There has been drink and drugs, partying and night-clubbing, sex romps and behaviour bordering on nervous breakdown. All has led her inexorably to this tragic moment.
Her face crumpled like a demolished building, shoulders rocking with sobs, Britney Spears emerged from her lawyer’s Beverly Hills office this week crushed by the latest debacle in her increasingly bitter child custody battle with ex-husband Kevin Federline.
Through the tears streaming down her cheeks can be seen the belated realisation that the 25-year-old tormented pop siren could lose both her children: Sean, aged 23 months, and 11-month-old Jayden.
So how has it come to this? When she first burst on to the pop scene less than a decade ago as the ultimate teenage pop siren, her future seemed assured. Her debut hit, Hit Me Baby One More Time, was a multi-million selling hit.
Everything she touched in its immediate aftermath seemed similarly to turn to gold.
Yet this week she finds herself estranged from her parents, only ever in the news for her erratic and troubled behaviour in public, and now facing a fight to hold on to her two sons.
In the past week, Federline, the 29-year-old dancer turned failed rap singer, has ambushed three of Spears’ closest confidantes with subpoenas ordering them to testify about her supposedly appalling parenting skills, as he aims to prove she is an unfit mother.
Among the potentially devastating allegations: Spears screams at her boys in a rage, gets drunk in front of them, feeds them coffee and soda in baby bottles, and lets them fester in filthy nappies for hours.
"Kevin is concerned about the well-being of his kids," says an insider.
She treats her children as if they were toys
Federline’s lawyer, Mark Kaplan, says: "Kevin would like as much custody as he can get, because he feels that the children would benefit by that.
"Kevin is very serious about this case. We’ll pursue aggressively obtaining relevant information."
Two of Spears’ former nannies have already spilled the beans, and other former security staff are coming forward out of concern for the children, the insider reveals.
"They’ll recount stories of her being an unfit mother, whatever incidents they can remember," says the source.
But reducing Spears to tears this week was the threat that her own mother may be called to testify against her.
Lynne Spears, aged 52, has long been critical of her daughter’s parenting skills, and Britney has severed ties with her as she increasingly sides with Federline. Britney even drove to a distant TV film set recently to personally hand her mother a legal letter demanding that she stop interfering in her grandchildren’s lives.
"If her mother turns against her in court, that would be like a stake through Britney’s heart," says a friend. "But it may come to that, if those children are to be helped."
Lynne was so concerned for her grandchildren, at one point she even considered filing for custody herself, a family friend claims. "Lynne was ready to file herself, and exercise her grandparent’s rights," says the friend.
Spears’ rift with her mother, Lynne, aged 52, has grown in recent years. Lynne Spears is one of the rare showbusiness mums who acts as the voice of reason, urging her daughter to quit her hard drinking and partying, and seek professional help.
Mother and daughter were once as close as sisters, constant companions as Britney rose from TV’s Club Disney Mouseketeer to teen pop idol.
Publicly Lynne has been supportive, saying: "It’s sad that the whole world had to watch her make mistakes that all of us have made at one time or another."
But privately she has been urging Britney to start behaving like a responsible mother, and has been very supportive of Federline’s fatherly concern.
Britney’s parents divorced in 2002, but her father Jamie has also been backing Lynne’s campaign for Britney to clean up her act, earning him his daughter’s scorn.
Even Britney’s 16-year-old sister, Jamie Lynn has antagonised the troubled star, angry at Spears’ refusal to clean up her act.
Spears’ tempestuous two-year marriage to Federline ended last November, and at first he agreed to joint custody, also receiving £7,500 a month in child support from Spears.
Yet even while together, her mothering skills were called into question. In his first year, Sean was rushed to hospital after falling out of his high chair, rode in his mother’s lap in a 45mph drive to Starbucks, had his car seat loosely strapped in the wrong way in the back of a convertible, and was almost dropped on the street when Spears exited a New York hotel with him in one arm and a glass in the other.
As Federline’s lawyer Kaplan explains: "Kevin is concerned that the more time the children spend with him, the more insulated they are from risks."
