You are just smart enough to know how stupid you are.
In the beginning, you wanted to do things your way. You didn't see why you had to give the answers your handlers wrote for you. You didn't see why your publicist had to approve all the questions first. You wanted to do the type of spontaneous interviews you saw your heroines doing in cool women's magazines, going shopping with the reporter or out to a club, opening up, talking about the things they never want you to talk about.
They're a lot smarter than you. They let you.
Then they let you read the interviews. You read the words on the page, somehow flatter and cheaper than the glossy bright pictures of you next to them. It always takes you a while to order your thoughts, to think about the question and then think about what you want to say. In the interviews, your pauses were stretched out and filled with the snappy snippy thoughts of the writers, college girls all. The thin chatter you used to fill those pauses when they became too awkward sounded a lot less charming filtered through those smart girls' pens. The meaner ones transcribed it word for word. You read the interviews again and again. You memorized the worst ones. You hadn't thought you were quite that stupid.
Now you use the scripts they write for you.
That makes it easier. People still make fun of your stilted answers, but there's a hint of doubt as they do it. They're not sure if you give your rehearsed responses because you're just that stupid, or because you're just that smart. They know they're not in control, but they're not sure who is. They don't know who the joke is on.
Q: About the Las Vegas HBO special - you're dressed like Elvis in all the ads, so are you a big Elvis fan?
You think this is an easy one. Yes, yes, I'm a really big Elvis fan, and you keep babbling. You get a little tangled up in your excitement, words tripping over themselves, and you know you should take a minute to think about what you're saying. The problem is you never have a minute. The pause starts to yawn before you. You see the skeptical eyes of the reporter. You see his pen start to move. You start to talk.
You want to smack yourself when you see his eyes dart around the room. You don't know why he doesn't just start nudging people: Did you hear that? Can you believe she's that dumb? It's your fault, though. You know Elvis wasn't from Vegas, not originally from, because hello, Graceland? You were trying to talk about how so many people remember him from Vegas, though, how he just kept coming back, surprising all the people who thought his career was over. And then how he kept coming back after that, maybe long after he should have, fat and sad, a joke and yet not, something worse than a joke, more bitter, because he had been something great once. And then how he didn't come back anymore. How he couldn't come back anymore. That's not what comes out of your mouth, though, and before you can start to explain, the reporter is covering a laugh with his hand and they're asking you another question.
When they show you the article later, you want to cry. When you talk to Justin on the phone that night, you do. He comforts you. He hates it when you're hurt. Baby, no one cares about that stuff, except boring old men who write stories for boring old men. How are you supposed to know? You weren't even born when he died.
Where was Elvis from? you ask him.
Tupelo, he says without thinking. When you don't say anything, he says, But I'm a Memphis boy. We're, like, born knowing these things.
You let yourself be comforted. His voice is soft but tight when he talks to you. Even though he's far away, states away (he would know how many), you know the look that's on his face. Lips pursed, brow furrowed, eyes dark with fury. You know the next time he's on TV, he will talk about how smart you are.
You used to worry about that. You watched him tell Carson about your intelligence. You watched Chris next to him, one eyebrow slightly lifted in the same look he gave when people talked about you being a virgin. You saw the tolerant amusement on JC's face, the half-masked smile on Joey's. You saw Lance roll his eyes. You worried, because you knew you weren't smart. You didn't understand how Justin didn't see it. He was so much smarter than you. You worried about what would happen when he figured it out.
You don't worry anymore. You know what he means now when he says it.
Q: Do you support the US-led military strikes against Afghanistan?
Sometimes a question sneaks in that wasn't approved, or that's so unexpected they didn't give you a script to study for it. Those are the worst ones.
They're the worst because your first instinct, you know, is never what you should say. You know better than to trust yourself. Your first instinct now is to put your hands on the table and stand up and stare him down. You want to say, Why the hell would you ask me that? I pretend to sing for little girls and I pretend to take my clothes off for old men like you. Who on earth gives a fuck what I think about Afghanistan? But you know better than to say that.
