Hearts and Stars is Slate’s pop-up blog about celebrity relationships.
Not long ago, Britney Spears crawled across a neon-tinged table—boots thigh-high, hips screaming in fishnets—and writhed toward her final destination, seated at the other side: Sam Asghari. The pair was filming the video for “Slumber Party,” a single from Spears’ Glory that is not about slumber parties but about boning all night. It’s hard to know what the Tehran-born “actor and personal trainer” had going through his head as one of the world’s biggest pop stars executed her choreographed slither, looking him in the eye and licking the table as she went. But we have known Britney for a long time, so we have a pretty good idea of what she was thinking.
Sure enough, it was true love. Spears and Asghari will celebrate two years together in October after meeting on set. Pleading newsstand headlines all summer have teased an impending engagement. The tabloids are clearly hungry for the nuptials, to them the ultimate climax to Spears’ rehabilitation narrative: Sure, she’s now stable and has a good relationship with her kids, and her Vegas residency has brought in well more than $100 million, but is it a real recovery unless she lives happily ever after with a former lineman?
As you might imagine, marriage is a sensitive subject for longtime Britney fans. (Not to mention, presumably, her family, which continues to control her fortune with a dubious court-approved conservatorship that’s remained in place since 2008.) For those of us who have now been with Brit for nearly 20 years, the altar—or, really, any man at all—rarely brings good news. But the vibe this time is different. Fans seem to dote on Asghari nearly as much as Us Weekly’s cameras. Every time he bench-presses Britney on Instagram, we fall a little more in love. Did you know he lost 100 pounds after he was cut from his college football team and hit “rock bottom” at 19? Men’s Health readers did! Although he is only 24—Spears is 36—he is very mature for his age, sources close to the family assure us in multiple rags, and he gets along well with her boys, now 13 and 12. It’s storybook in a very Spears-ian way. But whether a devoted Spears steward should allow himself to fall into the square-jawed whirlwind is another matter.
Since Spears first unwisely pined for an ex in “… Baby One More Time,” her public relationships have always outdone even her most ridiculous lyrics, while we watched, helplessly, from our mortal perch. It began, of course, when she lost her famed teen love Justin Timberlake to a reputed affair with a backup dancer, inspiring some notorious lyrics of her own (“You don’t have to say/ What you did/ I already know/ I found out from him”*) and single-handedly teaching a generation of children (or, you know, me) what true loss looks like. In response, Britney released her best and most important song, “Everytime,” with its own pining lyrics: “Every time I see you in my dreams/ I see your face, it’s haunting me.”
“Haunt” seems like an appropriate word for what men do to Britney and for what her love life does to us. Testimony in a messy public trial over Spears’ fortune later blamed the Timberlake breakup for her public decline. The years that followed brought many forgotten red-carpet flings—Colin Farrell, Howie Day, Fred Durst—the latter of whom called their brief romance “a fiasco of madness.” There were yearslong affairs with lawyers and managers and SNL progeny, and that sorry episode with a paparazzi. And, of course, there were her twin marriages in 2004, the 55-hour one in Las Vegas and another, nine months later, with still another backup dancer, Kevin Federline. Together, they starred in Britney and Kevin: Chaotic, a UPN reality series that chronicled the couple, often with handheld cameras, which today stands as a fairly traumatic multipart documentary testament to the horrors of Spears’ relationship pursuits. It was over within two years, but the pair’s sons tethered her for life to Federline, who recently took her to court again because her $20,000 monthly child support payments don’t cover “his sacrifices.”
Britney’s dense romantic mythology has inspired countless (and doubtless incomplete) internet timelines and has threatened to overtake how she’s remembered altogether. When Lifetime finally decided to give her the cut-rate original movie treatment in last year’s enjoyably dismal Britney Ever After, she’s most memorably depicted wandering the halls of luxury hotels on tour as her minders flash worried looks any time she gets in the vicinity of a man.
These are the battle-worn eyes wary fans now must fix on Sam Asghari. Who needs him? But if many of Britney’s past flames suggested lapses in her self-esteem, Asghari—chiseled, sensibly bearded, impossibly handsome—is the arm candy of a woman more self-possessed than ever. On his own Instagram (810,000 followers), Asghari restricts himself to portraits of his biceps, workout equipment, and the happy couple itself. He likewise talks little to the press about anything other than working out and Britney Spears, part of a savvy PR strategy that is presumably the makings of a Mr. Britney Spears lifestyle brand. (Better than another ponytailed DJ!) He has told multiple outlets his favorite Britney song is “Stronger,” a demerit to his taste but a testament to his appreciation of Spears’ independence (“it’s crazy how I can be humbled by a person like her,” he likes to say, correctly). Even his public vulnerability about his past is almost enough to bring down your guard. And damn, seriously, those couples’ workout videos?
Still, should we really go through this again? For the woman who taught us more vividly about the perils of men than any other, maybe one more time.
Correction, Sept. 25, 2018: This article originally omitted a word from the lyrics of Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River.” The correct lyrics are “You don’t have to say/What you did /I already know/I found out from him.”