The first movie star was a woman named Florence Lawrence. The doe-eyed, dark-haired actress was a household name — until she was horribly burned in a studio fire. She attempted to make a Hollywood comeback at 29. And at 34. And at 40. None of them worked. So finally, in 1938, at age 52, she committed suicide by eating ant paste. But Lawrence kicked the bucket years before Perez Hilton was around to post a picture of her with the words “Just Die Already, Flo!!” scrawled across her forehead. There was no Chris Cocker to don a set of fake eyelashes and shoot a weepy, snot-strewn YouTube video titled “Leave Florence Alone.” US Weekly, Star, and In Touch didn’t exist, so they couldn’t put Lawrence on the cover of commemorative double issues that would cost three times the amount of the normal newsstand price. In that sense, she was lucky.
I suspect there’s an excellent chance that the advent of modern public relations might have saved Lawrence’s life. (Edward Bernays didn’t popularize the field until 10 years after the actress killed herself.) But though it’s too late to help the earliest of celluloid heroes, the right crisis-management techniques and some controlled hype can still work wonders for Britney Spears.
The career of my generation’s enfant terrible starlet is currently stuck in permanent shit-show mode. When a teenaged Spears was burped into the limelight in 1998, you could tell she knew exactly what she was after. Now 25, she can no longer stomach the level of fame she’s invented for herself. According to Kelly Cutrone, a former talent publicist and the founder and CEO of People’s Revolution PR, a New York City–based fashion publicity firm, when Spears lost control, the poison pens and paparazzi took it over for her. “Everybody is really attuned to showing what a manic-depressive, bipolar, poor-mother mess this girl is,” says Cutrone. “Everybody’s building on it and building on it, and stalking her, and running around getting pictures of her, and just waiting for ‘the moment’ to line up.”
Yet despite her ongoing penchant for irresponsible partying, her astoundingly ill-timed VMA performance, her poor driving record (she turned herself into police this week to be booked on hit-and-run and driving-without-a-license charges), and — the definition of rock bottom — the loss of custody of her two sons to ex-husband Kevin Federline, Spears’s new single “Gimme More” seems to have hit pop pay dirt: the song landed in the number-one slot on the Billboard Hot Digital Songs chart the week of its release. And Blackout, her fifth album, drops on October 30. So there’s still hope.
Most Americans get off on a good redemption story, and Spears would make a darling poster girl — but can she just stop parading her naked vagina around like a beauty-queen’s crown long enough to turn things around? We think yes, and in an effort to offer encouraging comfort to the Louisiana lout, the Phoenix came up with a field guide to celebrity comebacks. Our hot mess of a pop princess is stalled in Category One at the moment, though that’s not to say she won’t rise from the ashes any day now. So toss the dramakaze and step off, bitches — even Britney can go for the comeback gold.