Ten years ago today, Britney Spears walked out of rehab and into Esther's Hair Salon in Tarzana, a well-to-do neighbourhood in Los Angeles.

Her hair extensions were too tight, the 25-year-old star complained, she wanted her hair shaved off. She said she was "tired of everybody touching me".

Esther Tognozzi, the salon's owner, refused. "Of course I tried to talk her out of it," she told press at the time.

"I said, 'You know maybe you're having a hormonal moment or something, and maybe tomorrow you'll feel differently about it. Let's talk about this.'"

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While Tognozzi was speaking to Spears' security guard, the pop star grabbed the clippers and started shaving her head. According to the hairdresser, she showed little emotion as the blades ran through her hair, aside from a childlike fret of what her mother might say.

"Then she all of a sudden realised what she did".

Of course, the paparazzi were there to capture it. Even before she committed such a public show of instability, Spears had become catnip to the press: the self-professed virginal child star who, with adolescence, became a dishevelled victim of too much, too young.

Daily News front page February 18, 2007. Photo / Getty
Daily News front page February 18, 2007. Photo / Getty

As Rolling Stone

's 2008 feature on Spears's career meltdown recalls:

"Every day in L, at least a hundred paparazzi, reporters and celebrity-magazine editors dash after her, this braless chick padding around town on hilariously mundane errands - the gas station, the pet store, Starbucks, Rite Aid. The multibillion-dollar new-media economy rests on her slumped shoulders, with paparazzi agencies estimating that she has comprised up to twenty percent of their coverage for the past year."

Spears' shaven head became one of the most memorable images of the decade.

It summed up the naff, shiny indulgence of celebrity culture that had blossomed in the early days of YouTube (and with it gossip websites such as Perez Hilton and TMZ.com), before the global economic crash ushered in an appreciation for more austere shows of wealth.

A decade later, it's almost impossible to imagine how Spears' meltdown would be treated now.

These days, her Instagram documents the simple, funny antics of a happy woman in her mid-thirties and her children. Several years later, her trauma became a touchstone of pop cultural history: slogans appeared on mugs and on T-shirts: "If Britney can get through 2007, you can get through today".

Britney Spears celebrates her birthday in Bel Air, California 2007. Photo / Getty
Britney Spears celebrates her birthday in Bel Air, California 2007. Photo / Getty

Spears' head-shaving happened weeks into what would become an annus horriblis for Spears.

Months after she texted her husband Kevin Federline (a backing dancer previously hired by her ex-boyfriend, Justin Timberlake) to let him know she had filed for divorce, Spears was caught up in a nasty custody battle over her infant sons and satisfying global paparazzi with her commando partying antics.

On Valentine's Day she was checked into rehab in Antigua; it was here that she fled little over 24 hours later, to Esther's salon.

If there was any understanding of Spears's emotional stability at the time, it wasn't reflected in the press coverage about her.

She published a letter, seemingly without the awareness or control of her publicist, who resigned days later, explaining the impact of the breakdown of her relationship: "I didn't know who to go to" she wrote. "I genuinely did not know what to do with myself, and it made me so sad. I confess, I was so lost."

Britney Spears checks out of Promises Rehab Centre after a short stay. Photo / Getty
Britney Spears checks out of Promises Rehab Centre after a short stay. Photo / Getty

The pop star has a history of mental health problems, but as Spears checked in and out of different rehabs, hired and fired a succession of ill-advised security guards and managers and battled Federline for her children, the media fascination with her only continued.

Her management considered one solution: a comeback, staged at the MTV VMAs, just over six months later. Spears was no stranger to the transformative VMAs performance.

She was once a regular on the awards stage, and had proved she knew how to steal the spotlight. In 2000 she shed the virginal image that had sparked her success in the late Noughties with a medley of Oops I Did It Again and I Can't Get No Satisfaction (although she was unable to recognise Mick Jagger when he shared her lift) while stripping down to a nude bodysuit.

Four years, two children, two marriages and a public nervous breakdown later, the 2007 VMAs were set to be the stage for Spears's comeback. The world watched on as she failed disastrously.

Singer Britney Spears performs onstage during the MTV Video Music Awards in 2007. Photo / Getty
Singer Britney Spears performs onstage during the MTV Video Music Awards in 2007. Photo / Getty

Many people, including Simon Cowell - at the time, his X Factor creation was about to experience its most successful season ever - called it the three minutes that could have ended her career. Spears was widely ridiculed throughout the press. It was a crowning moment in a year that had seen her publicly tumble out of control, with flashbulbs to capture every moment.

What tends to get forgotten is the tragedy behind the inadvisable sequinned bikini and shoddy dancing -that what was supposed to be Spears's "comeback" was actually a painful portrait of a 25-year-old mother-of-two going through a divorce and failed stints in rehab.

Once seen as the trashy little sister to the Grammys, the MTV VMAs have emerged as their main rival over the past decade, a stage upon which careers are made and broken, where pop stars reinvent themselves.

Britney Spears before her breakdown. Photo / Getty
Britney Spears before her breakdown. Photo / Getty

The VMAs set the stage for Kanye to "make that b---- famous" when he interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech in 2009, six years before announcing he would run for president during the same awards.

