It is a weird thing to me that the single most pursued, watched and written-about celebrity within the "thirty-mile zone" of Los Angeles continues to be a young woman whose most commercially viable days as a pop musician seem to have come and gone. On the other hand, Britney Spears could always make a real musical comeback. God knows unlikelier things have happened in the long, strange journey that has already been her life, and things lately seem to be looking up.
Will Britney show up at the VMAs? Will she perform? Present? Even speak? How will she look? What will she wear? Who will she be with? A rapt nation will have to wait a few more days for those answers. Meantime, I can't help but recall, as I often do every time that she is back on the public's radar, the first time I met Britney — and the entire Spears clan — in the town she put on the map: Kentwood, Louisiana.
It sounds cliché, but it seems like a lifetime ago — and in Spears Years, January 1999 is another lifetime. " ... Baby One More Time" had just topped the charts, and Kentwood — population 2,000-plus and previously best known for its bottled water and dairy plant — was ready to welcome back its hometown hero. The locals had organized a "Kentwood Karavan" of vehicles to Britney's concert in nearby Baton Rouge, where she was opening for a little band called 'NSYNC. We reminisced with some of Britney's friends about junior-high days and even got an impromptu song from them, but best of all, we were invited to the Spears' home.
This was not the estate in which the family currently resides but the more modest house where Britney grew up, and where we were warmly welcomed by her kin — all of them clearly excited and proud of their girl and all the success coming her way. Older brother Bryan talked about how "weird" it was for people to treat his little sis like a star; mom Lynn remembered how the big three women in pop, Whitney, Mariah and Madonna, had inspired her kid; and tiny Jamie Lynn, only 8 years old (I had to kneel down to talk to her), revealed her favorite Britney song. I had been around "stage families" before, but all things considered, this one seemed remarkably well-adjusted. Maybe most memorably, I even interviewed Britney in her girly-girl bedroom, where it was hard to tell which were more numerous: her talent-show trophies or the dolls in her collection.
Like I said, another lifetime ago. How many chapters in the Britney book have been written since then? And will another one be written this week at the VMAs? Stay tuned.
For more on Brit's history with the Video Music Awards, watch "Pieces of Me: Britney's Best VMA Moments," premiering Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on MTV.