No. 10: Britney Spears

For 10 years, Britney Spears ruled the Internet. In the annual Yahoo! top searches list, she played second fiddle to PlayStation 2 in 2001 and 2002, and fell to fourth place for the next two years. But then Spears rallied in 2005 and stayed put at the No. 1 slot through good times — and one mighty bad year for the pop princess.

The 2009 death of the King of Pop, and in some measure her own return to superstar normalcy, knocked her off the Yahoo! Search perch to fifth place. In 2010, leading a scandal-free life has dropped her all the way to No. 10 … but it may prove to be a sweet spot for Spears.

The girl next door moves back in
This year the Spears comeback has proven lucrative, with estimated fiscal year earnings of $64 million (less than Oprah and Beyonce, more than Lady Gaga). Life has been comparatively paparazzi-free (although proposed California legislation might have had something to do with that).

Is the decline due to Britney fatigue? Maybe. But even the superstar herself is tired of her press coverage: Last December, her site listed the 75 “most ridiculous” stories. Then again, if public fatigue includes 13 million TV viewers for a Britney-themed “Glee” episode and 5 million Twitter followers (a first), imagine what a little pep can do.

Britney’s message in 2010 has been about turning back into the girl next door. She signed up with Candie’s as an exclusive but affordable designer for department store Kohl’s. Before the clothes and handbags hit the shelves, she released both original and retouched photos of herself from her ad campaign shoot, and reportedly insisted that no digitally altered pics should be used. The move was a canny one, given the continued uproar over scrawny supermodels, and was a sound declaration that she’d be transparent with fans (and by the way, a recovering Spears looks just fine, thank you).

Apart from continued conservatorship (or perhaps because of it), her personal life seemed mercifully in order. Spears even fired her agent to focus more on their romantic relationship, a move that any advice columnist or employment lawyer could approve. True, a former bodyguard accused her of sexual harassment (disputed) and bad mothering (cleared yet unresolved), and a former manager accused her mother of defamation, but at least that wrangling was done in a civilized court setting.

Rivals and returns
The only rivalry Spears engaged in was with Ashton Kutcher for the title of Twitter leader … and that competition was the impish work of blogger Perez Hilton anyway. (Hilton, in congratulating Spears as Twitter queen, also predicted correctly that Lady Gaga would soon overtake both Britney and Ashton.)

Many starlets have been swarming into the void she has left behind. Miley Cyrus has been compared to her, for better and for worse. (In a strange twist, Spears’s parents were rumored to be reconciling, weeks after Cyrus’s parents announced their split.)

Spears won’t be quiet for long. Her first album since 2008 is set to come out early next year. She tweeted eagerly about “recording a monster song” (no, Lady Gaga doesn’t quite own that word yet) and told her followers, “Get Ready.”

Truth be told, they’ve been ready. Now it’s up to her to deliver.

–Vera H-C Chan