Panty-Free Britney, Quick-Divorce Pam: Why Do Stars Make Bad Choices?

Experts weigh in with explanations like alcohol, poor self-regulation, maintaining brands and just plain bad judgment.

Britney’s panty-free partying. Kid Rock and Pam Anderson staging a series of flashy weddings, only to divorce four months later. Michael Richards’ racist onstage rant. Snoop’s third arrest in three months. Lindsay Lohan’s endless series of long nights out captured on film. Danny DeVito’s admittedly drunken babbling on “The View.”

In this age of paparazzi mayhem, gossip magazine ubiquity and the speed with which every public gaffe ends up on YouTube, what’s up with celebrities making such horrible public decisions?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Mark McGrath, the tabloid-prone Sugar Ray frontman who now chronicles other celebrities’ slip-ups as the co-host of “Extra.” McGrath, who has had drunken rants and a pants-free incident caught on tape, said alcohol is often partially to blame. “There’s lots of self-destruction involved and I’ve been a part of that. You go to any boardwalk in the country and you can find a T-shirt that reads, ‘Instant a–hole, just add alcohol.’ ”

With or without booze though, McGrath said fans have inflated opinions of celebrities and athletes because they like their movies, music and dramatic 360 dunks — but at the end of the day, “they’re just people.” And of course the other major issue, which McGrath admitted to feeding into on “Extra,” is the ravenous paparazzi and tabloid culture, which creates a “perfect storm of self-destruction and boorish behavior.

“But you’re talking about things you should have learned about when you were 6 years old,” McGrath added. “Make sure you wear underwear; my mom said don’t chew gum anywhere, not in church or on TV; don’t call people the ‘N’ word in your routine.”

It’s easy to pick on Britney (see “12 Ways For Britney To Get Her Groove Back” ), but by hooking up with notorious new BFF Paris Hilton and showing off everything with her flash-dances, the singer seems to be inexplicably tossing out much of the public good will she garnered with her decision to divorce Kevin Federline (see “Britney Spears Files For Divorce — It’s Official” ).

“The media beats someone up, but they love a comeback,” said Shawn Sachs, executive vice president of Ken Sunshine Consultants, a publicity firm that represents Justin Timberlake and Leonardo DiCaprio. “When Britney broke up with Kevin, the public let out a roar. They were psyched for her to be back. She could have thrown away two years of bad press, then all of a sudden in a week she squandered it.”

So what’s the harm of bad press? “The public’s appetite for those antics is very short and they’re hard to undo,” said Sachs, who noted that anyone who believes the old adage that all press is good press is not thinking about the long-term prospects of their career. “A lot of times, if you have a client who doesn’t listen or wants to do their own thing, you can be the best publicist in the world and you can’t do anything about it.”

So even knowing that they’re in the public eye, and that just about every move they make will be photographed, YouTube’d and instantly uploaded, why do celebrities continue to make such horrible choices?

“One cynical view is that it’s just about publicity and them craving attention, but I don’t think Michael Richards or Lindsay Lohan want that attention or that it’s helping their careers,” said Roberto Weber, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who specializes in the psychology of decision making.

“The reason these people are celebrities is because they’re not good at self-regulating,” he explained. “Someone like Britney was singing onstage in front of big crowds at an early age and wearing sexy outfits in public, which is something a lot of people couldn’t do. Her ability to suppress shame and shyness contributes to her ability to be in the public eye, but it also contributes to her inability to regulate that behavior. The mechanism that causes me to feel trepidation about getting onstage, or makes me wonder if what I’m saying is insensitive is the thing that lets them be extroverted.”

Weber said celebrities live in an environment where their outrageous behavior is rewarded with attention, which sometimes makes them unable to gauge when they are being inappropriate until a situation blows up into a crisis.

Another way to look at it is this: Anyone, celebrity or not, would get caught in an embarrassing moment at some point if they had cameras trained on them all the time. Just because you can act, sing or are good looking doesn’t mean you have better judgment than your fans. “But Britney has said it herself: ‘You can take the girl out of Kentwood, but you can’t take the Kentwood out of the girl,’ ” said Ken Baker, West Coast executive editor of US Weekly magazine.

“A lot of this is a major compliment to Britney,” he added. “She’s done such a good job at creating this Britney persona — the cute, sexy, polished pop star — that the more she’s under the media spotlight and paparazzi glare, the more she’s ended up disappointing people because they had such a strong image of her as this glossy pop star, not a regular girl from Louisiana who is rough around the edges.”

Baker said it’s a different story when stars like Hilton and Snoop misbehave. They’re very shrewd about knowing their brand and promoting it, whether it’s the sexy, single, dangerous party girl or the edgy rapper from the ‘hood who gets arrested. Britney’s recent gum-snapping, underwear-forgetting incidents are not consistent with the public Britney brand, and her public doesn’t like it. “It’s like going into Starbucks and getting a cup of McDonald’s coffee,” Baker said. “You don’t want that.”

And while Richards’ meltdown and Mel Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic rant are examples of what he called irrational behavior, Robert Thompson, the director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television, said some celebrities just don’t adjust to a life of constant scrutiny.

“Paparazzi have been around as long as celebrities have, but I think people just haven’t yet gotten used to the fact that as soon as they leave the confines of their domestic space they have to act as though someone is videoing them or putting a microphone in their face, because they usually are,” said Thompson. “But Britney without underwear? It’s what she does. It’s her job. She’s one of those celebrities that never lets us down. Gossip columns and the entertainment media like her so much [because] she gives them so much to work with. Like Michael Jackson, just when you think it’s safe to stop thinking about Britney, she drives down the street with her kid in her lap.”

Even as she transformed from virginal Mouseketeer to Madonna-kissing starlet to girl gone wild, Thompson said Britney has mastered the ability to hang on to her position as the star of the big business we call American celebrity. “The question is, ‘Did she go out without underwear out of stupidity?’ or is the thinking, ‘I’m Britney Spears and I’m selling perfume. It won’t hurt sales of my perfume because it’s not marketed as a modest scent for spinster schoolteachers. It’s something sexy’? To get street cred as a bad girl, which is a major role that needs to be filled constantly in American culture, the cover charge is to be caught in a few of these situations.”

Or, as McGrath put it, “Maybe she’s feeling insecure and trying to get her sexy on. Like, ‘Hey, I’m still sexy and I’m hanging out with Paris Hilton. Yes, I’m a mother who used to be the world’s biggest pop star, but I’m still here.’ “

Often guilty, never convicted. Serving 15 years to life at MTV News.