You can't say what you really think either, because you don't know. You can't find the words to tell them how you wake gasping sometimes from nightmares of being buried beneath rubble. You don't know how to tell them that you never know if it's the steel and ash of the towers that you first saw when you were six years old and will always remember, or the dust and stone of half-wrecked hovels in a country you have never seen in all your travels. You lie on your side and catch your breath and watch the boy sleeping next to you. You think about the women who sent boyfriends and husbands off to work with a kiss and a smile, just like you'll send him off tomorrow, and you understand how people can scream for revenge and bray for blood. You watch him sigh in his sleep, and you think about where that blood will come from. You don't know how to sort it out in your head. You don't know how other people can, but they seem to be able to. So you smile, and you stutter, and you try to think of what they told you to say to questions like this.
The writer looks at you with poorly disguised contempt, and you figure you've managed to sound the same as always.
Q: What do you think about the message you send to your young fans? Do you consider yourself a good role model for them?
They always, always ask you this one. You kind of hope you'll be able to answer it the way you want one day. You've thought about it. But there don't seem to be words for what you think.
Part of what you get to say is true. You think you are a good role model. You think girls would be better off if they were more like you. You think they'd be stronger, if they knew what you know. Safer.
You're kind of proud of yourself, because this is something you've figured out on your own. You noticed a long time ago that men wear their bodies differently. They're not like women. Men walk around like their bodies are things they put on, like clothes, for protection or convenience or fun, to hide or to impress or to seduce. Women walk around like their bodies are things that have been put on them, things they've been put into. Like cages.
Men's bodies don't matter. They figure out somehow, in a way women don't, that they aren't their bodies.
You've figured that out too. But somehow it doesn't show, what you've figured out. You're still a woman, after all. People look at your body, and they think they know what it's for. They think they know what you're for. You didn't pick your body; it was given to you. Okay, not all of it, but the basic outline. It's pretty clear what it was meant for. You just -- refined it. Made it better. More suited to what it's suited for. You made the best of what it's made for.
You could have done something else, you guess. Left it alone, or sabotaged it. You could have sliced into your skin, scarred yourself where people could see, where it couldn't be airbrushed out. Or you could have stuffed yourself, let your body fill and swell, just a little. It doesn't take much, you know, to make yourself unfit for what you're made for. If you'd been given something else, some intelligence, hell, even a voice, maybe you would have let yourself. It might have been interesting, you think, to see what people would have thought you were made for if your body didn't look the way it does. It might have been interesting to see what you would have been made for.
But you weren't given anything else. You were given this one thing. As far as you can see, you have two choices. You can use it, or you can let it use you. They tell you it doesn't have to be that way, but you know better. You're not that stupid.
You're going to use it.
Your body is a tool. It's a means to an end. You can dress it up or strip it down, skip as demurely as a schoolgirl or strut as seductively as a whore. You can use it to give everyone exactly what they want without ever giving anything away. You can use it to leave everyone satisfied. You can use it to do your job. Your body is a tool, as neutral as a pen or a gun. It's not anything on its own. It's something you do things with.
They ask you how you justify that. They talk accusingly about the little girls who look up to you, who want to be just like you. They can't see that you've figured out what they have, what all those little girls should know as well. They can't see past your woman's body. They don't want to. They can't believe that your body is like theirs, that it doesn't matter. They don't want to believe it. They can't see that it's just something you put on, the same as the costumes they despise but can't take their eyes off. They want to cage you in your body, to shut you in it and lock you up tight. They want you to let it use you. They want you to be your body.
It's not you.
That's your secret, one you hug close to you. You smile at their questions, your best empty look in your eyes, and you watch them wonder. Are you lying, pretending to be innocent while you work their schoolgirl fantasies? Or are you really that stupid, just a blank slate for the world to chalk dirty pictures on? No matter how long they wonder, they'll never realize you're telling them the truth when you answer. You're just playing dress-up. Not just in the beautiful, expensive costumes, but in your beautiful, expensive body. After all, isn't that all anyone ever does? It's just that some people know it and some people don't.
