February 15, 1999 12:00 PM

Last August, when she was just another wannabe teen idol, Britney Spears was belting out bubblegum ditties for young crowds in shopping malls throughout the country. While this might seem a dicey career move (anyone remember Tiffany?), Spears was too excited to care. “It was crazy,” recalls Spears, 17. “No one knew who I was, but I could see they really enjoyed the music. And,” she adds, “I got a lot of shopping done.”

But her days as a food-court head-liner are over. Spears, a mix of Debbie Gibson’s wholesomeness and Alanis Morissette’s grit, has since unseated boy bands ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys as the hottest act in the exploding teen music market. After its Jan. 12 release, her debut album,…Baby One More Time, entered Billboard’s album chart at No. 1. The same week, the title cut topped the Hot 100 singles chart, making Spears the first debut solo act to rule both lists simultaneously. “It’s so awesome just to hear your song on the radio and see your video on MTV,” says Spears, who is currently on a promotional U.S. tour. “This is unreal.”

Unfortunately, so are some of the drawbacks. Recently, an uninvited young male fan from a nearby town showed up at her family’s ranch-style house in Kentwood, La., when Britney was home alone. (She turned him away.) “Girls scream, but boys, when they’re a major fan of yours, are freaky,” says Spears of the intruder. And constant touring is tough on the 11th grader, who is enrolled in a University of Nebraska home schooling program. “I worry about her terribly,” says her mother, Lynne Spears, 43, a second-grade teacher. “But I’m so much happier knowing she’s doing what she really wants to.”

She’s never wanted anything else. One of three children born to Lynne and her husband, building contractor Jamie Spears, 46, Brittany grew up in Kentwood (pop. 2,500), an hour north of New Orleans, and began singing and dancing for imaginary audiences at age 2. “She would put on makeup,” says her brother Bryan, 21, a kinesiology student at Southeastern Louisiana University, “and sing to herself in the bathroom mirror.” Says Spears: “I would get on my mom’s nerves.”

Mimicking the Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey hits she listened to on the car radio en route to gymnastics lessons, Spears developed a sassy singing style. At 9, she auditioned for the Disney Channel’s revival of The Mickey Mouse Club but was deemed too young by the producers. Undaunted, in 1991 Lynne moved temporarily with Britney and youngest daughter Jamie Lynn, now 7, to New York City, where Britney studied at the Professional Performing Arts School. Commercials and Off-Broadway acting parts followed, and at 11, Spears auditioned again for The Mickey Mouse Club in Orlando. This time she got the job, performing alongside such future stars as Keri Russell of TV’s Felicity and members of ‘N Sync. “That,” she says, “is when I realized I had a major love of music.”

Back in Kentwood after The Mickey Mouse Club was canceled in 1994, Spears attended a private high school in nearby McComb, Miss. “But,” says Lynne, “going into the middle of the year, she was antsy.” Adds Spears: “I did the homecoming and prom thing, and I was totally bored.” When she turned 15, Lynne sent her homemade demo to New York City entertainment lawyer Larry Rudolph, who had worked with other artists, and he signed on as her co-manager, engineering a 1997 contract with Jive Records.

Now that she’s a certified teen queen, Spears hopes someday to fit in college, movies and maybe even romance. “I had a relationship, but it didn’t work out,” she says of a hometown ex. “With me on the road, there has to be a major amount of trust.” Until she meets her match, she has everything she needs. “If I wasn’t in love with my job and in love with music,” she says, “I would be homesick and going crazy.”

Jeremy Helligar

Michael Haederle in Kentwood

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