LAS VEGAS — Britney Spears was barely 10 feet away from me, dancing a sexy routine to "Freakshow." She catches my eye and summons me closer to the stage from my seat in the audience. And no, this wasn't a dream.
It was at one of her recent shows at Planet Hollywood's Axis theater, in front of a few thousand fans. One of Spears' dancers ushers me on stage. Before I know it, my arms are hoisted into the air by dancers in skimpy dominatrix costumes and Spears is closing in on me.
No, there isn't a ticket you can buy to be whipped around by the pop star. But for $2,500, you can buy a VIP package that entitles you to the show, a backstage tour and a chance to meet her in person.
The thrill I experienced on stage was an unexpected perk — or was it punishment?
For fans, a Vegas residency is a chance to get much closer to their favorite artist than they could at the average 18,000-seat arena. At the resort's Axis theater, for instance, there are no nosebleed seats or obstructed sightlines in the 4,600-capacity venue, and tickets cost about the same as they would for a show at Staples Center.
And although Vegas residencies used to be for the Wayne Newton or Cher crowd, Spears' recently launched two-year stint proves things are changing on the Strip.
High-profile acts that are still very much in the spotlight are now eyeing Vegas, and you'd be hard pressed to hit a nightclub on the Strip that wasn't occupied by a top-notch electronic DJ. An extended run in Sin City doesn't just mean less time on the road and fewer touring expenses; it's also a new way to connect with fans.
And then there are the ultra fans — those who want an even more intimate experience and are willing to pay for it. Starting at $275 and topping out at just over $5,000, the VIP packages get you in even closer.
Want to meet Spears and get a backstage tour? The meet-and-greet package makes it possible for a minimum of $2,500 a person. Looking to sit within a foot of the diva? The front-and-center package gets you there for $5,000 and up. Or you could splurge on one of the two dozen VIP tables that hug the front of the stage for $3,000 and up. For that price, the front-and-center and the VIP-table packages include six tickets, a bottle of Moët & Chandon and a personal bartender.
My VIP experience came weeks after Spears' residency kicked off in December. It started with Felicia Culotta, Spears' VIP coordinator, ushering our Meet and Greet group of about 25 through the theater's lobby and past a line of about 100 more non-VIP fans who were waiting to get in the venue (regular tickets run from $59 to $229).
The Meet and Greet group, who were dressed in an assortment of Britney attire (T-shirts, leggings with Spears' face plastered all over them), listened as Culotta rattled off a list of rules — no cameras, no cellphones, no touching of props. She stopped and pointed to an area side stage. "This is where Spears' mother will stand tonight," she said.
"Wow, I never want this night to end," one young woman squealed, clutching her chest as we were led behind the curtain to center stage. Another fan needed to be held up by a friend as the tour passed a pair of gargantuan electronic angel wings the singer uses for one dramatic entrance.
Spears' head of wardrobe was backstage repairing the star's bustier for the night. Culotta pulled out the singer's costumes one by one, displaying them like fine works of art — if only Michelangelo painted with glitter and sequins.
Then came the real reason this group spent a few grand to be here. "For some folks this is a once in a lifetime opportunity," Culotta said. "If you want to cry, cry. If you want to tell her something, tell her."
Spears' security led fans to a backstage hallway before they were shuffled in one by one to meet Spears, who waited onstage in front of a step-and-repeat that featured the show's logo.
Clad in a purple sweater, jeans and pink high-top sneakers, Spears offered hugs and handshakes to fans. She chatted with some, while others were too shy to do more than wave. Every meeting ended the same, with a photo of Spears cozying up next to you (fans collected their framed portrait after the show along with a goodie bag that contained an autographed poster, T-shirt, commemorative laminated backstage pass and USB flash drive featuring a digital copy of their photo).
Two friends who flew in from Greece waited until they walked away from Spears to crumble into tears. "I waited 15 years to meet her," one of them said, sobbing.
The backstage tour and meet and greet took about an hour and left fans with enough time before the show to grab drinks, hit the merchandise booth or pose with one of the many mannequins that display her most famous costumes.
A few drinks and songs into the show, I was pulled up on stage from my front-row seat for a gag they do at every concert (Mario Lopez, Lance Bass and Nicole Richie have all played along).
"Do everything I tell you, no questions asked," whispered one of Spears' hard-bodied male dancers.
A harness was strapped to my chest. A collar snapped around my neck. I'm told to drop to my knees and start crawling.
Spears is behind me, clutching a leash connected to my neck and tapping my derriere with a whip. I'm even urged to gyrate with her dancers. It goes on for the entire song, until I'm ushered back to my seat with a wink from the star and a T-shirt, which she signed on my chest.
Nothing like being a VIP.