February 14, 2000 12:00 PM

Britney Spears, typical teen, is getting her nails done and going on about Brad Pitt. “He is, like, the ultimate,” she says, as her manicurist at the Frédéric Fekkai salon on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills swabs on dark plum Passionnee polish one Monday last month. “His features aren’t perfect, but I like it when he’s really rough-looking. He’s soooo sexy.” Then, as the hour of her big engagement that evening draws nearer, talk turns to a more pressing matter: Britney has a pimple! What’s more, she spilled some glitter in her makeup bag, and it mixed in with her concealer. “So when I put the concealer on, it emphasized my pimple!” she says. What’s a typical teen to do?

If you’re Britney Spears, pop supernova, you zap the zit with the help of your makeup professional, limo up to the American Music Awards later that evening and beat out Jennifer Lopez to win favorite new pop-rock artist of 1999—while wearing a sparkling Chloé jumpsuit so revealing that your cleavage gets prominent display in newspapers across America the next day. It is, of course, just the sort of seamless transformation—from bubblegum sweetheart to full-blown vixen—that has made Spears, who turned 18 on Dec. 2, one of the most popular and controversial teenage entertainers ever. Her debut album of pulsing pop tunes, …Baby One More Time, has sold an astonishing 18 million copies worldwide, while her No. 1 single of the same name rivaled Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” as last year’s most inescapable anthem. Spears’s success—she’s up for a best new artist award at the Grammys on Feb. 23—has flooded MTV with a brigade of ever-blonder Britney clones, though Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson and Mandy Moore have a way to go before they command the kind of rabid fan support that Spears enjoys (there is, for instance, a Web site called Society of Future Husbands of Britney Spears, in which suitors pledge their undying love and use the word “hot” a lot). She even counts Britain’s 17-year-old Prince William, with whom she has exchanged e-mail, as a fan. “She is a glorified 1950s high school cheerleader with an undertone of perverse 1990s sexuality,” says feminist author Camille Paglia. “Britney is simultaneously wholesome and ripely sensual. She’s Lolita on aerobics.”

Yet her seemingly sudden image overhaul—from the coltish kid on the cover of her album released last January to the curvy temptress who nearly popped out of her tube top during a May Nickelodeon concert—has ruffled more than a few feathers. Last April she donned hot pants and vamped it up in the doll-stuffed bedroom of her Kentwood, La., home for a Rolling Stone photo shoot, prompting the Mississippi-based American Family Association, a media watchdog group, to launch a Britney boycott. “When I saw the cover, I thought, ‘Wow, this is hot,’ but I guess other people thought it was too sexy,” says Spears in her rapid-fire southern twang. “I’m not going to walk around in hot pants and a bra on the street, but when you’re an artist you sometimes play a part.” Posing in revealing outfits, she says, was not a calculated move on her part but rather just a case of the singer having fun dressing up. “I was becoming a young woman,” she says, “and it’s nice to feel sexy sometimes.” Her good friend Melissa Joan Hart, star of the youth-oriented TV show Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, similarly sexed up her image with scantily clad appearances on two magazine covers, leading to a reprimand from Sabrina‘s producers. “We’d call each other, and I’m like, ‘God, how did you deal with this?’ ” says Hart, 23, who appeared in Spears’s video “(You Drive Me) Crazy.” “We both decided that we liked our decisions, and we just had to stand by them.” Suggestions that Spears’s handlers at Jive Records are exploiting her are, claims her comanager Larry Rudolph, way off base. “The record company wanted to keep things squeaky-clean, and she went along with it at first,” he says. “But it quickly became clear that it wasn’t natural for her. She doesn’t want anyone to put a blanket around her and hide her. She’s totally in control of what’s going on.”

Indeed no one, not even her flesh and blood, can prevent Spears from baring a little flesh. “Lately I’ve been telling her she needs to put on more clothes instead of some of the outfits she ends up wearing,” says her brother Bryan, 22, a sports-administration major at Southwest Mississippi Community College. “She won’t listen to me. She says, ‘You have no style.’ ” But as the singer’s wardrobe grew skimpier, whispers about her fuller physique grew louder, leading to persistent but unsubstantiated rumors that she has had breast implants. “Like I’m really going to get breast implants at 17?” says Spears, who insists her figure is due to natural development and a weight gain of around 15 lbs. (she’s also fond of push-up bras). “It’s a personal decision, and if women are doing it to make themselves feel better, I think it’s fine. But 16, 17, 18 is too young for any surgery.” At first Spears thought the implant rumors were a joke. “Then I would go up to people and they would stare at [my chest],” she says, “and I was like, ‘Eeewwww!’ But I had my cry, and now I just ignore it.” Adds her mother, Lynne, a second-grade teacher: “Britney handles it pretty well, and she’s gotten a tough skin on this. But I don’t handle it so well. That’s my baby they’re telling lies about.”

