Junk Explained: What Is #FreeBritney, And Is Britney Spears Okay?
As a story that's been bubbling since 2008, it's hard to keep up - here's why #FreeBritney is everywhere right now.
— This article was updated on 20 September 2019, with new details in the end section. —
This April, after a notable two-week absence from Instagram, Britney Spears posted to let her fans know “all is well”.
The self-filmed video is a succinct 12 seconds. Under a bathroom’s UV light, a clearly drained Spears promises that she’d be back “very soon”, but that she “needed time to deal” with family stress and anxiety.
It was a way of confirming what had been reported — that Spears had checked herself into a mental health facility earlier in the month, pushed to near-breakdown by her father’s ongoing health issues since last November. Indirectly, the video denied wide-spread rumours that Spears didn’t check into the centre herself. Instead, according to the #FreeBritney fan-movement, she was being held against her will.
Fingers were pointed at her father, Jamie Spears. He has been Spears’ conservator since 2008, legally having final approval over both her finances, and decisions regarding her physical and mental health.
“My situation is unique, but I promise I’m doing what’s best at this moment,” she wrote below the video.
“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.”
Fast forward to mid-May, and Spears filed a request in court for the conservatorship to be lightened. As a story that’s been bubbling since 2008, it’s hard to keep up — here’s what’s going on with Britney Spears, updated 20 September 2019.
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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 ❤️❤️❤️
What’s A Conservatorship, And Why’s Britney In One?
Conservatorships (also known as guardianships) are an extreme legal measure taken when it’s believed a person cannot look after themselves, and must be protected by a third-party to approve their health and financial decisions. It’s normally reserved for the grievously ill, elderly or the mentally disabled. Spears is none of the above.
Spears was first placed in a temporary conservatorship in February 2008, when she was hospitalised following an incident at her home where she was reportedly on a ‘substance’. It followed a tumultuous year, which featured a series of erratic, worrying and well-reported public behaviour, including smashing a paparazzi’s car window and shaving her own head in a LA salon. She also lost custody of her two sons to ex Kevin Federline.
“Her most mundane purchases, from a drink at Starbucks to a song on iTunes, are tracked in court documents as part of the plan to safeguard the great fortune she has earned but does not ultimately control.” – The New York Times
The conservatorship was granted to her father and a lawyer, Andrew M. Wallet (who this March, absolved himself of the role, leaving it solely to Mr. Spears). During proceedings, a lawyer said he had been employed by Spears herself to fight the conservatorship, but was not recognised by the judge due to a court-appointed advocate assessing, after a 15 minute meeting with Spears, that she was incapable of taking her own counsel.
Back in 2016, The New York Times dived deep to explain what the conservatorship looks like, describing a deeply controlled life.
“Her most mundane purchases, from a drink at Starbucks to a song on iTunes, are tracked in court documents as part of the plan to safeguard the great fortune she has earned but does not ultimately control,” they write.
The article, written by Serge F. Kovaleski and Joe Coscarelli, also details that Spears herself was at first against the conservatorship, but chose to support it as it would help prevent losing custody of her children. As they note, Spears has rarely spoken about it in interviews, but in 2008 she equated the conservatorship to being ‘worse than jail’.
“I think it’s too in control,” she said. “If I wasn’t under the restraints I’m under, I’d feel so liberated… There’s no excitement, there’s no passion…. Even when you go to jail, you know there’s the time when you’re going to get out. But in this situation, it’s never-ending.”
By 2009, Spears had released Circus and begun a massive world tour which made US $131.8 million ($191,760,000) — the Australian debut in Perth reportedly saw fans walk-out, disappointed by her low-energy performance.
It’s understood that Jamie Spears makes around US $130,000 ($189,141) a year as the conservator, on top of expenses like rent for an office, as approved by a judge, and a share of gross revenue from merch/performances, such as the 1.5 per cent he got during Spears’ Vegas residency.
While it’s been more than a decade since the conservatorship came into effect, there’s been little effort to remove it, despite Spears’ releasing four albums in that time and maintaining a two-year residency. This is both reason to lighten it, and proof of its success.
“The conservatorship,” wrote Kovaleski and Cascarelli, “has become an accepted fact of life — not a cage but a protective bubble that allows her to worry about her true passions: music and her children.”
Court hearings have been held regularly over the past decade to ensure the conservatorship is still necessary. Spears herself rarely attends these hearings, essentially allowing those involved in the conservatorship to speak to its merits.
“Ultimately,” the NYT wrote in 2016, “some of the people who would help to decide whether to end it are the conservators and doctors who now help oversee it, many of whom receive fees from Ms. Spears’s estate for their work on her behalf”.
What Is #FreeBritney?
The conservatorship has long been controversial for Spears’ fans, with #FreeBritney first appearing online in 2008, before picking up again this April.
Concerned for her well-being, fans have long analysed Spears’ public appearances and body of work for clues. The music video for Femme Fatale’s single ‘I Wanna Go’ is a prime example, where Spears fights off robot paparazzi in her daydream by swinging a mic into their bodies.
When she wakes up, she’s with her bodyguard, who the audience see has a mechanical glint in his eye. For fans, it’s proof that the call is coming from inside the house, an idea that comes up again and again across her music (admittedly, not necessarily a theme that’s exclusive to Britney’s pop music).
Spears’ life and public persona has been carefully controlled since she was a child star on the Mickey Mouse Club.
The reality is, Spears’ life and public persona has been carefully controlled since she was a child star on the Mickey Mouse Club. In 2008, her estranged mother, Lynne, published a ‘tell-all book’ filled with worrying allegations. Most notably, she alleged that Spears had been drinking since she was 13; that her father was incredibly demanding; and that former manager Sam Lufti had drugged Spears to control her, something Lufti denies (Spears, in the past few weeks, has applied for a restraining order against him).
