This is a story about a girl named Britney.
By the time Britney Spears took the stage at this year’s Billboard Music Awards on May 22 to perform a medley of her greatest hits, the Internet and its ilk had seemingly already decided: The eight-minute retrospective would be something of a comeback piece, a return engagement preemptively heralded as a triumphant homecoming. But in fact, Spears’ quiet re-ascension has been slowly simmering in the background for years — Billboard was simply the latest heat bubble.
“She really is back to her true form” says designer Mark Zunino, whom Spears tapped to design her scarlet costumes for the “very secretive” performance. “She looks fantastic, her body’s insane right now, and she’s confident,” he continues. “By wowing the audience, as she did, those are motivations that push you to do better and go farther, and I think because she had such an amazing response, she’s beyond excited to continue.”
Spears appears ready to make the most of the moment. Insiders say her ninth studio album — which she began recording last year — will drop by late 2016, with a lead single rumored for release in July. “It’s different and has a really interesting vibe,” says an industry source. “She’s very excited.”
With a public reappearance under her belt and new music on the horizon, you can call her Britney reborn or Britney 3.0 — but just don’t call Britney Spears the same thing you called her 10 years ago. In the years since her very public 2007 meltdown and her subsequent rehabilitation — in large part through a still-active court-ordered conservatorship run by her father and lawyer, who approve all her major financial and professional decisions — those memories of shaved heads, messy custody hearings, and that infamously listless 2007 MTV VMAs performance have, largely, vanished.
In their wake, Spears seems to have regained command over her place in the zeitgeist, certainly where it pertains to her personal life. Her zen-like social media presence — littered with photos of kids, community dance classes, and nature shots overlaid with uplifting poetry — suggests a happy, healthy mother of two. (She told People last year, “I’m in a real good place in my life.”) Her business ventures are equally as visible, from the proven success of her Las Vegas residency show (Britney: Piece of Me, which recently extended its run at Planet Hollywood through 2017, to the tune of a reported $35 million deal) to newer gambles that place her right in the thick of competition with today’s savviest digital stars (her just-launched mobile app, Britney Spears: American Dream, has already surpassed Kim Kardashian’s, Demi Lovato’s, and the Jenner sisters’ similar simulators from the top of iTunes’ gaming charts).
“Brit falls in the category where you would be hard-pressed to find people that don’t want to see her,” says John Ivey, a programming executive at iHeartRadio (and KIIS FM) who has known Spears since 1997. “She’s become very iconic. She’s had things that have kept her in the news, even in dormant periods — some good, some bad, but no different than anybody else in the media. But the biggest thing to me about Brit is she’s a survivor. And she’s always a threat. I’ve never, ever discounted her.”