Britney Spears returns to court tomorrow, nearly three months after she begged a Los Angeles judge to listen to her account of what she endured under her “traumatizing” 13-year conservatorship.
The 39-year-old bared her soul in her 24-minute address and as a result, years after behind-the-scenes talks with her court-appointed attorney about taking steps to end the legal arrangement, Spears finally began getting long-awaited results.
First, she was able to retain her own legal counsel, hiring former federal prosecutor Mathew Rosengart, who has acted quickly in trying to dismantle the conservatorship and remove Spears’ father, Jamie, from a position of power. On Wednesday, Spears will likely learn whether she will be freed from the conservatorship.
But while victory seems near for Spears, there are still many questions as to how the pop star wound up here in the first place—and Netflix’s new documentary Britney vs Spears, which premiered Tuesday, tries to get to the bottom of the closely guarded case.
Jamie Spears and other key players in the legal maneuver have long insisted that the conservatorship, which is primarily used for elders who could not physically care for themselves, was in Spears’ best interests. They also maintained that Spears never formally tried to end the conservatorship, nor hire her own lawyer—apart from her initial failed attempt in 2008.
But there was another early attempt by Spears to secretly hire an outside lawyer in January 2009—a plan that was hatched by her former manager Sam Lutfi and paparazzo-turned-boyfriend Adnan Ghalib.
The two men had been branded as bad influences by Spears’ parents and were not allowed near her, so the pair enlisted the help of journalist Jenny Eliscu, who serves as executive producer on the documentary.
Eliscu had recently profiled Spears for Rolling Stone but had also interviewed Spears under much different circumstances back in 2001 for the publication. During that first interview, Spears won over Eliscu, who didn’t consider herself much of a fan beforehand. So, when she witnessed how drastically things had changed since the conservatorship was put in place, Eliscu agreed to help in Lutfi and Ghalib’s scheme.
The music journalist was to bring a prepared petition for Spears to sign: It detailed how she wanted to hire her own counsel because she lacked confidence in Samuel D. Ingham, the lawyer appointed by the court when the conservatorship was put in place in 2008.
“Ms. Spears is of the opinion that he is not advocating adequately on her behalf particularly in light of the severe restrictions placed upon her,” the petition read.
So, Eliscu secretly met with Spears at the upscale Montage Beverly Hills, going into a bathroom stall and waiting for Spears to come in and sign the papers. Eliscu begins to softly cry as she recalls how scared but appreciative Spears seemed. “She looked at me and said, ‘Thank you,’ and I said, ‘I’ll see you again,'” Eliscu says.
But their effort was in vain. A court ruled that Spears didn’t have the capacity to hire her own legal counsel and even speculated that Spears’ signature could have been forged.
Days prior to the decision, Ingham sent an email to Jamie Spears’ legal team on Jan. 28, 2009, alerting them that Spears had informed him about trying to hire a new lawyer. However, he claimed she didn’t want to hire new counsel, that she was “fully satisfied” with his representation, and had pleaded with him to do whatever was necessary to “squash” the attempt.
That same day, the attorney Spears tried to retain, John Anderson, who specializes in family and probate law, withdrew, writing, “I can say no more; will do no more. That is the end for me.”
Silence is a recurring theme of those once in Spears’ orbit before they found themselves suddenly cast out. Even Felicia Culotta, Spears’ former assistant of 16 years and longtime family friend, is cagey, refusing at least three times to go deeper on certain subject matters.
It’s surprising because Culotta played a major role and spoke at length in The New York Times Presents’ documentaries Framing Britney Spears and more recently, Controlling Britney Spears, which premiered Friday on FX and Hulu.
In those films, Culotta spoke more about her own personal interactions and how after the conservatorship was put in place, she found herself distanced from Spears. But when Culotta is asked directly about Jamie Spears and Lou Taylor and her business-management company, Tri Star Sports and Entertainment, Culotta doesn’t budge.
“I don’t wanna talk about her daddy,” Culotta says when asked about Jamie Spears. “Jamie wasn’t with us very often—hardly ever. So, it really was me and Lynne.”
Taylor and Tri Star? “I will not touch that one,” she says. “Sorry, she will chew me up and spit me out.” (Carr notes that she received a lengthy preemptive legal letter from Taylor’s lawyer, warning her not to mention his client or her business.)
Strangely, Culotta also shuts down a line of seemingly innocent questioning about Spears’ love of performing. “Britney loved performing, hands down, still to this second, loves performing,” she begins, before adding, “I think that’s probably as much as I can say about that. I don’t want to fight with them. It’s not worth it to me. I’m sorry.”
James Edward Spar similarly clams up when asked if he was the psychiatrist who prepared a medical report from March 2008 that declared Spears “lacks the capacity to retain and direct counsel” and “lacks the capacity to understand or manage her financial affairs without being subject to undue influence.” A judge had used this medical report to deny Spears’ first attempt to hire her own lawyer, Adam Streisand, in 2008.
The filmmakers were led in part to Spar and his report by an anonymous source who reached out in late 2020 and handed over a trove of confidential documents pertaining to the conservatorship, including Spears’ medical history. (Spar resigned from the conservatorship in 2013 and has since retired.)
