Momentarily just another little girl from Kentwood, La., Britney Spears has grown with her public persona—from Star Search champ and Mouseketeer to a pop princess with a closet full of arguably awkward skeletons. She's now a household name, a top (and kind of embarrassing) search term on Google, and on this Monday night, the topic of a lively conversation at Rudino's, a cavernous chain sports bar and grill just off Raleigh's Wade Avenue.
Holden Royall and Laura Dowd, two Smithfield natives currently living in Raleigh, sit in tall deck chairs under a large umbrella. Aged 29 and 28, respectively, they were born mere months apart from Spears herself. And as '80s babies, it's practically a given they've got fond memories of pop's one-time princess.
Royall is now a staff assistant at an urgent care facility; Dowd, an 8th-grade language arts teacher. Like kids, they fondly bat around Britney favorites—"Hit Me Baby One More Time" and "Oops ... I Did It Again"—over the background noise of a televised baseball game. Dowd shares the story of her first Britney CD, bought for and then stolen from her little brother's birthday dance party, with exacting and amusing specificity. Royall once coerced her younger sister into performing all the Britney video dances in front of college friends. It's quickly apparent how Spears' presence saturates their memories, as an omnipresent entertainer who now helps guild their nostalgia. To discuss the blonde icon is a shortcut to stories about their own families (a first concert experience with new stepsisters), details of fashion trends in their high school (Catholic school girl Halloween costumes and prom hairdos) and opinions on what they considered big television events at the time (MTV's Total Request Live and Video Music Awards, natch). It's not a matter of whether she influenced them ("I don't know that I necessarily idolized her," says Dowd) so much as how the media made her part of their narratives. For two women her own age whom she'd never met, Britney's sex life became their issue.
"I was driving down this little cut-through street [in Wilmington] when the hosts got on the radio and started talking about Britney Spears finally admitting to having sex with Justin Timberlake," confesses Royall after a bit of hedging. "It's like you know where you were when Princess Diana died. I remember where I was when Britney Spears was no longer a virgin."
Celebrity is one thing, but having these sort of intimate details become public knowledge is another. Britney has been a reluctant pioneer in this regard: The time line of her career charts like a modern-day stock exchange report—one minute she's releasing a new record or guest starring on a TV show, the next she's battling for custody of her children or seeking rehabilitation treatment.
"Even when she went crazy, I was still pro-Britney," says Royall. "I mean, how could you really go through all of that as a child, then child star and not have some sort of break? I'm not even a child star and I feel like I want to shave my head sometimes."
Touring behind her seventh studio album, Femme Fatale, Spears is attempting to shake off that baggage. Amid Ke$ha's glitter bombs, Lady Gaga's brusque chic and Rihanna's umbrella of reggaeton-lite, Spears hasn't dominated the radio like she once did. But for Royall and Dowd, her re-emergence feels like a welcome chance at renewal.
"She's been able to reinvent herself so many times to make it so that she stays relevant," says Dowd. "She's been played on the radio now for 10-plus years, which is a pretty big deal for pop music."
"And she hasn't done anything bad except to herself. She doesn't go out there and get DWIs and punch people," adds Royall.
"She had a rough time for a minute," agrees Dowd.
"I just feel like she's kind of the girl next door that kept reinventing herself and changing and evolving and like she's my friend," says Royall. "I feel like I grew up with her. I'm rooting for her."