Sitting alone in her car, one of the most famous women in the world sobbed her heart out with her long brunette locks cascading down her face.

Minutes later she marched into a beauty salon, sat in a chair and studied her reflection in the mirror. After remonstrating with the hairdresser, she grabbed a pair of clippers and quickly shaved her head completely bald.

A crowd of 70 snappers who had followed her to the salon flashed their bulbs through the window, capturing the strained smile on the young woman’s face as her discarded hair piled up around her feet.

Britney Spears’ rebellious head-shaving incident in 2007 was one of the seminal moments in Noughties pop culture. The pop princess had hit the self-destruct button after finding fame nine years previously with …Baby One More Time and was in the midst of a downward spiral into depression and alleged drug use as photo after photo showed her out partying looking sloppy-drunk while her young sons were at home with their dad.

But why did she do it? Britney seemed to have everything – millions of dollars in the bank, hundreds of thousands of fans who loved her, and her boys – Jayden and Sean – who she shared with estranged husband Kevin Federline.

But behind the scenes, her life was falling apart. Her behaviour in public seemed erratic and strange, while her performances were criticised for being stilted, robotic and disconnected. She’d stopped sleeping properly years before, being prescribed Prozac at the age of 18 but taking it only sporadically. Only physical and mental exhaustion would see her knocked out enough to get some shut-eye.

Just weeks before Britney took the clippers to her scalp, her beloved aunt Sandra Covington died of ovarian cancer. It seemed to be the last straw for the 25-year-old singer, who had counted Sandra as a second mother and was very close to her growing up. In early February, she briefly checked in to a drug rehabilitation centre in Antigua, then fled the facility less than a day after arriving.

The next evening, Britney placed what would become a seminal phone call to the hair salon on Ventura Boulevard in California’s San Fernando Valley. She begged them to reopen the salon so she could come in, and arrived a short time later in her SUV while more cameras, fans and paparazzi turned up to watch her every move.

Bodyguards flanked the crying singer into the salon, where she was greeted by hairdresser Esther Tongnozzi, who was alarmed at the crush of people pursuing Britney.

“I thought they were going to kill each other,” she later told Entertainment Tonight. “They were trying to pile up on top of each other to get a picture and the one bodyguard was actually covering the front door with a cape.

“And then the minute they heard her going out the side door, I mean, if you’ve seen my shop, I have gates on both sides, they were climbing the gates trying to get the first picture of her. I felt someone was going to get hurt, for sure, it was crazy.”

Esther had to take a call so left Britney sitting by her hairdressing station for a few moments. When she came back, the starlet had “grabbed a buzzer and she was testing to see how it was going to feel or look to buzz her hair”.

While the stylist begged her to reconsider, Britney seemed determined to follow through with her plan.

“I said, ‘You don’t want to do that, tomorrow is a different day, you’ll feel differently tomorrow, let’s talk about it’. My phone rang again so, as I’m answering my phone, I realise she went into that other room, sat in that chair and buzzed half her hair off,” Esther explained.

In an instant, Britney’s determination faltered. “My mom’s gonna be pissed,” she confided in the hairdresser, who immediately tried to salvage the situation.

“I thought we could do a comb-over maybe to fix it. What I said to her was, ‘Do you realise what all the young teenagers are going to want to do tomorrow – shave their hair off to look like you?’ She didn’t care.”

Her bodyguards, Esther alleged, were lax in keeping the paps from getting their money shots of the broken star. One stood by the window and kept opening the blinds, she claimed, and both allowed her to head to a nearby tattoo parlour immediately after she’d shaved her head.

Followed by a teeming mass of people, Britney entered the parlour and asked the tattoo artist for a small inking of a pair of lips on her wrist. Emily Wynne-Hughes told the 2017 Channel 5 documentary Britney Spears: Breaking Point that she noticed the singer’s bare head partially hidden under her hoodie.

“[I heard] an insane roaring sound outside. I wasn’t sure what was happening, if there was a riot outside and then the flashes came,” Emily recalled. “I noticed her hair was gone. I remember asking her, ‘why did you shave your head?'”

It was then Britney finally revealed her poignant reason for the extreme makeover.

“I just don’t want anybody, anybody touching my head. I don’t want anyone touching my hair. I’m sick of people touching my hair,” the star told the tattoo artist.

