At the age of 25, Spears had already given the world plenty to gawk and laugh at, from her undulating teenage navel to her impulsive 55-hour first marriage to her unconventional parenting techniques with her second hubby, back-up dancer Kevin Federline. But as Spears' post-divorce wild-child phase escalated from panty-less cavorting with Paris Hilton to a self-administered buzz cut at a beauty salon in California's San Fernando Valley and three attempts at rehab in less than a week, the young woman's life story seemed to spin from comedy to tragedy.
"Britney's not the first young, single mother to have troubles, to feel stress," says Ross Johnson, of the public relations firm Sitrick and Co. She may be the first to have her stress captured in this level of excruciating detail by a zoom lens, however. "Taking a picture of a star in rehab used to be verboten," says Johnson. "When I saw a photo of her at [Malibu, Calif. rehab facility] Promises, I was shocked. This is new territory."
Access Hollywood co-anchor Billy Bush told TIME the NBC entertainment news show was offered photos and video of Spears attacking a paparazzo's car with an umbrella while outside Federline's house in between rehab stints two and three, but he and his producers decided against using the images. "I couldn't justify it, not with my faith, not with my family," says Bush, who has three daughters, ages, 2, 6 and 8. "Here's a girl who's cracking. She's a young person who's got some problems. They're obvious. We don't need to add to them. I don't want blood on my hands in any way."
Late Late Show Host Craig Ferguson said Spears' troubles reminded him of his own battles with alcoholism and he told his audience he wouldn't joke at the expense of "the vulnerable." Salon's Rebecca Traister wrote that, "We need to remember that whatever is happening to Spears right now is happening not for our amusement, but to her detriment." Rosie O'Donnell posted a sympathetic haiku on her blog, saying "britney... my heart breaks; i want to smash those photographers; with something heavier; than an umbrella." A Google search pulls up the phrase "Leave Britney Alone" on 129 blogs and there are multiple online petitions to get the paparazzi off Spears' back. Kristin Scott of Bloggingbaby.com told her readers she understood Spears' behavior as a mom, writing that, "There have been days I've wanted to hole up in the basement with a vat of tapioca pudding and a Modest Mouse CD. We all have our own crazy, especially, I think, as parents."
Spears' current crazy spiral could have all kinds of ramifications, for her two sons, her health, her career. Whether she'll be able to fight her own demons is anybody's guess. "She's got a lot more issues to deal with than 30 days of rehab will cover," says Johnson. But if she does battle through, Spears has a world of concerned brothers and sisters planning to beat away the Britney bashers. "People have got to have a conscience and back off," says Bush. "If she has the courage to go away, we should have the courage to let her."