Writing about celebrities: On “The Tragedy of Britney Spears” by Vanessa Grigoriadis

by Meagan Flynn

Synopsis: Vanessa Grigoriadis chases down the 1,000-times told tragic downfall story of the iconic Britney Spears at her seemingly lowest point. And she tells it differently than all the rest, of course. Rolling Stone’s February 2008 cover story.

Celebrities are delicate. They’re private about their personal lives but showy about almost everything else. They’re exclusive and shallow. Elusive and rude. Everybody wants to touch them and take pictures of them, and there’s even a profession for stalking them. They keep tabloids alive. Indirectly they pay the salaries of thousands of rabid celeb reporters and photographers.

And yet Vanessa Grigoriadis goes after the most exclusive and elusive, rudest and shallowest one of all: Britney Spears. (Although it’s good to see that Britney has made large strides since then and is no longer the prime example of “American Tragedy.”) But Grigoriadis isn’t writing about how rude or out-of-control or screwed up Britney is like the thousand others have. It’s about how she got to that point.

The key is that Grigoriadis separates herself from the paparazzi, the crazy fans, the I’ll-do-anything reporters, and she becomes a part of the story. Although we don’t see any civilized sit-down interview or any interaction between Grigoriadis and Spears (1 million bucks would’ve done the deal), because Grigoriadis surrounds herself with people close to Britney, we are able to understand her at a level we aren’t used to (read: a level not obsessed with what Britney wore to the mall or how drunk she was at some club last night).

Grioriadis opens with a scene much like any we might be familiar with back in 2008: Britney in a mall, screaming at people trying to follow her, not giving a rat’s ass about her actions. This is the Britney Spears we know. What’s most effective about this profile is how Grigoriadis juxtaposes what we know of the sensationalized, pop-culturized Britney on the surface with the reality of who she once was and who she became. In addition, thoughts from her small circle of those close to her and those who have worked with her provide valuable insight into Britney’s true persona. Directly following the opening scene are two paragraphs that set the stage for how Grigoriadis will present Britney:

If there is one thing that has become clear in the past year of Britney’s collapse — the most public downfall of any star in history — it’s that she doesn’t want anything to do with the person the world thought she was. She is not a good girl. She is not America’s sweetheart. She is an inbred swamp thing who chain-smokes, doesn’t do her nails, tells reporters to “eat it, snort it, lick it, fuck it” and screams at people who want pictures for their little sisters. … … If Britney was really who we believed her to be — a puppet, a grinning blonde without a cool thought in her head, a teasing coquette clueless to her own sexual power — none of this would have happened. She is not book-smart, granted. But she is intelligent enough to understand what the world wanted of her: that she was created as a virgin to be deflowered before us, for our amusement and titillation.

The format to follow: Here’s who the world thought she was; here’s who Britney really is.

Grigoriadis also helps us understand what led to her downfall with a complete account of what led to her pinnacle—from the time she was a young girl growing up in Louisiana, her mother’s never-ceasing push for Britney to be a star, to her debut in the Mickey Mouse Club. Her break-out hit, “…Baby One More Time.” Her transformation from humble, clean-her-own-plate 13-year-old to sexed-up pop-star icon 16-year-old. How she was never given a break. How she was never offered counseling as she entered the realm of fame. Grigoriadis lets it all unfold in a way that allows us to connect the dots between yesterday’s shortcomings (lack of guidance, pushed too hard, bad influences, etc.) with today’s exasperated problems.

When Grigoriadis is presenting the story in present day, she becomes a character in it. From the eyes of Britney’s small circle of quasi-friends and quasi-managers, Grigoriadis is just another reporter trying to get inside Britney’s life. And so part of the story is also about the ins and outs of navigating this exclusive circle of Spears’ haughty connections.

But eventually, occasionally, one of these people will make a comment to Grigoriadis that shows they have something to protect. They’re loyal to Britney Spears. We don’t see her too close-up. We don’t see her personally. But in moments like these, Grigoriadis is able to capture her humanity.

This story is available in more detail in The Sager Group’s Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists.