Toxic

10.30.12

Was ‘Manager’ Sam Lutfi Britney Spears’s Savior, or Her Svengali?

Spears’s all-too-public breakdown is once again in the spotlight, as the man who claims to have been her manager at her nadir battles the pop star and her parents in court. Maria Elena Fernandez reports.

He was the mystery man in the baseball cap, the guy who accompanied Britney Spears everywhere she went, from Hollywood nightclubs to Starbucks to drugstores in the middle of the night. He called himself her “friend” and “manager,” and at one point, a tabloid even declared he had eloped with the troubled pop star.

That was five years ago, when Spears was self-destructing in front of the world. As the tabloids and paparazzi chronicled the spectacular flameout of Spears’s personal life and career, the man by her side became more and more famous.  But then the bubble burst for Sam Lutfi. News reports trickled out of restraining orders against Lutfi, revealing allegedly violent tendencies, financial problems, and his dubious track record in the entertainment industry. Spears’s parents said they were worried about Lutfi’s hold on their daughter, and took actions to protect her through a conservatorship and a restraining order on Feb. 1, 2008. Later that year, Lynne Spears published a memoir, Through the Storm: A Real Story of Fame and Family in a Tabloid World, that included three chapters about Lutfi, in which she called him a “predator” and accused him of drugging her daughter and controlling every aspect of her life.

Lutfi responded by filing a lawsuit in 2009 against Britney Spears and her parents, and the trial is now unfolding in Los Angeles Superior Court. Lutfi, who claims he worked as the pop star’s manager for a few months, has sued her for breach of contract. He has also filed a battery claim against her father, stemming from an incident at Britney Spears’s house in which Lutfi says Jamie Parnell Spears punched him in the solar plexus. Lutfi is also suing Lynne Spears for libel, and broke down last week as he testified that he suffered “suicidal” feelings after receiving death threats when her book was published.

But who is Sam Lutfi? Was he, as he maintains, a concerned friend and manager who urged the Grammy winner to get off drugs and reconcile with her family? Or is he, as Spears’s parents assert, an opportunistic Svengali figure who controlled a vulnerable young woman’s life? It will be the jury’s job to decide if Lutfi is a “scapegoat” or a “puppet master,” as each party has claimed. That decision is at least a week away.

Lutfi spent four days on the witness stand last week filling in some of the blanks in the public record about his life. The 38-year-old was born Osama Lutfi in Panorama City, Calif., in the San Fernando Valley, and grew up in nearby Woodland Hills. Nicknamed “Sam” as a young boy, he graduated from El Camino High School and attended Pierce community college in the Valley. Lutfi also majored in psychobiology at the University of Southern California, but dropped out in 1998 because, he said, he suffers from dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder.

Over the years, Lutfi worked as a consultant for his mother’s chain of gasoline stations but didn’t receive a salary, he testified. Instead, his mother paid for his health insurance and other expenses. But his dream was always to work in the entertainment industry, though he did not study or train in any aspect of show business. Even so, Lutfi testified, he managed to work on a dozen productions as a producer or associate producer—mostly music videos, but also a film produced by Ben Affleck. Lutfi testified that he managed one artist before Britney Spears and is now is the co-manager of Hole, Courtney Love’s band.

“I’m a native Angeleno,” Lutfi said in an April 2011 videotaped deposition shown in part to the jury. “Film is kind of in your blood if you have a liking for it. I read the trades for well over 15 years. I keep up to date with things going on in the industry … It’s just something you learn via osmosis just being raised in L.A.” Under cross-examination, Lutfi admitted that he hasn’t earned $10,000 for all of his entertainment jobs. “Sometimes I got stiffed,” he said.

Lutfi claims he entered into a verbal management contract with Britney Spears in June 2007, but was never paid for his work and is entitled to 15 percent of her income from that time period.

‘I told her it was very difficult to kick a drug habit, but I explained she could do it and she needed to do it because she was the mother of two young sons,’ Lutfi testified.

He also testified that in October 2007, he reminded Spears that he didn’t have a written contract, and they agreed to a four-year deal, which either party could terminate in 90 days. But they didn’t sign a contract then, either. In fact, during the trial, Lutfi has only produced a completely blank Artist Management Agreement form he downloaded from the Internet. He also testified that he never told anyone about the agreement with Spears, and he never requested payment in writing.

