Princess of Pop
Britney Spears Civil Trial Ends in Win for Singer and Her Family
The dismissal of a civil suit brought by a man claiming he was Britney’s friend and manager is a positive step in the singer’s tumultuous life, writes Maria Elena Fernandez.
Britney Spears has a great new job, is engaged, and is now free of Sam Lutfi.
The civil trial that began Oct. 12 in Los Angeles Superior Court pitting the man who claimed to be her “friend” and “manager” against the pop star and her parents ended Thursday after lawyers representing the Spears family asked the judge to dismiss the case because of insufficient evidence. Judge Suzanne G. Bruguera didn’t explain her ruling but said, “It’s a difficult decision but it needs to be made.”
Lutfi, 38, quickly left the courtroom and declined to comment except to say he will appeal the decision. Defense attorney Leon Gladstone, who represented James Parnell Spears, the singer’s father, said the family was “delighted” and called the ruling “correct.” Her mother, Lynne Spears, left the courthouse before Bruguera issued her ruling to join her daughter on the set of The X Factor. James Parnell Spears declined to speak to the press.
Lutfi had sued Britney, now a judge on The X Factor, for breach of contract, claiming she owed him hundreds of thousands of dollars for months of work he did managing her personal life and career when both were in shambles. During the trial, Lutfi produced no witnesses to support the claim that he performed those roles in the singer’s life, and his only proof of a written contract between them was a blank Artist Management Agreement form he downloaded from the Internet.
Lutfi also went after Spears’s parents in a battery claim against her father, and a libel claim against her mother. During the trial, Lutfi testified that James Parnell Spears “punched me in the solar plexus and threatened to kill me,” during an incident at the singer’s Beverly Hills home in 2008. But Spears testified that he “touched” Lutfi and warned him to leave his daughter alone. Lutfi testified that he was not injured and did not require medical attention, and presented no witnesses who saw the incident.
In a memoir published in 2008, Lynne Spears wrote about the difficult period in the family’s life, including three chapters about the hold she said Lutfi had on her daughter at a time when the singer was going through a divorce, fighting for custody of her two sons, and abusing drugs and alcohol. In Through the Storm: A Real Story of Fame and Family in a Tabloid World, the mother wrote about how Lutfi told her he was grinding pills and putting them in Britney’s food, hoping to induce a coma that would enable doctors to cure her of her addictions. She also wrote that Lutfi told her he would disable Britney Spears’s cars, hide her cell-phone chargers and cut the wires to her landlines to control her. Lutfi denied those actions during the trial, and broke down recalling the death threats he said he received after the book was published, which he said left him feeling “depressed and suicidal.”
But Lynne Spears’s attorney, Steve Rohde, argued that it did not matter if Lutfi actually controlled Britney Spears in those ways; the issue, he said, was whether Lynne Spears believed he was doing so when she wrote it. “There is literally no evidence of her state of mind, her subjective belief that she was publishing something false, or that she published it in reckless disregard of the truth,” Rohde said in court Thursday.
Much of the ground in Britney Spears’s life covered during the trial happened in the public’s view, as the paparazzi and tabloids spent months trailing her every move in 2007 and 2008. But the trial did put the disturbing period of her life into context, and showed how Britney Spears was abusing illegal drugs as well as prescription medication, and just how close she came to losing it all.
Spears, 30, has moved on from that chapter in her life and this season has dramatically boosted interest in Fox’s singing competition, The X Factor, by joining the show as a judge—reportedly earning $15 million a year. With her expressive faces, kind demeanor toward the contestants, and reliability, Spears has proven she has turned a corner. The dismissal of the lawsuit, after three years and a couple of weeks of reliving embarrassing moments in the press, couldn’t come at a better time for the pop star.
In his moving opening statement, Leon Gladstone took jurors back to the Spears family’s beginnings in the small town of Kentwood, La., where Britney Spears’s parents still live. They got married in 1976 and her father worked as a contractor while her mother ran a day-care center and later became a teacher. Britney has two siblings—a brother, Bryan, 35, who is a television producer and 21-year-old sister, Jamie Lynn, an actress and singer.
