When Britney Spears walked into a non-descript hair salon on the evening of Feb. 16. 2007, and shaved off her signature long hair, it marked the beginning of one of the biggest public meltdowns in pop culture history.
Many of us will never forget the image of her make up smeared face as she stared emotionless at her reflection as lock after lock fell to the floor. The moment was captured for the world to see by the tens of paparazzi that spied through the salon window. It soon became clear that this wasn't the usual pop star image overhaul but rather a massive cry for help. That Friday night marked the beginning of a year where Britney not only lost touch with the people closest to her, but also came thisclose to losing herself in the process.
It seems incredible when you consider where Britney is today. At 35, she's the star of her own sell-out Las Vegas show, has lucrative music deals and spends much of her time raising her two sons at her sprawling L.A.-area home. Her Instagram posts show a healthy and vibrant woman, someone who is fun-loving and confident and obviously smitten with her new fitness model boyfriend, Sam Asghari. She's come a long way from that night at Esther's Hair Salon in Tarzana, when she was willing to do anything she could to shed the princess of pop skin she had occupied since her teens—a time which marked the beginning of a transition and forced many major news outlets to prepare her obituary just in case the unthinkable happened.
Just three months earlier, Britney had filed for divorce from a man she had once described as the love of her life, Kevin Federline. The implosion of the marriage propelled the mom of two (Sean Preston was a year old at the time, Jayden James just 2 months) into a spiral, hell-bent on destruction. "She has always fallen hard in relationships and with Kevin it was no different," recalls a friend of the former couple. "When it ended, it broke her."
In those days when the pressure of fame got too much for Britney she would talk about her dream of one day living just a regular life, in a regular house with a husband and kids. "All she wanted was to raise a family and find pleasure in the small things," the friend explains. "We all knew it was probably never going to happen, but that was the place she went to in her head when she needed an escape from her celebrity existence."
So when she met Kevin, it was not just the beginning of a romance, but also the beginning of a long held wish. Continues the source, "She really thought now they had found one another, that was it. When it ended, she didn't just lose a husband, in a way she lost her dream as well."
By the end of 2006, a newly single Britney was coping with the pain of her shattered marriage by hanging out with notorious party girls Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. The trio grabbed headlines everywhere they went, self-medicating on the attention every naked crotch shot earned them. Family and friends became increasingly concerned by Britney's nocturnal adventures as she retreated further and further into the dark recesses of the Hollywood club scene. Finally, just days before her shaved head incident, she was encouraged to check into an Antigua rehab facility but help didn't last long. Just 24 hours later, she discharged herself and hopped on a plane back to L.A.
"The first thing she did was try and visit her kids," a close source said at the time. "But when she tried to see them she was told she needed to get help first. She kind of lost it."
Finally, she gave up—and that's when she found herself inside the small mom and pop hair business. She told the salon owner her extensions were too tight and she wanted to remove them. But when she was encouraged to reconsider such a dramatic solution, Britney grew impatient, grabbed the razor and started the job herself.
In the days that followed her impromptu haircut, it was widely speculated her decision was really motivated by a desire to avoid having her hair drug tested. But we now know, her reasoning was much simpler. As a source explains, "When she shaved her head, it was quite literally a way for her to try to rid herself of her past. She felt like everything in her life was dictated by someone else. In her mind, people were always trying to tell her what to do, how to act….They were constantly touching her, telling her what to wear, how to style her hair…She felt like a doll. Shaving her hair off was the ultimate rebellion. It was almost a cleansing experience. It was her way of sending a clear message that she was no longer willing to be controlled."
At that time, Britney had already spent over a decade in the public eye. From her days next to Ryan Gosling on the Mickey Mouse Club to her high-profile romance with Justin Timberlake, we had all witnessed her blossom from sweet innocent southern girl into an international megastar. But all that fame and money had come at a price because in the end the pressure that came with our adoration and constant demands had driven Britney to literally try and rip out her hair.
"In some way, we did that to her, all of us," reasons the source. "She had worked so hard and yet she had nothing to show for it. No husband, no access to her kids, a fractured relationship with her family and what she felt was no say in her life. She felt worthless."
Two days after the buzz cut, after pleas from her family and team, Britney once again checked herself into rehab, but yet again, her stay was fleeting. Soon, she was back at her estranged husband's house begging to see her babies—and like before, she was unsuccessful. It was then that she took out her rage by wielding a green umbrella and attacking the car of a photographer who had been following her.
"It was a terrible time," says the friend. "Not having access to her children felt like torture. And she didn't know who to trust. She was convinced she was being watched all the time; she even thought her conversations were being recorded."
We now know the events of that weekend were only the beginning. What followed was 11 months of utter mayhem as the biggest pop star in the world fell apart at the seams. There were myriad pastel colored wigs, midnight runs to drug stores, a fake English accent and various dubious characters who tried to take advantage of her increasingly vulnerable state.
The drama at her mountaintop Mulholland Drive mansion was never-ending; impending danger seemed to lurk everywhere. It all came to a staggering halt when, the following January, her mom Lynne Spears gained access to the compound and Britney was finally carried out of her home while strapped to a gurney and admitted to hospital.
Britney no longer has a desire to run away. "She's in a good place," says a friend who is in contact with the family. "She has her boys and she's making music and performing for her fans. Being a mom makes her very happy."
There are still some painful reminders of that night at Esther's Hair Salon. Most obviously, of course, is the conservatorship, which was put in place after she was admitted to hospital. It means the girl who once rebelled against being controlled has even less freedom than she did before her breakdown. Every so often rumors bubble up that Britney wants out of the legal constraints, but they rarely persist. One source insists the lengthy conservatorship is necessary and something Britney is in agreement with: "It's there as a way to protect her health and also her assets."
Her former manager, Sam Lutfi, a man her parents considered to be a bad influence on their daughter in those final months before her hospitalization, is also still in the background (he has always maintained his role at that time was to keep her safe) but any memory of him is fading. Last September, after years of legal battles, his lawsuit against the Spears family was dismissed.
The fall and rise of Britney Spears is ultimately one of determination and hope. While the image of a freshly buzzed then 25-year-old is still heartbreaking to look at, it is also a testament to her strength. While her downfall was dizzyingly rapid, her subsequent rise is equally as dramatic.
As someone who loves her very much explained to me, "She fought with everything she's got to get her life back. That shows you who she really is. She feels deeply, and while that can make her vulnerable, it also reveals her courage. She survived. I don't know anyone who has managed to so publicly claw back from the edge the way Britney did. You have to admire her for that."