Britney Spears: ©2001 Zomba Recording Corporation/Matthew Rolston Photographic Inc.
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November 14, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Somewhere between the first-class kiddie glitz of Orlando’s Disney World and a lower budgeted pit-stop attraction on the outskirts of Tampa called Dinosaur World lies the town of Lakeland, Fla. If you’re a teenager here, there isn’t a whole lot to do other than troll the drive-thru windows of an endless archipelago of fast-food joints. Unless, of course, you’re Britney Spears, in which case there’s more going on in Lakeland than you could possibly want.

For starters, there’s the matter of ironing out the last-minute choreography kinks for her 32-date North American tour kicking off in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 1 (the start was bumped five days when Spears got the flu, and later, one more day because of a logistical snafu). Then, less than a week after hitting the road with 17 semi trucks jam-packed with arena gear, there’s the release of her funkier, more mature third album, ”Britney,” on Nov. 6. Next, there’s a live HBO concert from the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas on Nov. 18, where she’ll be prancing and preening through waterfalls and bungee jumping. And when all of that madness is finally over, she’ll have to kick-start Britney Inc. all over again when her feature-film debut, ”Crossroads,” rolls into multiplexes in February. In between each step of this frantic will-to-pop-power campaign, Britney will occasionally have to suffer through the only thing she doesn’t positively love about being Britney… ”Y’all fixin’ to do an interview?”

Yes, Britney Spears dreads interviews.

As her chipper assistant Felicia floats this down-home question, she escorts me into Spears’ dressing room. We’re backstage at the Lakeland Center — a small-time hockey rink routinely used for tour prep because of its proximity to Orlando, teen pop’s epicenter — where Spears is running through the minutiae of her upcoming road show. Despite the room’s cold cinder-block walls and claustrophobic dropped ceiling, Spears’ lair has been transformed into her very own Barbie Dream House. Scarves in every color of the rainbow have been draped overhead to cozy things up. The place reeks with the sickly sweet teenage aroma of vanilla-scented candles. And in the far corner, sitting atop her television set like a sort of puppy-love shrine, is a framed photograph of boyfriend Justin Timberlake, in fur coat and cowboy hat, throwing a signature ‘N Sync pose.

Spears plops down onto a black leatherette sofa and pretzels her legs lotus-style. It takes a minute or two to make sense of the visual disconnect between the video vixen who shimmies on MTV in rip-away nudie suits and the giggly girly-girl before you. First of all, she’s tiny. Five four if you’re feeling charitable. Her Luh-weeez-ee-ana accent is as bouncy as a trampoline. And for someone not exactly known for modesty, she appears to be dressed for a nunnery, albeit a fairly sporty one: Her hair is pulled up in a Pebbles Flintstone topknot; she’s emphatically Abercrombie & Fitch in a pair of blue sweatpants and white sweatshirt zipped up to the throat; and she sips a fruit smoothie through a long red straw while working a piece of gum as if she were angry with it.

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