By Michelle Tauber
Updated September 02, 2002 12:00 PM

Britney Spears has a scraped knee, and she has Brad Pitt to thank for it. On the prowl for some excitement one recent afternoon, the 20-year-old pop singer bought a star map of L.A. celebrity homes. Soon she and a girlfriend were parked outside the Beverly Hills mansion Pitt shares with wife Jennifer Aniston. “I stood on top of my car, trying to see in,” says Spears, who fell off when she spotted the resident hunk in the driveway. “I busted my knee open. I felt like the biggest dumbass ever.” Did Pitt see her? “No, and thank you, God,” she says with a laugh. “I would’ve been so humiliated.”

If Spears sounds like a bored young woman with plenty of time on her well-manicured hands, she admits as much. “I honestly don’t know what to do with myself,” she says. Which is just what she had hoped for in announcing an indefinite hiatus from recording and performing beginning this month. Of course, that won’t prevent her from reading film scripts and appearing Aug. 29 on MTV’s Video Music Awards. Still, says Spears, “I need this break to rejuvenate spiritually and to just play.”

She may have playtime in mind, but tabloid editors are working overtime on Britney breakdown stories. Following her parents’ divorce in May, her split from ‘N Sync heartthrob Justin Timberlake in March, sliding record sales and a spate of public relations disasters from London to Mexico, she remains genuinely mystified by the public impression that she’s imploding. “I’m taking a break, so people are writing that I’m having a meltdown,” says Spears, in a midriff-baring T-shirt and bebe hip-huggers slung low enough to reveal a hint of pink lace. “I don’t get it.” As for hard living, Spears happily agrees to a spot check of the Grated contents of her purse: Juicy Fruit gum, Pinkie’s mints, vanilla perfume and a tiny bottle of the herbal supplement St. John’s wort. Says mom Lynne, 47: “My daughter is doing beautifully. She’s never, ever been close to a breakdown.” Yet Spears admits that her fresh-scrubbed role-model days are over. “I never wanted to hide who I was,” she says, “but until about a year ago I was trying to fit an image and trying to be someone I wasn’t.”

Translation: Sugar-and-spice Britney is out, fire-and-ice Britney is in. In the past few months she has been photographed with a cigarette (“This may sound really cheesy, but I was holding it for a girlfriend”), flipping her middle finger at paparazzi who swarmed her car in Mexico (“We couldn’t move. They were shaking it”) and cozying up to Leonardo DiCaprio at the Playboy Mansion. (“He looks hot these days. But all I remember is seeing a bunch of naked girls and thinking, ‘I got to get out of here.’ “) And despite her famous 1999 remark that she intended to remain a virgin until her wedding day, she isn’t lobbying for sainthood. “Who really cares if I’ve had sex?” she says. “It’s nobody’s business. Trust me, I’m not going to have a press conference to announce it. If I mess up, I’m human. If I have a drink or I’m with someone, I’m human. I’m no different than anyone else my age.”

Um, not exactly. For starters, there’s that $100 million bank account (“I’m rich, freakin’ rich. It’s crazy”) and the No. 1 spot on this year’s Forbes list of most powerful celebrities, ahead of Madonna, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. On Madison Avenue, though, some are worried that as a pitch-woman, “any more outbursts like the one in Mexico could be damaging to her career,” says Jessrey Wolf, director of account planning at the firm Deutsch Inc. Her three albums have raked in a combined $46 million t worldwide, even as ’01’s Britney sold a disappointing 3.8 million copies compared to her 10.4 million-selling debut, Baby One More Time. “Yes, there’s a chink in the armor, but we won’t know if she’s no longer hot until her next record comes out,” says Rich Christina, a senior director at Atlantic Records. The declining numbers don’t faze her. “Selling 5 million records is still good,” says Spears. “I don’t want to get jaded thinking I have to sell 10 million every time. It’s not about that.”

These days it’s also not about being in a relationship. It has been five months since her split from Timberlake, 21, and Spears is adjusting to singledom with a wide open calendar. Two weeks ago she visited a Sunset Boulevard psychic (“which is kind of lame”), who advised that her aura is blue (“That’s why I’m filled with creativity”) and “told stuff about my love life that was hard to take.” Such as? “He said I have a problem with intimacy,” she says. “When I get close to someone, it’s like a defense mechanism kicks in. I’ll start an argument because I’m not good at being vulnerable.”

For the record, Spears says that “first Justin broke up with me, and then I broke up with him.” Why? “The two of us were always on the same page,” she says, denying that either side cheated. “If he was starting a tour, so was I. But now we’re doing different things.” Although they “recently tried to get back together,” she notes that “right now in my life, it’s not right.” For his part, Timberlake—who told PEOPLE in April that he holds Spears “in the highest light” but declined to comment for this story—has since been linked to dancer Jenna Dewan, 21, and singer Janet Jackson, 36. “Justin’s 21, and I would expect him to go out with girls,” says Spears, who first met Timberlake in ’93 when the pair costarred on The Mickey Mouse Club. Not that it doesn’t sting. “[The breakup] was horrible. Very upsetting and it took a lot out of me. He was my first real love, and I doubt I’ll ever be able to love anyone like that ever again,” she says. “But I’d rather spend two days with my soulmate than the rest of my life with some guy who doesn’t mean as much.” Mom Lynne, who still talks to Justin, adds, “I pick on him for going out with those other girls.” As for her daughter’s next boyfriend, says Lynne, “Britney needs somebody into his career, so he won’t be jealous of her. I think someone older too. Britney’s very mature. Always has been.”

