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Steve is an ordinary guy who worked for three years in the same cubicle at a moderately successful software firm.
When Steve started at his job, says a workmate, he hung a Britney Spears poster right next to his computer monitor. "She encourages me along," he'd often say.
Then, one day, Steve took the poster down and quit his job. He stood up on his desk and announced his plans to "become an Internet entrepreneur," says the workmate, a support technician who occupied the adjacent cube.
Steve was going to prove to the world that pop star Britney Spears is a man.
I discovered this man in the depths of Usenet, where he was ranting incoherently about dark forces tearing his site down from the Internet."
Intrigued, I emailed Steve personally and learned that he had been the author of a self-published website called Britney Spears Is A Man Dot Com, which had been removed from the Net, together with all the Google caches, mirrors, and Usenet posts about the site.
This little fact-nugget inspired me to purchase a plane ticket to Steve's hometown.
After quitting his job, Steve had moved his computer network to the basement of his parents' house. I met him in the driveway, where he heartily shook my hand and apologized for the "security procedures" I'd have to submit to before seeing his controversial Britney poop.
Steve and I stepped into the kitchen, where he'd situated a small computer. Besides storing his mother's archived Good Housekeeping recipes, the machine did his background research. Using his hacked connection to FBI databases, Steve punched in my Social Security number and learned that I had stolen a set of hubcaps when I was 18. This evidently didn't mean that I was unfit to learn the secrets of Britney. After a few minutes gloating (and pointing to a battered old poster proclaiming that "information wants to be free"), Steve led me down into the basement.
We emerged in a dim room that was dominated by a huge rack-mounted computer. After I signed a form promising that I would not disclose his identifying information or the location of his suburban hideout, Steve entered a few passwords into a battered keyboard and the site fired up in a glory of color.
BRITNEY SPEARS IS A MAN, BABY!!
There the page was, in its full glory, complete with the ads that it bore when Lizzie Grubman, Britney's publicist, forced the site down by threatening to flatten Steve with her SUV.
The site is basically structured like a web log, where the believers in the Male Britney would post pictures and news clippings that supported their belief. After reading the site for hours, I too began to believe that, indeed, Britney is a man.
As we learned in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, there is no way to prove a sexual secret, even by exposing humiliating details to the public. One can only detect the possibility of such a secret by gathering fragments of information and putting them together. It was this work that consumed Steve and his loyal readers.
First, there is the case of Robert Stephens, a drag queen and a Britney impersonator. Stephens, who often performed in nightclubs as Britney, won a Britney Spears lookalike contest in which the prize was going back stage at a concert to meet his idol.
When Robert got back stage, he was beckoned over by a TV crew from E! Entertainment Television. Robert thought the crew was there to cover his contest win. But when he sat down, Lizzie Grubman walked by, freaked out, and threw Robert and his dancers out a back door. Eventually, months later, Robert got to meet Britney after a New Orleans DJ raised a stink, but only for four minutes.
Why would the publicist fend off such an amusing lookalike, which could only generate positive publicity if accepted with a smile? To Steve and his readers, there could be only one reason: if Britney is actually a man, the drag queen could only raise embarrassing questions.
"Britney-boy was 17 when he met Robert," says Fan4Evah, one of Steve's posters. "If they met now, the resemblance would be even stronger, because Britney-boy has lost all his baby fat now and looks even MORE like a man."
The release of Britney's second album, "Oops! I did it again!" and the surrounding publicity, in which Britney appeared in more provocative clothes and with more makeup and bigger hair, lent weight to this argument. Here's one fan's comparison pictures. Although her image and style when the second album was released were meant to say that "she wasn't a girl anymore," her more mature image was, as one of Steve's readers put it, "more camp than femme."
Britney's relationship with Justin Timberlake of the band N'SYNC, which shares a record label with Britney, also raised some eyebrows on Steve's site. "Everybody knows that boy bands are all gay. If Britney was a real woman, why didn't she shack up with Mystikal or R. Kelly?" asked an anonymous poster.
Does it really matter whether Britney is a man or not? It sure doesn't matter to me -- I'd hate her just as much if she were a man. Most fans, though, hate her music and prefer to look at her videos rather than listen to her CD's. Her image is the core of her marketability; without that nubile sexuality, her listener base might drop by 80% or more! That may be why her true identity is so closely guarded.
If Britney is really a man, she may learn from the mistakes of Dana International, an Israeli pop star.
This lithe, splendid beauty, a transgendered male-to-female singer who lives as a woman, sings complex, upbeat dance tracks that go over big in Europe. Like Britney, she came onto the music scene through the talent show circuit, becoming the first openly gay performer to win the Eurovision contest (a Euro version of America's "Star Search").
As a transgendered star, Dana had to forsake the more conservative market-share, as Orthodox Jews in Israel protested her concerts and sent her death threats. However, she was able to use the controversy to fuel her career and reach a wider audience. But other Dana fans bemoan the fact that, as a "drag queen," Dana is forced into an ostentatious, campy image.
Maybe that's why Britney has kept her six-inch secret -- to preserve the right to wear blue jeans.