For once, you don't mind being stupid. Because you're stupid, no one will believe you. They'll never believe that you've figured it out, the one smart thing you've done in your life, and that you're telling the truth. It's easy to keep your secret. No one even wants to take it from you.
You wish Justin could. You'd share it with him. It's the one thing he seems never to have learned. He wears his body, you think, almost like a woman. He wears it like it's a trap instead of a tool. It's like he thinks it's not something he does things with, but something that does things to him.
Justin's body matters, to him and to other people. He lets it matter. He doesn't seem to realize he can refuse. He cried for two days when he cut his hair. You didn't cry when they cut your breasts, when they were bruised and purple for days afterward. You looked in the mirror and touched the scars. Even though they were still raw and sore, even though your body flinched, your smile didn't falter. You knew it didn't matter. You knew it wasn't you.
Justin thinks his body is him, and that's scary enough. What's scarier is that he's a man, not a woman. He grew up as a boy, not a girl. Nobody ever taught him all the things girls are taught automatically, the things you picked up through your skin, the things you needed to survive before you figured out your body wasn't you. The things you need to know when your body matters. Nobody ever taught him that the people who looked at him and smiled weren't smiling at him, but at their reflection in his shine. Nobody ever taught him how to walk through the world and let the leers slide off him without leaving a stain. Nobody ever taught him how to meet people's expectations without ever meeting their eyes. Nobody ever taught him how to give people what they wanted without giving them anything of himself. Nobody ever taught him how to be safe.
You've seen Justin wander through a party, long after you've finished working it. He listens to everyone who talks to him, not just the people he owes. There aren't many of them now, anyway. He smiles, hugs, shakes hands. He always knows exactly what to say. People who are nervous about meeting him relax as he laughs at their best stories. People clinging with frantic fingers to their positions, terrified of being snubbed, expand under his generous gaze. He gives a little piece of himself to everyone who looks at him with longing in their eyes. He gives everyone what he thinks they want. He gives, and he looks down at his empty hands when it's over, wondering what he got back.
Justin thinks that when people look at him, they want him. Nobody ever taught him that they want his body, and that's something entirely different.
Justin likes to leave people happy. He thinks that's what he's made for.
You like to leave people satisfied. That's what you're made for now.
You want to explain this to Justin. It scares you, how he's almost naked like that, right out in public, with people. Except it would be better if he were exposed that way, because that would just be his body. You want to tell him to protect him, so he can protect himself. And it's one thing you have that he doesn't, this knowledge. It's one thing you can give him. You grew up as a girl, and now you think about your body like a man. You can tell him what he needs to know. You can make him safe.
You do your best to choose your words carefully. You know he'll be touchy about it. You know you'll only have one chance.
You fuck it up, of course. You only get a few halting phrases out -- smart, stupid, like a man, like a woman -- before he glares at you and swings out of bed naked. You follow him and he turns on you. You can see in his eyes that you've hurt him, touched some fear that's still tender and hidden. You stupid fucking bitch, and all you can do is nod in agreement. You are stupid. You should have known better than to try. You should have known you could never put it into the right words, words that lack the schoolyard sting. You know it's so easy for him to take this the wrong way.
Justin is sorry later. He pulls you into his arms and strokes your hair. He won't let you try to explain it to him again, though. You whisper that it's all right, that you don't know what you're talking about, that you're stupid. He winces when you say it, and you know he'll hear the echo of his own voice in other people's gibes for a long, long time.
You know that the next time he's interviewed, he'll talk about how smart you are.
Q: You say you're a virgin, but are there other ways that you and Justin work things out?
They find a way to ask this more often than you'd think possible. It always makes you mad, madder than anything. You hate the coy euphemisms, somehow much dirtier than the words themselves would be. You hate the sly looks, as if they're congratulating themselves on their courage. It's not the violation of your privacy that bothers you so much -- you're well aware you sold that a long time ago. It's their assumption that you're that stupid. Like they think you won't know what they're asking. Like they think you'll giggle, and smile, and say, What do we do together? You mean aside from having sex -- oops! Or like you'll look at them solemnly and say, Well, there's the blowjobs, and the mutual masturbation, but they don't count as sex, right?