They were the backdrop to Miley Cyrus's transformation from squeaky-clean Hannah Montana actress to lascivious, shaven-headed starlet. Last year, Justin Bieber shed tears on the VMAs stage, a sign of redemption for a misspent adolescence in the limelight as he became a "serious" pop star.

The VMAs took place on September 9, less than six weeks after her divorce was finalised.

Her record label were nervous about Spears using such a platform for a comeback, but recognised that it was too big to turn down. Perhaps she had good intentions: Spears had signed with a new management a few weeks before the show and had been working out.

Britney Spears performs onstage during the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards. Photo / Getty
Britney Spears performs onstage during the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards. Photo / Getty

But, according to Rolling Stone, she was thrown the minute she stepped into The Palms in Las Vegas: Timberlake was rehearsing on stage. The piece recalls: "Suddenly, her face fell, and she started getting panicked, nervous, afraid - what was he going to think of her performance? What about the rest of her peers? She headed backstage and was pacing in her dressing room when Timberlake knocked on the door. She refused to come out. She didn't want to see him yet."

Reports from the show were damning. Spears mimed weakly through her lacklustre rendition of Gimme More. Her dancing was worse. A lacy bra could be seen poking out of a spangled bikini. The press were titillated by the absence of Spears's abdominal muscle definition, despite the fact she had given birth to her second child only 14 months before.

The Washington Post called her "out-of-shape"; others were less kind: "Her sequined bra/panty costume confirmed that like her former pop-star magnetism, those abs of yore are now just a memory," trilled ABC News.

No one commented on how her recent trauma may have been responsible for the state of her performance.

To add to Spears's misfortune, her demise took place after the birth of YouTube, camera phones and the destruction of celebrity privacy that technology enabled.

Celebrity gossip site TMZ.com were among those most vehemently intrigued by her collapse. Her 2007 MTV VMAs performance remains on YouTube to this day - there are countless versions to watch and they have been viewed millions of times.

Watching her set now shows that The New York Times was not exaggerating with its simple report: "She was awful". More painful to witness, perhaps, is the shocked faces of her contemporaries looking on. P Diddy covers his mouth in shock.

50 Cent looks baffled. Cruelest of all is the footage of Rihanna - in the midst of a summer of worldwide chart success with her single Umbrella - openly laughing at the stage.

Britney Spears performing onstage at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards. Photo / Getty
Britney Spears performing onstage at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards. Photo / Getty

The events backstage sound equally traumatic. Seven months after she shaved it off, her newly grown hair was only a few inches long. There was a wig ready, but it needed to be meticulously glued to her head and left to set for an hour. But Spears refused to have Ken Paves, the hairdresser responsible for Jessica Simpson's tumbling extensions, touch her.

She wanted his assistant to apply the wig instead.

The assistant didn't want to betray Paves, reports Rolling Stone, so Spears was left with no hairdresser. Although her management convinced Paves to return, there was only an hour before showtime. In the end, Spears's clearly visible extensions were applied by Nelly Furtado's stylist, who had been collared at the last minute.

Spears had put on a corset dress before she was due on stage, but took it off shortly after. As Rolling Stone recalls: "She wanted to go onstage without artifice, as naked as possible, and for us to love her just the way she was."

The fallen star would soon come to regret that decision. As Timberlake was celebrating winning four awards, she was said to be crying backstage.

Days after, the Daily Mail ran a story claiming Britney ran off stage "yelling, 'Oh my god, I looked like a fat pig'" and "went into a wild rage and started lashing out at everyone".

Spears's troubles were to continue for the next three months. She lost the rights to see her children, was charged with driving misdemeanours and coughs up $120,000 to cover Federline's legal bills.

Hindsight proves Spears turned it around. Last March, she was shot by Mario Testino for V Magazine, three months later she released a new single, followed by her fifth album since that performance - the four before it made the US top 5, two topped the charts.

In August she returned to the MTV VMAs stage: not just a Britney comeback, but a comeback from the comeback that went wrong. As with 2007, Rihanna also graced the stage - to collect the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, which Spears accepted in 2011.

She lip-synched, of course, but few expected her to actually sing live. Her performance wasn't one rich in bombast, but quietly nudging towards acceptance.

Billboard Magazine

cautiously praised her: "Congratulations, Ms. Spears, you have advanced to the next round in your auditions to re-enter pop super-stardom".

Spears's shaving incident raised its head again recently. Katy Perry, a pop star who emerged in the wake of Spears's demise and is now embarking on her comeback, made a quip about her new blonde hair during the Grammys on Sunday: "I've done all of 'em. The only thing left to do is shave my head which I'm really saving for a public breakdown. I'm down for that."

A decade on, Perry's comments seemed shockingly dated - especially when she repeated them on a chat show days later.

Social media enabled the masses to criticise her for them. Spears, too, turned to Twitter, but gave a far more subtle response by quoting the Bible: "Her mouth speaks from that which fills her heart. Luke 6:45".

The women have been lumped together by the press, the situation has been dubbed a feud. But what it shows us is that the world, still fascinated by Britney, has learned to become a little kinder towards its more vulnerable stars.