clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
20 years of Britney Spears, all hail.
Javier Zarracina / Vox

Filed under:

Britney Spears has been a pop icon for 20 years. To understand her, you need to understand her hair.

It might as well be a mood ring.

Pogs. Furbys. Juicy Couture tracksuits. American Pie. Willa Ford.

These are just a few of the trends Britney Spears has outlasted in her long and storied career, which spans nine albums, 20 years, and countless iconic moments that today’s celebrity Snapchat wars could never hope to replicate.

Even as new generations of bobbleheaded pop stars keep cropping up to snatch her crown, Britney has been a unique fascination from the moment she danced her way around a Catholic high school in 1998’s "…Baby One More Time" video.

Even escaping to Las Vegas for a multiple-year residency — an eternity in the celebrity news cycle — hasn’t stopped Spears from being one of the biggest and most instantly recognizable stars on this whole dumb planet.

When the aliens come, don’t be surprised if they don’t care about us taking them to our leaders when they could meet Britney Jean Spears instead.

She’s also gone through so many career transformations, rock bottoms, and comebacks that it can be hard to remember how, exactly, Britney Spears became the icon she is today. As any of her devoted fans will tell you, though, Britney's always played the poker game of celebrity with one painfully obvious tell: her hair.

If you want to know how Britney Spears is doing, all you have to do is look at her hair (or the wigs and weaves she wears to approximate it) — which, when you think about it, makes her about as relatable as a pop star can get. So let’s take a break from our own mundane lives to look back at the 20 years that brought Britney Spears to this point, by way of her mood ring hairstyles.

1) Britney Spears Original Flavor: dirty blonde (1998–2001)

Javier Zarracina / Vox

When Britney Spears charged into the spotlight on the edge of a new millennium, her naughty Catholic schoolgirl routine for "…Baby One More Time" was tempered by the fact that the bubbly 17-year-old also seemed like your kid’s favorite babysitter — a contrast that was, of course, purposeful.

As we later came to realize, Britney’s family and managerial team carefully calibrated her public persona, and in the beginning that meant selling sex while being a paragon of virtue. So while the other pop starlets in Britney’s early orbit — Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, even Mandy Moore — defaulted to brighter, louder blondes, she started off as a softer honey blonde, to slightly undercut her salacious image.

2) Blonde(r) ambition (2001–2005)

Javier Zarracina / Vox

Soon enough, though, Britney couldn’t escape the blonde — nor, arguably, did she want to. Though her team kept assigning her a virginal narrative even throughout her high-profile relationship with cocky N’Sync leading man Justin Timberlake, Britney pushed back against that sterile persona, becoming more openly sexual, even a little dangerous.

By the time she debuted her legendary "I’m a Slave 4 U" performance at the 2001 VMAs, she’d amped up not only her dance moves but also the amount of peroxide in her perpetually whipping hair.

From there on out, Britney made clear that she was — say it with me/I am so sorry — not that innocent. (First and last one, I swear.) She became the sex symbol her image had always teased, vamping it up with a self-aware smirk. This glorious time included her 2003 album In the Zone — widely considered one of her best — not to mention her 2003 hit "Britney makes out with Madonna at the VMAs."

But by 2004, Britney’s grip on her world was starting to slip — or maybe more accurately, Britney started to slip from the world. Forces within both her own circle and the salivating music industry were pulling the sweetly dorky Louisiana girl in a thousand directions, and it was only a matter of time before she broke.

2004 was the end of polished Britney. Reports of drug use and mental health breaks started circulating in the tabloids, and then a Vegas trip with childhood friends ended in a spontaneous wedding — and hasty annulment — that gave the press ammunition for years. She met Kevin Federline, a backup dancer with cornrows and a "who gives a fuck?" vibe that Britney probably found refreshing. Finally, her tour got delayed when she tore her ACL during dance rehearsal — and shortly thereafter, she proposed to Federline.

This time is maybe best summed up by the 2005 reality show Britney and Federline starred in, featuring footage they shot of each other acting stoned and snorting through Cheetos: Chaotic.

3) The debut of "Brunetteny" (2006)

Javier Zarracina / Vox

One of the first signs that Britney was about to go even more dramatically off script came when she ditched any semblance of blonde for a dark brown weave in 2006.