Of course, they don't really think you'll say that. They don't ask the question so you'll answer. They ask the question so you'll know exactly what they think of you.
They don't bother to hide their disbelief at your response. That makes you laugh sometimes, because it's one of the questions you answer honestly. You don't have sex with Justin. Well, there's the blowjobs, and the mutual masturbation, but they don't count as sex, right?
And truthfully, there's not much of that either. You don't think it's anything you've done. You'll have sex with him if he wants, he knows that. You tell him that. Your mother and your manager have told you over and over again how important it is that people think you're a virgin, but from the way they say it you know they don't believe you still are. Your mother made you go on the pill. She said it was because it'd make your periods regular and clear up your skin, but she didn't look at you when she said it. You tell him that, so he'll know it's okay. He just closes his eyes and puts his mouth in your hair.
It's not that he doesn't want you. He does. And at first he's eager for you, pressing up against you, kissing you desperately, running his hands over your body. You like that. You like the way he sounds even more, the way he moans your name, the way he tells you breathlessly that you're the most beautiful thing he's ever seen.
He makes you come, with his hands and with his mouth. You don't like that as much. You don't like the way your body thrashes and tenses, the way it leaks whimpers and moans. You don't like the way it wants. That's not what it's for. You roll over afterward and lie on your side. You don't want to look at him. He puts a hand on your waist and says, low, Brit, Brit.
You roll back over and return the favor. You know you're doing it right -- you've read the women's magazines. Your picture on one page, ten tips for a blowjob that will blow him away on another. You know you're doing it right -- he gasps, and groans, and clutches at the sheets. But afterward, when he pulls you up against him, he brushes your hair back from your face and looks at you. There is something strange and almost sad in his eyes, so you smile brightly up at him. He says, Brit, Brit and buries his face in your hair.
The next time, you squirm away when his lips slide down your body. You say, Let me, let me, but Justin pushes you back and holds you away from him, at arm's length, and looks at you. Then he mumbles something -- not right, not fair -- and covers his eyes with his hand. You climb on top of him, lay your body over his, wrap his arms around you, tell him you want to have sex. He kisses you again, and you moan and writhe against him. You know you're doing it right -- it's the way your choreographers taught you. But Justin pushes you away.
Brit, you don't. You don't really want to.
I do. I do. Please?
Brit, you don't. You're not even turned on.
I am. Please. I am.
You're not. You think I can't tell? God, that just makes it worse.
You try to tell him that that's just your body, that it isn't what matters. That you want him, and that's what's important. Your body doesn't want. That's not what it's for. You try to tell him that your body is a tool, a means to an end. But then you see that he isn't even hard anymore. You're stupid, but you know that means the argument is over.
Justin pushes you away again and sits up on the edge of the bed. He puts his head in his hands. You lie there watching him and thinking about how stupid you are. Of course you didn't explain it to him right. You look at his back as he sits there, and you know it's what he'll look like leaving you. You make a small sound then, and he sighs and lies back down and pulls you against him. He studies your face. It's all right, it's all right, go to sleep, it's all right. Go to sleep. You do. You know it must be all right. Justin is a lot smarter than you.
Now you mostly just sleep together. You kiss for a while sometimes, but not for too long. Mostly you just lie tangled together in the bed, his naked skin warm and smooth against yours. You sleep together.
You like that best anyway.
Q: What can you tell us about your relationship with Justin?
You like when they ask you about Justin. It might be the only thing they do that you like.
Even though it's a question that you have words for, too many words, you still have to give the scripted ones first. You talk about how girls are strong on their own, how they don't need men, how they shouldn't. You even believe it.
But you can never just leave it there. It seems wrong in some way, cheating, cheap, not to try to tell them what Justin is to you. It's not that you need him, exactly. Because things you need are things you can't live without, and you know you'd live without him. It's because of how you'd live without him that you tell the reporters you thank God for him every day.
