January 19, 2004 12:00 PM

In the wee hours of Jan. 3, after watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in their $10,000-a-night suite at the Palms Casino Hotel, Britney Spears and her childhood pal Jason Allen Alexander were itching for a little excitement. They got it. Around 3:30 a.m., after a brief visit to the ghostbar, a swanky nightspot on the 55th floor, they asked the bar bouncers for a limousine. In the lobby, a bellman who doubles as a driver escorted the pair to the hotel’s lime-green courtesy limo and asked them where they wanted to go. “Take us to a chapel,” Spears answered.

As the limo, pop music filling its interior, cruised along Las Vegas’s celebrated Strip, Spears and Alexander made out. The first two chapels they came upon were closed, but Spears told the driver to keep going. Finally they came upon A Little White Wedding Chapel, where lights were on and the door was open. Inside, says a witness to the proceedings, the pair were told they needed a license to marry. Hopping back in the green limo, the soon-to-be-weds continued kissing and hugging until the car pulled up to the Clark County Marriage License Bureau. As the two 22-year-olds waited to plunk down $55 in cash for a license, Spears “really didn’t say anything,” says Linda Wells, one of three people working the graveyard shift that night. “She was just kind of quiet.”

If the magnitude—or stupidity—of what she was about to do was beginning to sink in, the pop world’s most unpredictable princess didn’t let that stop the fun. At 5 a.m. she and Alexander returned to the chapel, where they were ushered into the Michael Jordan room, a 20-by-50-ft. sanctuary with white benches, each dotted with a burgundy velvet cushion, and lined with white candles and flowers. (The basketball star wed there in 1989.) As Spears whipped out a credit card to pay for the $200 wedding, which included photos, a bouquet of pink roses and a video, the $100 million performer exclaimed about how expensive the package was.

“Too bad no one’s here to give you away,” the driver said. With a look of surprise, Spears said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” then asked if he’d perform the task. The pastor hit a remote, and the strains of “The Wedding March” filled the room. Arm-in-arm with the driver, Spears glided down the aisle past 10 empty pews in a belly-baring black shirt, torn jeans and sneakers, her hair tucked carelessly beneath a baseball cap. In a nod to tradition, she sported a white garter, acquired at the chapel, that she’d pulled over her left pant leg. Seven minutes later, after minister Ian Schonken proclaimed Spears and Alexander husband and wife, the newlyweds locked in a long and passionate kiss, and the limo driver said, “Congratulations!” As the couple exited, “they were smiling and laughing,” says another witness. “But it didn’t seem like, Oh, this is the love of her life.”

Perhaps because it wasn’t. Just 11 hours later, after the pair called their respective families and, as Alexander put it, “all hell broke loose,” the newlyweds appealed for an annulment. Citing a failure to “know each other’s likes and dislikes, each other’s desires to have or not have children, and each other’s desires as to state of residency,” the formal request concluded, “they are so incompatible that there was a want of understanding of each other’s actions in entering into this marriage.” Two days later it was all over but the memories.

One question remains, however: What were they thinking? Was this evidence of a Spears meltdown? A misguided attempt to convince the world she’s no longer a teeny-bopper princess? An impetuous gesture springing from deep feelings that neither have owned up to? Or was it all just a p.r. gimmick? “This is by no means a publicity stunt,” says Lizzie Grubman, Spears’s former rep. “What good could come out of this?”

People close to Spears and Alexander vigorously deny that the two wacky kids from Kentwood, La., were in an alcoholic haze when they exchanged vows. “They weren’t drunk,” says Doreen Seal, 45, Alexander’s mother. “It’s just a moment that got out of control, and there was no one there to stop them. They made a mistake and then they fixed it.” Lance Bass, who, unlike his ‘N Sync bandmate and Spears’s ex Justin Timberlake, remains close to Britney, spent an hour with the pop diva in her suite soon after Alexander headed back to Kentwood late the afternoon of his wedding day. “Young people do stupid things every day,” says Bass. “She was of sound mind. It’s just a moment where a joke went too far.”

Just ask Britney’s mom, Lynne, 48, who helps manage Spears’s career. Says Seal: “Lynne hit the roof.” Within hours of Britney’s phone call to report she’d gotten hitched, Lynne had flown from Kentwood to join her daughter in the Palms’ N9ne Steakhouse, where an annulment powwow was already under way involving the newlyweds, Spears’s brother Bryan, 26, her manager Larry Rudolph, Palms owner and longtime friend George Maloof Jr. and the pop star’s newly hired attorney David Z. Chesnoff. “There were not many happy campers,” says an eyewitness.