As a young girl, Britney Spears “was an extremely gifted gymnast,” Gladstone said. But her training required her to be in Texas, away from her family, and she missed them a great deal, he said. She also was a “born entertainer” and “was bitten by the performing bug” at an early age, he said. When she was 8, she moved to New York City with her mother and sister to attend a performing arts school. Three years later, she became a Mouseketeer in the revival of The Mickey Mouse Club. As Gladstone told the stories of the promising young star to the jury, her mother wiped away tears.
By the time Britney Spears was 18, her first album, Baby One More Time, had catapulted her to stardom and she would be soon known as the Princess of Pop. She also dated fellow Mouseketeer Justin Timberlake for three years. They broke up in 2002.
“It was a big relationship and it ended painfully,” Gladstone said. “Her parents noticed a big change. There was a long period of many ups and downs but mostly a downward direction. Up until that time, she had been a ray of light, sweet humble, cooperative, nice, not depressed. But now she was depressed and angry. She was not doing well.”
Gradually, the sadness turned into odd and unpredictable behavior, Gladstone said. When the family returned from a Christmas trip in 2003, Britney Spears went to Las Vegas with her friends and infamously married childhood friend, Jason Alexander. The marriage lasted 55 hours.
“I guess that’s the beginning of what you might characterize as behavior that became increasingly bizarre,” Gladstone said. “Britney was withdrawing from her parents. She used to speak to Lynne multiple times a day and now she wasn’t calling. And they began to realize that maybe she was having substance abuse problems. She, in fact, was developing problems with drugs and alcohol. She was partying, becoming less reliable, and Larry Rudolph (her manager and friend) said she was behaving erratically and was worried.”
In early 2004, Britney Spears’s father rented a house in Huntington Beach so he could live with Britney and “make sure she is on the straight and narrow,” Gladstone said. During that time, she improved and trained for her world tour, he said. After completing the U.S. leg of the tour, she returned to Los Angeles and her father went to Louisiana for a hiatus before the European tour.
During that two-week break, Britney Spears met and “quickly” fell in love with Kevin Federline, Gladstone said. Although she didn’t want to go to Europe anymore, she agreed to go but returned early in June 2004 because she injured her knee, he said. A few months later, Britney and Federline surprised everyone when they got married during a family party.
“Although it seems like an impulsive move, it’s a period of relative peace,” Gladstone said. “She is living as a housewife and he’s starting his recording career.”
The couple had two sons in quick succession: Preston was born in September 2005; Jayden in September 2006. That November, Spears filed for divorce in New York City, and Federline filed in Los Angeles.
“There is press about negligent parenting, stories about drug and alcohol abuse and her parents are again afraid that she’s spiraling downhill,” Gladstone said. “This is the beginning of the worst period of her life.”
In 2007, Spears was in the headlines almost daily. Rudolph, her longtime manager, was very worried and he’d frequently call her parents warning them that the press reports were scaring him, Gladstone said.
“Britney was erratic, self-destructive; drugs and alcohol were involved,” Gladstone said. “She’s appearing in clubs with no underwear, he’s not sure what’s going on with the kids.”
That February, Spears shaved her head in full view of the paparazzi, prompting her father, who was working as a cook in Las Vegas, to fly to Los Angeles. “This is crazy behavior and Jamie [Spears] doesn’t view it as a fashion statement,” Gladstone said. “It’s pretty clear she’s in serious trouble and her kids are as well. Jamie starts planning an intervention.”
Although Britney resisted, her father persuaded her to go to rehab in Antigua, and she flew there and back without setting foot in the facility, Gladstone said.
“Jamie meets with Federline and tells him, ‘You gotta sue for custody of these kids. You have to think about taking them away from Britney,’” Gladstone said. “Jamie is sick about this. It’s the last thing he wanted to have happen. He tells Britney she will lose her kids if she doesn’t go to rehab. She agrees to go to Promises [rehab center]. She leaves in one day.”
Heeding James Spears’s advice, Kevin Federline took action to get custody of his sons. Britney Spears’s reaction was seen all over the world, as she attacked a paparazzo’s car outside Federline’s home with an umbrella in February 2007.
“Ladies and gentlemen, that’s Britney Spears in that photo. That is one of the biggest pop stars in the world,” Gladstone somberly noted when he showed the jury a photograph of a bald Princess of Pop in shorts striking the car.
