Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake were the golden couple of the early noughties. They met on the TV show The Mickey Mouse Club as children, and as their pop careers kicked off, so too did their blossoming romance — and the frenzy around it. But it all came crashing down in 2002, and Justin wasn't very subtle at blaming the end of their romance on Britney.
In fact, with the release of Cry Me A River, assumed to be based on Britney and her alleged cheating, their doomed love story helped Justin become the megastar he is today. His success in music and film is a stark contrast to the worrying turn Britney's life took, with her very public breakdown 12 years ago and the restrictive conservatorship she's lived under ever since. And Justin has seized many opportunities to discuss their relationship and make jibes at Britney's expense.
Britney and Justin met in 1993 when they starred in Disney's Mickey Mouse Club reboot at just 12-years-old. There were signs of puppy love there even in those days, and Justin has said he thinks he was Britney's first kiss during a game of dares. Justin left the show in 1994 to form *NSYNC while Britney stayed on the show until its cancellation a few years later. They reconnected in the late nineties and got together in 1999 and by 2001 they were living together.
Britney said in an interview at the time: "I'm not ashamed at all to say that I love him from the bottom of my heart."
Their most iconic moment came in January that year when they appeared on the red carpet of the American Music Awards in matching denim-on-denim outfits. But their romance ended in March 2002. Stories began to emerge that Britney had allegedly cheated and her wild partying wrecked the romance, which tarnished her golden girl reputation. Kendel Ehrlich, wife of former Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich, reportedly even said she would shoot Britney if she had the chance as she was apparently setting a bad example to children.
Around this time, Justin was trying to launch a solo career that didn't really take off with the release of his first single Like I Love You. But his career skyrocketed with the release of Cry Me A River, which many believed was about Britney. She was reported to be getting close with choreographer Wade Robson during her relationship with Justin.
The song's lyrics include the line: "You don't have to say, what you did, I already know, I found out from him."
And: "It wasn't like you only talked to him and you know it."
The video even included a blonde actress who looked just like Britney. The song peaked at number three in the US charts and hit the number two spot in the UK, and also won the 2004 Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. The album that it featured on, Justified, topped the UK charts, and won the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album.
When he was promoting the music, Justin spoke about their breakup, telling Barbara Walters that he'd told Britney he'd "always love her".
He said: "I also said, 'Look no matter what we say at this point, people are going to speculate things and I could really get myself into a horrible position if I was to say something and somebody misinterpreted, because that happens all the time.' I promised to her I wouldn't say specifically why we broke up."
Walters then asked if Britney did something "really bad" and cheated on him.
He replied: "Honestly, I mean... we're not perfect. I don't judge anybody. I think that it's just a situation of it's just young love. It was a very intense relationship."
During that interview, Walters asked Justin to play some of his new music, and instead of the more famous songs on the album he played a track called Don't Go (Horrible Woman).
The lyrics to that song include the lines: "So I said in an hour call your momma and tell her she better just come get you, because frankly, baby, you ain't worth the gas in my BMW. Thought our love was so strong, I guess I was dead wrong."
Britney had maintained that she was a virgin and was waiting until marriage to have sex, but Justin reportedly claimed he had taken her virginity. It later emerged that she had lost of her virginity when she was in school, years before she got together with Justin. In 2003 Britney did a sit-down interview with Diane Sawyer, in which the journalist asked Britney why their relationship ended.
Sawyer said: "He has gone on television and pretty much said you broke his heart. You did something that caused him so much pain, so much suffering — what did you do?"
Britney replied: "I was upset, I was upset for a while we both... I think we were both really young and it was kind of waiting to happen. I will always love him, I will always have a special place in my heart for him."
When Sawyer asked if she was unfaithful, Britney responded: "I think everyone has their side to the story to make them feel a certain way. I'm not technically saying he's wrong, but I'm not technically saying he's right either."
At an awards show around this time Justin laughed when he was handed a blow-up doll by Christina Aguilera, which she said "looked familiar".
Justin continued to talk about his relationship with Britney for years after their breakup. In 2006 Justin was named one of GQ magazine's Men of the Year, and he used the interview to talk about her.
He claimed: "I felt like she had a couple of opportunities to just sort of stick up for me, and she didn't. Which is fine. But at that time, you know, I fought back, and that's the way I fought back. I used my mind. I came up with a song."
That same year he released his song What Goes Around... Comes Around. The song was released at the beginning of Britney's personal troubles, including her divorce from Kevin Federline. In 2007 Britney was going through her most difficult period: it was the year she suffered a breakdown, which included shaving her head in front of the cameras and attacking a paparazzo with an umbrella.
Justin was later pictured shaving his head in a magazine shoot that many interpreted as a dig at Britney. That year Justin won a BRIT Award for his album FutureSex/LoveSounds and used his acceptance speech to make a dig some say at his ex, saying: "Stop drinking, you know who you are, I'm speaking to you. Stop drinking, you're going to get sloppy."
During a live performance of Cry Me A River, Justin added the line: "I think she's crazy."
At another awards show, Justin said: "The world is full of Madonna wannabes and I may have even dated a couple."
In 2009 he appeared on Saturday Night Live and once again mocked (falsely) taking Britney's virginity during a skit. He said: "I'd like to think that at first, popular female singers publicly will claim to be virgins, but privately he hit it."
It was around this time that his film career was kicking off, including one of his early notable roles in The Social Network. During another performance of Cry Me a River, Justin told the crowd as he introduced the song: "You think you've found the one, then you find out she's just a b***h."
In 2018 he appeared to make a jab at Britney's Las Vegas residency when interviewer Zane Lowe asked if he'd ever do the same.
"It feels like you're planning your retirement," he said.
In 2019, Britney's sister Jamie Lynn Spears filmed an Instagram story that said: "He cheated first." Earlier this month a documentary about Britney's career was released called Framing Britney Spears. After her breakdown she was placed under a conservatorship controlled by her father, which gave him control of her personal, financial and business affairs.
Justin is not painted in a very good light in the documentary, and fans slammed his treatment of her after the programme aired. It compelled Justin to release an apology, in which he also said sorry to Janet Jackson for exposing her breast at the 2004 Super Bowl.
Taking to Instagram, he shared: "I've seen the messages, tags, comments and concerns and I want to respond. I am deeply sorry for the times in my life where my actions contributed to the problem, where I spoke out of turn, or did not speak up for what was right. I understand that I fell short in these moments and in many others and benefited from a system that condones misogyny and racism."
He went on: "I specifically want to apologise to Britney Spears and Janet Jackson both individually, because I care for and respect these women and I know I failed. I also feel compelled to respond, in part, because everyone involved deserves better and most importantly, because this is a larger conversation that I wholeheartedly want to be part of and grow from..."
"It sets men, especially white men, up for success. It's designed this way," he continued.
"As a man in a privileged position I have to be vocal about this. Because of my ignorance, I didn't recognise it was all that it was for a while it was happening in my own life but I do not want to ever benefit from others being pulled down again.
"I have not been perfect in navigating all of this throughout my career. I know this apology is the first step and doesn't absolve the past. I want to take accountability for my own missteps in all of this as well as part of a world that uplifts and supports."
Justin finished his message: "I care deeply about the wellbeing of the people I love and have loved. I can do better and I will do better."