Adults more removed from the soap opera—but connected to Spears’s professional life—have a harsher take on Britney’s high jinks. “She doesn’t have good advisers,” says a member of her management team. “The mother just wasn’t prepared for [stardom]. She doesn’t have any control over Britney. In some ways, Britney was the parent.” Another source, who formerly worked with Spears, echoes that sentiment in spades, saying that her advisers are amateurs, that she rarely listens anyway and that the whole lot “think they know the game, but they don’t.”

For now the trouble seems to be contained. In what Las Vegas attorneys term a remarkably fast turnaround, Spears and Alexander were granted a formal annulment Jan. 5, putting her fortune off-limits from any claims by Alexander. (However, Jason, a junior at Southeastern Louisiana University, reportedly has hired a publicist to handle media inquiries.)

But in her passage from teenybop phenom to tarty pop diva, Spears has often seemed wildly out of control, particularly since her March 2002 public split with Timberlake (who is now seriously involved with actress Cameron Diaz), followed two months later by her parents’ divorce. The night she and Alexander landed in Las Vegas, after having spent much of the Christmas holiday together in Kentwood, reports circulated that she was drunk in the Palms’ ghostbar nightclub. “She was just tired from a long trip,” Palms owner Maloof responded. The incident echoed a series of such reports over the last year of Spears allegedly partying heavily in night spots in both the U.S. and Europe.

And then there was the acting out. It’s impossible to know if Spears’s lip-lock with Madonna in August at the MTV Video Music Awards counts as a mistake—or a miracle of well-timed publicity for someone about to come out with a new CD. But as In the Zone was about to hit U.S. shelves, Spears suffered another self-admitted lapse of judgment. After appearing topless on the cover of Rolling Stone in October, she graced the November cover of Esquire, sans panties. Sounding regretful, she explained to Newsweek, “I had, like, eight Red Bulls and said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ I learned my lesson.”

What, if any, lesson she might draw from her latest escapade is impossible to predict. “She is a happy-go-lucky kid,” says a source close to Spears. “I’m sure she didn’t think it would be this big a deal.” A friend agrees: “Maybe it’s something about Las Vegas. I don’t think she knew how serious it was to get married.” Alexander’s own explanation supports that claim. “We was just like, ‘Let’s go do something wild and crazy and, and, uh, let’s go get married just for the hell of it,’ ” he told Access Hollywood. “We wasn’t really wanting anything to be official, you know, like the official marriage thing.”

Spears’s closest intimates, most from her Kentwood childhood, are probably best poised to know whether her trip down the aisle was a lark or a desperate grab for security. But they’ve swiftly closed ranks. “We’ve all talked it over and decided we won’t say anything,” says Jansen Fitzgerald, who, along with Cortney Brabham and Spears’s cousin Laura Lynne Covington, form a tight-knit coterie around Britney. Fitzgerald, who along with Brabham accompanied Spears to Las Vegas, was stunned to awake to the news. “They do many things together,” says a source close to the Fitzgerald family. When the time came for Spears to get married, she adds, “I guess Jansen expected she’d be there.” Many of Alexander’s Louisiana pals were less surprised. “It wasn’t surprising that it was those two,” Douglas Glass, 22, who’s known Alexander since their days together in peewee football, says of the no-longer-weds. “It’s not the first time they’ve come up with something crazy to do together.” (He declined to elaborate.) Blair Easley, 22, a homemaker who’s known Alexander since high school, concurs: “I’m shocked that he got married like that, but at the same time, I’m not shocked. You never know what he’s going to do.” Only one friend detected any serious feelings between Spears and Alexander. “I think he sincerely cares about her,” Corie Miller, 22, whom Alexander dated for years until last fall, told Inside Edition. “He thought it would last.” Glass warned, “Once he sees Britney is making him look like the fool, no way will he sit back and take it, even if Britney tells him not to talk.”

For now, Spears is lying low and trying to focus on work. She was due in Miami Jan. 7 to shoot a trailer for a Showtime concert special, but the swarm of paparazzi that preceded her to Florida, having heard of her plans, may convince Spears’s camp to shift her schedule around. She is also prep-ping for the March 2 launch of her two-month, 25-city concert tour to promote In the Zone, which opened at No. 1 on the Billboard chart last November and has since dropped to No. 10. “She doesn’t care what people think, not anymore,” says one of her former dancers. “She may be trying to prove, I’m not that same little bubblegum pop singer I used to be. This is who I am now. Accept it, or don’t.’ ”

Jill Smolowe. Michael Fleeman, Sean Daly and Kate Silver in Las Vegas, Michael Haederle and Ellise Pierce in Kentwood, Paul Greenberg in Hammond, Alicia Dennis in Austin, Brenda Rodriguez and Marisa Laudadio in Los Angeles, Linda Trischitta in Miami and KC Baker, Maria Eftimiades and Liza Hamm in New York City

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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