On Monday, pink signage and slight mayhem ensued outside West Hollywood City Hall, where fans of Britney Spears staged an organized protest amid rumors that she had been confined to a treatment facility against her will. Their “evidence” is a mishmash of behaviors they deem suspicious and the word of an anonymous podcast source. They carried signs that read “The Truth Will Set Her Free.” The action was livestreamed on YouTube. The demonstrators’ demand was simple: #FreeBritney.
How did any of us get here? And how, especially, did a core group of very online Spears fans get here? Like most conspiracies, it is rooted in the mundane and the selectively opaque. E! News reported on Tuesday that #FreeBritney hearsay first met with the mainstream when rapper and The Talk host Eve sported a T-shirt bearing the hashtag last Wednesday, or maybe when Real Housewives of New York star Luann de Lesseps included the campaign in an Instagram post the day after.
But the story really began on April 3, when reporters circulated that Spears had checked herself into a mental facility for 30 days. Spears’s latest Instagram post went up that day too; the singer announced she was taking some “me time.” This revelation came on the heels of Spears announcing in January that she would not perform her upcoming show, called “Domination,” so she could focus on caring for her sick and recovering father, Jamie Spears, and address her own mental heath during the trying family ordeal. She wrote in an Instagram post at the time:
“I don’t even know where to start with this, because this is so tough for me to say. I will not be performing my new show Domination. I’ve been looking forward to this show and seeing all of you this year, so doing this breaks my heart. However, it’s important to always put your family first … and that’s the decision I had to make.”
In early April, everyone from Spears’s boyfriend Sam Asghari to notorious ex Kevin Federline praised her decision to seek treatment. E! News reports that fans first became suspicious due to Spears’s sudden lack of social-media presence (“Britney was known for being a frequent poster. Until she wasn’t.”), which might more easily be attributed to the extended period of self-care she recently announced on social media.
The thornier parts of the conspiracy have to do with Spears’s extended use of conservatorship to help manage her mental-health issues, a precautionary measure that’s been in place since 2008, when she underwent a highly publicized deterioration in her mental wellbeing. Jamie and lawyer Andrew Wallet acted as Spears’s conservators until Wallet stepped down from the role in March. According to Forbes:
“Conservatorship, called guardianship in many states, is a dramatic remedy saved for only adults who lack the ability to make proper decisions for themselves. Typically, it’s used for seniors with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia, or adults with long-term problems like traumatic brain injuries. Before Britney, the long-term use of a conservator for an out-of-control young celebrity was unheard of.”
What really tipped the scales though, according to E! News, was a “special emergency” episode of podcast Britney’s Gram, hosted by comedians Tess Barker and Barbara Gray. The episode included a tip from an “anonymous” and “credible” source, a voicemail from an individual claiming to be a paralegal working with a lawyer connected to Britney’s conservatorship. The unnamed person in the voicemail alleged Spears is being held against her will. The voice said:
“What is happening is disturbing, to say the least. Basically, Britney was in rehearsals for 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 unidentified voice said that when Spears continued to refuse to take her medication or try new meds, Jamie “pulled the show.” The voice also alleged “Britney has been in the mental facility since mid-January.”
E! News further reported that Lynn Spears, Britney’s mother, has been liking comments on her Instagram posts in which fans reference the #FreeBritney conspiracy theory.
It is also the case that on April 11, mere days after Spears entered the treatment facility, she was spotted at a Los Angeles hair salon getting her roots done. And on Easter Sunday she and her boyfriend were seen at the Montage Beverly Hills Hotel, perhaps enjoying themselves.
On Tuesday evening, Spears responded to the rampant rumors about her well-being, telling fans over Instagram, “There’s rumors, death threats to my family and my team, and just so many things crazy things being said…. My situation is unique, but I promise I’m doing what’s best at this moment.”
Update: This post has been updated to show that Britney Spears reassured her fans that she’s fine.