Love in the Time of Britney
Kentwood, Louisiana, is located about an hour and a half north of New Orleans in Tangipahoa Parish, in what would be the instep of the ankle-boot-shaped state. It’s home to a successful brick-manufacturing plant and a popular brand of bottled water, Kentwood Springs. It’s also sometimes called the dairy capital of the South, though the once-annual November Dairy Festival—which is memorialized at the Kentwood Historical and Cultural Museum with a display of T-shirts and posters—petered out in the early 2000s as the industry contracted from a large regional force down to a few smaller family farms.
Kentwood is a small town, just 7 square miles and a little bit under 2,200 residents as of the most recent census. It’s best known, of course, for being the hometown of Britney Spears. Most official biographies of Britney state that she was raised in Kentwood but born in McComb, Mississippi, about 20 miles away—which is technically true but misleading, as Fay Gehringer, the curator of the Kentwood Historical and Cultural Museum, explains to me during a recent visit. In 1981, when Britney was born, nobody was giving birth in Kentwood; the town didn’t have a hospital.
At the Kentwood Museum, a 2,000-or-so-square-foot converted funeral home a mile from the interstate exit, part of the exhibition space is devoted to artifacts that represent the town’s legacy: quilts and family bibles, antique furniture and tributes to military veterans, memorabilia of dairy festivals past and laminated clippings of the “Local Lore and Legend” column from the Kentwood News Ledger. In 1993, when Gehringer and a group of other interested residents started collecting items for the museum as part of the town’s centennial celebration, these were the sorts of items that made up most of the collection.
But as Britney’s star rose, so did her share of the museum’s real estate, and now easily half of the building is devoted to her. There’s a glassed-off replica of her childhood bedroom; a doll-sized replica of the stage from her 2001 Dream Within a Dream tour, complete with tiny working lights and sound, crafted and sent in by a fan; and, in a hot-pink-painted corner, the actual angel wings Britney wore during the Femme Fatale tour of 2011. The wings are taller than an average-sized woman, and look cumbersome and heavy, made from layer upon layer of cream-colored feathers edged with costume gemstones and mounted on the wall at an appropriate height for selfies. Gehringer, a retired Kentwood florist now in her late 70s, greets visitors at the museum on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when it’s open to the public. At the urging of Britney’s mother, Lynne Spears, she asks for a $3 donation from fans who want to take their picture in front of the wings, but she doesn’t police them: the museum is meant to be fan-friendly, she says.
Next to the wings, on the way to Britney’s bedroom, is a wall and a display case full of assorted memorabilia. A banner above this area reads simply: “Britney Collection, Keith Collins, Hornchurch London, UK,” indicating, apparently, the whole aggregation of stuff. In the case and mounted on the wall are European pressings of CDs and records, lots of calendars, and laminates and wristbands and stickers from UK concerts—the kind of extra swag that comes with the purchase of VIP tickets.
A few years ago, Gehringer explains, she got a phone call from a man in London named Keith, saying he had a collection of Britney items that he wanted to send to the museum—he wouldn’t, she told me a bit ominously, be needing them anymore.
When the collection arrived, Gehringer found it impressive. But she didn’t really understand why Keith Collins was donating it until a few weeks later, when she got a letter from his family. He hadn’t told her over the phone but, when they spoke, Keith was dying.
Keith Collins was born in 1974 in Hornchurch, a suburb of London. Keith was what’s called an “Rh factor baby,” a condition that meant he was deaf at birth. He was so good at navigating around it, tuning in to visual cues, that his family didn’t realize he couldn’t hear until he was three years old. After he was fitted with hearing aids, Keith could hear, but the experience of the childhood illness—his sister-in-law, Nicola, thought—made him a rather timid young adult. He and his brother Trevor, who is three years older and married to Nicola, were very close. The two had lost their parents when they were young: their father to an aneurysm when Keith was 13, and their mother to breast cancer a few years later. So when Trevor and Nicola married in the mid-1990s, the trio became a tight-knit family unit, watching cycling and West Ham football together on TV and barbecuing in the summer.
Britney Spears’s first album, … Baby One More Time, came out in 1999 when Keith was 24, and his growing passion for her music seemed to Nicola to coincide with his coming out of a shell. He traveled around the UK and Europe to catch Britney in concert, and he also started collecting an impressive—almost exhausting—list of hobbies and activities. He ran and cycled, went on group holidays to Israel and Zimbabwe, took ski trips and tried salsa dancing. If there was a royal event with an opportunity for regular citizens to observe it, he’d be deep in the crowds, right in the thick of it. He brought a small stepladder to the public celebration of Prince William’s 2011 wedding to Kate Middleton in order to get the best photos, and watched the ceremony on a tiny portable TV he brought with him. By the time of Britney’s Femme Fatale tour, in the fall of 2011, Keith had a good job at the Ministry of Defence, and he secured prime seats for her every UK date. Nicola and Trevor were a little concerned about the expense—the travel and hotels and the pricey ticket packages—but Keith’s relationship to Britney and her music seemed to transcend their understanding. Besides, it was his money, so they didn’t question him too much about it.
