Britney Spears is the biggest female celebrity around, even though she doesn’t sell records the way she used to. In the nearly ten years since she first shimmied onto the scene, Britney Spears has parlayed an eye for controversy and a series of hooky pop songs into consistent success. Much like her idol Madonna, she’s kept her face in the public eye, although unlike her idol, she hasn’t backed that up with evidence of any actual musical talent.

Born in 1981, Britney was quickly introduced to showbiz, appearing on Star Search at the age of 10 and appearing on the Disney Channel’s Mickey Mouse Club a year later, along with fellow future superstars Ryan Gosling, Keri Russell, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake. After MMC bit the dust in 1994, Britney returned to civilian life before signing with Jive Records in 1997 as the teen-pop wave was starting to rise again.

Britney Leaves Mickey Mouse, Goes Solo

Her impact was immediate.

Debut single Baby One More Time was released in 1998, and by the beginning of the following year, both single and album were #1 on the charts. With a mildly suggestive lyric and video, Spears somehow managed to maintain an image as a virginal innocent while every shimmy and shake suggested otherwise. The Baby album sold over 13 million copies, one of the biggest selling debuts in history.

Britney gained the eternal love of dirty old men everywhere by posing suggestively for the cover of Rolling Stone while denying rumors of undergoing breast enhancement surgery at 17. Jive Records wisely struck again while the iron was hot. Her second album, Oops I Did it Again, was released barely 18 months after her debut and followed the pattern that had been set: debuting at #1 and selling over a million copies in its first week — a record for female artists that is unlikely to ever be broken. Britney Spears was America’s sweetheart, with a charming Southern demeanor and a megawatt smile masking her questionable singing and dancing abilities.

Less than 18 months after Oops the pop machine returned with Spears’ third album. Britney broke from the candy-sweet template set by her first two albums and contained edgier collaborations with the likes of pop singer Dido, hip-hop production team The Neptunes and then- beau Justin Timberlake. The album sold less than half as well as its predecessor, but still moved an impressive 4 million copies. Britney also made her feature film debut in Crossroads, a poorly-reviewed drama that fared poorly at the box office. Timberlake and Spears split soon after, and the starlet was reportedly stung by Timberlake’s indiscretions: admitting on a radio show that the two had sex (laying waste to Spears’ virginal image) and casting a likeness of her in the role of a cheater in his Cry Me a River video.

The worst was yet to come.

Britney Spears Collides With Reality

While 2003’s In the Zone continued Britney’s run of success, becoming her fourth consecutive number one album and earning her first Grammy (for the dance hit Toxic), things started unraveling publicly and privately. There was a controversial kiss with Madonna and Christina Aguilera on the MTV Video Music Awards, her quickie marriage to a childhood friend (which was annulled after less than 3 days), her increasingly sexual image, and her relationship with and eventual marriage to background dancer Kevin Federline. The pair’s relationship was documented on a trashy reality show called Chaotic, and Britney rush-released a Greatest Hits collection to stores, containing a painful remake of Bobby Brown’s My Prerogative. The decision to remake a Brown track may have been a head-scratcher at the time, but Spears seemed to be hell-bent on following Brown down the teenage star’s road to ruin.

In short order, Britney got pregnant, had a baby, was photographed driving the baby around in a backwards car seat, almost dropped the baby in public, got pregnant again, gave birth to her second son less than a year after giving birth to her first, filed for divorce from Federline, was admitted to drug rehab, left drug rehab, shaved her head, attacked a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella and was admitted and discharged from drug rehab a second time. In the meantime, Spears and Jive Records managed to piece together yet another album. A dazed and much-ridiculed performance on the MTV Video Music Awards earned much ridicule, and Britney’s fifth studio album, Blackout, became her first to debut lower than #1, finishing behind The Eagles. Despite Britney doing next to no publicity or concert dates, the album still sold nearly a million copies, an impressive feat in the current musical environment, but less than her second album moved in its first week.

Spears’ career and life seemed to be approaching a tragic end. She’d lost custody of her sons, took to flashing her genitalia in public, and several music magazines published cover stories forecasting her imminent demise. Following a stay in a psychiatric ward early in 2008, Britney slowly began to travel down the road to recovery. A pair of acting performances on the TV series How I Met Your Mother were well-received, and she began work on her sixth studio album. A gracious and lucid Spears returned to the scene of her most infamous crime in late summer 2008, looking radiant in a glittering silver dress and collecting her first three MTV Video Music Awards for the clip Pieces of Me.

America loves successful reclamation projects, and Spears is well on her way to achieving one.