'Kentwood's in my heart. I'm a country girl.'
- Britney, 1994
They call it the 'Boon Docks' - the middle of nowhere. It is only when you have stood in the rural remoteness of Kentwood, in the vastness of Lousiana's pinelands, that you begin to understand two things: the very obscurity from which Britney Spears was plucked and the sheer determination required to even get noticed by the show-business radar. Britney might as well have screamed her dreams from the middle of the desert.
The entertainment world of Los Angeles and New York seem light years away on the country roads and when walking beside the creeks. This region is a flat, sparsely populated landscape of pastures and woodland, broken up by little pockets of hamlet towns, connected by narrow backroads; sandy veins webbing across endless greenery.
Modern-day life is serviced by Interstate 55, running north from its starting point on New Orleans' outskirts in a 70-minute drive to Kentwood, transporting visitors deep in-land. The 55 is the 'hurricane evacuation route' out of the city that remains haunted by Hurricane Katrina but aside from such emergency circumstances, there seems little reason to even contemplate a visit - unless you're a die-hard Britney fan or a member of the paparazzi.
Louisiana is a state sandwiched by Texas to the west and Mississippi to the east - a thick, giant 'L' on the Gulf of Mexico coast, with a stifling summer heat that can reach 38degreeC (100degreeF) within 90 per cent humidity. Kentwood lies on the top ridge of the L's lower section. There, it relaxes in its rocking chair on a state-line porch, with Mississippi out front and Louisiana out back, minding its own business in the twilight zone between states. Stay too long, not far from the Mississippi river, and you'll dream of Huckleberry Finn wandering by, thumbs braced in dungarees, spitting dust into the dirt. Set against Britney's conservatorship case, it is something of an irony that Huck himself searched for freedom away from the guardianship of Widow Douglas.
First-time visitors almost certainly rock up with pre-conceived notions of Gone With The Wind and then struggle to match the reality with fiction, or fathom the idealised version of what Britney Spears' home town is supposed to be like. Kentwood is part of the Britney legend, the first facade encountered. Over the years, its projected image is that of a clean-living, God-fearing, conservative-Church town, which upholds the strictest Christian values. Such a description conjures up an image of a joyous Britney running down the hill in her Sunday best, like Laura Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie. But the truth is a little different.
In fact, Kentwood's roads travel a surface-deep reality covered with asphalt PR on one hand - and then the more raw, less polished under-belly; the scratched truths before the gloss is applied. This is the beginning of a thread of a noticeable show-don't-reveal pattern, from grass roots to celebrity pedestal.
Kentwood is home to just under 600 families, according to the last consensus. The Spears are one of them. Population is barely above the 2,000 mark the average income is estimated to be around $17,000 (about 12,000pounds) and the average house price is $70,000 (about 40,000 pounds). It is a hard-working, low-income town - deeply human, truly organic.
If you blinked coasting north along Interstate 55, you'd miss its entry point off Exit 61 - the last exit before the border with the Mississippi, 5 miles away. Liverpool lies to the left, Kentwood to the right, turning onto the local Route 38. In many respects, it's like driving into a location that time forgot; a place caught between the interstate and the tracks of the Central Illinois railroad that cuts through en route to Chicago.
Three budget stores - Dollar General, Family Dollar and Super Dollar - come up on the right, alongside a local supermarket and volunteer fire station. Further into town, there is Kentwood Cafe, Connie's Jewellers, Schillings Pharmacy and two small banks. There is a store that sells guns, ammunition....and toys, and then a truck and tractor parts shop. Almost all retails shops are metal-fronted, constructed of corrugated iron with metal roofs. It is a cheaper, quicker way to build, and these roofs will better withstand the storms that often threaten. Residential streets don't have names, but letters of the alphabet: Avenue A, Avenue B, Avenue C, Avenue D and so on, with not a two-storey house in sight. Most homes are set back from the roads on scraggy grassland: ranch-style bungalows, 'double-wide' mobile homes or 'cracker-shacks' - rickety-looking structures built from plywood and elevated on brick-built stilts. Everyone else lives on farms or bungalows within the mass acreage of Tangipahoa Parish. Wheel-less cars and truck shells have taken root where they rust. It becomes instantly clear that this is the lower-end of the socio-economic spectrum in the rural US and the poor relation to Hammond (26 miles away), McComb (15 miles) and Amite (10 miles).
Two main roads dissect Kentwood: the 38 traveling east to west and feeding off the Interstate, and Highway 51 running south to north to the state line with 'Ole Missy'. Their meeting point creates the only crossroads with a single overhead stoplight that sways in a stiff breeze. A traffic jam is when four cars wait on red. It's at this crossroads where the paparazzi loiter with intent.
