In 2003, shortly after the release of her fourth album, In the Zone—and on the heels of her high-profile breakup with Justin Timberlake—Britney Spears sat down for an interview with journalist Diane Sawyer. In her new memoir, The Woman in Me, out Oct. 24, Spears writes that she was pressured by her father and told she was going to do the interview. She felt exploited, embarrassed, and exposed, she says.
“It was completely humiliating,” Spears writes. “I wasn’t told what the questions would be ahead of time, and it turned out they were 100 percent embarrassing. I was too vulnerable then, too sensitive, to do this type of interview.”
In the two decades since the interview, many have reckoned with the high-scrutiny celebrity culture of the 2000s—especially involving young women. And more recently, the interview has had a resurgence on TikTok, with viewers criticizing its tone and content.
In the book, Spears shares that the breakup with Timberlake—initiated by him suddenly via text—devastated her and left her in a state of shock. She still had tour dates left in her contract, so she went back to work, but in hindsight, she wasn’t ready.
“I didn’t want to share anything private with the world,” Spears writes. “I didn’t owe the media details of my breakup. I shouldn’t have been forced to speak on national TV, forced to cry in front of this stranger, a woman who was relentlessly going after me with harsh question after harsh question. Instead, I felt like I had been exploited, set up in front of the whole world.”
During the interview Sawyer was intense, probing, and critical. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she narrates in a voiceover, “the most valuable square inch of real estate in the entertainment universe.” The accompanying footage is a montage of close-up shots of Spears’ navel.
“That interview was a breaking point for me internally—a switch had been flipped,” Spears writes. “I felt something dark come over my body. I felt myself turning, almost like a werewolf, into a Bad Person.”
The lyrics of Timberlake’s latest album at the time, Justified, seemed to point the finger at Britney, and rumors swirled that she had cheated on him. (In The Woman in Me, Spears writes that he had cheated on her multiple times, and she had made out with a choreographer in retaliation.) This was the crux of the Sawyer interview. “You did something that caused him so much pain,” she told Spears. “So much suffering. What did you do?”
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Sawyer critiqued Spears’ perceived raciness, told the audience that she bit her nails, and pressed the singer on whether she had ever “gone further” than she wished she had. The journalist said that Spears was “constantly feeding the publicity monster” and seeking attention.
“I honestly feel like that moment in my life should have been a time for growing—and not sharing everything with the world,” she continues. “It would have been the better way to heal. But I had no choice. It seemed like nobody really cared how I felt.”