Although Spar sits for an on-camera interview and freely talks about knowing who Spears was, saying he wasn’t particularly a big fan of her music, he suddenly stops and clarifies Carr's prompt that indicated that he met her.
“I’m not going to acknowledge that I’ve ever met her,” Spar says. “I’m not going to verify that I was ever brought in to evaluate Britney Spears.”
Even when Spar is handed a court document that directly names him and alludes to the medical report he reportedly made, Spar pushes back. “Again, show me my signed declaration. If you show me a public document with my signature, I will verify my signature. Other than that, I’m not going to talk about whether anybody retained me to see anybody. These are all confidential evaluations.”
Spar previously referred to his reported involvement in Spears’ conservatorship case when he went on the “Defiance” podcast in March. “I don’t know what the hell is going on with Britney Spears; I don’t know why she still has a conservatorship,” he tells the host, before adding, “I have no more idea than you do!”
While Britney vs Spears circles some of the players of the conservatorship effort, including Jamie Spears, Taylor, Ingham, Spears’ former manager Larry Rudolph, and Andrew Wallet, the former co-conservator of Spears’ estate, the documentary falls short of landing any punches with them.
Spears’ relationship with her father has long been known to be strained, with Spears saying at her court hearing in June that Jamie Spears “loved the control to hurt his own daughter,” detailing her frequent drug tests, threats made about not seeing her two sons if she didn’t obey his demands, and her anguish at being under the conservatorship for the past 13 years.
But Britney vs Spears does manage to speak to Lutfi and Ghalib, who were in Spears’ inner circle when the conservatorship was put in place. Both have been reluctant to talk with the press after they were painted as bad influences on Spears. After the two broke up, Ghalib was accused of shopping around a sex tape of Spears; Lutfi was accused of secretly drugging her.
Lutfi, who came into Spears’ orbit in October 2007 shortly after the singer shaved her head and took an umbrella to a paparazzo’s truck, denied ever drugging Spears.
“We have 100 blood tests and drug tests the entire time I was with her, and she passed every single one of them, which is why the police never came to my door,” he claims. “No one ever called the police. To be accused of allegations that serious, that you’re drugging the world’s biggest star, you call the police, you call the FBI—you don’t call TMZ.”
Lutfi insists to filmmakers that he was simply a scapegoat. “I was new, they didn’t know who I was,” he says. “I was just an expendable guy.”
He claims the reason why he was made out to be the villain was because the court required potential conservatees to be given a five-day notification about the efforts to put them under conservatorship.
But Lutfi claims that Spears was never given the heads-up because she would have put up a fight. “She would have obviously contested to it, immediately,” he says. “They knew that; everyone knew that. So, they had to do everything possible from prevent that from happening.”
Instead, Spears’ family claimed that Lutfi had moved into Spears’ home and was taking “control of her life, home, and finances,” as a reason for the court to act quickly and grant the temporary conservatorship—which it did.
Meanwhile, Ghalib shares his side of the story, how he was working as a paparazzo and covering Spears when they began dating in December 2007, shortly after Spears’ split from husband Kevin Federline.
“What was apparent to me during this divorce with Kevin was she never had one person she could trust. No one,” he says. “Not mom, not dad, not friends, not her sister. Anybody. And that’s a very scary, dark place to be.”
Ghalib shared text messages between Spears and him, apparently composed shortly after the conservatorship was in place. “I’m fuckin sick of this,” she writes. “I hate my life, please talk to that lawyer.” Ghalib responds that he will arrange a meeting, adding, “I can’t believe u and ur dad can’t sit and talk this out. He needs to compromise some!”
He also hints at the extreme control Jamie Spears exerted over Spears, saying he was suddenly called up one day and told to bring Spears home immediately. When he pulled up to Spears’ home, they were greeted by Jamie Spears, four security guards, and two police officers.
“They’re standing there, and she freaks out, ‘What are they doing here? Why are they here? Why is my father at my house? Who are these people? Why are the cops here?’” Ghalib recalls of the incident.
“She looks at me, I’m supposed to be the one that protects her. I’m trying to calm her down and I can’t. I’m trying to explain to her, ‘He is your conservator. Without his permission, because he is you, I’ve kidnapped you.’ It’s that real. She just looks, she doesn’t talk anymore. She’s completely silent. They escort her to the house. That’s when the realization was, ‘OK, I don’t think things are going to be the same anymore.’”
The documentary also reveals some of the inner workings of Spears’ management team, including how they allegedly pushed her medical team to sign off on her stint as a judge on X-Factor in 2012, where she stood to make $15 million.
The medical professionals warned the job would put “undue pressure” on Spears, but Rudolph pushed back and claimed if Spears pulled out, it would be perceived as another public meltdown.
Reluctantly, the doctors signed off, but put Spears under strict guidelines, which upped the dosage of her medication on days that she would be working and stated that Spears’ then-fiancé Jason Trawick—who was at one point her co-conservator—had to be with her at all times.