Lutfi’s lawsuit states that in his role as Spears’s manager, he helped her select songs and artwork for her album Blackout, and also helped her produce a music video. Instead of going on a promotional tour for the album, Lutfi said he and Spears traveled to Las Vegas to explore securing residency at a major hotel, so that she could settle down with her sons while performing nightly. But during cross-examination, Lutfi admitted he simply called Spears’s label so that she could inform executives of her song selections, and he opened a package of artist renderings for her to consider for the album cover. Lutfi also admitted that during their trip to Las Vegas in December 2007, they didn’t meet with any hotel executives.

At the time Lutfi says he worked for Spears, the singer had fired her entire team—her longtime manager Larry Rudolph, her publicist, and her entertainment lawyers—and was leaning on someone who had worked with her since she was 16, Barry Weiss. Weiss, the former chairman and chief executive at RCA and Jive Records, where Spears has had her recording contract since 1997, testified as a defense witness and said the artist never told him Lutfi was her new manager.

“During that period, I was probably one of the only people she was dealing with in the outside world,” said Weiss, who is now at Universal Music Group. “She was seemingly estranged from her family, and I was a lifeline to her. She was constantly texting me and calling me on the cell phone.”

The only person in the singer’s life that Weiss also spoke to on a regular basis was her cousin, Alli Sims, who was working as a personal assistant, Weiss said. He spoke to Lutfi a handful of times during the production of a music video for the Blackout album because “Britney was pretty erratic at the time and we were trying to get it all knocked out in one night,” he said.

“Sam Lutfi mentioned to people on our staff that he had background in music videos,” Weiss added. “I never heard of this guy before. He was a gofer. He was on the set of the video running errands—someone who has a menial task like a personal assistant … This was a very difficult, challenging period in [Britney’s] life, and the way it felt to me, from my vantage point, was that it was me, Britney, and Alli. There was no family involved, no proper management, no other representatives.”

Whatever Lutfi’s role, one thing is certain. In the second half of 2007, as Britney Spears and Kevin Federline were in the throes of a messy divorce and child-custody battle, Lutfi was always around. Their platonic friendship developed quickly after they met in a nightclub sometime in late spring or early summer of 2007, according to Lutfi. She asked him for his baseball cap, he turned her down, and she was charmed because “she doesn’t get ‘no’ often, so it was somewhat refreshing to hear ‘no,’” he testified. They exchanged personal information, and she immediately began texting and calling him at all hours, he said.

By the time Lutfi came on the scene, she had already shaved her head, been photographed repeatedly without underwear while out on the town, and had spent a month in rehab at Promises, according to her father’s lawyer, Leon Gladstone, in his opening statements. She was popping amphetamines and “speed and almost everything that went related to that,” said Lutfi’s lawyer, Joseph Schleimer, in his opening remarks.

Lutfi hadn’t led a trouble-free life either. In 2004, neighbor Mark Douglas Snoland obtained a three-year restraining order after Lutfi threatened to “beat his ass,” called him homophobic slurs, and said “Your mom is an old hag,” according to the order. Two years later, former roommate and friend Danny Haines also obtained a restraining order against Lutfi after they had a falling out and Lutfi emailed naked photographs of Haines to his friends, family, and employer.  According to documents Gladstone read in court, Lutfi left Haines threatening messages, including one that said “Hope you end up behind bars or six feet under soon.”

“Did [Lutfi] show up unwittingly or intentionally?” in Spears’s life, Gladstone said in his opening statement. “Jamie didn’t know. What he found out was that he has a history of showing up at such times in the lives of celebrities and ordinary people. And that he brings with him chaos for the entire family.” (In 2010, another family obtained a restraining order against Lutfi, after he allegedly cyber-stalked them and threatened them.)

In 2007, Lutfi seemingly stopped everything else in his life to pursue his friendship with Spears. Soon after they became close, he testified, she confided in him that she had checked herself into Promises earlier that year “and she wanted to get clean but she was struggling with it.”

