“People can take anything away from you. But they can never take away your truth”. When Britney Spears whispered those words on the opening of her 2004 cover of Bobby Brown’s My Prerogative, little did she know how eerily prophetic they would be.
Only four years later, Spears would be dubbed legally incompetent and placed under a court approved conservatorship, restricting everything she could do from how she manages her personal and business affairs to whether she can buy a packet of gum from a 7/11. Those decisions, a judge decided, would be in the hands of her father, Jamie Spears, and a court approved co-conservator, Andrew Wallet.
The events leading up to this decision are well trodden and well documented. Spears, then a 26-year-old mother of two children aged two and three, experienced some personal difficulties, including the collapse of her marriage with her former backing dancer Kevin Federline and the death of her aunt, both hard situations that was exacerbated by intense and intrusive media hounding, and a cabal of paparazzi that stalked her every move. Spears had also fired her old management team, was dating a paparazzo, Adnan Ghalib, and had hired new management in the shape of Sam Lufti.
It all came to a head in late January 2008 when Spears was admitted to a psychiatric unit and held under Section 5150 of California’s Welfare and Institution Codes, a demand for a psychiatric evaluation, where a trained psychiatrist must determine if the patient is a danger to him or herself, or others.
It came after erratic behaviour that saw the singer shave her heard, vandalise a papparazi's car and speak in a British accent. She'd also recently been admitted into a psychiatric hospital after refusing to hand over her two children to their father Federline once she lost custody. She allegedly took one hostage, causing a standoff in her Hollywood Hills hideaway. Her house was surrounded by 10 police cruisers, two ambulances, a fire truck and six helicopters buzzing over head, before she was carried out on a stretcher from her house and placed in an ambulance.
Just a few days later, a Los Angeles court placed Spears under an emergency conservatorship, usually reserved for people who cannot look after themselves such as the elderly and infirm, putting her estate, now worth an estimated $215 million, under the control of her father, giving him control over her assets. Putting him in control seemed at odds with the relationship that Spears herself had signalled as strained.
According to a 2007 Page Six report, Spears said that the pair “have never had a good relationship”. Still, in October 2008 Spears’s father petitioned that the conservatorship be made permanent. Spears’s father was named the conservator of her person, putting him in control of her personal and medical decisions, while Wallet was appointed conservator of her estate.
At the time, TMZ reported that a permanent conservatorship would increase the singer’s chance of regaining custody of her children, with Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner at the time, Riva Goetz, saying: “The conservatorship is necessary and appropriate for the complexity of financial and business entities and her being susceptible to undue influence.”
Said “influence” was the interference of Lufti, who Spears’s mother, Lynnne, alleged had threatened and drugged her daughter, and “essentially moved into Britney's home and has purported to take control of her life, home and finances”. Restraining orders were obtained against Lufti in 2008 and 2009. He has always denied the allegations.
— T.D. Miller (@miller6322) May 13, 2019
In the 2008 documentary Britney: For the Record, Spears lamented that she felt like a prisoner in her life, the first and only time the public has heard her discuss the conservatorship. “Even when you go to jail,” she said, “you know there's a time when you're gonna get out. But in this situation, it's never ending. It's just like Groundhog Day every day.”
Nevertheless, in November that year, she released her fifth studio album, Circus. It debuted at Number 1 on the American album chart, selling over 500,000 copies in one week. She would go on a sold out 97-date tour just months later.
It is bizarre that a woman deemed legally incompetent could launch one of the most successful pop comebacks in history before heading out on a high grossing world tour, and yet this is the sort of incongruity that has plagued Spears’s career for a decade. Thirty-eight years old and still one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, Spears is still under the legal control of others.
Spears’s conservatorship is now back in the spotlight. After a brief hiatus, a fan-lead movement dubbed#FreeBritney, which began in 2019, reemerged in full force on social media this week. It was originally prompted by a string of events that, at times, felt like they’d been lifted from an Oliver Stone movie, and has put fresh scrutiny on the moral, ethical and legal considerations surrounding Spears’s conservatorship.
Following a hearing in May 2018 – it’s unclear who it was requested by – a judge ruled an evaluation of the conservatorship. In September it emerged that Jamie had petitioned the court to transfer her conservatorship away from him, citing medical reasons, and was approved – Britney's longtime care manager Jodi Montgomery was appointed in his place.
It all started in early January 2019 when Spears cancelled her upcoming Vegas residency, Domination. In an Instagram post, Spears – or someone posting on her behalf – announced she would be taking an “indefinite work hiatus” and cancelling the residency after it was revealed that her father had recently been hospitalised after his colon ruptured and had almost died.
