From Judy Garland and Donna Summer, to Kylie Minogue and Madonna, many women have carried the status of "gay icon" in the modern realm of entertainment. But while Britney Spears was quickly adopted by a rabid LGBT fan base the moment she asked us to "hit me, baby, one more time," more than 15 years ago, the singer says it took her a while before noticing her substantial gay following.
"I think it was when I was on tour for my second album," says Spears. "I began to realize there were a lot of gay people coming to the shows, and they were just having so much fun, laughing and really enjoying themselves."
But while Spears's worthiness to carry the mantle of "gay icon" is heavily debated, it's her ability to survive that is chief among the reasons she continues to inspire LGBT followers. The pop performer's gift for rising above attacks on her talent, published comments taken out of context, and unflattering photos flaunted on gossip sites — only to rocket to the top of the charts with a new album — is exactly the type of track record the diva's queer devotees adore. Everyone remembers "Leave Britney Alone" from Chris Crocker on YouTube. And while Spears's experience in routinely overcoming adversity resonates with the LGBT community, it's her music that fuels our workouts, elevates our dance floor excursions, and keeps us coming back.
Sampling RuPaul's 1992 hit "Supermodel (You Better Work)," Spears delivered a track she hoped will be embraced by her gay fans and serve as the lead single for her latest collection.
"'Work Bitch' is probably one of my favorite songs I've ever done," Spears says with a sweetness in her voice. "We wanted to take [RuPaul's 'Supermodel'] to another level. For me, the saying 'work, bitch' has been a term of endearment among my gay friends. Plus, it's what we say in clubs and in the dancing world all the time. My choreographers are gay and they inspire me so much. Plus I just love my gay fans, so it's something I really wanted to use."
The song could be considered Spears's gayest yet, as the lyrics are more than a subtle homage to aspects of queer culture highlighted in films like Paris Is Burning — the movie that introduced a generation to New York's underground ball culture and drag scene, which in turn was the foundation for Madonna's 1990 hit "Vogue."
"Work Bitch" underscores the ease with which aspects of LGBT culture are beginning to be incorporated by the mainstream. While drag was once considered a performance art on the fringes of entertainment, today its influence is recognizable in the style choices of Katy Perry and Ke$ha, Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga — an observation with which Spears agrees.
Asked if drag has influenced the style of modern music videos, Spears is quick to reply. "Oh, definitely," she says. "Drag queens are on top of everything. They just know what's in and what's out." And though she's seen a cavalcade of queens lip-synching to her songs over the years, Spears admits she’s often impressed by impersonators who choose her as muse. "I think it's flattering," she says. "I really like it. I think it's funny and it's really entertaining. There have been more than a few drag queens who have [impersonated me] that really impressed me."
But "Work Bitch" isn’t the only song on Britney Jean that is likely to find a home in the heart of the singer's LGBT fans. "Alien," an ethereal electro collaboration between Spears and producer William Orbit, contains lyrics that resonate with anyone who has felt like an outsider.
"I tried but I never figured it out / why I always felt like a stranger in a crowd / But that was then, like an alien … and the light in your eyes lets me know I'm not alone,” Spears croons on the track.
The song is a product of what the singer describes as "therapy through writing," and is one of the reasons she says Britney Jean is her most personal album yet. "I feel like I went through so much last year. I had a breakup and there was a lot going on," she says, noting she cowrote each of the tracks on her latest effort. "It just made sense for me to do this album, to make it really personal and really dig in."
Though she’s often had trouble keeping the details of her private life out of the tabloids and away from the prying eyes of paparazzi, Spears — who celebrated her 32nd birthday Monday — attributes her readiness to open up in her music to a sense of ease brought with age.
"I feel like in your 30s you're just a little bit more confident. You know what you like and what you don't like," she says with a smile. "You know what feels right and you're more apt to say what you want to do in situations."
Although Spears is a veteran of the stage, she admits the idea of performing the first night of her two-year residency at Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas December 27 sends butterflies through her stomach. "I'm going to be extremely nervous the first show," she says with a laugh. "But I know I'm just going to put my nerves aside and pull it together."