“It was just kind of like he was cramming everything into a small space of time, really,” Nicola says. “Looking back—because he started things later, and then, obviously, he died when he was young—it’s almost like he was squeezing a whole lifetime of stuff into not that long.”
In 2012, at 37, Keith had a seizure in public, falling and hitting his head on the sidewalk. The doctors who examined him diagnosed him with a glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumor too massive for successful surgery; they said that the tumor took up 20 percent of his brain and estimated that he’d had it for as long as ten years, probably with some symptoms, maybe smaller seizures. Thinking back, Nicola realized that something had indeed been going on with her brother-in-law’s health—but Keith, who had so successfully navigated around his childhood deafness, had worked around this illness, too. “I don’t think he knew they were seizures,” she says. “In fact, he did think that one was due to eating a whole packet of Pringles in one go at one point, and that he’d had too many Pringles or too much salt and that made him a bit funny. We’d thought some of his behavior was a little bit strange, but Keith was quite individual, anyway, so we hadn’t thought much of it.”
It’s not clear when Keith first came to the conclusion that his Britney Spears collection belonged in a museum, but Nicola learned about Keith’s wishes regarding the goods in early 2012, when she got a surprising letter of her own, from a London post office. A few weeks prior, Keith had suffered a seizure and collapsed there. Apparently, he’d recovered and made it home, but in his flustered state he’d abandoned boxes of Britney records and memorabilia that he’d intended to mail off to Louisiana. Nicola was a bit surprised, she remembers, that Keith had made it all the way to the post office with the heavy parcels, given that he was already suffering from disorientation from the tumor. So in June of 2012, she and Trevor went and collected the boxes and had them shipped off to Fay Gehringer, with a note explaining the bequest.
“He was determined that’s where they would go,” Nicola says in a phone interview. “There was nowhere in the UK he wanted them to go, nobody he wanted to pass stuff on to. He was very adamant that they had to go to this museum.”
Some music collections are serious assets, full of rarities and valuable artifacts, obscure items in mint condition, and so on. A collection like that might wind up in an archive, or at least auctioned off piece by piece for significant money. An extreme example is the collection of beatnik occultist Harry Smith, whose hoarding of out-of-print early folk and blues 78s became the legendary six-album Anthology of American Folk Music, a massively influential document that won a Grammy upon its CD reissue in the 1990s and likely changed the way American music is studied. Or the 150,000 or so recordings of Mexican and Mexican American music that Chris Strachwitz, the founder of Arhoolie Records, collected over the course of the 20th century. (He’s still alive, but he has made the collection available to scholars through the UCLA Library.)
That’s not how most music lovers collect, though, even the ones who acquire quite a lot. Most collections are documents of individual lives, soundtracked. What’s the first song to which you ever drove fast, with the windows down? What’s that song you still can’t stand to hear, even years after the breakup? When a collector dies, all the stuff that’s left behind can, by itself, appear to outsiders like so much junk: piles of heavy records and tapes and CDs taking up space and collecting dust. The intimacy of it, the life story hidden in the songs, might be lost. But it’s not quite so with Keith Collins’s collection. He made sure the music and memorabilia that meant so much to him would make it to a place where they could be appreciated. Every fan who made a pilgrimage to the museum would have their own Britney story, of course—possibly even their own collection, full of images or recordings or keepsakes that inspired tender feelings or prompted special memories. The important thing to Keith was that his collection be near people who understood what it meant to love Britney’s music. And in her tiny hometown of Kentwood, who knows? Maybe it’d be seen by people who even knew and loved Britney personally.
For all his VIP ticket purchases and travel adventures, Keith never got to meet Britney: in May 2012, he was given an estimated three months to live. He lived for nine—some of it with Trevor and Nicola, and the rest in a nursing home. That was longer than he’d thought he would have to make it without his Britney collection, and he missed it: the footage of concerts where he’d been so happy, and the photos of the Southern-born superstar who made it possible. Trevor and Nicola bought Keith some new Britney posters and calendars to hang up in his room at the care home, plus some music to listen to and concert DVDS to watch. Fay sent the family some photos of Keith’s collection, hanging up in the museum. Knowing that his love for Britney was being shared with other fans moved Keith to tears.
At the very end, Keith was adamant that he wanted his ashes scattered at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles, which he’d never actually visited. Maybe Keith, who loved pop stars and the royals, wanted to be among the celebrities buried at the famously star-studded resting place, near Walt Disney or Elizabeth Taylor. Maybe he just wanted to be closer to Britney. But Trevor and Nicola wanted him to be close to them. When Keith died, in February 2013, they put his remains in the local cemetery, just a few feet from Keith and Trevor’s parents.
Keith isn’t the first fan to contribute to a museum—even as internet fan culture has grown, from tributes to artists on Tumblr pages and Instagram accounts, to more tangible goods—and he certainly won’t be the last. (Just last week, word came that a Rihanna museum will be constructed in Barbados.) Keith himself is singular, though. His story is now part of the story of a small town, along with the dairy festival and the brick plant, the spring water and the military veterans, and the Mouseketeer who became one of the new millennium’s biggest pop stars. Every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, Fay Gehringer tells it to people who understand.