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Britney, Anna Nicole, our obsessions-- what's the lesson here?

by Josh Mankiewicz, Dateline correspondent

This week, two strange soap operas attracted an audience of millions. On TV, on the Internet, and in print, the sagas played out. And depending on how you see all this, you can choose your own storyline -- women gone wrong, women done wrong, or girls gone wild.

Singer Britney Spears, more than accustomed to headlines for her sexy onstage persona, found her image publicly deep-fried for behavior that could only be described as very troubling. She took a one-day trip to a drug and alcohol dependency center, then she stopped off at an L.A. salon and, seemingly on a whim, she shaved her head. Then, that same evening, she made a pit stop for a couple of tattoos, followed by another spin through the revolving door of rehab after her ex- threatened to take her to court over the kids.

For Harvey Levin of TMZ.com, the Internet encyclopedia of celebrities-in-crisis, Britney needs help. "Her family knows she needs help.  And the world knows she needs help.  And you know what?  She probably knows she needs help too."  

Anna Nicole Smith needed help as well, but she either didn't get it, didn't want it, got too much of it... or got it from the wrong people. That might be the curse of being beautiful, vulnerable, and constantly on the verge of being hugely wealthy. The result was that long, bizarre hearing we all saw unfold in a Florida courtroom.

The model and actress didn't have much of a career, but it wasn't her body of work that was being litigated -- it was her body, the one that made her so famous.

And 13 days after Anna Nicole Smith's death, the local medical examiner warned she was literally decomposing as her companion, her mother, and her ex-boyfriend argued about what would be done with her. It was a hearing awash in both theater and regret with Smith's estranged mother on the stand remembering her daughter's addictions.

She tried taking her daughter to the Betty Ford center. But the former Playmate of the Year didn't last in rehab. 

And so far, the former Mouseketeer seems at best ambivalent.

We talked to author and talk-radio host Dr. Drew Pinsky, an expert on addiction and the nexus between public fame and personal agony.

"People that are driven to be a celebrity, by definition, have very high incidence of what we call, 'cluster-B personality problems,' particularly narcissism," says Pinsky.  "Lots of trauma in childhood, lots of substance and alcohol use.  This predicts, guarantees more addiction and more chaos in their relationships."

So is the common theme here drugs or alcohol? Or maybe fame-- living with it and trying to hold onto it? And don't forget money. Men are lining up to claim the paternity of Smith's infant daughter who may be soon a millionaire.  Britney Spears' hair is for sale on the Internet. It's all enough to make you want to turn your head away...or at least, to tell people you do.

There's a kind of hypocrisy in this country, isn't there?  I mean, people will tell you, "Oh, I can't believe you spend so much of your time following Britney around."  And then the minute there's a story, they want to know about it.  They're clicking on TMZ.  And they're buying the latest magazine.

For Levin, it's not unlike watching accidents. "It's the same principle."

More of my conversation with Harvey Levin:

Mankiewicz: But what's our responsibility here, yours and mine?  We both, to some extent, make our living covering these people, and fueling this interest.

Levin: I mean, I don't apologize for covering it. These are celebrities who court publicity.  They want their lives covered. It's a door they opened. I mean, you can't say to me, "I open the door but I'm having a bad hair day, so this door gets shut today."

And lately, for a young woman who only a couple of years ago was at the top of her game, it's been one long bad hair day.

Levin: I think she is viewed as a dark figure, which she never was before -- a troubled person. She's not this darling anymore.  I mean, honestly, I think it's pretty amazing that Kevin Federline looks like the stable one. These women are not our royalty. They lead lives few would envy.  It turns out that when that door to fame opens, it sometimes opens to a lot of other things as well.

Mankiewicz: It was different when the studios ran Hollywood.

Levin: Totally.  Totally different.

          Mankiewicz: Certain things just didn't get reported.

Levin: Most things didn't get reported.  Hollywood looked like the perfect place, where people had the perfect marriage, the perfect looks, the perfect children, and nobody ever had a substance abuse problem.  And nobody committed a crime.  And everybody was happy, happy, happy.

Now, we get everything we always wanted to know...and so much more. And all of it's a sad, painful, and sometimes embarrassing lesson about our stars, ourselves, and the vapor trail of celebrity.