“We’re all so grateful that he came out of it alive, but he still has a long road ahead of him,” the post on Instagram read. “I had to make the difficult decision to put my full focus and energy on my family at this time. I hope you all can understand.” Spears was spotted one more time following that post driving through and In-N-Out Burger with her boyfriend, model Sam Asghari, whom she has been dating since 2016, before she dropped off the face of the earth: no Instagram posts. No paparazzi pictures. Nothing.
— Drag’s Baddest Bitch (@RheaLitre) May 14, 2019
On March 4 2019, The Blast reported that Andrew Wallet, Britney’s co-conservator, had requested to resign from the conservatorship with immediate effect, with legal documents noting that “[s]ubstantial detriment, irreparable harm and immediate danger will result to the conservatee and her estate if the relief requested herein in not granted on an ex parte basis”.
A month later, TMZ reported that Spears had checked herself into a mental health facility, apparently “distraught” over her father’s medical condition. An Instagram post was shared that suggested that Spears was taking “a little me time”. Then the voicemail was shared.
Previously dubbed “the happiest place on the internet”, the podcast Britney’s Gram, hosted by comedian Barbara Gray and writer Tess Barker, was a space where the pair analysed Britney’s Instagram (a place filled with Minion memes, home fashion shows, videos of her working out, and scenes of her painting). The podcast had a voicemail service where people could leave their own messages about Brit’s Insta posts.
But on the April 16 2019 episode, an anonymous source left a message saying that Gray and Barker, who, since Britney’s Instagram blackout, had been suspicious of where the singer was and why Wallet had resigned, were right to worry.
“Basically, Britney was in rehearsals for [her upcoming residency] Domination. It came to Jamie's attention that Britney was not taking her medication as prescribed. She was missing a lot of doses and just full-on not taking them,” the tipster claimed. “So they got her to the doctor and the doctor said, 'OK, if you don't want these medications, let's get you on a new one.' She refused to take the new one. So Jamie said, 'Either you take this medication or the show's off, and I'm pulling my support and you can't do it.' Britney did not follow Jamie's instructions and so he was true to his word – he pulled the show. He verbatim said, 'Blame it on my illness.'”
The tipster, who claimed he used to be a paralegal for an attorney involved with Britney’s conservatorship, then alleged that Britney, who supposedly is not allowed to drive without supervision, broke the rules by heading to the drive-thru with her boyfriend. “Britney has been in the mental facility since mid-January,” the source continued. “Of course, the statement [on April 3] said she entered last week, which is not true… She did not want to go, and from what I understand this was not a decision that she made at all.
Barker and Gray say that they have corroborated that the source worked as a paralegal at the law firm involved with Britney’s conservatorship, although, over the phone from LA, Barker says that she “can't really disclose the steps I took” to verify the source’s place of work. What she does say, however, is that she’s unsurprised by what happened next.
Immediately following the episode, the hashtag #FreeBritney began trending on social media. Fans started dragging up receipts from legal documents, sources and rumours that, for the last 10 years, have dogged Spears and her conservatorship. The movement spawned a protest. Fans started sending death threats and attacking Spears’s management team and even her family.
Her sister, Jamie-Lynn, responded by telling fans to “GTFOH with all the comments about what you don’t understand”. Spears’s mother, Lynne, added gasoline by liking Instagram comments with the tag #FreeBritney. Soon, media reports, speculation and online fan drama saw Spears make a video saying that “just needed some time to deal”, matched with a caption that told fans:
I wanted to say hi, because things that are being said have just gotten out of control!!! Wow!!! There’s rumors, death threats to my family and my team, and just so many things crazy things being said. I am trying to take a moment for myself, but everything that’s happening is just making it harder for me. Don’t believe everything you read and hear. These fake emails everywhere were crafted by Sam Lutfi years ago... I did not write them. He was pretending to be me and communicating with my team with a fake email address. My situation is unique, but I promise I’m doing what’s best at this moment 🌸🌸🌸 You may not know this about me, but I am strong, and stand up for what I want! Your love and dedication is amazing, but what I need right now is a little bit of privacy to deal with all the hard things that life is throwing my way. If you could do that, I would be forever grateful. Love you ❤️❤️❤️
A post shared by Britney Spears (@britneyspears) on Apr 23, 2019 at 6:30pm PDT
“I wanted to say hi, because things that are being said have just gotten out of control!!! Wow!!! There’s rumors, death threats to my family and my team, and just so many things crazy things being said. I am trying to take a moment for myself, but everything that’s happening is just making it harder for me. Don’t believe everything you read and hear. These fake emails everywhere were crafted by Sam Lutfi years ago... I did not write them. He was pretending to be me and communicating with my team with a fake email address. My situation is unique, but I promise I’m doing what’s best at this moment.”
