I became the first person from MTV to publish a full-length interview with Britney Spears when I was a college stringer for their Web site.

Days after she turns 17, Britney’s video, Baby One More Time, is just picking up steam when we meet backstage at the Cleveland State Convocation Center where she is opening for *NSYNC. (Weeks before the interview, which is bolstered by a pair of concert tickets, her publicist at the time, Rey Roldan, sends me a package that includes a pink tank top emblazoned with “Britney Spears” in red cursive writing. “They’ll think that’s your name,” my mom tells my then-13-year-old sister Stephanie, to whom I gift the teeny-tiny top.) At first I mistake her assistant Felicia for being Britney. Imagine the horror! The real Britney leads my sister and I into her dressing room, where she complains about the smell of lunch meat stanking up the joint. There is a meat tray in the corner, and Felicia takes it away. Britney makes a circle of three folding chairs so my sister can enjoy the interview.

“I know Chase,” I tell her, meaning Chasen Hampton, who appeared with her on The Mickey Mouse Club. At first she seems not to remember, but then a lightbulb goes off. “Oh yeah,” she says.

Most notably, Britney seems to think she can do better when asked about the day’s dating rumors. She admits she’s just friends with Backstreet Boy Nick Carter, as well as *NSYNC’s Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez. (This is two years before it would be revealed that she was dating Justin.) “Is there anyone you’d rather have?” I ask. “Brad Pitt!” she swoons.

More relevant is how she wishes to always be the girl-next-door. “Some phenomenons change, to the point where they are not even normal,” she tells me. “I don’t like that, and don’t want to be like that. I want to be someone that everyone can relate to.” She likens her life on the road to life in a college dorm.

One thing hasn’t changed: she’s still close to sister Jamie Lynn, who is just seven years old back then. The Christmas presents she’s prepared bring a smile to her face. “I bought my sister this big stocking and filled it with cute pajamas from the Limited Too, fake fingernail polish, a fake cell phone, and lots of clothes,” Brit says.

At the time, Britney is completely genuine and brimming with hope. I haven’t spoken to her since that day, but I’ve always been on her side despite the ups and downs. Sometimes I’m scared for her, honestly, and wonder what happened to the sweet, polite Southern belle who loved being with her family and friends.

One of my favorite songs is I’ve Just Begun (Having My Fun) off her Greatest Hits album, and I will definitely pick up her new album, Blackout, which is in stores today. Woo-hoo — I can’t wait!

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