Last weekend marked 10 years since a troubled Britney Spears made the world collectively gasp with a shaky performance of her hit “Gimme More” at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards — and no one remembers it better than the chart-topping diva’s world-renowned impersonator, Derrick Barry.
The 34-year-old America’s Got Talent alum — who also appeared on Season 8 of RuPaul’s Drag Race — opened up exclusively to In Touch about Britney’s darker days and revealed why he will never mock the superstar’s highly publicized breakdown.
“I remember watching the performance and thinking to myself, ‘This isn’t Britney.’ And what’s my job? To do Britney like Britney does Britney,” Derrick told us at the inaugural RuPaul’s DragCon NYC on Sunday, Sept. 10. “I know that by putting positive love out there, and adoration and everything I feel as a fan for Britney, I can only grow as a performer. I never want to disrespect her.”
He added, “I’ve been asked to reference her breakdown in my performances before, but I just can’t do it. While I feel a strong connection to Britney as an entertainer, I will never know what it was like to walk in her shoes. And the last thing she needs is someone making fun of her for that time in her life.”
Indeed, the Britney Army’s once-fearlessly fierce leader took a particularly hard fall from grace just one decade ago. Not long before she worried fans with her lack of enthusiasm and disoriented look at the 2007 VMAs, a then-25-year-old Britney — who was reportedly battling addiction and an undisclosed mental illness amid a painful custody battle with ex-husband Kevin Federline — shaved her head, checked into and out of rehab, and attacked a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella all in the same month.
It was heavy — especially for Derrick, who had been impersonating Britney since 2003. Naturally, he felt the weight of her personal turmoil, which was incessantly documented by the media. “Oh, God. I remember feeling like I’m not in a good place. Like, performing as her and being, like, smiling in a schoolgirl outfit and then dancing to ‘I’m a Slave 4 U,’ and doing ‘Toxic’ — it was just, it kind of felt fake,” the Las Vegas headliner told In Touch. “And that’s why I just had to get in my head, ‘This is what I do. It’s my job.’ You know, just like that was her job, that’s what I’m doing. So regardless of the tough times she was going through, I chose to continue to portray Britney at her best.”
As Derrick continued to channel Brit-Brit’s electrifying stage presence night after night in Sin City, he often wondered if the embattled pop princess would ever reclaim her throne. “A lot of times history repeats itself, and you’re either going up or you’re going down,” he said. “It was a very sad time, but I was happy to keep her spirit alive in my shows.”
Britney — who had temporarily lost primary custody of her sons, Sean Preston, now 11, and Jayden James, now 10 — hit her breaking point in January 2008 when she reportedly refused to turn over her children to K-Fed, their father. After the boys were taken from the “Piece of Me” singer, she was hospitalized on a 51/50 psychiatric hold. Thankfully, the incident set the stage for an epic comeback, which, as Derrick puts it, “allowed the world to breathe again.”
Not even a year after her hospitalization, Britney, who had since entered a conservatorship under the guidance of her father, Jamie Spears, regained visitation rights of her kids — she currently shares 50/50 custody with Kevin — and released her sixth album, Circus, on her 27th birthday, Dec. 2, 2008. It was then that Derrick was positive his No. 1 girl was back in action — and definitely stronger than yesterday.
“It was such a relief when Circus finally came out,” he told In Touch. “You could see that fire inside her again. She looked healthier than ever, and her videos for ‘Womanizer’ and ‘Circus’ were two of her best yet.”
Though Derrick can appreciate Blackout — the critically acclaimed album Britney released in the midst of her meltdown — he feels that Circus marked an exciting new era for the entertainer, one full of hope. “Circus was lighter and brighter than Blackout. Not as dark,” he remarked. “It confirmed, to me at least, that the Britney we all fell in love with was certainly still there.”
According to Derrick, his infatuation with Britney began in 1998, when she burst onto the music scene as a naughty-but-nice schoolgirl in the now-iconic music video for her debut single, “…Baby One More Time.” It wasn’t until several years later that a friend mentioned to Derrick that he and Britney bore a striking resemblance. “It was the Skechers ad where Britney’s head was tilted up and my friend covered Britney’s hair and was like, ‘Derrick, this is you!’ And I was like, ‘What?’” he recalled. “And then I took a second look, covered up Britney’s hair myself, and I was like, ‘Oh my God! I am Britney with short hair and no makeup on!’”
Then, in 2003, Derrick had a moment with Britney during a taping of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, when he came to the show dressed like her. “Jay Leno was asking Britney about guys she had dated and he pointed to me in the audience and said, ‘Would you date a guy like this?’ And she was like, ‘Yes, he’s very into himself!’ Which I thought was funny,” he shared. “And Jay said, ‘No, I think he’s more into you than himself.’ And she was like, ‘Yeah, maybe so,’ and then she clapped, smiled and flashed her big Britney grin.”
Although Derrick got Britney’s seal of approval early on, he has yet to meet her. However, in 2009, shortly after the blonde beauty embarked on The Circus Starring Britney Spears tour, she reached out to let him know that she was still very much impressed. “I got something in the mail from [Britney’s longtime assistant Felicia Culotta] and tears just immediately started gushing from my face,” Derrick told In Touch. “It was a signed Circus CD to me, a signed photo, a T-shirt from the tour, and a sweet message in a card from Fe letting me know that Britney was a fan."
To this day, Derrick can hardly believe he's on Britney's radar. "The fact that she acknowledged my act and let me know that she appreciates what I do, years after she first saw me, that was so special. It still means the world to me," he said. "One day, I’d like to tell her personally.”