(A further restraining order was taken out against Lufti in May 2019. Lutfi denied the claims, and said her team’s “desperate attempt to deflect [sic] negative attention on to me (yet again) is a rather ineffective way to overshadow the FreeBritney movement … the emails in question show a woman capable of running her own life, a narrative they apparently want to hide.”)
Nevertheless, the movement had caught fire and was spreading rapidly. “I think a lot of the issues at hand have been discussed to some degree by fans for a really long time,” Barker says. “So, I think the issue of whether it was possible that Britney was improperly conserved is something that people have been talking about for a while. When something as disturbing to some people as the voicemail came out, I think it just really struck a chord and spurred people into action.”
A post shared by Britney Spears (@britneyspears) on May 17, 2019 at 8:53am PDT
The complication with this fan-lead movement stems from the minimal information that the general public are privy to when it comes to Spears’s status, both legally and mentally. Fact gets mixed up with conspiracy and conjecture, muddling the waters and leading to the spread of misinformation online. And, of course, it really is no one’s business but Britney’s, especially given that 10 years ago, Spears was subjected to the worst kind of invasive and traumatic media reporting that perhaps any celebrity has ever experienced. It’s why lifelong fan Grace Medford, who works in the music industry, feels that there’s been an element of irresponsibility when it comes to how fans have reacted.
“I've literally shut out all Britney rumours because I've been burned too many times. I don't even engage with it anymore,” she says, citing years of fake tracklistings, rumours about collaborations and speculation about the conservatorship for her scepticism. “It's annoying because I think that there's no chain of respect when it comes to Britney. I don't want to hear anything unless it's coming from Britney.”
Grace argues that social media has created an added layer of posturing, too. “That's the problem I have with it. It's not that I don't think that something in the water isn't clean. It's not that I don't want Britney to be happy – that is my number one priority,” she says. “But it's like there always is online. There's a lot of grandstanding and competitions to be the most sympathetic fan or the noisiest defender. You see that a lot when it comes to petty drama like Kim Kardashian versus Taylor Swift. But at the end of the day, this is very serious. There is a woman who allegedly has mental health concerns that are so far reaching that she has to be legally parented. It's not healthy to do that kind of fan behaviour around it, in my opinion.”
The fan grandstanding is further convoluted by conflicting media reports. From TMZ to CNN, “sources” close to Camp Spears seem to be drip feeding out information about what is or isn’t going on. Spears’ manager Larry Rudolph recently went on record with TMZ and shared personal information that “we had to pull her show [Domination] because her meds stopped working and she was distraught over her dad's illness” and riled up fans by suggesting that the singer might not ever perform again (Rudolph has since clarified he was taken out of context and that he was specifically talking about the Vegas residency being off the cards).
Then there are the reports from inside a recent closed hearing (the validity of which is questionable) that claimed that Spears herself had corroborated the anonymous tip’s suggestion that she was held against her will in a mental health facility. Understandably, speculation is that the messiness seems to be coming from people within her team.
“There just seems to be no respect for Britney and no respect for her legacy,” Grace argues. “There's not respect on a human level. Stop talking about her business. The reason it's rankled is that she doesn't speak openly, so why do they all feel that they can speak openly about her?”
“It puts a different spin on what I think started out as something that was very easy to dismiss and I think that it has become harder as time has gone by and more information has been issued,” suggests Jaclyn, the co-host of the podcast Eat, Pray Britney. (Jaclyn did not provide her surname.) “There was a sinking feeling associated with that, just knowing that this isn't people on the internet or fans taking speculation too far by bringing it to a podcast, but that Britney herself has asked that these restraints be loosened or abolished.”
“I think that over the last 10 years we’ve all taken notice of how odd her team is. The way they’ve overly monitored her in public settings and interviews. She seems to be more guarded than any celebrity I’ve ever seen,” says Britney fan, Cody, who has been very vocal on social media regarding the #FreeBritney movement. “I think the fans have done the right thing by speaking up. It’s not like we were huffing and puffing back in 2016 – she seemed happy and content then and we didn’t question the conservatorship for that reason. I think that alone says that we’ve always just wanted what makes her happy. Right when we started to get reports that she allegedly was being mistreated, that’s when things changed for us.”
Part of the reason why the fans have become so protective and vocal, Cody argues, is partly due to redemption. “She was treated so poorly back in 2007 just for being human and I think that this time around, we just want to support her,” he says. “She deserves the world.”
Anyway, as Jaclyn puts it, Britney perhaps has “more pressing concerns” than scrolling through a hashtag on Twitter, so might not be aware of the noise online and Twitter threads that have been shared thousands of times detailing everything from the rumours that she’s been drugged to the fact that she can’t have a cellphone. What she is clear on, though, is the fact that the need for the conservatorship is at odds with the feats Spears has achieved professionally with the last 10 years.
