heartbreak of an older woman. That was what people wanted from Spears — the body of a child, and the cynicism of a woman. Her response to fame was: “I didn’t have to perform in malls anymore.”

She fell in love with Justin Timberlake. She took abortion pills at home, to avoid the press. She lay on the floor bleeding. “He got his guitar and he lay there with me, strumming it.” He dumped her by text and said she was unfaithful to him for PR for his new album. She went to a Lakers game with her little sister and was booed. Diane Sawyer made her cry. She felt she was under a curse.

MTV is another villain. They made Spears listen to strangers call her a bad example to youth. “I was a teenage girl from the South,” she says. “I signed my name with a heart. Why did everyone treat me like I was dangerous?” People Magazine made her empty her purse to check she wasn’t carrying drugs or cigarettes. I don’t know what drugs Spears was taking at this point — she only admits to Prozac and Adderall. Her recollections are not vivid. For instance, Madonna visits her in New York. “She walked straight to the window, looked out and said, ‘nice view’.” “‘Yeah, it’s a nice view, I guess,’ I said”. She married in Las Vegas for 55 hours, got annulled, and married the monstrous Kevin Federline, with whom she had two sons in two years. He left her, and restricted access to her children — another jealous man. She had her head shaved: “No one would talk to me anymore because I was too ugly”. The paparazzi hounded her without end.

Britney Spears at the VMAs in 2001 (AFP/Getty Images)
Britney Spears at the VMAs in 2001 (AFP/Getty Images)

Then her father took over her life. In her telling, he treated her for his alcoholism. It reads like a Tennessee Williams play. Her family are control freaks: she wouldn’t let her mother hold her son for the first two months of his life. But what her father did was more calculating and avaricious. He had her put under a conservatorship. He told her what to eat, when to exercise, and he wouldn’t let her drive. But she worked nonstop so her family could live in luxury. She complied so she could see her sons and had a long Las Vegas residency in which her father wouldn’t let her change her songs. This went on for 13 years. She only said no to him once: she demanded a longer summer holiday and refused to work. He had her sectioned. On June 22, 2021, she rang 911 to report him for conservatorship abuse. She is free now, and he says he saved her life.

Spears isn’t interesting, but what happened to her is. It is another cautionary tale of how not to live in the imagination of others, because it will ruin you. She writes: “I think some people are great at fame. I’m not”.

The Woman in Me (£25) is published by Simon and Schuster

Tanya Gold is a columnist