The rebirth of Britney Spears

Gobbled up by her fame, rested in rehab. Has the hottest property in US pop got her life back on track?

Ever since she flounced on to television screens 10 years ago aged 16, pouting and twirling her schoolgirl's uniform, doomsayers have predicted the self-destruction of Britney Spears.

And it came to pass – or so it seemed. After 83 million record sales, two marriages, two divorces, two children, a lost custody battle, repeated psychiatric evaluations, tens of thousands of paparazzi, a nude magazine cover and the most globalised of breakdowns, the singer seemed finished, professionally – if not as meat for the snappers' lenses – come February 2008.

When her husband won custody of their children, Spears did not sleep for four days and was sectioned at the prestigious Los Angeles Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre. She was reported to be suffering from bipolar disorder, manic depression.

Sunday night, though, brought a return to what passes for comparative normality. Spears won three statuettes at the MTV Video Music Awards in an evening hailed as the "resurrection" of her pop career.

Early days: her first appearance since the sectioning amounted to little more than sporting a beauty pageant smile and reading cue cards too fast. There was no dancing or singing. Nevertheless: progress since her slurring lip-synching – barely worthy of the name, it was so unco-ordinated – a year ago at the same event. The 26-year-old singer thanked God, her children, and her record label for her apparent recovery.

Britney epitomises "celebrity": loving the attention, loathing the intrusion; helpless to stop it eventually turning and devouring.

The rise of Spears from small-town girl to global icon demonstrated the endless possibilities of the American Dream. Her fall from grace exposed its dark underside. There was no little public relief, then, at a Britney appearance free from intoxication – indeed, there was celebration amongst the camera clickers and shysters of the notorious "Britney Industry", which was valued at $150m a year to the Los Angeles economy, before it went into recession as picture agencies moved their photographers onto new projects. Guilt trip over.

After taking part in a comic sketch that kicked-off the headline-prone event, Spears returned to the MTV stage three times as "Piece of Me", a dance song about the incessant media scrutiny and sensationalism of her life, won the Best Video, Best Pop Video and Best Female Video gongs.

The MTV awards carry none of the prestige of rival events such as the Grammys or Ivor Novellos, but they are seen as a crucial barometer of American celebrity. By simply turning up, smiling sweetly, and not making a fool of herself, Spears earned a standing ovation. She appeared to be sober and in rude physical health – noted by the host, the British comedian Russell Brand.

She had previously been nominated for a "moonman" statue 16 times, but until Sunday evening's event had not won one. In unscripted victory speeches she announced herself "in shock right now" at the sudden adulation. Spears thanked "God first and foremost for just blessing me like this", her record label boss, Barry Wise, and manager, Larry Rudolf, "for always believing in me", and her "amazing fans out there for all of their support". She added: "This means a lot. Thank you so much. Thank you for all the love."

Spears offered no further insight into her emotional state, refusing later to talk to reporters. She disappointed fans who expected her to sing. However, her perfunctory appearance was played on near-constant loop by America's rolling television news channels yesterday, as the nation's anchors heralded her return to relative sanity.

Will Spears mind her return to the headlines? Though she has claimed to be scared by the attention, she has gone to extreme lengths to court it. She frequently afforded photographers chances to chronicle her erratic behaviour, which, among other things, included shaving her head with electric clippers and frequently appearing to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In a celebrity version of Stockholm syndrome, she even dated Adnan Ghalib, a British paparazzo who had courted her via text message.

Her recovery was masterminded by her father, James, and her lawyer, Andrew Wallete, under whose conservatorship (legal control) she was placed in February, giving the two men control of her assets. A restraining order was taken out on her former manager, Sam Lutfi.

Since then, she had succeeded in hiding, returning to the studio to start work on a sixth album.

On Sunday night, Brand hailed the "launch of a very new Britney Spears era", telling fans to "consider this the resurrection of Britney Spears" and venturing that "if there was a female Christ, it's Britney". And so the public soap opera resumes.

...but Russell Brand is not so lucky

With a fine disregard for the saccharine conventions of Hollywood, Russell Brand used his first major US gig to set back the cause of Anglo-American relations.

The comedian, who is virtually unknown across the Atlantic, left both his studio audience, and millions of TV viewers stunned, by calling George Bush a "retard" and urging America to elect Barack Obama "on behalf of the world".

"Some people, I think they're called racists, say America is not ready for a black president," he declared. "But I know America to be a forward-thinking country because otherwise why would you have let that retard and cowboy fella be president for eight years?

"We were impressed... it was nice of you to let him have a go, because, in England, he wouldn't be trusted with a pair of scissors."

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