'It's not hard to pick out the Spears' family,' said one snapper. 'You see Lynne's white Land Rover or a Lexus on roads where everyone else has a GMC or Chevrolet truck, compacts or rust-buckets.'
Turn left at the right and first right into Main Street and Kentwood's true decay becomes all too evident. This was once the hub-and-buzz of the parish with a drive-in, cinema, bars and restaurant.
'People used to come here just to be seen but what y'all seeing now is Kentwood's slow death,' said one veteran. He remembers a thriving dairy industry that once supported 200 farms but the arrival of Wal-Mart in surrounding towns soon put milk-plants and dairies out of business. Only 10 dairies are said to survive and for the past 20 years, the town has been in gradual decline. Today, Main Street is the thoroughfare of a ghost town. Not one shop has survived along its 100-metre stretch. Every window is broken, buildings and roofs have crumbled, the gable-ends collapsed in a pile of brick and debris. Amid this dilapidation and neglect, one starts to question whether the pop princess really does originate from here. It is hard to marry such glaring decay with the impossible wealth of its famous daughter. But then, by way of confirmation, the visitor is confronted by a Disney-like sign on the town's outskirts reading - 'Kentwood - Home to Britney Spears.' On first impressions, it seems the townsfolk are mighty proud of their girl who, along with bottled Kentwood Springs Water, put this parish firmly on the map.
Not that it seems to have done much good.
No one has yet been entrepreneurial to launch the 'Britney Tours' guide but it would be easy enough to organise by following the footsteps that trace back to an ordinary past. What used to be Granny's Deli is on the street corner where Britney once assisted on weekend mornings; also the First Baptist Church where she sang in public for the first time; her favourite restaurant - Nyla's Burger Barn; the bungalow of Kentwood Museum which celebrates her roots within its own memorabilia exhibition and then her former childhood home: a brown-brick, ranch-style bungalow with three bedrooms and two bathrooms.
It is tucked away off a side-road, backing onto dense woodland, and lies behind the immaculate Greenlaw Baptist Church, where the family attended Sunday service. There is the backyard where Britney's trampoline was housed and a driveway where her brother Bryan practised basketball on the hoop above a carport. Often Britney came barrelling out the front-door as she performed cartwheels and back-flips on the front lawn, putting on a show for her neighbours, the Stricklands and the Reeds. On the adjacent land, a large, high barn stands derelict to overgrown grass.
Times have, of course, changed, and Britney's fame and fortune allowed her to build her mama a property called 'Serenity' and this is where Lynne Spears continues to reside, 6 miles away. There is also a detached guest-house for when Britney visits. Serenity is a piece of Beverly Hills built in a backwater of Louisiana, providing a permanent reminder of the dreams that can exist beyond Kentwood's horizons. This immense home would be an ostentatious eyesore if it were built in the town's centre, but it is discreetly hidden away in 7 acres of pine woodland, set off a narrow country road.
It also proves one truth about Kentwood life for the Spears clan: no matter how successful life might appear, there is no leaving this foundational bedrock. Here, they are tethered by generational roots that have grown deep into the red earth, bound by a sense of community that makes everywhere else seem distant and foreign. Whatever glamorous facades are erected, whatever the trappings of wealth afforded, they remain deeply ingrained as country folk.
Behind the church, Britney's childhood home is tenant-occupied these days, but it's still the place visitors seek out. Kentwood's proximity to the state border is evidenced by the property's very location - a short run, hop, skip and a jump to Mississippi, where the homely pavilion of Nyla's Burger joint sits on the main road and celebrates its near-neighbour with an entire room decorated in memorabilia. Even the menu boasts: 'Britney Spears' favourite family restaurant.'
Then there is Kentwood Museum, a converted funeral parlour near the relic of Main Street, where curator Hazel Morris showcases Britney's career to date. It was first opened in 1975 to honour veterans of war and Britney's grandparents take pride of place - Jamie's dad June Austin Spears, a former sergeant in the US Air Force in the Korean War; and Lynne's dad Barney Bridges, a technical sergeant with the US Army during World War II. With 66 headshots to a frame and 15 frames around the walls, Kentwood's contribution to America's freedom is evident.