With all the scrutiny of her figure, it’s easy to overlook Spears’s singing and dancing—skills she has been honing since she was a hyperactive tyke nicknamed Brit-Brit in her hometown of Kentwood (pop. 2,700), an hour north of New Orleans. “She was always performing and belting out these songs,” remembers Bryan. “I’d yell at her to shut up, because I couldn’t hear the TV.” The second of three children born to Jamie Spears, 46, a building contractor, and his wife, Lynne, 44, she made her singing debut at age 5, crooning “What Child Is This?” at her kindergarten graduation. Copying the sass and style of her idols Madonna and Mariah Carey (she had never had formal voice lessons), Spears auditioned for the revived Mickey Mouse Club TV show in 1990, when she was 8. She didn’t get the part, but the following year she enrolled in New York City’s Professional Performing Arts School, moving into a sublet apartment in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen with her mother and baby sister Jamie Lynn, while her father and brother stayed behind in Kentwood.

Appearances in commercials and stage plays and on Star Search (she won) helped Spears finally land a part on the Mickey Mouse Club. At 11, she was the show’s youngest performer, alongside Felicity‘s Keri Russell and ‘N Sync’s Justin Timberlake. When the program was canceled during her second season, Spears returned to Kentwood for what proved to be only a brief respite. “I did the homecoming thing and the prom thing, and I was totally bored,” she says. Then, in June of 1997, New York City entertainment lawyer Larry Rudolph set up an audition for Spears at Jive Records. “She was a little nervous when she came in, but once she started singing, she just blew us all away,” says the label’s president, Barry Weiss. “She became this different person.”

Weiss signed the 15-year-old entertainer to a record contract and sent her to Sweden to craft her debut album with writer-producer Max Martin, one of the hitmakers behind the Backstreet Boys. For her first video, “…Baby One More Time,” Jive wanted a cartoonish superhero theme. Spears insisted on a racier schoolgirl motif. “She genuinely wanted to go down that road,” says the video’s director, Nigel Dick. “It wasn’t like we pushed Britney into doing anything. Most of the time you have to hold her back a bit.” Indeed, it was Spears who made the seminal decision to tie her button-down shirt into a knot, revealing for the first time her now-ubiquitous midriff. “The outfits looked kind of dorky, so I was like, ‘Let’s tie up our shirts and be cute,’ ” she explains. “It was about being a girl and knowing about fashion.” Spears’s instinct for showing skin when the cameras roll may trouble some, but her mother, for one, is fine with it. “I did not raise a promiscuous daughter,” says Lynne. “Day to day, Britney dresses like any other kid.”

Thanks to the video and aggressive marketing by Jive, Spears’s album and single both hit No. 1, making her the youngest female performer to ever accomplish that feat. “That first song was just a killer pop song, and she delivered it well,” says Larry Flick, talent editor at Billboard magazine. Spears’s instant success “was partly because she’s cute and talented,” he adds, “and partly because Jive did such a masterful job of promoting her.” Since the song’s release, life for Spears has been a dizzying blur of concerts, video shoots and TV appearances, as well as home-study high school courses through the correspondence program of the University of Nebraska (Spears has a year of high school left and would love to go to college someday). While her mother often accompanies her to awards shows, family friend Felicia Culotta, 35, travels with her as a sort of chaperone. “And when Britney gets homesick she’ll just hop a plane and come home,” says Lynne. “The longest we’ve been apart is six weeks, which is hard, because she’s still my girl, and I miss her.”

Spears, too, finds it hard to be away from her family. “There are days when I go back to my hotel room and cry for no reason,” she says. “Then I get in the bubble bath and light some candles, and that solves everything.” Her bodyguards and traveling staff wrap Spears in a protective cocoon while she’s on tour, but they can’t always deflect unwanted attention. Recently, Spears was alone in her room in the Four Seasons hotel in L.A., standing on the balcony and chatting with her mom on her cell phone. Then she noticed an older man leering at her from an adjacent balcony. “The balconies were really close, and it freaked me out,” she says. “I ran inside, and I was like, ‘Oh God, Momma, I’m so scared!’ ” Her bodyguards hit the dance floor with Spears when she ventures to a club, but even then she must deal with her share of drooling cretins. “When I just want to dance and there’s a lot of drunk guys just standing there staring at me, it’s like, ‘Eeewwww!’ ” says Spears. “I have to say the older [fans] are creepy. The 40-year-olds, people who are in your face too much. I can’t concern myself with them.”

