For weeks now X Factor audiences have witnessed something entirely unexpected: judge Britney Spears composed, present, and engaged in the show, and entirely breakdown-free. These shows, however, have been built around previously taped material, with the moments featured cherry-picked from weeks of shooting at audition cities around the nation — and tonight the rubber hits the road with Spears’ first live show. For two unscripted hours, America’s most speculated-upon starlet of modern times will appear live before millions, marking her first major live TV appearance since the ill-fated VMA’s performance in 2007, which capped the era of her public meltdown.
And according to sources on the set, the pressure point tonight will come in the most unexpected of places: the question of whether Britney makes it back from her cigarette breaks on time. Of all the woes a member of a reality show cast faces, perhaps none is more harrowing than squeezing in a quick cigarette during the brief commercial breaks.
The X Factor judges’ desk sits a good 40 seconds from the nearest driveway where one can safely light up. During the roughly three-minute commercial breaks, judge Simon Cowell — first on American Idol and then on X Factor — has made a tradition of taking a brisk walk across the set when the cameras stop, through the giant sliding elephant doors next to the sound stage, through the makeup area and out into the driveway, where he would take a very small number of very deep drags before stamping his cigarette out and returning to the desk by the time lights went up.
According to sources on the junior levels of the production team, during the auditions, Spears paused frequently to step out of the arenas for a smoke, on some days between every act, often stepping away for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. During these prerecorded episodes, the production could and would pause and wait for the star to return. However, X Factor will be able to afford her no such luxury when cameras roll tonight.
The question on the minds of many in the crew, however, is whether such a disciplined, structured smoking regimen is within Spears’ powers. Spokespeople for Fox and the X Factor declined to comment on whether the show was concerned about Spears’ smoke break schedule, but the crew sources suggested that audiences pay close attention to the backlit silhouettes at the judges’ table as each segment starts to see whether Britney has, in fact, made it back to her seat in time — or whether the powers of nicotine have proven an even stronger lure than her public resurrection on live national television.