When the couple first divorced, Federline did not see that much of his boys, but in recent months they have come to rely on him as an unlikely rock of stability in their hectic lives.
"When the kids are with Britney, she calls Kevin every night because he has to talk to them or they won’t go to sleep," says a source close to Federline’s family. "They are just much closer to him."
The children have also been uprooted since Spears put both her Los Angeles homes – a £3.75 million Beverly Hills mansion, and £3 million Malibu beach house – up for sale this summer, moving her sons into a £600-a-night hotel suite.
One friend tried to explain the chaos that surrounds Spears’ boys: "She wants to be comfortable with them, but doesn’t have it in her. So she just shuts them up and treats them like toys. She is just so used to being the kid herself that it’s babies having babies."
An insider who worked in Spears’ home was reported as saying that the singer would often call for the nanny to bring her the babies, and after holding them for just ten minutes would say: "I’m done now – you can take them."
Sometimes the boys even have trouble recognising their own mother, who changes her look almost daily, whether bald, wearing numerous wigs of varying colours and lengths, or dying her hair.
Adding to Federline’s fears for his children are Spears’ mood swings, which have come to terrify her revolving door of staff. She is often crying, or bursts into sudden rages, a source claims.
"Her staff is often petrified because they never know what will make her snap," says an insider, who often heard the singer ask nannies: "Why can’t you make them stop crying? What’s wrong with you?"
In past meltdowns she has shaved her head bald and gone on the attack with an umbrella, and recently in Las Vegas allegedly threatened to kill a paparazzi. Last month she stormed out of a photo shoot taking with her designer dresses, shoes and jewellery.
Even her friends admit that Spears is not prepared to give up living the Hollywood wild life just because she is a mother to two children.
"There’s no law that says you have to sit down by a fireside, drink hot cocoa and knit simply because you’ve had a couple of kids," says a friend. "She’s still 25, and wants to enjoy life."
But Federline is understood to be lining up psychologists who will testify that children need the stability of a parent in the home, without a stream of nannies, bodyguards, confidantes and men in Spears’ life trooping through their houses and hotel suites.
Last month Spears supplied Federline with more ammunition when she frolicked topless in the rooftop pool at the Standard Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, stripped to her underwear and surrounded by young men she had just met.
"She was obviously very comfortable with undressing,"says 21-year-old student Matt Encinas, who shared kisses with Spears in the pool. "We were drinking and having a good time."
Spears had just finished shooting a music video – in which she plays a stripper and performs a pole dance – in her struggle to stage a musical comeback after more than three years without releasing a new recording.
She could have headed home to spend time with her children, but as Spears’ then-assistant Shannon Funk told a group of young men including Encinas: "Britney’s not having a good time right now, and she wants to get away from all this. Do you want to come back with us and hang out?"
Her musical comeback is weighing heavily on Spears, friends admit, and she is even paying to shoot her music video herself, as record label Jive is uncertain how – or if – it will use it.
"She’s worried that musical tastes have changed, her fans have grown up, and she could be a has-been at 25," says an insider. "That’s a lot to worry about, without having to think of your kids."
Falling out with her mother has only added to Spears’ isolation. "She doesn’t have people around her to guide her in being a mother," says a family friend. "Her circle is quite small right now. No mum. She’s out. Same with dad."
Spears’ friends are fighting back, claiming that Federline’s alleged concern for his boys is really just a cynical ploy to squeeze a few million more out of Spears.
But his lawyer Kaplan insists: "I can tell you unequivocally that this has nothing to do with finances. Kevin has never made finances a link to custody."
Federline’s sister Alisha Federline confesses: "The whole thing, how it is working out, is saddening. He just loves his kids and that is pretty much what it takes to be a good dad."
Despite their concerns, friends of Spears fear what would happen if she lost custody of her boys.
"I don’t know that she could handle it," says a close friend. "That might be more than she could bear. If you think she’s troubled now, you don’t want to imagine how she could be if Kevin got the kids."
But if the custody battle comes to court, a judge will decide the case based only on what is best for Sean and Jayden – and Spears may have a lot more crying yet to do.
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