Britney's smoke signals new image
By THOMAS ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer
Britney Spears, America's princess of pop, the resolutely virginal former Mouseketeer who once declared alcohol and tobacco "yucky," was photographed this week holding a lit cigarette.
Not that innocent? Indeed.
While Spears' lighting up may not have the cultural impact of, say, John Lennon's declaration that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, it's an intriguing moment all the same. For a lot of pop-obsessed youngsters, it's a discouraging sign that their squeaky-clean role model has become just another jaded celeb.
And for Spears, now 20, portraying herself as grown up is just another career move.
The photograph, which was taken by a freelance photographer as Spears stood on the balcony of her hotel room in Sydney, Australia, shows an apparently startled Spears trying to find her way through billowing curtains that blocked her escape.
The photo first appeared in the Sun tabloid of London on April 30. Sun gossip columnist Dominic Mohan quoted an onlooker as saying, "She seemed to be puffing on a fag (cigarette). She was just standing there but suddenly freaked and ran inside.
"Of course, I could be wrong and she may actually have been holding the cig for a pal. But who's going to believe the shabby excuse teen smokers always tell mum?"
Our little Britney?
Actually, Spears' real followers likely aren't shocked at all. For the last couple of years, the singer and her handlers have carefully been orchestrating her image transformation with increasingly suggestive song lyrics (a recent hit: I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman), revealing costumes and a stage act sexy enough for Vegas. But she's still a mainstay of kid-oriented Radio Disney.
At the same time, the media has been documenting her every little "slip" -- that is, if they really are slips. She smokes, she drinks, uses foul language, has shacked up with her now-ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake of 'N Sync. But the smoking seems of particular interest.
The Web site smokingsides.com lists dozens of media accounts of Spears' recent escapades (or Spearscapades), including these:
"At the Moritz-Bastei disco in Leipzig, Germany, Britney downed white Russians, pina coladas and ... soul kiss cocktails. Britney was also seen puffing away on Marlboro cigarettes." Scottish Daily Record, Nov. 3, 2000.
"During the evening, while she smoked and drank white wine, Britney was treated to a live show by a trans-sexual woman." London Daily Star, Mar. 21, 2002.
"She's taken up puffing Marlboro Lights." New York Daily News, April 19, 2002.
The old Britney answered questions with "yes sir" and "no sir," said she wasn't going to have sex until she was married, and insisted that smoking and drinking were "yucky."
The new Britney dances with snakes, tears her clothes off (almost), gyrates with Steven Tyler and sings about being someone's love slave.
Few pop stars have been packaged and sold the way Spears has. She has also made it clear that she's participating in the campaign.
Case in point: She showed up on Saturday Night Live last year insisting that she didn't have breast implants, while fake breasts under her sweater were rolling around her chest like grapefruit on a sailboat.
It was a hysterical sketch. It also moved her closer to an adult audience.
And she is, after all, an adult.
"She's 20 years old, for crying out loud," says Bill Edwards, president of Big 3 Records, the St. Petersburg label whose teen pop female trio MPress landed a Top 10 Billboard single last year. The group performed on Spears' HBO special and also opened for her last November in Las Vegas. "She was hanging out on a balcony somewhere in a private moment and -- I hate to put it this way -- it looks like somebody was trying to take a picture of her butt. C'mon, give me a break."
Edwards says he doesn't believe the cigarette flap will cause Spears any harm with young fans.
"I just can't figure how major that can be," he said. "I think she had her privacy invaded. It's not as if she was smoking a cigarette on stage, or walking down the street smoking. To me, this isn't about how it will affect her young fans, it's about sensationalism."
Perhaps, but it also could be The Making of a Pop Star, Part II.
The people left behind are Spears' younger fans. What do they make of all this?
"I think she's kind of fake," said Brooke Hellwege, 13, an eighth-grader at Grace Lutheran School in St. Petersburg. "I used to like her when she first came out. But now I think she kind of puts on a fake image. She's a hypocrite. In magazine articles, she acts like a good girl. But she puts on a bad girl image in her concerts. Most of my friends don't like her, either."
Abigail Campbell, 7, doesn't like Spears anymore because "once she was like on TV and she said to not smoke and then she started smoking."
She likes Spears' voice, her clothes and her dancing. But she's not going to listen any more. She's switching to Christina Aguilera. (Though Aguilera, noted recently for her crotch-grabbing dance on the Lady Marmalade video, isn't exactly pristine.)
Okay. Maybe a tobacco company would want to hop on the Spears Express as a sponsor?
"Uh, no," said Jan Smith, a representative of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. "I can tell you we never considered having a brand presence where she is performing. Any events we do are shows clearly aimed at an audience over 21."
Hang around. Britney will be there soon.
-- Times staff writers Sharon Fink and Dave Scheiber contributed to this report.
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