Natasha Stoynoff
September 24, 2007 12:00 PM

Two days before her now-notorious performance of her new single “Gimme More” at the MTV Video Music Awards in Las Vegas on Sept. 9, Britney Spears signaled she wasn’t quite ready for a comeback. After checking into a $25,000 a night Sky Villa at the Palms Casino Resort, the singer showed up for rehearsals three and a half hours late, carrying two empty margarita glasses. “She was unapologetic,” says an observer. The behavior worried even close friends. “You’ve got to practice,” says a longtime pal of the 25-year-old singer. “You can’t go out and drink for three nights before. It’ll screw you up. Bottom line.”

Those close to Spears—whose much-anticipated new CD hits stores Nov. 13 (see box)—say nonstop clubbing before her VMAs performance paved the way to a fiasco that has music industry insiders wondering if her once stellar pop career is beyond saving. After her Friday rehearsal, she painted the town red, partying with pal Sean “Diddy” Combs at Pure Nightclub, dancing barefoot on a couch, champagne glass in hand. The next night she and Diddy were out again, hitting the club Tao and Body English at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, where they met up with Paris Hilton and then partied in the rap impresario’s Palms suite until 6 a.m. Little wonder she seemed dazed at the VMAs later that night. Friends say she was also suffering from a bad case of nerves. “It’s been a while since she’s done this. She was performing in front of her peers on live TV,” says a backstage source. “She froze.”

Several sources say a second rehearsal earlier that day had gone well (“It was good—it really was,” says one), but there were other foul-ups. Before her performance, Spears had a spat with celebrity hairstylist Ken Paves. Weeks earlier, “Britney had requested his two female assistants [to do her extensions], since she prefers women around her,” and she was disappointed when Paves himself arrived, says a Spears source. The stylist soon left, taking his hair with him. “He bailed,” says the source. Adds Paves’s rep: “Ken made the professional decision not to do her hair for the VMAs.” There was also a wardrobe flap; although an MTV rep says costumers picked out a form-flattering corset for her to wear, Spears chose a bikini instead. Sources say she was also shaken by word that comic Sarah Silverman planned to joke about her two sons Jayden, 1, and Sean Preston, 2, in her monologue. (Silverman called the boys—who celebrated a Cars-themed joint birthday at home with their father, Kevin Federline, and Britney’s parents while she was in Vegas—”adorable little mistakes.”) Spears, says a source, “felt betrayed.” Silverman’s rep insists no one knew what the comedian was going to say beforehand except Silverman herself. In any case Spears’s manager Jeff Kwatinetz and her label Jive are moving on—planning for her album’s release and pointing out that “Gimme More” has been the most added pop single to radio station play lists across the country. Spears herself returned to L.A. the day after the VMAs to spend time with her kids—and heal her wounds. “She’s too big a star to say she’s past the point of no return,” says her friend Robert Baker, director of L.A.’s Millennium Dance Complex. “It’s a snag.” Adds Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz: “Fans are the most forgiving people. If you come out with something awesome, they’ll forget about it.”

For 50-plus more photos of your favorite stars, go to PEOPLE.COM/VMAS

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