Two decades ago, “… Baby One More Time” was a new single and Britney Spears was another young singer hoping to ride the fast-rising wave of teen pop. As the song rose on the charts across the globe, the burgeoning star, who’d just turned 17, went on a promotional visit to Canada, where “One More Time” would ultimately hit No. 1.
During that visit early in 1999, we met for an interview in a Toronto hotel room. She looked like any high school girl; she was friendly, polite, a little quiet and very sweet — far from the python-wielding enchantress we would see just a couple of years later, let alone the seasoned entertainer who will be returning to Las Vegas for another residency in February.
In the interview below, fame is all new to her: She talks about screaming when she first heard herself on the radio — around 20 years ago this week, when the single was first released — the loneliness of touring, the increased recognition from fans (including too much attention from a certain older male fan) and getting accustomed to being onstage and in the public eye. Her answers, which have been lightly edited for clarity, provide a rare glimpse of a superstar at the very beginning of her rise.
Do you remember where you were when you first heard “… Baby One More Time” on the radio?
I was at home and I had just gotten off the airplane. It was so weird because we’d just got in the car, I’d just shut the door, and it came on. It was so overwhelming, I just started screaming. It was really cool, though.
And now it’s being played absolutely everywhere. Do you plan on touring behind the record?
Yeah, definitely. Right now, I’m touring with ‘Nsync and hopefully in July I’ll be touring also.
How did you hook up with your record company, Jive?
I had an entertainment lawyer in New York, because when I was really young I auditioned for the Mickey Mouse Club but I was too young. So instead the casting director told me to go to New York and when I went I did, I met up with this entertainment lawyer. And, after two years, I auditioned again for the Mickey Mouse Club and I did that for two years, and after that, I went home and was, like, a normal kid again. Then, I was like, “Y’know, I’d like to get back into the entertainment business.” So I sent the entertainment lawyer a tape of me singing and some pictures and he sent it to Jive Records and they signed me.
What was on that tape?
It was “I Have Nothing” by Whitney Houston.
Was it done karaoke style?
No, no I went to a little recording studio. And then I had to go to the label and let them really hear me sing.
Yeah, I did. It was sort of nerve-wracking because I’m used to singing in front of big crowds and I went in there and there were these 10 executive people sitting there, staring at me. I was like, “Oh, my goodness, I’m just going to close my eyes and do the best I can do.” And I sang and thank goodness they signed me.
Obviously, your family is very supportive.
Oh, yeah, I’m so thankful because they’ve supported me from the very beginning. They just know that I love to sing and this is what I’ve always wanted to do, so they’ve been behind me 100% from the very beginning.
Do you remember the first song you sang?
I sang at my graduation in kindergarten: “What Child Is This.” It’s a Christian song and that was my first song I sang actually onstage. One of my first songs to really sing in front of an audience was, I think, probably “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Bette Midler.
Do you ever get stage fright?
When I was home … the company you’re with and the crowd, it’s my hometown, so I feel real comfortable onstage. But actually being on tour, one of my first performances with ‘Nsync, I have to admit I was really nervous. The opening acts I’ve seen at the Backstreet Boys show in New York, the fans were there to see Backstreet so when the opening acts came out, sometimes they were chanting Backstreet’s name. I was like, “Oh, my goodness, at home that doesn’t happen to me.” I was really stressed, but I just got onstage and did the best I could do and it turned out really good. So after the first shows, I felt really comfortable. Instead of being nervous, it was good energy.”
Do you have a lot of young girls approaching you for your autograph and wanting to know how you got into music?
When I go to places, they’re really, really, really sweet and really nice. They’re like, “We love you” and stuff like that. And I get a bunch of emails saying, “How did you get started?,” and I explain to them.
Do you respond to fanmail yourself?
Some of them. It got to the point where I was doing a lot of them at the very beginning, like four or five months ago. Then it got kind of overwhelming and there was no way. So now I do like one email and send it to all of them. But I try. Some of the letters, I definitely write back because they’re really, really sweet and I just think it’s really nice that they’re taking out time in their day to say they totally admire me. It’s really flattering.
Did you ever do that as a kid?
