It was the year 2000. Society was heaving a collective sigh of relief that all of our machines had neither died at the new year nor risen up against us. Al Gore and George Bush Junior were gearing up for what would turn out to be the most controversial Presidential election in history. And the world was in love with a girl named Britney Spears.
At nineteen years old, I was about six months older than Miss Spears (I still am, but we'll get to that in a bit), and had similar aspirations to hers, although I had not had the success. She, of course, had begun as a Mouseketeer on the Mickey Mouse Club at just about the time I was too old to be interested in it any longer, and was pushed by stage parents in a way that I only dreamed about (I had had a commercial agent briefly in my childhood, but my parents were quick to find reasons not to sacrifice their own time for my “career” (”Look at her, she's in the yard. Auditioning is obviously something she hates! We should never make her do it again.”)). In 2000, Britney Spears was sexing up her previously virginal image and was not only the most popular she was ever going to be, but probably the most famous person on the planet. Was I jealous? You bet. But even at nineteen, and admittedly with an air of sour grapes, I was saying, “Sure, I'd love to be Britney Spears now, but I'd hate to be Britney Spears in twenty years.” I had no idea how little I would have to wait.
In 2002, she made a movie called Crossroads, which bombed. Shortly thereafter, her relationship with Justin Timberlake ended, and as that news story began to fade, it seemed that her popularity was going with it. She tried stunt appearances, like making out with Madonna. She stopped listening to her handlers. In 2004, she got married in Vegas without even pausing to consider the fact that her bridegroom had the same name as one of the stars of Seinfeld, which was really confusing to a lot of people for a little while. The wheels were obviously coming off of the Britney train.
Around this same time, I was introduced to the concept of the celebrity death pool. A celebrity death pool is a sort of very dark joke among friends. Each person selects a celebrity or roster of celebrities (there are varying degrees of formality to the death pool). If a celebrity you choose dies, you get points in the pool. From the very beginning, I picked Britney every time.
I want to be clear that I didn't pick Britney to die because I wanted her to. That would have been too petty and crazy even for me. I actually had three very well thought out reasons for choosing her, which all dovetail nicely into one another:
1)The odds. As I said, there are varying degrees of intricacy to these pools, but one of the most common is that the less likely your celebrity's death seems, the more points you get if it happens. You could choose Luise Rainer (oldest living Academy Award winner, at 100 years old), but if she dies tomorrow, it will be less surprising than would be the death of, say, Dakota Fanning. You usually also get points for the person's level of fame, so Tom Hanks would be worth more than Peter Scolari if they both keeled over next week. Britney was young, healthy, and still pretty big, so I stood to gain a lot of not actual winnings.
2)From where I stood, the odds didn't look as long as they could have been. Britney was beginning a downward spiral that at the time, even I thought would be slow, and I figured, you never know.
3)This is the worst one. I really hate to be Debbie Downer, but by the time I was in my twenties I was already something of a connoisseur when it came to failure. Big failure, little failure, my own failure, other people's failure, surprise failure when you thought success was right in front of you, slowly ground out failure that you refused to accept and just kept acting like things would improve sometime. My brain is finely tuned when it comes to failure, believe me. And it was this part of my brain, the cold-blooded, Sammy Glick, Network part of my education, that told me that the best thing Britney Spears could possibly do for her career would be to commit suicide. I realize how awful that sounds, and again, I wasn't thinking this because I wanted her to do it — what difference would it possibly make in my life one way or another? None.
But think for a second. Think for a second about Elizabeth Taylor. She is one of the most beautiful women who ever lived. And she's a legend. And she's still alive, although much older and less beautiful, and most people who are under thirty don't really know who she is. Think about Vivien Leigh. Equally beautiful. Equally legendary. Tragically suffered from bipolar disorder before anyone understood what it was. But she lived to a healthy old age and most people under forty don't really know who she was. Now think about Marilyn Monroe. She's the international face of Hollywood and she's been dead for nearly fifty years. Now, Marilyn had an awful life and she shouldn't have died so young and we don't have time to go into all the reasons why she did, but if she had never taken those pills, today she would be a fat blonde old woman who once stood over a grate. Who was that lady? You know, the one who stood over the grate or whatever? Mary something. Look her up on Wikipedia, she's probably living in that one old folks' home for movie stars. Luise Rainer is there; it's where Bette Davis died. Anyway, it doesn't matter.
Britney met Kevin Federline at the end of 2004 and it was like grease on a slide. Marriage, kids, divorce, shaved head, gas station panties, hospitalized for her own good, fake British accent — for about a year, half of Hollywood's revenue came from what the paparazzi called the “Britney Circus.” Nobody has had that much grief just because they were a pretty girl in the wrong place since Evelyn Nesbit — and do you remember her? No? Of course not, because she lived. And then had a long, depressing life after the drama was over.
Well, Britney lived too, and still does, and is still six months younger than I am, which means she isn't even 29 yet. Who knows how long she will live — or how long any of us will live, for that matter. She's as entitled to a long happy life as anybody else. But there was a time when if she had timed her death right, she could have made herself immortal.
Unfortunately, in the words of Daffy Duck, “The problem with that trick is you can only do it once.”
Aurora Nibley lives in Hollywood with her husband and cat. She writes about football every now and again over here. Twitter her up on your Twitter machine here.