Entertainment Weekly -- March 5, 1999









Entertainment Weekly: March 5, 1999
BubbleGum Blows Up

With the #1 album ''...Baby One More Time,'' Britney Spears suddenly pops to the top of the late '90s bubblegum revival

Britney Spears has just completed her first appearance on The Rosie O'Donnell Show. Like any teenage girl set loose in Manhattan, she's looking forward to a greasy lunch and a shopping spree on Columbus Avenue. But first she must face her adoring public.

As she exits Rosie's Rockefeller Center studio, a clutch of middle-aged men -- admirers no doubt of the parochial-school-vixen look Spears sports in her ubiquitous music video -- are waiting with cameras, pictures, and pens. "Britney, I'm a huge fan!" shouts one pudgy onlooker as he stalks her down the sidewalk. "Without you I have nothing! Can you sign an autograph?"

Spears' publicist hustles her into a waiting car. The man presses his face to the window. "Britney! I have nothing without you!" Spears turns to Felicia Culotta, a family friend who travels with her. "What's wrong with him?" she asks innocently, as the car pulls away. Then, 30 seconds later: "I just love your hair today! You should do it like that every day!"

If you were 17, button cute, and at the top of the charts, you'd blow the dork off too. In late January Spears' debut album and single, both titled ''...Baby One More Time,'' hit No. 1 simultaneously on Billboard's pop charts. ''...Baby'' the album, featuring Max Martin's sugar-coated production, is the first in the SoundScan era to debut at No. 1 and post sales gains in its first five weeks of release.

A native of Kentwood, La. (pop. 2,500), Spears has had stars in her eyes since grade school. At age 8, she was turned away from an open call for the Mickey Mouse Club. "I was too young," she says before chowing down on barbecued shrimp, mashed potatoes, and onion rings. She spent the next three summers in Manhattan doing the Fame thing: performing-arts school, dance classes, commercials, and Off Broadway theater. When Spears turned 11, she finally earned her ears.

In 1994, Spears' two-year stint in Orlando ended with ''Club's'' cancellation and a return to Kentwood. "When I went home I was really antsy," she recalls. "That's when my dad called Larry." A high-powered New York entertainment lawyer whose clients include 98 and Wu-Tang's Ghostface Killah, Larry Rudolph saw in Spears a potential Solo Spice, a Backstreet Girl. "He told my dad, 'Pop music is coming back. Send me a tape of Britney singing.'" Armed with new demos, Rudolph landed Spears an audition -- and ultimately a deal -- with BSB's label, Jive Records. "I came there with just some dinky little tape," Spears says. "When I signed I was like, 'This is too good to be true!'"

With Spears' album (recorded in mid-'98) still months from release, Rudolph and Jive unleashed her on America: first on a mall tour la Tiffany, and then, last November, as the warm-up act for 'N Sync. "I was so nervous because it was already out that a girl was opening up for 'N Sync," she says. "I'd walk out there and my first two performances, they were like, 'Booooo.' Once I'd start performing they'd go crazy."

The most important fan she won over was manager Johnny Wright, who watched her from backstage while taking care of business for one of his clients, 'N Sync. "I saw how talented Britney was, but I also saw there was more development needed," he says. In January, he signed on to Spears' team -- though the actual titles are still...evolving. "Larry's the manager but Johnny's the comanager," Spears explains. "Or maybe it's the other way around. I'm not really sure. But it works out really well."

For Spears, rising to the top of a pop market primed by the Spice Girls, Hanson, 98, and her O-Town homies may have been a relative breeze, but the hard part will be staying there. "Here's a girl who basically went from nowhere to No. 1 overnight," says Wright. "The Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync had time to develop, to work on performing and the press before all the pressure came down. What's going on with Britney right now is she's just getting bombarded."

Bombarded by offers: She's completed a Tommy Hilfiger modeling campaign; in the offing, tentatively, are three episodes of Dawson's Creek ("I won't play somebody mean, and I won't play myself," she says).

Bombarded by fans: "They're just, like, crazy. It's flattering to a certain extent, but sometimes they get a little bit overbearing and you're, like, 'Stay back!'"

And now, like so many who have come before her, bombarded by legal papers: On Jan. 20, a 43-year-old Philadelphia producer named William Kahn filed a complaint against Spears, her parents (Lynne, 43, a teacher; and Jamie, 46, a contractor), Rudolph, and Jive, claiming it was he who'd launched Britney's career. According to the suit, Spears had come to Kahn shortly after the collapse of the ''Mickey Mouse Club.'' For the brief period he spent as her "exclusive personal manager," Kahn was demanding "a sum in excess of $75,000," as his standard 15 percent commission. On Feb. 12, the suit was settled out of court. Or, rather, "resolved and disposed of," according to Larry Rudolph. "Whether or not there was money involved is a confidential matter." But Spears is still shaken by the wrath of Kahn. "Everything's going so well, then there's, like, a stomper," she says.

"A stomper?" says Culotta. "What is that word?"

"My momma says that all the time! 'I had a good day, but you put a stomper on me.'" With that, they erupt into a fit of giggles.


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