Britney Spears is certainly not the first celebrity to go off the rails in full view of her once-adoring public. But hers is one of the most spectacular falls from grace in recent memory, meticulously documented by paparazzi and bystanders, and uploaded instantly for the titillation of the masses.
At 25 she's certainly young enough to resume her career after she regroups, and for perspective, we've compiled some of the most notorious celebrity flameouts of the past 10 years, along with the success (or not) of their efforts to get back on track. We've rated these 1-4 in ascending order of intensity:
4: A rough weekend — tacky and ill-advised, but easily surmountable.
3: A sordid chapter — a tabloid feast, distasteful but not disastrous.
2: At risk — a series of unfortunate events and decisions that require extensive career- and image-rehab.
1: Critical — career recovery unlikely.
By this measure, we give Britney a 2: It's been a very rough two years, but if she's able to regain her groove — a great album would be the best cure — her chances for a career revival seem strong. As for the others ...
Who: Tom Cruise
The Crash: The only actor to have six consecutive $100 million-grossing films, Cruise went from being one of the world's most beloved movie stars to a late-night punchline in May of 2005, when he famously jumped up and down on Oprah Winfrey's couch during an interview in which he expressed his love for now-wife Katie Holmes — the beginning of his rather oddly aggressive PR campaign for the relationship (see "MTV News Exclusive: Tom Cruise Gets Deep About Katie"). To make matters worse, the longtime member of the Church of Scientology drew fire for criticizing Brooke Shields' use of antidepressants after suffering postpartum depression, lambasted psychiatry as a "pseudoscience" and got into a heated on-air debate with "Today Show" co-host Matt Lauer over the subject. Paramount Pictures (which, like MTV, is owned by Viacom) ended its 14-year relationship with Cruise's production company in 2006 over conduct the company's chairman called "unacceptable."
The Comeback: In progress. Shortly after his troubles peaked, Cruise switched publicists in 2005, from Lee Anne De Vette (his sister and fellow Scientologist, whom he hired after abruptly firing longtime publicist Pat Kingsley early in 2004) to veteran Paul Bloch. Since then, he's kept a relatively low profile since marrying Holmes in November, and is next slated to appear in Robert Redford's "Lions for Lambs." He's also in talks to hook up with pal Ben Stiller for "Hardy Men," a big-screen comedy based on "The Hardy Boys."
Rating: 2 Remaining out of the spotlight has stabilized his career's condition, but he's got a long way to go.
Who: Mariah Carey
The Crash: One of the most successful artists of the 1990s, Carey began to lose momentum after she split from husband/mentor (also then-chairman of Columbia, her record label at the time) Tommy Mottola in 1996. Four years later, she signed a deal with Virgin Records — for a reported $80 million. Her first album under that contract, 2001's Glitter, was the biggest commercial flop of her career, and the accompanying movie was eviscerated by critics. Around the same time, Carey's public appearances became increasingly erratic and a series of bizarre messages on her official Web site created concern that she was suffering an emotional breakdown. Then, a dazed-looking Carey appeared on "TRL," handed out popsicles to the audience and stripped down to a pair of Daisy Dukes and a halter top. Soon after, she checked into a hospital to treat "extreme exhaustion" and took a break from public appearances (see "Mariah Carey Reportedly Under Psychiatric Care Again"). In 2002, Virgin bought Carey out of her contract for a reported $28 million.
The Comeback: Accomplished — all it took was a great album. While 2002's Charmbracelet helped her regain some balance, she came storming back with 2005's multiplatinum The Emancipation of Mimi. Bolstered by A-list material from hitmaker Jermaine Dupri, it was the year's best-selling album and earned the singer her 17th #1 single in the U.S. with "Don't Forget About Us," tying the record held by Elvis Presley.
Rating: 3 She's always been a bit kooky, but as long as her behavior doesn't overshadow her prodigious talent (and she's got songs worthy of it), her fans don't seem to mind.
Who: Whitney Houston
The Crash: Houston is one of pop music's biggest-selling artists of all time, with more than 140 million albums and 50 million singles to her credit. But her career began to lose steam in the late '90s and, dogged for years by rumors of drug abuse, Houston was busted at the Houston airport in 2000 with several grams of marijuana; she also developed a reputation for abruptly canceling appearances, and frequently was gaunt and disheveled in public. She entered rehab facilities in 2004 and 2005, and later was the perpetually dazed-looking co-star of the train-wreck reality show "Being Bobby Brown." In one infamous scene, the formerly elegant singer described how Brown used a hands-on method to cure her constipation. That same year, she lost her Atlanta estate in a foreclosure sale because of overdue mortgage payments, and in early 2007 staged an auction of her clothes and stage outfits, reportedly in order to cover unpaid storage fees.
The Comeback: In progress. After filing for divorce from Brown late in 2006 (see "Whitney Houston Files For Divorce From Bobby Brown"), Houston is reportedly on the mend and hard at work on a comeback album that she's slated to start recording in March (see "Ne-Yo Penning Comeback Tracks For Britney, Whitney"). Perhaps most crucially, she's reunited with mentor Clive Davis — a Midas of pop music if ever there were one.
