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After nearly derailing her career, Britney Spears may be back on track

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The Orlando Sentinel (MCT) - She's been bubble-gum cute, a Lolita vixen, a mom, a mess.

Highlights

By Jim Abbott
McClatchy Newspapers (www.mctdirect.com)
3/5/2009 (1 decade ago)

Published in Music

And now, Britney Spears is back again, as the Comeback Kid.

When the pop star's "Circus" tour pulls into the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday, it'll be a splashy tent revival with magic and acrobats. At times, the singer will be perched atop a giant umbrella, suspended from the ceiling and sawed in half as part of a magician's routine.

Like a good magic trick, her comeback defies expectations, too. "Circus" yielded the pulsating hit "Womanizer," that put Spears, 27, at the top of the pop singles chart for the first time since "Baby, One More Time" in 1998. The song's one-week ascension from No. 96 to No. 1 set a Billboard record.

And although she's in the midst of a breach-of-contract lawsuit involving a former manager, the singer's outrageous, occasionally panty-less tabloid exploits are in the past tense _ for now, at least. In a music industry that is struggling, her tour is one of the bright spots.

"If you are deemed a must-see attraction, people are still ponying the money up," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar magazine. "A good example is the Britney Spears tour. It went on sale in the middle of the meltdown, and business has been very good."

The transition from death watch to rebirth is just the latest chapter in a story that started in Central Florida.

Before K-Fed and the tabloids, before the shaved head, unbuckled toddlers and MTV awards-show debacle, Spears was one of the fresh faces of a new generation of an American institution, "The Mickey Mouse Club," taped at Disney-MGM Studios.

That promising beginning, in a cast that also included Justin Timberlake, JC Chasez and Christina Aguilera, showcased singing and dancing skills often forgotten in the tabloid turmoil.

"She's a talented entertainer," said Alex Greggs, a Winter Park, Fla., producer who worked in the studio extensively with Spears during the time of 2003's "In the Zone."

"There's a big difference between a music artist and an entertainer," Greggs said. "She's a really talented singer, but she seemed to put that in the back seat and she concentrated on image _ destroying that old image to prove to everyone that she's grown-up now."

The initial solo stardom, of course, was attached to the sticky bubble-gum of "Baby, One More Time" and "Oops! ... I Did It Again," songs that helped birth the 1990s teen-pop craze.

She sold more than 83 million records worldwide, to rank eighth on the Recording Industry Association of America's list of female artists.

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Then she got weird.

In January 2004, there was the quickie, 55-hour marriage to childhood friend Jason Alexander, with vows exchanged at the Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas.

That summer, she returned to the altar to marry Kevin Federline, a back-up dancer who already was in a relationship with pregnant actress Shar Jackson. Federline and Spears detailed their personal lives in a short-lived reality TV show and eventually had two children.

Even more than her nights on the town with Paris Hilton or encounters with the paparazzi, it was reports of Spears' erratic treatment of the children that turned things from curious to tragic.

It was a little more than a year ago that police were called to her home after she refused to relinquish custody, an incident that ended with Spears being held for psychiatric evaluation at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

There was new music, such as 2007's "Blackout," but the singer's full-time job was being the world's biggest celebrity train wreck.

"If we're willing to consume it, there are those willing to make money off it, if someone is willing to cooperate by behaving badly," said Robert Thompson, founder for the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

The tragedy of the Spears decline, Thompson says, was that her fame started with talent, unlike some others.

"There's a type of celebrity out there that has become the modern-day equivalent of the jester _ and some start out that way," Thompson said. "Anna Nicole Smith started out that way."

Spears' discovery on the "Mickey Mouse Club" was the stuff of American dreams.

"We've made movies about this kind of story for years and years," Thompson says.

"A hometown girl grabs the brass ring and becomes a star. 'Oops! ... I Did It Again,' I don't care what anybody says, that's a great song. She was a pop star in the old-fashioned sense of the word."

With a little magic, the comeback kid can do it again.

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Jim Abbott: jabbott@orlandosentinel.com

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© 2009, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

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