Emily echoed Esther’s thoughts about Britney’s entourage, adding: “It just didn’t seem like they cared very much. I’ve felt this insane sense of anxiety and energy that felt so negative… It just seemed like everybody was waiting for the crash to happen.”

Crash was one word for it, but Britney’s woes had barely begun. Locks of her shorn hair that had been left on the salon floor were quickly posted on eBay, driving bids of £1million before the site removed the auction, while the paps remained on her tail everywhere she went, desperate to see what she’d do next.

Days after the salon meltdown, Britney was caught on camera frantically ringing Kevin’s doorbell to see her sons. There was no answer, so the stressed star, burnt out by the constant harassment, grabbed an umbrella and attacked one of the snapper’s cars, lashing out at another photographer while screaming obscenities.

Having hit rock bottom, Britney voluntarily checked into rehab in LA to get better, but to no avail.

That same year, the singer met her manager Sam Lufti in a nightclub and quickly agreed to hand over every aspect of her life in exchange for 15% of her earnings, he later claimed in court documents.

Sam said he accepted the job as her manager if she promised to stop using drugs and alleged she became hooked on amphetamines as her marriage and relationship with her sons crumbled.

She even slept in a car park the night she lost custody of Jayden and Sean to Kevin in October 2007, he said.

Sam, who sued Britney’s parents in 2012 for libel, defamation and breach of contract, said he had established rules for the paparazzi in order to protect his client. They would keep off private property, refrain from following her into shops, not run red lights to chase her and would always save Britney a parking space when they followed her, under the code of conduct Sam drew up – and if they complied, the snappers would be given Britney’s itinerary.

“By January 2008, Britney and Sam trusted the paparazzi and treated them as free bodyguards,” his court documents claimed – while Britney’s parents James and Lynne Spears alleged Sam used the paps as “henchmen” and accused him of hiding their daughter’s mobile phones to prevent them from contacting her.

But despite her manager’s best efforts, Britney was still falling apart. She was told to hand over her children to ex-husband Kevin in January 2008 after a four-hour stand-off with police at her Los Angeles home, resulting in her being taken to hospital on a gurney where she was placed on a 5150 involuntary psychiatric hold.

That incident would become another defining moment in her young life, as a court ruled Britney was unable to manage her own financial or legal affairs. She was made the subject of a controversial conservatorship with her father James and attorney Andrew Wallet appointed as her conservators. This gave them both total control of her assets and is still in place today, despite Wallet resigning in March 2019 leaving patriarch James solely in charge of his daughter’s estate.

It’s believed Britney agreed to the strict conditions laid out in the conservatorship – which was initially only supposed to last until the end of her Circus tour in 2009 – because she believed it would help her regain custody of her two boys. But when the fan podcast Britney’s Gram alleged in March 2019 that the singer had been held against her will in a psychiatric facility since January of that year, fans around the world sparked a social media backlash against the Spears family under the #FreeBritney banner.

In April last year, a group of protesters marched outside West Hollywood City Hall to highlight what they believed was a breach of her human rights. Britney herself appeared in an Instagram video to reassure her followers she was well and wasn’t being held prisoner in the facility. “Don’t believe everything you read and hear,” she captioned the video. “Your love and dedication is amazing, but what I need right now is a little bit of privacy to deal with all the hard things that life is throwing my way.”

After being released, Britney joined her mum at a court hearing in May where an investigation was ordered into the conservatorship. Since then, neither she nor her divorced parents have spoken about the terms of her arrangements, although for now her father is still in control.

Britney’s manager Larry Rudolph told TMZ in May 2019 that the singer would not return to her cancelled Las Vegas residency, “not in the near future and possibly never again”.

He went on: “I don’t want her to work again ’till she’s ready, physically, mentally and passionately. If that time never comes again it will never come again. I have no desire or ability to make her work again. I am only here for her when she wants to work. And, if she ever does want to work again, I’m here to tell her if it’s a good idea or a bad idea.”

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Britney herself has rarely spoken of her colossal fall from fame, nor of the hard work it took to get back on her feet.

She did admit in 2017 to having overstretched herself, adding that she should have taken more care of her fragile state.

“I think I had to give myself more breaks through my career and take responsibility for my mental health,” she confessed.

“I wrote back then, that I was lost and didn’t know what to do with myself. I was trying to please everyone around me because that’s who I am deep inside. There are moments where I look back and think: ‘What the hell was I thinking?'”