In another section of the room, among these men, are reminders of 'The pin-ups who went to war': Veronica Lake, Lana Turner, Vivien Leigh, Jane Russell and Barbara Stanwyck. It seems that the door adjacent to this display leads through to the area celebrating the modern-day icon: Britney Spears. She dominates three separate rooms and everything the eye sees used to hang on Britney's walls until dad Jamie decided to loan to the museum in 2000: platinum record plaques, framed magazine covers, family-framed photos, childhood dresses and awards - MTV Awards, American Music Awards, a CD: UK trophy, and awards from Smash Hits and Hollywood Reporter.
If visitors are not arriving as fans, this town is automatically on the back-foot. The official speed-limit is 35 mph, but locals drive 25-mph so anyone traveling that 10mph faster provides the giveaway that an outsider is in town. Heads turn and beady eyes take note. If the local sheriff spots the number plate of a rental car, the 'suspicious' invader will be asked to pull over and some searching questions will be posed.
Locals have one another's backs covered, and everybody knows everyone's business. It is the essence of a close-knit community that many city-dwellers would find alien. But if your intentions are good, and you tread respectfully, then people shake your hand and give you the time of the day, consistent with good old southern hospitality. These are down-to-earth, hardworking and honest folk, the working rather than educated type. There's no tolerance for idealising, moralising or posturing but there is warmth to their simplicity and an enviable contentment. Here, working life is authentic, insular and raw. Its small-town sensibilities don't contemplate the filters that would ordinarily check conversation that might shock and offend. The social rules are simple: if you don't like it, keep moving on through.
Whether or not they know you, questions will always be respectfully answered in a thick southern accent - 'Yes sir' or 'No ma'am.' They will address you as Mister or Miss, as a title attached to your Christian, not surname. If an 'Alan Jones' wanders into town, he'll be greeted as 'Mr. Alan'. Should his wife Mary join him, she'll be 'Miss Mary'. The vernacular and attitude belongs to a bygone age.
In Britney's younger age, there used to be at least six drinking holes but now there's just one: a rough-and-ready pavilion, once called the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) but now, decommissioned, it is known as 'The Dub'. From the outside, it resembles a mini-warehouse with its windowless, corrugated iron structure. Local laws mean it has to hide its neon-Budweiser signs inside. The Dub is the community gathering point and it's the kind of joint where all eyes turn to the door when an outsider first enters and walks into a wall of automatic wariness. It's the same as Country Boys, a bar 14 miles away in another cultureless land, attracting people from both Mississippi and Louisiana, and it's a tribal feel that becomes a recipe for regular brawls: 'Mississippi's in tonight,' one local warned, 'it's going to break.'
For many men in these parts, decompressing after six days' hard graft on the land or faraway refineries, the week is not complete without several beers and a good fight. They are not afraid to tell you that fighting is regarded as a release of pent-up energy. Men - and even women - will fight among themselves when bar banter is fueled by alcohol, spilling outside into the gravel parking lots. The next night, those same combatants will sit down, share a beer and recount the incident with laughter.
Until recently, each patron had to sign in at the front door of The Dub, but it still remains advisable to walk in with someone with whom the locals are familiar, otherwise you'll be invited into that same parking-lot and asked what your business is. Those who 'don't belong' include lone outsiders, the paparazzi and African-Americans. Locals regard The Dub as Kentwood's white-bar. The black-bar, 'The Sugar Shack', is further into town.
At Kentwood High School, only a handful of white faces can be seen in a predominantly African-American enrolment. White families tend to send their children out of town; to Amite's Oak Forest Academy or Park Lane Academy in McComb, Mississippi - Britney's former school. Both these private schools, which come with relatively affordable fees, have good educational standards but there is no escaping the fractious attitudes concerning race. State segregation may be illegal now but segregation from choice remains a way of life. They will tell you it's no different in countless other areas of Middle America.
All around town, frank conversations about colour and creed is not for the ears of the easily offended because there is an unapologetic use of the word 'nigger'. It forms an everyday part of many people's vernacular; the legacy of generational hand-me-downs which has left a deeply-entrenched mind-set among people who don't care for worldly experience, or what the world thinks. But it seems to be a powerless mind-set, as indicated by the 2002 election of the first non-white mayor, Harold Smith, erstwhile assistant principal at Kentwood High. Now there is talk of a new dawn and increased integration.
Smith is the Barack Obama of Kentwood with a Herculean mission to alter hearts and minds. He traveled to Washington to witness the President's inauguration in January 2009 and returned to write a piece in Amite Today: 'It revived my spirit and motivated me to return home to share the necessary ideas and feeling of hope and change to benefit all people, regardless of background....because there is no place like home.'