Two years after she tore her ACL, "Brunetteny" — as her fiercely loyal self-described "Brit Army" of fans call this bizarro version of her — played by a different set of rules than the pop star we’d come to know.

She abandoned her old persona completely, embracing the chaos of being exactly the opposite of everything people thought she was before. Then Britney got pregnant, and Brunetteny became an even more clearly different persona, separate from her previous blonde teen princess act. She had two sons within two years — Sean Preston in 2005, Jayden James in 2006 — and backed off the grueling performance schedule she’d been under since she was just a kid herself.

Britney was done trying to be the slick package of sexed-up stardust the industry had sold her as, and Brunetteny was her way of saying so.

But if anyone thought Britney’s rebellious stage would culminate in something as banal as a Vegas wedding, an ill-advised investment in a shady backup dancer, or brunette wigs … well, they were mistaken.

4) Shaved hair, don’t care (2007)

Javier Zarracina / Vox

In 2007, Britney’s marriage to Federline crumbled into a fine powder, and her mental health became the subject of worldwide discussion. Once her family and Federline took her sons away from her, she spiraled hard.

She tried rehab, ditched rehab, and cut out her family and friends for a new circle of people whose close ties with the paparazzi ushered in an unprecedented new era of scrutiny into Britney’s personal life at the exact moment when she was at her lowest.

The situation, Rolling Stone wrote then, was dire. When Britney left rehab without completing any kind of program, her family and friends wondered if she was about to self-destruct:

She arrived at Federline's house for her babies, but he had joined forces with Lynne [Britney's mother] and Rudolph [Britney's manager], and wouldn't talk to her until she registered at the Malibu rehab center Promises. She circled his house three times, furious at having to concede to their demands, before pulling into a random hair salon in the Valley and taking her hair off in big clumps, less as a penance than a liberation. Then she stayed up for forty-eight hours straight, driving around, sucking down dozens of Red Bulls, afraid that she was being followed by demons, or that a cell-phone charger was taping her thoughts, and obsessively listening to the radio for news about Anna Nicole Smith's death earlier that month. That was her fate, she declared — she was next.

Everyone — including Britney, apparently — thought they knew what was coming. But when she did snap, she still managed to surprise the hell out of all of us.

You know the pictures. Britney, peering at herself in a mirror, shaves off what’s left of her brown hair with a giant grin. Britney, bald head peeking out of a loose sweatshirt, gets tattooed. Britney, wild-eyed, grips an umbrella and beats the hell out of a paparazzo’s car.

As "fuck you"s go, though, this one was pretty spectacular.

5) The pink wig (2007–2008)

Javier Zarracina / Vox

The moments after the head shaving were dark for Britney. Rehab wouldn’t take, she had lost custody of her kids, and Kevin Federline was screening her calls. But Britney’s always been able to put on a show, and in 2007 she might’ve singlehandedly staged the most compelling entertainment of the year. (Google reminds me that the Oscar winner for Best Picture that year was The Departed, but I don’t care, I stand by it.)

Britney’s biggest fans at this point might have been the paparazzi, who stalked her from her driveway to Starbucks and back again. They learned how to anticipate when she was likely to give them something of interest beyond detailing which Frappuccino flavor is her favorite. (She revealed in 2011 that it’s strawberry, and also, the fact that we still cared about what her favorite Frappuccino flavor was a good five years after we were done caring about Frappuccinos speaks to Britney’s strange charisma.)

One detail of Britney’s appearance was a particularly solid indication that something strange was on the horizon: a hot pink bobbed wig, crumpled and frizzy, like she'd just fished it out of the bottom of a long-forgotten Party City sale bin. As one charming paparazzo told People then: "When she puts on the pink wig, you just know something crazy is about to happen."

And so it did. She’d throw on the wig and tear around the Los Angeles canyons, leading the paparazzi on wild goose chases while taunting them in a British accent, seemingly manic and desperate for approval. Sometimes she’d even stop to hang out with them — which is how she met boyfriend Adnan Ghalib, a former paparazzo whose job used to be to follow her around.

Consider all this when you realize that in October 2007 — eight months after she shaved her head — Britney still managed to put out Blackout, her best album to date.

