NEW YORK – She's been caught smoking and giving photographers the finger. She broke up with her long-term boyfriend. And she abruptly walked off stage after only a few songs during a concert in Mexico.
Has good-girl teen idol Britney Spears gone bad?
"A girl can only be so good," said E! Online writer Mark Armstrong. "These are just moments where a pop star is caught off-guard or caught acting normal."
Spears' recent antics have left some wondering whether the 20-year-old pop icon is trying to exchange her wholesome image for a more devilish persona. But some fans and Britney experts refute that theory.
"I don't think it's a publicity stunt," said Damon Romine, editor of Teen Beat and Tiger Beat magazines. "In reality, it's just Britney being a girl her age."
Though the Web master of one Spears fan site said some followers were put off by her recent moves, he said most of them realize she's had a rigorous schedule and rocky personal life recently.
"Some of them are disappointed. They're not understanding why she's doing it," said Ruben Garay, 20, who runs Worldofbritney.com. "But most fans understand that she is just fed up with everything. The reason why all these things are happening is that she just needs a break."
Spears herself has said there's no larger motive behind the incidents, and has offered an explanation for at least a few of the bad-girl things she's done.
"I'm human too. I get mad like everyone else," she said at a news conference in explanation of why she gave the finger to a crowd in Mexico. Spears said it was aimed not at her fans -- who were outraged -- but at the swarming paparazzi.
"I love my fans here. I embrace them completely," she said. "It was the paparazzi that I was mad at."
As for the abbreviated concert, lightning and thunderstorms were cited as the reason the rest of the show was called off.
She'd sung four songs and was smack in the middle of her fifth, "Stronger," when she stopped dead.
"I'm sorry, Mexico," Mexico City's Milenio newspaper quoted her as saying. "I love you. Bye."
Spears' Mexico moves and photos that circulated of the normally pure star toting a cigarette all happened around her much-publicized break-up with 'N Sync band member Justin Timberlake.
And last year Britney -- not realizing her mike was on -- could be heard saying the F-word during a sound check at Brazil's Rock in Rio festival. Apparently there was a misunderstanding over whether there would be opening music -- referred to as "vamp" -- playing before she came onstage.
"Don't tell me they're just letting the audience [expletive] stand out there like that. Oh my God," Spears said. "OK, let's hurry, y'all, seriously. This is retarded. They told me they were gonna do a vamp."
The clip of her rant was soon being played on numerous radio stations and feverishly downloaded on the Web.
No doubt part of the widespread publicity stems from the simple pleasure the public gets in seeing a larger-than-life star acting so, well, human.
"What people find most amusing is to see Britney act like a real person," Armstrong said.
Not to mention the fact that all these little acts of rebellion are typical of someone on the cusp of adulthood. In this case, however, Britney is coming of age in front of the whole world -- and many of her fans vow to stick with her through the bumpy ride.
"It's part of growing up," Garay said. "I've learned to accept her whatever level she decides to be on. The diehard fans, she's never going to lose. They will support her all the way."