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 / Updated  / Source: TODAY contributor
By By Michael Ventre

Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. The two seem as inseparable as … well, actually, even though they seem like they should be pop culture BFFs, they reportedly aren’t sipping pastel-hued cocktails together anymore. Back in March, Spears’ dad Jamie put the kibosh on any continued friendship when Lohan reached out to ask Spears for career advice. (Insert your own smart-alecky retort here.)

The fact that Spears’ dad ordered her to stay away from one of her pals even though she is 28 suggests the parental instinct to protect children from impending disasters never really diminishes despite the passage of time, and in many cases intensifies. Of course, he is the conservator of her affairs as well, so he is vigilant about constructing business as well as personal barriers to his daughter.

Yet Lohan’s instinct may have been just as sharp. In identifying a kindred train wreck who has reshaped her career, the 24-year-old Lohan appears to be moving in a positive direction and is no longer making embarrassing headlines. She seemed to recognize in Spears a model for her own image rehab.

And perhaps she’ll continue to be like Spears, as soon as Lohan is discharged from actual rehab: E! Online reported Thursday that she checked into Robert Shapiro’s sober living home, Pickford Lofts. Then there’s the little matter of a 90-day jail sentence for probation violations.

First the alcohol and the slammer, then the career.

“Every time she goes to a bar or club, she’s giving herself the chance to act up in public again,” said Michael Musto of the Village Voice, “and she’s also sending the world the message that she’s not serious about regaining her career; she just wants to party.

“She seems to be constantly celebrating when there’s not that much to celebrate. Through work and application, I feel Lindsay will find the right path. I never thought I’d say this, but she needs to be more like Britney!”

Coming unhinged in front of the cameras

Spears didn’t have the exact same array of issues as Lohan — they careened into different ditches at different times — but in her day, she was just as much of a TMZ magnet. She hit bottom in 2008 with a mental breakdown and hospitalization situated around a child custody battle with former spouse Kevin Federline.

Since then, she has kept out of trouble, had a highly successful tour in 2009 and released another greatest hits album. She designed a line of clothing for Candie’s, has her own iPhone app, her photo graces the cover of the August issue of Cosmopolitan, and she reportedly is working on her seventh studio album.

And Lohan? Until recently, she had been spotted in a lot of clubs.

“Lindsay Lohan may have a more difficult climb back up the mountain of popular approval than Britney Spears for several reasons,” explained Gary Hoppenstand, an English professor at Michigan State University, who is also the editor of The Journal of Popular Culture.

“First, she is arguably less talented. She’s not a great or prolific actress, while Britney remains a pop diva in music. Second, comebacks seem to be easier for celebrities in the music business. This may be because we expect these people to be ‘on the wild side’ to begin with.

“And finally, the appearance of arrogance is a major factor. Lohan just strikes people the wrong way when she ... cavorts in public, while people continue to like Britney because she appears almost naïve and ignorant with her blunders.”

So what does Lindsay need to do to navigate her way out of her Lohanian abyss and toward the Spearsian sunshine?

Rachel Weingarten works these types of minor miracles for a living. As a professional image and brand consultant, she has consulted with many celebrities who seek her out for career makeovers, including the occasional shamed politician. She said in the case of Lohan, she would take a different approach than most of her peers.

Time to put acting career on hold

“I would tell her to take as much time off as humanly possible,” Weingarten said. “Normally, what Hollywood does is push celebrities back into the spotlight really quickly, because after two years or so there’s always a new crop of young Hollywood types to compete with.

“Lindsay is such a mess, and there aren’t people lined up to see her in movies. She lost her credibility. Certainly she has lost her appeal. Someone like her should take a significant amount of time off. Years maybe.”

Lohan does have movie options brewing, though. Before her latest stumble in court, she was set to star in an independent film about porn star Linda Lovelace. Matthew Wilder, the writer-director of that picture, told the Associated Press he intends to move forward with Lohan when she is free to work. And Kerry Wallum, producer of “The Dry Gulch Kid,” a comedy with Willie Nelson, told AP he too still wants Lohan aboard when she is available.

Yet Weingarten believes Lohan should probably forget about being an actress again — “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” she said flatly — and perhaps use her celebrity in a different way altogether.

“I almost think she should be the junior Betty Ford,” Weingarten said. “Really clean herself up, start some sort of center for Hollywood teens in trouble. Angelina Jolie changed her image by having kids and raising kids.

“Lindsay needs to think about changing her image.”

And be more like Spears? “I’m not sure how it’s working for Britney,” Weingarten said. “She has Candie’s, she has her kids. I feel like just below the surface she’s close to snapping, too. But for whatever reason — maybe family, maybe management — they’re better able to rein her in.

“Lindsay’s parents are so grasping and so desperate for fame off her back it’s almost tragic. Nobody puts her first. She’s still really young.”

Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to TODAYshow.com. He lives in Los Angeles.