The wig reluctantly went into retirement once her father, Jamie Spears, stepped in, securing a temporary conservatorship over his daughter’s life and finances — a drastic measure, and one that’s since become a permanent fixture of Britney’s life.

Britney still loves wigs, but that pink bob is imprinted on her history like a bruise that refuses to fade.

6) Finding a new normal through questionable blond weaves (2008– 2013)

Javier Zarracina / Vox

These were the best of times. These were the worst of times.

As Spears tried to grow out her hair underneath a series of excruciatingly bad weaves, her career ramped back up into high gear — though she clearly wasn’t ready.

Watching her now-infamous performance of "Gimme More" at the 2007 VMA’s is like watching someone sleepwalking, and not being sure if waking her would be the best or worst thing. Instead of really dancing — always Britney’s favorite part of performing — she listlessly wandered across the stage, looking less like a pop star than a figure skater who got bored and started thinking about where to get lunch.

In a 2008 cover story titled "The Tragedy of Britney Spears," Rolling Stone called her "a perfectly proportioned twenty-six-year-old porcelain doll with a nasty weave."

Slowly, though, Britney clawed her way out of her hell. Though her father’s conservatorship monitored her every decision — and, again, continues to do so today — she recommitted to being a pop star. She released solid pop albums Circus (2008) and Femme Fatale (2011), before the more introspective Britney Jean (2013). In 2013 she announced her Vegas residency, a show called Piece of Me that would run 50 times a year.

In her exclusive announcement with Good Morning America, Britney smiled from behind enormous sunglasses, a helicopter whirring away behind her. "I’m definitely ready," she said.

And she was right.

7) A new contender — "Auburtney"? "Redheadny?" — appears (2014)

Javier Zarracina / Vox

As Britney settled into the role of anchoring her own Vegas experience, she turned back to her Brunetteny roots, this time with more of a red sheen than she’d ever had. This was a brief period, but still significant if only because Britney trying brown hair on for size usually signals a restlessness with her own image.

Vegas was a whole new stage for Britney’s career, and though she ended up embracing it to the point where she’s now extended her stay through 2017, she was still figuring out exactly what it — not to mention she — was going to be. For Britney, that usually means dusting off another wig, slipping on a different persona, and trying something new for the sake of it.

8) Mermaid Britney (2015)

Javier Zarracina / Vox

Maybe the best sign of Britney’s improved mental state is her Instagram. In 2015, the boilerplate posts telling fans to go to Vegas in unsettlingly stilted social media speak disappeared. Britney’s Instagram became way more personal, filled with videos of her sons doing skateboard tricks in their Vegas backyard, motivational quotes, and more pictures of sparkly fairies and apple-cheeked babies than Anne Geddes could stuff in a teapot.

At one point, Britney got her hands on a phosphorescent mermaid tail, which she wore to lounge around the pool with her sons and niece in the Vegas heat. She dyed the tips of her hair to match, and thus, Mermaid Britney — a determined performer and goofy mom — got her name.

Also: Mermaid Britney came to slay.

Now watch me #pieceofme

A video posted by ⚜EJ (@errolott) on

When she started the show in 2014, she was tentative; in 2015, she owned that stage. Her performing is more solid than it’s been in a decade, as she switches up her Piece of Me dance numbers and incorporates new jams for dozens of high-octane performances a year.

9) Back to blonde (2016–?)

Javier Zarracina / Vox

Today, Britney Spears has settled into her role about as comfortably as could be expected, given the fact that she’s spent her entire life trying to be a person while everyone surrounding her tries to fold her into boxes.

But at 35, Britney’s fully twice the age she was when "…Baby One More Time" came out and her life changed forever. She’s a mom who posts inspirational memes and videos of her sons with her giggle as their soundtracks. She’s a performer who churns out show after show, who released a ninth album that has more variation than any she’s done, who knows everything you think of her and has become her own person in spite of it.

Glory be.


Did the Scream franchise just fall apart?


Mary Kay Letourneau, the grim inspiration for May December, explained


The violence against Indigenous women in Killers of the Flower Moon isn’t just historical. It’s an ongoing crisis.

View all stories in Culture