Rating: 2 While Whitney's was perhaps not the most severe public crackup, time is not on her side: It's been many years since she had a hit, and it'll take the kind of magic Davis wrought with Rod Stewart's career to bring her back. Standards collection, anyone?
Who: Courtney Love
The Crash: The widow of Kurt Cobain was the queen of rock in the mid-1990s, earning accolades for 1994's Live Through This with her band Hole, and acclaim for her portrayal of porn king Larry Flynt's wife in 1996's "The People Vs. Larry Flynt." Her career seemed promising — but then the always-unpredictable Love, who has battled with substance abuse for much of her career, spun out of control. She hosted a "24 Hours of Love" stunt on MTV2 in 2002 that found her rambling and taking naps. She was arrested in 2003 for allegedly being under the influence of narcotics while attempting to break into the home of her former manager/boyfriend. Later that same night she overdosed in front of her 11-year-old daughter, who was later taken away by child services. The following two years found Love in and out of court on felony drug-possession charges, coping with an assault charge stemming from a March 2004 show in New York during which she allegedly threw a mic stand at fan's head; and in rehab again in September 2005 after admitting to violating her probation by using drugs (see "Courtney Love Ordered Back To Rehab For Six Months"). She narrowly escaped jail in the summer of 2005 after two warrants were issued for her arrest on suspected probation violations.
The comeback: Love began writing the songs for her upcoming solo album, How Dirty Girls Get Clean, while in rehab. Hitmaker Linda Perry (Christina Aguilera, Pink) and former boyfriend/collaborator Billy Corgan have been helping her write and produce the album, which Perry says contains some of the strongest material in Love's career.
Rating: 3 Courtney's unhinged personality has always been part of her charm, so if she keeps on a relatively even keel and delivers a strong album, a return to form is certainly possible.
Who: R. Kelly
The Crash: The self-proclaimed "Pied Piper of R&B" has long been dogged about allegations of his proclivity for young girls, including a secret marriage at 27 to then-15-year-old Aaliyah that was quickly annulled. But in February 2002 a video emerged that allegedly showed Kelly having sex with and urinating on a 14-year-old girl who was the niece of a former protégé. Kelly, who was briefly imprisoned, has denied that he is the man on the tape, which has been widely bootlegged, and the unresolved child-pornography case continues to drag on (see "R. Kelly: When the Gavel Drops").
The Comeback: What makes Kelly's case unique is that despite the scandal — famously parodied by Dave Chappelle on his Comedy Central show as "P--- on You" — as well as allegations that he verbally and physically attacked his wife in 2005, his career barely seems to have been affected. Since the scandal broke more than four years ago, he's had a half dozen top-20 hits.
Rating: 2 Kelly appears to have weathered the storm for the time being, but a conviction could turn the tide.
Who: Christina Aguilera
The Crash: Britney's fellow Mickey Mouse Club alum burst out in 1999 with a debut album that earned her a Best New Artist Grammy and a huge hit single with "Genie in a Bottle." However, determined to take more control on her 2002 follow-up, Stripped, Aguilera rolled out a raunchy alter-ego she called "Xtina" who writhed around in the soft-core video for the hit single "Dirrty." She dissed pop-singing peers Britney and Beyoncé in interviews and frequently found the word "skank" attached to her name in headlines.
The Comeback: Stripped's secret weapon was the huge hit ballad "Beautiful" — which kept her musical career in clover. Aguilera then settled down and married an agent who works at her management company and came back with a classier image for her critically acclaimed 2006 double album, Back to Basics (see "Christina Aguilera's Old Soul").
Rating: 3 Some smart moves on Aguilera's part have made Xtina seem like a passing phase.
Who: Michael Jackson
The Crash: It's been a long fall from grace for the self-proclaimed "King of Pop." From his mid-'80s peak, Jackson has released a string of increasingly tepid albums and engaged in some of the most bizarre public behavior ever witnessed from a major star: the masks, the dangling baby, the ex-wife he claims doesn't want to see her children — not to mention the 2003-2004 trial, in which the singer was accused of molesting a teenage boy. Jackson was ultimately acquitted, but the trial made him a pariah, and he has since spent much of his time overseas to escape scrutiny (see "DJ Whoo Kid Spends An Evening In Bahrain 'Chillin' ' With Michael Jackson"). His once-mighty business empire has also crumbled in the wake of lavish spending and a series of deals gone sour.
The Comeback: It doesn't look promising. While his 2001 televised concert found him sharing the stage with Britney and Usher and proved there's still magic in those shiny loafers, the trial killed any momentum, and announcements of recording projects — including an all-star Hurricane Katrina-relief single that it turned out few of the announced stars had agreed to — have thus far come to naught. Jackson is said to be working on a comeback album with artists including Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas, DJ Whoo Kid and Akon.
Rank: 1 He'll have to make music on a par with his greatest work — which is saying a lot — to win back fans.