Another drawback to being globally adored is that most guys her age “are a little intimidated by me,” says Spears. “Do you think they come up to me at parties and chitchat? No. They don’t really say anything and act kind of shy.” Her one serious relationship, with a local Louisiana boy, ended last year, and now Spears insists she’s far too busy to date anyone, much less her rumored beau Justin Timberlake (“We’re just friends,” she swears). Nor does she have a planned Valentine’s Day rendezvous with Prince William, as has been reported in the British press. But while Buckingham Palace denies that the prince and pop princess have exchanged e-mail, Spears’s camp says they have—and it’s no big deal. When Jive Records discovered that William was a fan, they sent him an autographed picture of the singer last September. The prince responded with a personal letter to Spears, says her co-manager Rudolph, kicking off the exchange of e-mail between the young Brit and Britney. Spears, however, won’t divulge if they have met or plan to meet. “He’s very cute and so sweet,” she says. “But people blow things out of proportion.” She does admit to having one new companion: Mitzi, the Yorkshire terrier puppy her parents gave her for Christmas. “We’d go into places, and she would pee everywhere,” says Spears. “But it’s so good, because when I go home I have somebody who misses me.”

Dating woes? Flirting by e-mail? A cute little puppy? Sounds like the life of “a pretty normal girl,” which is how Spears describes herself. She still lives with her parents in the modest three-bedroom ranch-style Kentwood house where she grew up. She’s also partial to pizza, cappuccino and Jackie Collins novels and recently had her belly button pierced over the mild protestations of her mom. “I told her, ‘Oh, Britney, I just don’t like that!’ ” says Lynne. “I know she’s 18 and can make her own decisions. But I didn’t want her making this one.” Then there are her crushes on the usual hunky suspects. “Britney is obsessed with Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck,” says her best friend and cousin Laura Lynne Covington, 18. “I mean, she is really obsessed with them.”

Of course, not many “normal girls” can take a meeting with Affleck, as Spears did last year (they each showed up with a friend to their lunch date at a Planet Hollywood). The singer has also bought a four-bedroom Tudor-style gated house for her family on 7½ acres in Kentwood—a necessity since fans often come right to the door of their current home. This Christmas, Spears bought her mother a white Mercedes sedan to go with the white Mercedes convertible she picked up for herself (Dad got a stainless-steel outdoor grill). “She handed me the keys, and I figured she got something like a Mazda 626,” says Lynne. “Then she blindfolded me and took me outside, and when I saw the Mercedes, I started to cry.”

Not the usual way a teenager brings her mother to tears, but that’s Britney. Raised as a Baptist, she jots her daily prayers in a journal she calls her Bible Book and vows never to get too shocking, like her idol Madonna. “That’s just not me,” says Spears. “I don’t want to go out and be bad and do crazy things.” Perhaps a bigger challenge is not turning into the next Tiffany, the mall-playing pop sensation whose overnight success was followed by overnight obscurity. “I think her next record is going to show she has more talent than everyone gives her credit for,” says Larry Flick. “It helps that she’s the most down-to-earth of all the little divas out there.” Spears is also gearing up to go Hollywood; although scheduling problems scotched a planned guest spot on Dawson’s Creek, she is pondering several movie offers and likes a script that would have her play the President’s rebellious daughter opposite—big surprise—Ben Affleck. “He would have to be in it!” says a blushing Spears. “He is soooo cute.”

Her main priority, however, is maintaining as much normality as the new millennium’s queen of pop can reasonably expect. Recently, she joined her mother for one of their favorite pastimes—a trip to the mall to shop and get manicures. But Spears resisted Lynne’s suggestion that she don a disguise, preferring just to put on a baseball cap. “Stupid, stupid,” says Spears. “All of a sudden people all over the mall are looking at me. The whole [store] entrance was backed up with people! It was overwhelming. A lot of times, I forget that I’m a celebrity.” Teens today—always forgetting something.

Alex Tresniowski

Elizabeth Leonard and Julie Jordan in Los Angeles, Chris Coats in Kentwood and Olivia Abel in New York City

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