If 2007 was a fall from grace for pop singer Britney Spears, 2008 is shaping up as a complete meltdown.
Spears is now installed in a Los Angeles hospital, reportedly under a 72-hour hold, and a court commissioner decided in an an emergency hearing with her lawyers to suspend her visitation rights for her two young children.
It's the latest turn of events in a long and well-documented slide from pop princess to train wreck.
It was early last year when Spears first began a custody dispute with ex-husband Kevin Federline over the fate of her two young sons and entered the drug and alcohol rehabilitation center Crossroads in Antigua. In February 2007, shortly after Spears appeared with a freshly shaved head, observers couldn't help remark that the 26-year-old star's life and career seemed to be "spiraling downward."
That spiral, marked by custody battles and allegations of substance abuse, continued relentlessly through 2007 and into the new year, culminating in a tense five-hour standoff over her children Thursday night. After she was taken from the scene by ambulance, speculation mounted about continuing substance abuse.
"When the ambulances began pulling away from the house, no one expected to get a shot of Britney," said Rick Joyce, an executive producer at CelebTV.com, who arrived at Spears' home just 40 minutes after police were called to the residence.
"We got a shot of her in the back of the ambulance. One moment she appeared totally dazed, the next she looked teary-eyed, the next she was smiling," he said.
Police were called to the house around 8 p.m. after Spears allegedly refused to turn over the boys to Federline's bodyguard, who was sent to pick them up.
A dozen police cars and three ambulances were called to the house in the glitzy gated community of the Summit. Paparazzi and the media had staked out the home for four hours.
Spears was taken outside on a stretcher and appeared under the influence of an "unknown substance," Jason Lee of the Los Angeles Police Department told City News Service.
Earlier Thursday, Spears was in court for a custody hearing after skipping two previous appearances. She lost custody of her two sons, Sean Preston, 2, and Jayden James, 15 months, in September, retaining only visitation rights, and was also ordered by the court to undergo random drug testing.
"This story really started at 9:45 yesterday morning when she was scheduled to be deposed and didn't show up until 11. That had everyone scratching their heads. After having previously blown off two depositions, it was clear she was headed for a disastrous day," Joyce said.
Joyce described the scene at Britney's home as "chaotic," with up to 30 paparazzi, several media reporters and five helicopters overhead as the evening wore on.
Representatives from Cedar Sinai Hospital would not comment on Spears' condition.
Neither lawyers for Spears, who are currently in the process of dropping her as a client, nor for Federline would comment either.
Speculation over Spears' next moves quickly became fodder for blogs and tabloids Friday.
"Just when we thought it couldn't get any worse for Britney, it did," said Mike Fleeman, the West Coast editor at People.com who has followed the star's career since she was a teenager. "This is pandemonium, a complete breakdown. She went from star to train wreck. Spears' behavior has been erratic for more than a year. Eleven months ago she shaved her head, and we all thought she couldn't get any crazier. … She could lose everything, including the ability to see her kids."
"In the very near term she is facing litigation to retain visitation rights. In the medium term, she could be court ordered into rehab or a psychiatric facility. In the long term is the question of if she'll be able to survive," he said.
As the media speculates about her future, psychologists speculate about her past and just what triggered this latest incident.
"It is difficult to determine if this is only a problem with using prohibited substances or if she's totally off her rocker," said Stuart Fischoff, senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology.
"She is at the age where psychosis or bipolar disorder often sets in. If she is mentally ill that would account for a lot of her bizarre behavior. Everyone has been on a Britney Spears watch, not knowing that what they are actually witnessing may be a psychological breakdown."
Fischoff said that Spears' alleged use of drugs, seeming inability to realize how she is being perceived by others and her "hyper sexualized" behavior indicate she might have a real psychological disorder.
"Plenty of starlets have been institutionalized in the past. If it were to occur, it would perhaps be unique among her peer groups but not in Hollywood," he said.