“I told her it was very difficult to kick a drug habit, but I explained she could do it and she needed to do it because she was the mother of two young sons,” Lutfi testified.

That June, Lutfi said, Spears told him she wanted him to be her manager, and he agreed upon three conditions: that she stop using drugs, that she allow him to hire a “varsity team” of representatives who would “make up for my lack of experience,” and that she let him bring a team of drug-sniffing dogs to her house to inspect it.

“We shook hands on it,” Lutfi testified. The dogs found drug residue in the carpets and a “baggie of white powder” that Lutfi’s lawyer claimed was crystal meth (the defense has not challenged the allegation about the powdery substance).

Because Spears was being hounded by paparazzi wherever she went, even when she was driving with her children, Lutfi said he tried to minimize the danger by notifying the photographers of the star’s whereabouts so they would meet at designated locations instead of follow her. He also invited some of them over to Spears’s house so they could get to know her as a human being, he said.

Although Lutfi said he set up meetings with a powerhouse talent agent and entertainment lawyer, Spears did not sign with them. She also did not earn money from deals or appearances while Lutfi was her manager, he testified.

Even though Lutfi claims he was her manager at the time, in August 2007 Spears performed at the MTV Video Music Awards under the advice of a new manager from the Firm. The results were disastrous. She was panned for her lackluster performance and post-pregnancy weight gain, which sent her into another downward spiral, Lutfi testified.

That September, Lutfi testified, he left Spears’s house and lost all touch with her “because she had relapsed and was using drugs again.” On Oct. 1, 2007, after she lost custody of her sons, Spears spent the night in her parked car at a shopping center near her home and called Lutfi to ask him to come back, he testified. This time, he moved into her house, where he lived rent-free but paid for other expenses for which he was never reimbursed, he testified.

In mid-December 2007, Lutfi testified, he left Spears’s house again because his mother was diagnosed with cancer. On Jan. 3, 2008, Lutfi testified, he was summoned to the house by one of Spears’s child-custody attorneys and the woman monitoring her visits with her children, because the singer had locked herself in the bathroom with one of her sons and had taken almost 30 pills in a 36-hour period. The police were called, attorney Gladstone said in his opening argument, and Spears was strapped to a gurney and taken to the hospital on an involuntary psychiatric hold.

It all came to a head at the end of that month, when Spears and Lutfi got into an argument outside the gate to her Beverly Hills home, and she jumped out of the car with her dog in front of the paparazzi. The incident pushed Spears’s parents to show up at her house and led her father to “punch” Lutfi, according to his testimony. Jamie Parnell Spears has not yet testified in the trial, but in his opening argument, Gladstone said his client touched Lutfi and asked him to leave his daughter alone.

Two days later, Spears was hospitalized again and her parents petitioned a judge for a conservatorship over their daughter and a restraining order against Lutfi. In her declaration for that proceeding, Lynne Spears stated: “Sam told Jackie [her friend] and me that he grinds up Britney’s pills, which were on the counter and included Risperdal and Seroquel [the drugs are commonly used to treat schizophrenia]. He told us that he puts them in her food and that was the reason she had been quiet for the last three days. He told us that the doctor who is treating her now is trying to get her into a sleep-induced coma so that they could then give her drugs to heal her brain.”

The judge granted both the conservatorship and the restraining order. Later that year, Lutfi agreed in writing to never contact Britney Spears again. But his emotional attachment to the singer has been evident during the trial. When Lynne Spears testified that Lutfi did, in fact, help her to reconcile with her daughter, Lutfi wept and his face turned red.

“Sometimes he spent 24 hours a day trying to keep Britney Spears from abusing drugs. At the end, he just lost control,” said Schleimer, Lutfi’s attorney, during his opening remarks.

Lynne Spears painted a different picture for the jury. Lutfi wanted to “take over her life. Live her life,” Lynne Spears testified.

The only person who can clear it all up is Britney Spears herself. But it’s not likely the jury will hear from the 30-year-old X Factor judge, who has had no relapses since her father became her conservator. The probate judge overseeing the conservatorship has ruled that she should not testify, and it’s unlikely that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Suzanne Bruguera will grant Lutfi’s request to require her to appear.