You know you shouldn't have Justin. You've heard the stories, you've seen the Behind the Musics. You know what you should have, and it's not the shining smart boy in your bed. Your fate is a man twice your age, three times even, a manager or a record exec. He drapes you in diamonds and you marry him in a white gown that makes you look like Snow White. You live the fairy tale for a while. He keeps you famous and on top of the charts until you start to show your age, then you fade back quietly into his huge house. He leaves you eventually, for another Snow White, and you start on your career as the wicked stepmother. You make a comeback in a cheesy Vegas show, vulgar and loud. Drag queens love you. You are a joke, nothing but a joke, and you're grateful for the chance to mock yourself for money on second-rate sitcoms and quiz shows. That's what you're made for.
And that's the good version.
The bad version starts out the same -- the old man, the fairy tale wedding. But in this version, he takes your money with him when he runs off with Snow White, and you're left with nothing. You try to make a comeback, but no one seems to have missed you. There's another man then, a second husband whose best quality is the fact that he's even stupider than you are, too stupid to rip you off. You're not even a joke, because no one remembers the punchline.
Justin saves you from that just by not being what he's not. Sometimes in your dreams you see that alternate -- no, that potential future, and you wake yourself up to stare at Justin, to touch his arm lightly and feel the solid muscle beneath your hand. As long as he's there, you can believe what he tells you when he opens his eyes and sees you watching him. You can believe that he loves you, and that he'll never leave you, and that he'll take care of you. He believes it all.
Sometimes you wake up not because of your dreams but because of the pressure of his hand on your arm. You open your eyes and see him watching you. There's something in his gaze you almost recognize. You think he may have dreams of his own keeping him awake. Maybe there's something else he thinks he's made for. In the desperate gleam of his eyes in the dark, you see your reflection over and over again -- a string of Snow Whites who all look a lot like you, ageless on his arm, expensive bodies and eager smiles, the flash of the cameras polishing them to a perfect prettiness. Empty maids all in a row. You pull him into your arms and let him murmur to you. I'll take care of you. Never leave you. Love you forever. You believe everything but the last word. He believes it all.
In the morning you both get up. He goes back to the group and the guys and the glare and you go back to dancing and pretending to sing and answering questions.
In the morning Justin tells reporters how smart you are, and you tell them how he'll love you forever.
You are just smart enough to know how stupid you are.
That's what gets you out of bed in the morning, what drags you through sixteen hours of rehearsals, what makes you smile for the endless barrage of questions. You're stupid, and the world is not kind to the stupid. It's not much kinder to the smart, maybe. You wouldn't know about that. But as far as you can tell, it is very kind to the rich.
You need money.
Sometimes when you're dancing, head thrown back and body arched, or listening to their questions, eyes wide and lips parted, you think about money. You picture it like you've seen it in cartoons, bags with dollar signs on them and small tidy gold bars. You think about those bags and bars piling up around you, so high that no one can see you behind them. When that pile is high enough, you can leave the questions behind. Until then, you keep dancing and smiling. You're already twenty; you don't have many more years of this in you.
You need money.
So during the day you thrust and giggle and grin and moan. You let yourself dream of money. At night, you run your fingers through Justin's hair. He tells you that you'll run away together, leave it all behind, live just the two of you in a big house with a bigger fence around it, so high that no one can see you behind it, so thick that the glare of the lights can't penetrate it. You'll be alone together, forever. The story always stops there. Neither of you is sure what happens when you're behind that fence, in the dark, with no one watching. Forever.
Night after night, Justin repeats the story, his mouth working the words like worry beads. Night after night, he whispers it into your skin before he closes his eyes and dreams of forever.
You never let yourself dream of forever.
You're not that stupid.
*note: all questions are adapted from actual questions Britney has been asked. The first and fourth question were asked at a Jive roundtable teleconference reported in Salon. The second question was from a different interview, also reported in Salon. The other questions are asked all the time.