Recently, a familiar refrain has reverberated online — a call to #FreeBritney Spears, from … what, exactly? Is Britney Spears not currently free?
According to some fans, no; not while she remains under the legal conservatorship that, this faction believes, has effectively held her hostage for over a decade.
Since 2008, Spears — now 38 years old — has been under her father’s guardianship, a decision attributed to her alleged “breakdown” over the previous year. For about as long as the arrangement has been in place, certain of her supporters have sought to extract her from it. The hashtag itself isn’t new, but some believe that Spears has recently been sending coded messages via social media, pleading with her followers to help her escape. Now, these fans are petitioning the White House for an end to the conservatorship.
Wait, what is a conservatorship?
When a person is deemed unable to make their own decisions, typically because of mental incapacity, a court may grant that authority to a conservator. Basically, this person functions as a guardian, assuming control over the person’s finances, or health matters, or — as in Spears’s case — full legal responsibility for the adult’s life. As such, Spears’s father, Jamie, and an attorney, Andrew Wallet, have controlled her approximately $60 million fortune. Jamie reportedly negotiates Britney’s business deals, too. Her court-appointed attorney, Stanton Stein, has insisted that Spears is “always involved in every career and business decision, period,” but some fans don’t buy it. Jamie Spears, who last year admitted that his relationship with Britney has “always been strained,” had the power to control the visitors his daughter receives. So right now, the #FreeBritney movement’s goal is to get the conservatorship lifted, or at least put her in a position to hire her own lawyer. Her next hearing will take place on July 22, with the temporary orders placed on the arrangement extended through August 22.
Why does Britney Spears have a conservator?
In 2007, Spears finalized her divorce from Kevin Federline, who applied for and won custody of their two children. Federline claimed that Spears had been behaving erratically — shaving her head; smashing the window of a paparazzo’s car; a series of emotional, and highly publicized, incidents apparently triggered by intense, relentless media scrutiny — and abusing substances. In January 2008, Spears was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital for a second time. Her father and Wallet were granted a temporary conservatorship in February of that year, which eventually became permanent. Jamie stepped down from the role in 2019, for “personal health reasons,” and it passed to her care manager, Jodi Montgomery.
Do we know how she feels about the arrangement?
Only Britney Spears truly knows how Britney Spears is feeling, but recently, she has been insistent that she’s totally fine. In 2008, however, a recording captured by Rolling Stone had Spears in the background, saying: “I basically just want my life back … I want to be able to drive my car. I want to be able to live in my house by myself. I want to be able to say who’s going to be my security guard.” And in 2009, she reportedly hitched a ride to an attorney’s office with a paparazzo, with the intention of fighting the conservatorship.
But in recent years, Spears’s career has undergone something of a transformation, thanks in part to a highly successful Las Vegas residency. In 2016, the New York Times reported that her conservatorship had grown into something more akin to a “protective bubble” than a “cage.” The arrangement has become an “accepted fact of life,” people close to the pop star said, that allowed her to focus on her music and her family. And a three-month investigation by the Los Angeles Times in 2019, which admittedly did not include comment from her “inner circle,” found “no independent evidence that Spears was being harmed.” In an Instagram post from April of that year, Spears asked her concerned fans to stand down: “You may not know this about me,” she wrote, “but I am strong, and stand up for what I want!”
But since 2008, she has recorded and released new music — multiple studio albums and, most recently, the single Mood Ring — undertaken a massive world tour, and taken on hosting gigs. As Nylon notes, this all points to a functioning, working entertainer who is doing just fine. And yet Spears has remained beholden to other adults, allegedly even when she wants to do something as simple as leave her house.
So what is the #FreeBritney movement all about?
More or less as soon as the conservatorship fell into place, Spears’s fans began rallying to reverse it. Over a decade later, that movement (yes, it’s a movement; its members show up at court hearings in person, bearing signs, and they do some organizing) is going strong, having regained momentum in 2019.
Early that year, as Vulture has reported, Spears canceled her “Britney: Domination” Las Vegas residency, explaining that her father’s recent hospitalization for a ruptured colon, which Spears said almost killed him, meant she needed to be with her family. This announcement appeared on her typically active Instagram account, which subsequently went dark. Then, Wallet requested to have his conservatorship revoked, warning of potential harm to Spears if his name remained on the arrangement. And! In April, Spears returned to Instagram, shared a post about self-care and taking “a little ‘me time.’” Later that day, fans learned that she had been in a mental health facility for a week, having (allegedly) checked herself in for “emotional distress” in the wake of her father’s health problems.
Shortly thereafter, an anonymous paralegal who claimed to have worked on the Spears conservatorship leaked a different story to the podcast Britney’s Gram. What actually happened, this person said, was that Jamie Spears pulled Britney from residency rehearsal when she stopped taking her medication, placing her in the mental health facility months earlier than reports suggested. Britney subsequently hopped back on Instagram to tell fans “all is well,” but to the subset who don’t believe she is allowed to make her own content or post freely, those assurances were not uniformly convincing.
And why is #FreeBritney trending again now?
Throughout quarantine, fans believe, Spears has been sending coded messages through social media. The singer has been active (as ever) over the past few months, posting dance routines and workout videos (recall: the one where she burned down her gym) and inspirational quotes and, the #FreeBritney contingent claims, calls for help. As NME reports, Spears has appeared to respond to fans’ prompts on a few occasions. For example, when she posted the below video of herself … mostly just walking back and forth in a yellow top, shortly after a fan told her to “wear a yellow shirt in your next video if you need help.”