“Jamie thinks this is rock bottom,” Gladstone added. “But it gets so much worse. She goes back to Promises for 30 days. She is released but she’s not speaking to her parents. She’s furious. She blames Jamie for taking her kids away. She’s in denial. To Jamie, it’s a life and death battle in a very real way. And Britney is at her most vulnerable.”
And then Britney Spears met Lutfi. According to Lutfi’s testimony, she approached him at a nightclub and asked for his baseball cap. He refused, but they chatted, exchanged phone numbers, and she immediately started calling and texting him, he testified. Their relationship was never romantic, he testified.
“By June 2007, Mr. Lutfi is firmly entrenched in the life of Britney Spears,” Gladstone said. She had fired her entire team—her manager, publicist and entertainment lawyers.
“At the worst period in her life, along came this perfect stranger, Sam Lutfi,” Rohde said in his opening remarks. “Lutfi infiltrated the entire life and career of Britney Spears. He eventually physically moved into her house, lived free room and board and began to control access to Britney Spears, her meetings, comings and goings, her health care and her medications.”
That September, Lutfi called James Parnell Spears pretending to be a government agent and told him he was going to bring drug-sniffing dogs to his daughter’s house, Gladstone said.
“He calls back and says there were no drugs and later admits it’s him,” Gladstone said. “Jamie tells him, ‘We don’t want this kind of help. Please leave our family alone.’ At this point, Britney and Kevin are in a bitter fight, she has limited visitation and news is coming out about Mr. Lutfi that Jamie is reading and it’s scary.”
Press reports about Lutfi listed two restraining orders obtained against him by a former neighbor in 2004 and a former friend in 2006 for threatening and harassing the friend, according to court documents.
“Meanwhile, Britney is going from bad to worse. Jamie is seeing clips of her going out with the paparazzi at 2 or 3 in the morning … but things get so much worse,” Gladstone said.
On Oct. 1, 2007, Britney lost all visitation rights to her sons. She also was court-ordered to be randomly drug tested twice a week.
“He hovered over my daughter and in every aspect of her life, he tried to insert himself,” Lynne Spears testified about Lutfi. “He [wanted to] take over her life. Live her life.”
The crisis “becomes acute,” according to Gladstone, on Jan. 3, 2008, when, after taking nearly 30 pills over a 36-hour period, Britney locked herself in the bathroom with one of her sons and refused to come out. The police were called and the pop star was involuntarily hospitalized in a psychiatric ward.
“Britney is out of her mind; she is strapped to a gurney,” Gladstone said. “She’s belligerent, completely and totally unhinged. Jamie stays in the hospital with her for three days. She doesn’t sleep a wink. He is scared to death and he is thinking to himself, ‘My daughter has lost everything and here she is in the psych ward out of her head.’ She is sent home but she is not better. He was living in constant fear that he was going to look at the TV one day and see Britney dead.”
Britney’s parents were already exploring protecting her with a conservatorship when James Parnell Spears received 15 calls on the night of Jan. 28, 2008 from different people warning him that Britney Spears and Lutfi had gotten into a fight outside her home in front of the paparazzi, Gladstone said. James Parnell Spears drove to the residence and followed his wife, who was in another car, through the guard gate.
“He enters the kitchen and who is there? Mr. Lutfi,” Gladstone said. “His daughter is gone, Lutfi is in his daughter’s house and Jamie approaches him and says, in full control of himself, ‘Leave my daughter alone and get out of our lives!’ and he touched him one time. At that moment, as fas as Jamie Spears is concerned, he’s in the business of life and death. Jamie now knows conservatorship is the only way to get her help.”
Three days later, Britney Spears was again hospitalized involuntarily.
“Lynne calls Jamie in hysterics and he goes to the hospital thinking, ‘Is this the day my daughter dies?’” Gladstone said.
On Feb. 1, 2008, a Los Angeles probate judge granted the conservatorship and issued a restraining order against Lutfi. Later that year, Lutfi signed an agreement that he would stay away from Britney Spears. He filed his lawsuit in 2009.
Britney, who is engaged to her former agent Jason Trawick, who is now a co-conservator with her father, has not had any relapses since her father took control of her career and personal life.