A mother who knew Britney from school, and still talks to the star's cousins, is quick to point out that, 'Britney knows how people talk but she don't agree with it. She's had black friends, management, dancers and bodyguards. It don't matter the colour of a guy's skin.'
It would be unjust to apply a broad brush and say this one issue sums up Kentwood. In fact, whites from Mississippi are viewed with just as much suspicion as blacks. But it remains a social indicator of the background in which Britney has grown. Inevitably, her fame has broadened her own perspectives and afforded her a life of education that few will sample. But Kentwood is also where she feels safest and most known. In her 2008 MTV documentary, Britney - For The Record, she referred to her 'meltdown' and wondered out loud why she didn't seek out its sanctuary and serenity of home: 'You would think that I would have gone home....I think back now and I'm like, "Why did I, in that fragile state, why didn't I just up and go to Louisiana?"'
Her aunt Chanda McGovern, formerly married to John Mark Spears, explains: 'People here love Britney for Britney, and nothing else. People see past all the fame and celebrity, and accept her for who she is. Kentwood is where people have got her back covered, where she has all the love and support she needs. Whatever the image of Britney, she is a country girl and Kentwood's own.'
Kentwood takes its name from Amos Kent, an early settler who established a brickyard and sawmill to kick-start the lumber industry that survived until the early twenties. He was also a confederate rebel, jailed for not swearing allegiance to the US during the American Civil War; a leader of a unit within the 12,000 Louisiana infantrymen who served the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Kent was one of 'Lee's Tigers', which earned the sobriquet 'The Fighting Tigers' because its soldiers were rowdy, fearless drunks whose behaviour was tolerated because of their immense achievement in battle, according to historian Arthur Bergeron. That work-hard, play-hard, fear nothing attitude is just as prevalent today and the 'stars-and-bars' of the Confederate Flag fly just as proudly in this town as Uncle Sam's stars-and-stripes.
There is little to do for children growing up there. They become accustomed to a southern life of playing and hunting in the woods. Basketball and football are the main pursuits for boys and girls' focus is basketball and also cheerleading before settling into early domestic bliss.
The roads are so remote that fathers will ride with their children sat between their legs in the car, in front of the steering wheel; they ride with children on their laps in the same way as many dog owners do with their pets. When Britney became a mother and attempted to transfer this practice to the roads of Malibu in 2007, she soon realised a Louisiana way of life won't wash elsewhere. But that incident served to highlight the conditioning influences spilling over from her childhood.
Kentwood is a hunt-shoot-fish town but its not 'country life' in the same fashion as England's tweed jackets and picnic hampers, or Balmoral shoots. Men throw a rifle and ice-packed beer in the back of their trucks and hunt for deer and rabbit, sitting in 'deer-hides' - wooden shacks where they sit to hide from the deer. They'll then return home and throw a 'crawfish boil party', thanking God for the catches they've snared.
For God is one of the chief grandfathers of this 'Bible Belt' town. His presence is observed in the community and in locals' vernacular. The Spears family merely had to walk across the road from their home to Sunday service. Christian values formed the backbone of Britney's upbringing and education. The way that mum Lynne explains it is that they are not a religious, but deeply spiritual family and yet they are strongly tied to the Christian faith.
As a child, Britney kept a prayer journal and was encouraged to have discussions with God and confide in her local pastor. Of course, as a child, it is easy to nod one's head in blithe acceptance of a faith that perhaps holds more of a worship indoctrination that actual meaning. Britney almost certainly found pleasure in the 'performance' and rituals - the ceremonies that would ultimately allow her to showcase her talents. Yet, regardless of meaning, she was obviously influenced by the beliefs instilled in her by her elders.
What she was told, she believed. So, when Britney went to bed each night, she believed God was watching over her and that everything happened because of His higher reasoning. He was her mainstay. Indeed, this is illustrated as she grew up and found her dreams coming true, blessing Him for the opportunities she had, acknowledging His guidance in the albums she made and believing He places obstacles in our way to make us stronger. Britney's early-stated philosophy on life was that: 'He has a hand in everything, good or bad. It's all part of God's plan.'
In a book penned by Britney and Lynne together, called Heart to Heart, Britney wrote: 'I pray all the time. I find a lot of comfort and strength in knowing I can talk to God and He's listening. That's the way we were raised.' On the wall above her bed, she a hung a cross-stitch of the 18th-century prayer:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Each night before bed, Britney wrote down her thoughts for 'God to read.' Her jottings complete, she kneeled at her bed and prayed, hands steepled in prayer. Then she reached under the blue, glass-plated bedside lamp and turned out the light to disappear into dreamland.'
- Debolina Raja Gupta