The Britney And Justin Mystery: Why They Won't Come Clean

By | April 19, 2002 at 12:00 AM

Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake love each other very much and have not broken up. At least that’s still the “official” stance a spokesperson for the couple takes when asked of the status of their relationship. And if you believe that, some might think you were born yesterday.

The official media statement is in direct opposition to a month’s worth of unconfirmed reports and anonymous eyewitness accounts that say the king and queen of the teen-pop prom have ended their reign. While public opinion favors the notion that the romance is kaput – gossip columnists citing Britney shakin’ it with model Marcus Schenkenberg, and Justin hobnobbing in strip clubs and leading throngs of models into his limo have no doubt helped foster the belief – the “company line” has remained the same for over a month.

So are they staying together through some stormy weather or have their ships already sailed separate ways?

Even the supposed sweethearts have avoided answering the question directly. Last week on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” Timberlake said, “[Britney] will always be special to me no matter what happens… and I would never, ever do anything to disrespect her or degrade her.” And a slyly grinning Britney told a British TV show in late March that she’s “single, right now,” which, given the context of the moment, seemed to indicate that she was simply without a boyfriend that very moment as she stood on the stage. Well, no kidding.

Talk of the relationship’s termination began in mid-March, when tabloids reported that the romance had ended. Spears almost immediately denied the break-up in an interview with MTV Italy, and days later a media statement was released jointly by Spears and Timberlake that reinforced her position on the subject. “To set it straight… they love each other very much and have not broken up,” the statement began.

If even the couple has been able to take the omnipresent inquisitions in stride, albeit with tongue firmly planted in cheek, why hasn’t there been an official update? Why do their handlers continue to deny what most folks believe is the truth? And more importantly, why do we still care?

Some of you don’t. According to an MTVNews.com poll, half of the respondents answered that they are completely fed up with the daily “are they or aren’t they” speculation (though they still felt it was worthwhile to voice their opinion on the subject).. For the caring half, of which the majority believes the flame has long been out, some insight into the spiral of denial might help them understand the reasoning behind why the couple’s publicists haven’t made it a priority to set the record straight.

The Britney-Justin conundrum is just the latest incident where official denials have later been rebuked by the truth – or popular opinion, as the case may be. Madonna denied accusations of her pending nuptials to Guy Ritchie a month before the two said, “I do,” in December 2000 (see “Madonna: Married”). Puffy let rumors fly for a month before announcing last Valentine’s Day that he and Jennifer Lopez had hit the skids (see “Valentine’s Day Heartbreak: Puffy and Lopez Split”). And Brandy had been secretly married for months before she led on publicly that she tied the knot last summer.

What these incidents have in common is that they concern the artists’ personal lives, not their professional careers. While some tabloid newshounds argue that the price of success is fame and being in the public eye means forfeiture of one’s right to a personal life, others reasonably point out that maybe it’s just not anybody’s business. Regardless, the fact is that sometimes personal relationships aren’t as clear-cut as plans to release an album or embark on a tour.

“Relationships between people are a complicated situation,” said one music-industry publicist with 25 years of experience. “It’s unreasonable to think that we can distill it down to a one-phrase comment. It could be that people are expecting answers where there really aren’t any.”

That’s fair, but why not just come clean?

Releasing such an end-of-the-line statement as “it’s over” would also make getting back together – not completely beyond the realm of possibility – much more complicated. If the couple does reconcile, wouldn’t another statement be required to keep current? The press would then want to know why and how they reunited, prompting yet another statement. The cycle could theoretically continue until, after the most minor of spats, a statement would be issued simply as a preemptive strike to quell any break-up rumors before they ever get off the ground. Sometimes it’s just easier to avoid broaching the matter altogether.

“Who knows?” pondered another publicist, with a three-decade background, “maybe the final decision hasn’t actually been made on whether a couple is breaking up. Maybe they’re still trying to work it out. Maybe one of them doesn’t want to be broken up so they’re denying it. There are all kinds of personal reasons why you would deny something.”

Of the multitude of motives for doing so, a principal reason to shake off allegations is to avoid the instigation of an “all-points bulletin” in the media, as was the case when Madonna didn’t admit wedding bells were ringing just around the corner.

“When you’re as public as those people are, you want to keep your wedding as private as possible,” the same source said. “If you give a date out, or you acknowledge the fact that you’re getting married or you’re breaking up, you’re really just inviting press attention.”

Good points all, but why deny the accusation instead of issuing the ever-popular response you see in the movies: “no comment”?

“Anybody who thinks ‘no comment’ is no comment is out of their minds,” the first flack explained plainly. “It clearly is a comment – it’s an evasive comment.”

“No comment” is virtually admitting the presented accusation is true, since it’s not an outright denial. Perhaps inadvertently, the publicist is also hinting that there’s more to the story than there appears to be. Like a drop of blood in shark-infested waters, it can start a feeding frenzy, indicating to most journalists that they’re onto something. If the goal is to let the story die quietly, that’s not the message you want to be sending.

So if it’s best to issue a denial, what happens when there isn’t a shred of truth to the finger-pointing? How does a publicist, who has issued “denials” in the past, deflate an unsubstantiated rumor without seeming like the boy who cried wolf?

“Deny it like you mean it, in a way that’s appropriate for the situation,” the first publicist said. ” ‘That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard!’ ‘Absolutely no basis in fact.’ ‘It’s utterly ridiculous.’ Most journalists get the message.”

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