Her maturity, and not junk food, she insists, is what helped her cope with the split. “If anything, I lost weight,” says Spears in response to reports of her binge eating. “When I’m under stress, I do yoga. It’s when I’m happiest that I have a problem with junk food.”

Spears admits she’s just about ready to start dating again but isn’t sure how. “I suck at flirting,” she says with a laugh. “There’s one thing I don’t understand about Hollywood. How they have a relationship, end it, and go right into the next.” She adds, “It’s hard for a woman in this industry. Either the guy’s going to be really intimidated, or they’re going to kiss your ass. I’m just a girl wanting a guy to love me.”

At home, love is never a concern. Her family—Lynne, who helps manage Britney’s career, dad Jamie, 50, a contractor, brother Bryan, 25, a Manhattan businessman, and sister Jamie Lynn, 11, an actress on Nickelodeon’s All That—has been struggling through an emotional summer. Lynne’s sister Sandra Covington, 55, is battling ovarian cancer and recently underwent a bone marrow transplant. “Sandra’s like a second mother to her,” says Lynne. “This kind of thing makes you grow up. We’ve been separated a lot—I’ve been with my sister, and Britney’s had to take care of Jamie Lynn.” Says Spears: “I pray every night about it.”

Dealing with the breakup of her parents’ 30-year marriage has been far easier. “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to my family,” says Spears. “My mom and dad, bottom line, do not get along. When I was a baby, they argued. I wanted this to happen 10 years ago.”

If things on the home front have been tumultuous, they haven’t been much smoother on the road. The first sign of trouble came last March in London, where Spears stopped to promote her big-screen debut, Crossroads. Dashing past a rain-soaked throng of 3,000 fans, Spears was soon doused with chants of “Britney go home.” Spears says her security team warned her that the crowd could be dangerous. Besides, she says, “you can’t make everyone happy.”

Perhaps that should be the motto for Spears’s troubled new Manhattan restaurant, Nyla, whose June opening was marred by a downpour and mostly tepid reviews. Spears has visited only three times but says she plans to stop in more often with the recent purchase of her four-story apartment in lower Manhattan.

London and New York City seemed but a prelude to Mexico City, the last stop on Spears’s $18.9 million world tour, which ended on July 28. The bird-flipping incident, which took place prior to her concert, didn’t endear her to locals, who then jeered when she called it quits five songs into her final stage show before 50,000 fans. “It was raining and lightning,” she says of her hasty exit. “Two of the dancers almost fell off the stage. It wasn’t safe.”

Spears, who turns 21 on Dec. 2, acknowledges that when the tour ended, “the first week, I was so excited I was off that I partied every night. I drink.” But, she adds, “everything in moderation. Smoking, drinking, sex—why is it such a big deal with me? As you get to 20, you grow up, you experiment. You feel more comfortable in your skin.” She certainly does: “I don’t have trouble with nudity or sex,” she says. “When I was younger, honestly, I walked around the house naked. Bottom line, I think it’s the way you carry yourself.”

Given the hectic past few months, Spears says that “now I’m starting to be a hermit,” though she probably doesn’t run into many fellow hermits at haunts like L.A.’s Trashy Lingerie and Domaine, where she was tempted to buy a $20,000 bed, or even Contempo Casuals, where she still hunts for bargains. She crashes at the new $4.5 million Tudor estate in Kentwood, La., she built for her mother and her own $1.7 million Spanish-style Hollywood Hills mansion, where she relaxes by the pool, watches American Idol (“Tamyra is amazing; she sounds like Whitney Houston”) and reads film scripts. Spears says she’s hoping to do a romantic comedy that could start shooting in October (so much for the hiatus). The music business, meanwhile, is waiting anxiously. “Britney will have to deal with the fact that she won’t sell as many records when she reinvents herself,” says producer Rodney Jerkins, who worked on Spears’s last album. “She can’t do the pop candy stuff anymore. She’s going to have to sing songs that are edgy.”

Spears is eager to do exactly that. “I need to find new influences, get reinspired.” She also wants to write more songs. Has she grown up? “In a sad way, yeah. I feel like a totally different person than I was two years ago. I feel like so much of my innocence is gone. I’m still me, but this business makes you grow up so fast.” As for the time off, “I give it a couple of months,” says Lynne. “For Britney, who’s used to running at 90 miles per hour, it’s hard to slow down.”

So, what does the future hold? Spears didn’t ask her psychic about that. “I’m at the state where I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen,” she says. “Everything’s usually laid out for me. But I don’t know what I’m going to do next. This may sound weird, but I’m kind of the happiest I’ve been in a really long freakin’ time.”

Michelle Tauber

Todd Gold in Los Angeles and Dimitry Elias Léger in New York City