Actually, when I was younger, I never really wrote to anyone, but I did really admire Whitney Houston. I thought she was everything, and Janet Jackson, oh, my goodness. But I never got their autograph because I never met them.
Are you getting recognized in the street?
Sometimes I do, but it’s not really overwhelming. It’s at the point where it’s okay. It doesn’t get on my nerves. It’s cool.
Who wrote the songs on your album? Did you write any of the lyrics?
No, I didn’t write any of the material that’s on the album. But I did write a song that going to be on the B-side of the second single “Sometimes,” called “So Curious.”
Would you like to write more?
Definitely. When I first got signed, we were trying to find what kind of material I needed, trying to get a start, but after six months, when I really started realizing I need to start writing, it was kind of too late. They had most of the songs picked for the album. So at the very last minute, one of my producers I’m really close with, Eric [Foster], I said [to him], “I have this song and it’s in my head, and I want to see if we can try and do it, so we cut it and the label really liked it.”
How to you prepare for your tour?
When I was younger, I went an hour away from where I live and took dance for a while, and I’d have a recital every year. And when I was in New York, I went to the Off-Broadway Dance Center. Anyone can go. You just take the class that your ability is up to. And I got my experience from there.
The show that you’re doing for ‘Nsync and the one you plan to do in the summer, do you have a choreographer?
We had someone come in and put some choreography to the songs. We did that for two weeks.
Did you have a stylist?
We had someone come in but I sort of took over, “This is what I want. I want to look like this.”
What did you want wardrobe-wise?
You have to have something you feel comfortable in, because if you feel like you look good, it’s going to really show onstage. I wanted something really flattering. I have two different outfits: One’s silver and one’s black and they’re velvet, and they’re real fitted pants. The silver one’s a crop top and the black one’s a crop top, but it’s turtleneck. And the black one has fluorescent yellow going through it and the silver is just silver, but at first I have these big things over me and I look like one of the dancers, but they’re Velcro so once I start singing they pull it off and I have something different underneath.
Are you getting more attention from the guys now?
Yeah, actually. I did a show in Philadelphia and I was like, “Oh my goodness.” I was so thrown because it was a radio show for ‘Nsync, and there were a lot of guys and they were all waiting outside. It was like, “Oh my goodness, these guys are, like, old.”
How old? 18 or 19?
No, like 24 — like old, and I was like, “Oh my goodness, this is not good.” It was kind of freaky. And actually, one guy came to my house when I was home. Thank goodness I wasn’t home by myself. It was so weird because he parked like half a block away from my house and was snooping up on me. And he asked my mom, “Can I meet her?” And my mom was like, “She’s busy right now,” because I was freaked out, especially if you’re a senior in high school. If you’re going to drive that far — he [lives] like two hours away from me — you would bring someone along with you, right? I could see myself, if there was someone I totally admired and I even thought of going there, I’d bring a couple of friends with me. So for him to do that, I was totally freaked out.
Has anyone sat down with you and told you what to do if situations like that get dangerous?
No, not really. I have someone who travels with me and she’s always on the lookout. I don’t need a bodyguard or anything.
You don’t have a boyfriend now?
No I don’t. I had a boyfriend, but it just didn’t work out.
Where are you living?
I’m based in New York. My mom’s best friend’s friend stays with me. It’s worked out really well, she’s wonderful. I don’t know what I’d do without her. It’s lonely, traveling, and all these hotel rooms. Sometimes you’re really busy and it gets really crazy and it’s wonderful to have someone there, to talk to about everything.
There must be a big difference between Kentwood and New York City. Do you like it?
I have to admit I didn’t like it at first because I was so overwhelmed. New York is like a foreign country in itself. For the first two weeks I was thrown, but it took time and after being there for so long I feel like I’m at home. I love it so much. It’s just the age that I’m at because it’s so high energy and the shopping’s awesome and I’ve made friends there. At first, I didn’t know anyone and I was scared.
Alanis Morissette was a pop artist when she was a teenager but completely changed direction when she got older. Do you see yourself taking new directions later on?
I want to sing. I want to focus on my music. In the long run, I would really like to act and try and get into that. I’m really happy with what I’m doing right now, but four years from now, I definitely want to have a family and children and settle down. But right now, yeah, this is definitely what I want to do.