Britney Spears didn’t want to be my role model. It didn’t stop it from happening.
I crossed off a bucket list item in Las Vegas last weekend, thanks to my mother who gave me the most excellent birthday present of my life: Britney Spears concert tickets.
I had just turned 12 when Britney and her scandalous-for-1998 midriff first appeared on my TV. For those of you who’ve forgotten or were somehow blessed with a childhood that didn’t include an awkward phase, 12 is a horrible year to be a young person—especially a young girl in middle school who discovers boys around the same time she discovers self-consciousness.
At a time when everything about puberty was something I wanted no part of, there was Britney in all her confident teenage glory. And I, like millions of others of young people around the world, idolized her.
Of course, the majority of my high school memories of Britney’s career had little to do with her success and everything to do with her body and personal life. Did she have breast implants? Why does she show so much skin? Does she have SEX?
WITH JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE?
I remember an interview not long after her career began where she was asked how she feels about being a role model to young women and whether she’s a positive one. Her reply, which was essentially “I’m not trying to be a role model,” left me even more inspired, and drew plenty of negative attention.
Never mind the fact it wasn’t her responsibility to be anything to anyone other than a fantastic performer who could sell albums and fill concert venues. Not playing by the rules is what made her what she is, and truth be told, it’s exactly who she wanted to be.
Of course, it’s easy to be impressed with adolescent rebellion when you’re young and have no real responsibilities or understanding of what it’s like to have your entire life on display, especially when your entire life is what happens in the hallways of your junior high school.
Fast forward a few years. I was in college, had lost 100 pounds after struggling with lifelong obesity, and was experiencing dating (and why dating is the absolute worst) for the first time. Meanwhile, Britney—whose career was still thriving and whose songs were still my life soundtrack—was a constant tabloid subject for her behavior.
This Britney was no longer an MTV darling considered taboo for showing off her bellybutton. This Britney was suffering a very public mental breakdown that unfolded in front of the entire world. The shaved head. The umbrella attack. Kevin Federline. The ugly custody battle that resulted in her losing her children. The attempted comeback at the MTV Video Music Awards that received more attention for the 15 pounds she dared to gain than her subpar performance.
When you’re in your early twenties and see something like that happen to a total stranger, albeit a stranger you’ve loved since age 12, it’s easy to detach and analyze from afar. It’s easy to hope that person gets help while believing in the back of your mind you’ll never endure anything like that.
My mental breakdown came in my late twenties, sparked by an isolating combination of depression, anxiety, losing two immediate family members and struggling to juggle single motherhood with my career. I didn’t shave my head or try to attack someone with an umbrella. My son was spoiled with love and everything else he needed or wanted. But I lost myself, and for a time was convinced I was gone forever.
Earlier this year, Britney opened up in an interview about her mental health and how she made it to the other side of her “awful” 20s. “I wrote back then that I was lost and didn’t know what to do with myself,” she said. “There are moments where I look back and think, ‘What the hell was I thinking?'”
Her career went on hiatus as her personal life spiraled, leaving many to wonder whether her career was dead for good. But she kept coming back, focusing on her health and repairing her family. And now, at age 35 and finishing up the final leg of her multi-year residency in Las Vegas, she could walk away from her career knowing she’s one of the best selling artists of all time. (But she probably won’t.)
Yes, finally seeing her perform was something I had dreamed of since childhood. And yes, as she performed hit after hit, I briefly channeled the carefree days of my youth, a time to which she’ll be forever tied.
Above all, however, I found myself wholly inspired by who she is today—a woman in her 30s (just like me). Someone who’s overcome years of hardship at the hands of others and herself (also me). A woman who fell apart and almost lost everything, but found to way to rise above it all to continue carving out the life she’s always wanted (oh, man, this is SO me).
I don’t have much in common with a drop-dead gorgeous woman who will go down as one of the most successful artists in the history of music. But what we do share, and what she undoubtedly shares with countless women who grew up watching her, matters more than anything.
Many of us needed Britney before we knew why. We needed someone human. Fallible. Constantly challenged and determined to succeed anyway.
That’s the role model I needed.
Thankfully, it’s the one I got.