LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - She is watched round the clock by photographers, chased at high speed and friends fear for her mental stability.
After a year of erratic behavior in the glare of the press spotlight she both shuns and invites, pop star Britney Spears has some observers comparing the celebrity media frenzy surrounding her with what Britain’s Princess Diana faced and some voice concern about her safety.
Diana, who died in a car crash in 1997, had been the most photographed woman in the world and the object of intense media scrutiny.
Spears, 26, has been staked out 24 hours a day for the past two years. This week, she was involved in a late-night car chase, in which four paparazzi were arrested for reckless driving, and she ducked back into her car after being mobbed by media covering a child custody court hearing.
Spears has been one of the biggest-selling female pop singers in the past decade. But since her life careened out of control following her divorce last year from Kevin Federline, she has been photographed with a bald head, going partying without panties and being carried by stretcher into an ambulance.
When photographers followed her into a Los Angeles church on Monday, it was the last straw for U.S. comic and talk-show host Rosie O’Donnell.
“I remember the tunnel as it appeared on the news, lit by headlights, flashlights, red lights.....I saw it then, and I can see it now. Diana dead,” O’Donnell wrote in her blog.
“She (Spears) will be trying to get away, but they will chase her, just as they chased her into that church ...
“The tunnel is crowded now. There are only inches of separation between vulnerability and disaster,” she added.
Diana, 36, died in a high-speed Paris car crash blamed on her drunk and drugged-up driver. She was being followed by photographers but none of them was charged.
Frank Griffin, who co-owns the Los Angeles celebrity picture agency Bauer-Griffin, was irked by suggestions photographers might be held responsible for Spears’ safety.
But he said there were other similarities between Spears and Diana, who was known for manipulating the media and sometimes tipping off photographers.
“There is some kind of symbiotic relationship between Britney and those who will provide her with attention.
“She has to have it in her life. She is used to all that adulation since she was a kid. The only way she can get it now is by going out and doing something stupid,” Griffin said.
Sympathy for Spears has dropped since she started dating Adnan Ghalib, one of the paparazzi who have dogged her for months. Ghalib has provided pictures of himself with Spears to his agency.
“She is going out with a guy who calls all these teams ahead of time,” Griffin said. “Why does she drive to the drugstore? Why is she going to the deli and running in to pick things up. Why doesn’t she send someone else to do it?”
John Cook, senior writer for the pop culture and politics magazine Radar, said the number of paparazzi in Los Angeles had swelled to between 300 and 400 from about 25 some 15 years ago.
“It’s like the Wild West. Celebrity magazines are paying huge amounts for single photographs, millions of dollars in some cases,” Cook said. “With that kind of money, there is always going to be an incentive for people to behave this way, especially when someone is going through a personal crisis.”
Cook said there was a danger someone would end up being hurt. “Whether it is Britney herself, or an innocent bystander, it would not surprise me if there was a car accident and someone was seriously injured.”
In an illustration of how macabre some of the Spears coverage has become, a Detroit radio station apologized this week for running a contest offering $1,000 for the correct prediction of the day she dies, from drugs or at her own hands.
Griffin said Spears’ pictures represented only a small percentage of his income. But he saw no end to the frenzy soon.
“It never died out with Diana, did it?” he said.
Editing by Peter Cooney