Another oft-cited moment is December 2004, when Spears ‘snuck out’ to a LA radio station to leak ‘Mona Lisa’. The song’s notably darker than most of her music in tone and content, the lyrics suggesting the titular character was a shell of a person, emptied out by fame.
It was supposedly the first taste of Original Doll, an album which never came out — and never existed, according to her labels.
At the beginning of this year, Spears put her upcoming Vegas shows on ‘indefinite hiatus’, citing her father’s health — and then wasn’t seen in public for several months.
In April, TMZ reported she’d checked herself into a mental health facility, seemingly confirmed by Spears’ mom meme post to Instagram that day, which said she was taking some “me time”.
Then the rumours came in. A podcast dedicated to Spears’ delightful Instagram, Britney’s Gram, had an “anonymous source” who said the singer had been held against her will in the mental health facility since January. Without posts to talk about, episodes had begun to speculate where she was, and if she was okay.
The podcast was approached by a listener who claimed to be a paralegal who had worked on Spears’ estate. In an April episode, this source claimed that in January Spears had refused to take new medication, and her father threatened to postpone the residency. When she continued to refuse to comply and was then seen driving in public against her father’s wishes, she was reportedly put in the facility.
“A woman who deserved privacy and our respect had her world invaded on rumours and hysteria.” — i-D
The show’s hosts created the hashtag #FreeBritney, and it soon caught on on stan Twitter and Instagram. Things escalated when Spears’ mother, appeared to ‘like’ a #FreeBritney comment on her Instagram. For fans, this assured them the theory, shaky at best, was 100 percent fact.
As i-D wrote in April, “based on nothing but a rumour and the whispers of an anonymous man left on the voicemail of a podcast run by two comedians, a woman who deserved privacy and our respect had her world invaded on rumours and hysteria.”
Which is true: while Spears’ conservatorship is confusing at best, troubling at worst, these accusations are unsubstantiated. Still, it’s clear something is up, and the hashtag has received report from several notable figures, including Spears collaborators Miley Cyrus, who appeared to shout ‘Free Britney’ at a concert recently, and acclaimed music video director David LaChapelle.
For the people that are still not sure if Miley Cyrus said "Free Britney" rather than "Queen Britney" or "Sing with me" etc here is a clearer video (via katyalxo on Instagram) pic.twitter.com/zG7o8c4Ky6
— 💎 (@heidiscrystals) May 5, 2019
As reported by The Blast, LaChappelle commented on a fan-account with the hashtag, saying he has worked with her repeatedly in her career, and even when she was 17, he could tell “something wasn’t right”.
The hashtag has also been used repeatedly by ex-manager Sam Lutfi, who Lynne Spears accursed of drugging her daughter in her 2008 book.
Spears (via her conservatorship) has filed a restraining order against Lutfi in recent weeks, and in her Instagram post indirectly addressing #FreeBritney, she in the comments writes that Lutfi has been using “fake emails” online to discredit her. Lutfi, via retweets, says he is being made into the bad guy as a diversion.
The situation, to say the least, is incredibly messy.
What’s Happening Right Now?
Britney Spears has spotted repeatedly in public since early May. She also returned to Instagram, where she’s been posting very-Britney workout videos and pictures, including selfies with her boyfriend, fitness model Sam Asghari.
On May 10, Spears appeared in the Stanley Mosk court in LA to ask for the conservatorship to be lightened, in a routine court check which had been moved up from August. Her mother also reportedly filed to be included in the conservatorship hearings, but not become a co-conservator herself.
A lot of sources are claiming to know The Truth About Britney Spears; her father, her mother, her manager, her fans, anonymous sources.
#FreeBritney advocates, who were outside the court with signs, see this as their hard work paying off, telling Spears she’s supported by her true family, the fans. As per TMZ (who report they have court documents), the judge did not grant any of Spears’ requests for particular ‘conditions’/’rules’ of the conservatorship to be lightened, but Spears will undergo a further ‘evaluation’ (assumedly psychological) at a later date. The next hearing was scheduled for September 18.
In May, a series of varying headlines are being thrown around on both tabloids and news outlets regarding Spears. In the week around the May conservatorship meeting, it was reported Spears has “debilitating emotional issues“, that some of her recent posts are footage from 2018, and that manager Larry Rudolf said she’ll likely “never perform again”. In retaliation to the rumours, Jamie Spears sued Anthony Elia, who runs fan blog ‘Absolute Britney’, for spreading false information.
The #FreeBritney movement regained traction in early September, when Spears’ ex Kevin Federline filed a police report against Jamie Spears, alleging he had “violently shook” Spears and Federline’s 13-year-old son, then breaking a door between them. A restraining order was granted between Spears’ two sons and their own grandfather.
Ahead of the next scheduled conservatorship hearing, Jamie Spears requested that Spears’ manager of a year Jodi Montgomery temporarily take over his duties, due to his own health reasons. It was granted.
Outside the September 18 hearing, fans have congregated with #FreeBritney signs, protesting the conservatorship. The LA Times‘ Laura Newberry is live-tweeting the event, after writing a lengthy explainer.
Members of the #FreeBritney contingent are protesting Britney Spears’ conservatorship in downtown L.A. A hearing that could determine the status of the conservatorship is scheduled to begin soon. @latimes pic.twitter.com/z6jC6kg4SX
— Laura Newberry (@LauraMNewberry) September 18, 2019
— Marjorie Hernandez (@MJae13) September 18, 2019
A lot of sources claim to know The Truth About Britney Spears; her father, her mother, her manager, her fans, anonymous sources. As they speak over Britney Spears again and again, we risk approaching the same media frenzy that helped exacerbate her mental breakdown in 2007.
Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.