Similarly, someone also left a comment on one of her Instagrams telling her to “post doves if she was in trouble,” and then she posted this. Of course, Spears’s posts generate thousands of comments, and who knows how many (if any) she actually looks at.
And then, her former photographer leaked a letter he says Spears wrote to him in 2009 contending she was “lied to and set up” by her dad.
What does her dad have to say about all this?
Seemingly not very much, at least until recently. On August 1, however, Page Six published “exclusive” comments from Jamie Spears, in which he classified the #FreeBritney movement as a group of “conspiracy theorists” and denied allegations that the conservatorship is simply a guise for him to steal from his daughter.
“All these conspiracy theorists don’t know anything. The world don’t have a clue,” he told the outlet. “It’s up to the court of California to decide what’s best for my daughter. It’s no one else’s business.”
Adding that he must meticulously document every expenditure Britney’s estate makes, Jamie argued that it would be basically impossible for him to funnel any extra money into his own pockets. He also said that the family and Britney’s team have been “stalked and targeted with death threats” as outrage over the arrangement has spread.
“It’s horrible. We don’t want those kinds of fans,” Jamie said. “I love my daughter. I love all my kids. But this is our business. It’s private.”
Have her other family members commented on the situation at all?
As a matter of fact, they have: In late July, with media attention on #FreeBritney escalating, Spears’s siblings both shared their opinions on the conservatorship.
First up: Jamie Lynn Spears, Britney’s little sister, who aired her thoughts in a roundabout way. Basically, they boil down to a polite request for everybody to butt out.
“If you deal with mental illness or care for someone dealing with mental illness,” Jamie Lynn wrote on July 22, in a since-deleted Instagram post, “then you know how important it is to respect the situation with privacy for the person.” She also shared a tweet from Halsey addressing recent public response to Kanye West’s bipolar disorder. “Personal opinions about someone aside, a manic episode isn’t a joke,” the tweet read. “It you can’t offer understanding or sympathy, offer your silence.” One commenter asked, “How about your sisters OBVIOUS mental illness? Why don’t you speak on that?” To which Jamie Lynn replied: “you have no right to assume anything about my sister, and I have NO right to speak about HER health and personal matters. She is a strong, badass, unstoppable woman, and that’s the only thing that is OBVIOUS.”
Britney’s brother, Bryan, was more direct. In an interview with the As Not Seen on TV podcast that aired the next day, Bryan said Britney has “always wanted to get out of” the conservatorship, because “having someone constantly tell you to do something has got to be frustrating.” But ultimately, he said, it has been “a great thing for our family.” Bryan, it bears noting, used to manage the “family business,” as he put it in the interview, referring to financial aspects of his sisters’ careers.
“We kind of came together and not everybody agreed with it either; everyone had their own opinion like, maybe we should do it this way or that way,” he added. “But at the end I think we made the right choice. … Obviously there was a need for it in the beginning that, I assume everyone knows the issues that were going on.”
Bryan also noted that his family was “hoping for the best” when the conservatorship comes up for review, but seemed to suggest that having to deal with “everyday tasks,” like making restaurant reservations, might prove overwhelming for his sister. “She’s been surrounded by a team of people since she was 15,” he said, “so at what level does everyone just walk away or get reduced?”
Some of Britney’s fans were less than impressed.
Why was “End the Conservatorship” trending?
Meanwhile, Lynne Spears — Britney’s mother, who has liked social-media posts tagged #FreeBritney — has filed a formal request for more involvement in her daughter’s financial decisions. The temporary orders placed on the conservatorship following Jamie’s resignation run through August 22, after the coronavirus pandemic pushed the singer’s court dates from spring to summer. Spears had another hearing on Wednesday, July 22, ahead of which “End the Conservatorship” was trending on Twitter. Fans who believe Spears is being held against her will planned a protest outside L.A.’s Stanley Mosk Courthouse. At the very least, they want Spears to be able to appoint her own attorney, with an eye toward releasing her from other adults’ custody.
According to the Blast, Spears was scheduled to attend the hearing via video conference on Wednesday, but didn’t show up. Her absence was attributed to technical difficulties, an alibi some of her supporters didn’t buy. TMZ reports that the judge rescheduled the hearing after a large group of people without any involvement in the case hopped on the Zoom and refused to leave. The Blast lists her new court date as August 19.
Anyway, it looks like Britney may be trolling us now…
On the evening of July 23, Spears posted a video to Instagram in which she seemed poised to maybe, finally address #FreeBritney…but instead just rattled off a bunch of trivia. “A lot of you have been asking me more questions in the comments,” she said, “so I’m here to answer all of your questions.”
From this video, we learned that Spears’s favorite Disney movie is Frozen; her favorite “movie-movie” is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; she goes to bed between 11:30 and midnight; her favorite flower is a rose; she was “probably” 17 when she got her first car; and she has gotten one (1) speeding ticket, ever. We do not learn how she feels about her conservatorship, a thing she conspicuously fails to mention despite fans’ focus on it. Is she trolling us? Hard maybe, but again, only Britney knows for sure.
This article has been updated.