Not that the last decade hasn’t seen its share of red flags. During 2011’s Femme Fatale era, Spears seemed checked out, both during promotion and her performances. For Grace, it was the one time during the last 10 years that she questioned whether Britney was really working because she wanted to or whether she was being forced to. “I did feel a bit like, 'What am I watching? Who is this for?'” she says.
However, as Jordan Miller, the editor of Britney fan site turned entertainment news hub Breathe Heavy, says, “Everything was so manicured, even then, it was much harder to see what was really going on.” He says that social media, while a dangerous in terms of spreading false reports and rumours, has allowed fans to rally around Spears in a way that, in 2007, wasn’t possible. Miller has also said that Jamie Spears once called him threatening to have the website taken down.
It’s this that has facilitated the protests, the most recent of which took place last year outside a Los Angeles courthouse where Spears had requested a hearing regarding the status of the conservatorship. While the Britney’s Gram hosts haven’t organised the protests, they have attended them. “I wouldn't say that anyone has taken anything too far,” Barker says. “Everyone has been very respectful and peaceful.”
Indeed, Jaclyn says that those in attendance kept the protest silent and there were requests that, if Britney were to appear publicly, that people kept the phones and cameras away. “There were efforts made to show solidarity with her and not to intrude on her life further,” she added.
One fan who attended the protest, Junior Olivas, said he did so because he doesn’t believe that she meets the criteria for the conservatorship. “We also know that she wants out of this conservatorship, but nobody listens to her,” he says. “Nobody hears her! She’s been stuck in this for so long and now it’s time for her to fight for her freedom and we are here with her. If Britney decides she wants to retire for good then we are okay with that. If Britney decides she wants to continue working then we are okay with that, too. But it has to be what Britney wants.”
“A conservatorship is a tool,” says Elaine Renoire, the president of the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse, an advocacy group that aims to protect the human and civil rights of those placed in unlawful and abusive guardianships and conservatorships.
Renoire explains that, whilst in Britney’s case there is no suggestion of financial exploitation, conservatorships have been used for financial gain and can be a tool for control.“So if Britney was put in the corner [regarding her children],” she adds, “she probably agreed to it thinking that it wouldn't be as bad as it is. But she gets in there and then can't even control her own money? That's crazy.”
While no Californian legal experts replied for comment regarding conservatorships, Tess of Britney’s Gram did say that, despite Britney’s status as legally incompetent, she did now have joint custody of her children with her ex-husband Kevin Federline. “That's another area where there's a disconnect,” she adds. “It happens often that there are people who are placed in conservatorships like hers and they do lose custody of their kids. But nothing like that happened with Britney. She's not considered a legal adult, but she's also the guardian of two children.”
It’s another incongruity that Renoire suggests signals that Britney’s conservatorship has hung around longer than necessary. “There was no reason for them to close it because she was making all this money,” she adds.
“What would happen if she was let out of the conservatorship today?” adds Miller. “I suspect a lot of the people who are currently working with her may not be anymore.” Elaine Renoire described conservatorships as: “A lifetime sentence. Once they've got you, you don't get out.”
There might be a schism in the Britney fandom about how far fans should go when it comes to advocating for their favourite popstar. But everyone is on the same page, it seems, when it comes to the status of the conservatorship. Regardless of whether you believe that Britney was held against her will or whether it’s just outlasted its welcome, the situation surrounding the conservatorship stinks. As Miller asks, “If she didn't have millions and millions of dollars, would this still be happening to her?”
Of course, we don’t know Britney’s status medically and we won’t; it’s not our business. But, as was the case during a taping of an episode of The Jonathan Ross Show in 2016 that Grace Medford attended, when Britney has spoken up about the conservatorship, she has either been shut down or silenced, the line of questioning either dropped or edited out. And so is it any wonder that fans are going to question the situation when, as Miller says, there’s such a lack of transparency?
In the meantime, so as to avoid another 2007-style catastrophe, fans, Spears's entourage and the media will need to tread carefully; headlines speculating about Britney’s mental health, sources or members of her team releasing personal information regarding her medical status, or, as People magazine did in 2019, reports about how her two children are only fuel to the fire.
“I think fans should express appreciation for the 20 years of iconic songs and videos from her career that we’ve grown up with,” suggests Miller. “Ultimately, she’s a person. And fighting against her family and her managers and each other doesn’t feel productive. Be there for her in a way that will inspire her to want to be a better person, because I know she inspires her fans.”
Ultimately, it’s time to deconstruct the popstar veneer that surrounds her and to put Britney Spears the person – her wants, needs and her desire for autonomy – first. “I just think if she was able to live a life as she saw fit, whether she was performing and touring or making albums or not, that is ultimately what fans want for her,” Miller says. “They want her to find happiness and feel fulfilled and feel grateful and appreciative of her life.”