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Monday, June 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Snap, smack, chomp: Britney's image goes pop

The Washington Post

The Britney Spears interview on NBC's "Dateline" offered several lessons worth noting, the most significant of which is to remove large wads of gum from one's mouth before engaging in conversation. One surefire way to nick one's public image is to go on national television chomping open-mouthed like a shill for Bubblicious.

It is also best not to wear a denim miniskirt so short that when seated it practically disappears beneath the protuberance of one's pregnant belly, producing an image that is more gynecological than fashionable.

Instead of making a statement about the sexiness of impending motherhood, it suggests that the mother-to-be appears to be unfamiliar with the usefulness of a full-length mirror and the term "ho-gear."

Spears fidgeted, blathered and wept through the June 15 interview, and one couldn't help but gape in amazement at her astonishing aesthetic meltdown. It's hard to recall the last time someone as famous as Spears — without any accompanying substance-abuse rumors — appeared so startlingly, slovenly wretched.

The pop singer's golden glow of stardom has been dimming, but this was the moment when it dropped below the horizon.

Spears agreed to the interview ostensibly to improve her image, which has been battered by the media. Photographers snapped her while she was driving with her infant son on her lap; she was videotaped nearly dropping him after stumbling on a New York street. There have been myriad unflattering shots of her munching Cheetos. The rumor mill churns that her marriage to Kevin Federline is on the skids.

During the "Dateline" interview, Spears tearfully implored the paparazzi to leave her alone. Her pleas were reasonable and tugged at the heart. One came close to forgetting that she had encouraged the attention with her provocative videos, snake-charming stage performance, open-mouthed Madonna-kissing, 15-minute marriage, grotesquely narcissistic reality show and second husband known for displaying the tawdry, laconic demeanor of a pimp on weed.

But it was hard to concentrate on Spears's call for a cease-fire. Pearlized eye shadow was caked on her lids. Her cheeks looked as though they had been smudged with cherry soda. Her lips appeared to be slathered with Bonne Bell Lip Smackers. Her hair looked over-bleached and uncombed.

Focus, focus, focus! A young woman was weeping. She was being pulled down by the pop-culture undertow. She was begging for mercy. All the while, the gum continued to smack and crackle in her mouth. Her tears were dislodging her false eyelashes.

Why would Spears, with money and style professionals at her disposal, greet a television crew looking so terribly two-bit? In the world of celebrities, physical perfection — or the appearance of it — is a requirement of the job.

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But Spears wore her do-it-yourself raggedness with rigorous intent. If the point of the interview was to curry sympathy and concern from viewers, then Spears reached for a costume to make her pitch.

Here were the inarticulate mewlings of a starlet who has plummeted from her pedestal — a free fall without the safety net of a stylist. See what the paparazzi have done to me? See what the rumors have wrought?

Putting on the composed, glamorous face would have sent mixed signals during this please-remember-I'm-human interview. (And Spears was certainly in a defensive crouch, appearing so beaten down that interviewer Matt Lauer at one point noted that she seemed to be looking at him like a pleading puppy.)

The clothes — a miniskirt and sheer baby-doll top — looked like something that a teenager might wear. They had the effect of making Spears look unsophisticated and wretchedly vulnerable.

They were not the sexy clothes of a confident woman defending herself or standing up for her man. These were schoolgirl clothes turned discomforting and grotesque because their seams were being tested by a pregnant woman who seemed bewildered.

Spears went on television having dismantled her polished celebrity persona. She called herself "country." She announced herself as average rather than unique. She claimed to be just like all the viewers — give or take a gazillion dollars.

And she gave the impression that the clothes had been chosen because they were accessible and ordinary. She was dressing, she seemed to think, the way an average six- or seven-month-pregnant woman might outfit herself for a lazy day in the privacy of her own backyard.

But there was a TV crew in Spears' backyard. And she stood in front of the public and asked not to be judged because she's just another nervous new mother, another woman trying to make her marriage work, an Everywoman just like you.

Her words might have been sincere, but in her plea for understanding, her clothes delivered a sloppy, coarse, undignified message. In her bid for empathy, Spears overreached and underdressed. And what she provoked was the worst reaction of all — head-shaking pity.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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