Does Britney Spears Need to Be Freed from Her Conservatorship?
A big status hearing regarding Britney Spears’ conservatorship case takes place Wednesday. And experts (and fans) remain divided on the issue of the pop star’s conservatorship.
“I just heard the latest episode,” a man told podcasters Tess Barker and Barbara (“Babs”) Gray on their shared voicemail line last April. “You guys are onto something.”
Barker and Gray’s comedy podcast, Britney’s Gram, had landed them at the center of one of pop culture’s most fascinating and fraught topics: the ongoing battle around Britney Spears’ conservatorship, which has inspired increasingly passionate discussion as the years pass and concern for the pop singer grows.
Barker and Gray had been vocally curious about Spears’ whereabouts and well-being for quite some time when the voicemail came.
In the fall of 2018, Spears had shown up late to announce her Las Vegas “Domination” residency—and walked off the stage without saying a word to anyone. Soon after, Andrew Wallet, her estate attorney and one of her co-conservators alongside her father Jamie Spears, successfully petitioned for a raise. In January of 2019, Spears abruptly postponed the residency. Soon after, Spears’ Instagram feed—usually rife with selfies and memes—went dark for weeks.
Then in March, just four months after securing a raise, Wallet resigned. “That was when it became undeniably obvious to us that something serious had transpired,” Barker wrote in an email interview with The Daily Beast.
Weeks later, Barker and Gray got a call from their tipster—and covered it in an “emergency” episode.
The man said he had worked as a paralegal for the attorney who worked on the conservatorship; Spears’ case, he said, is “disturbing to say the least.”
Gray and Barker, the latter of whom is also a journalist, confirmed the source’s employment but kept him anonymous. He claimed Spears had been forcibly hospitalized after refusing to take her medication as directed—and that her father had pulled his support for her Las Vegas residency over it, effectively canceling it.
“From what I understand this was not a decision she made at all,” the source told Barker and Gray, adding that he believed Wallet had resigned to avoid connection with Spears’ hospitalization.
Britney Spears’ conservatorship case is obviously different from most. Often, people in conservatorships lack the plentiful resources Spears can access. (It’s also not common for younger conservatees to have such wealth.) Still, as the #FreeBritney movement has grown, it’s brought the broader issues endemic to these arrangements into the public eye—questions of civil rights, best practices in psychiatric care, and how our culture can foster healthier discussions about mental health.
“It’s an interesting lens and jumping-off point for thinking to talk about how we assess value in society, and capacity and who gets to make decisions,” Zoe Brennan-Krohn, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Disability Rights Project, said of Spears’ case during a recent phone interview with The Daily Beast. “Conservatorships are much easier to get into than they are to get out of.”
In 2007 tabloids obsessed over Britney Spears’ erratic behavior. The singer had been photographed driving with her infant son on her lap, and photographs of her shaved her head were inescapable as she checked in and out of rehabilitation facilities.
The next year Spears’ father, Jamie, was named her “temporary conservator” alongside her estate attorney Andrew Wallet.
By law, conservatorships are meant to be a last resort. But too often, Brennan-Krohn said, courts ignore their obligation to explore what other options could be feasible, and which of those have been tested already.
To place someone in a conservatorship, the court must determine that the person is unable to provide food, clothing or shelter for themselves. “It’s a very high standard,” Brennan-Krohn said. “It’s not just, ‘Is the person exercising mature judgment in the same way that I would exercise mature judgment?’”
#FreeBritney supporters believe the singer’s ongoing performances, TV stints, and social media appearances demonstrate that Spears does not need a conservatorship.
Spears herself seemed opposed to her conservatorship from the start. In the 2008 MTV documentary Britney: For the Record, she chillingly compared the arrangement to prison.
“I have really good days, and then I have bad days,” Spears said in the doc. “Even when you go to jail, y’know, there’s the time when you’re gonna get out. But in this situation, it’s never-ending. It’s just like Groundhog Day.”
“It seems incongruous that someone who appears to be able to fill stadiums in Las Vegas, seems lucid, seems able to live her life would be determined to be someone who can’t provide her own food, clothing, and shelter,” Brennan-Krohn said, “and therefore has this incredibly restrictive conservatorship put on her.”
As one might guess, both Barker and Gray are huge Britney fans. The two had already long co-hosted the comedy pod Lady to Lady, alongside Brandie Posey, when they first hatched Britney’s Gram in 2017.
“Babs and I were always messaging about Britney’s Instagram, which had this kind of uncanny je ne sais quoi to it,” Barker wrote. The two were at brunch together in 2017 when Spears first unleashed her unforgettable “Painting on the Veranda” post. Then and there, they decided to commit to a cheeky side podcast dissecting Spears’ IG feed.
“We never could have imagined what the show would ultimately transform into,” Barker told The Daily Beast.
Although both Barker and Gray had been curious about Spears’ conservatorship before, it was a 2016 New York Times article that Gray said made them more consciously aware of the issue.
Among other sources, the Times spoke with Adam Streisand—an attorney Spears had consulted in 2008 about potentially opposing the conservatorship. Streisand told the Times that Spears was uncomfortable with the idea of her father controlling her finances.
Although Streisand insists Spears wanted to oppose her conservatorship from the beginning, he noted that “she was also extremely worried about her kids and seemed to understand that the best thing to do to see her kids was to accept it.”
Much of the public scrutiny directed toward Spears’ conservatorship has focused on her father. As conservator, Jamie Spears received $128,000 from the singer’s estate last year and has control over his daughter’s personal and financial affairs.
Spears’ mother Lynne Spears’ 2008 memoir, Through the Storm, painted Jamie Spears as an alcoholic who dragged his family into dysfunction—an image that has also not helped his credibility with his daughter’s fans. Lynne Spears also recently filed to be included in decisions about her daughter’s financial affairs.
Earlier this month, Jamie Spears spoke out against the #FreeBritney movement: “All these conspiracy theorists don’t know anything,” he said. “The world don’t have a clue. It’s up to the court of California to decide what’s best for my daughter. It’s no one else’s business.”
“People are being stalked and targeted with death threats,” he said. “It’s horrible. We don’t want those kinds of fans... I love my daughter. I love all my kids. But this is our business. It’s private.”
When The Daily Beast asked Jamie Lynn Spears for her thoughts about #FreeBritney and her sister’s conservatorship during an interview in May, she replied, “You know, honestly, I’m just her sister and I’m not involved in any part of that. I’m just here to love and support my sister and you know, hopefully everyone can just do the same thing because she is a badass woman and she will continue to be. And that’s why we love her.”
Spears’ older brother Bryan, 43, broke his silence regarding the guardianship last month, when he said Spears has “always wanted to get out” of the arrangement.
“It’s very frustrating to have,” Spears’ brother said of her conservatorship. “Whether someone’s coming in peace to help or coming in with an attitude, having someone constantly tell you to do something has got to be frustrating.” That said, he added the conservatorship has “been a great thing for our family, to this point, and [we] keep hoping for the best.”
The inescapable frustration that emerges from having someone else in charge of all of one’s decisions is one of the greatest risks of even the most well-intentioned conservatorship, Brennan-Krohn said.
“There’s an inherent harm in stripping someone of their civil rights and liberties, and there is a signaling harm in telling a person, ‘You are not smart enough, trustworthy enough, healthy enough, well enough, to direct your own life,’” she said. “It really puts decision-making into this sort of binary of, you either can or can’t make decisions. And it’s not how humans are… People get better at making decisions by making decisions.”
But some attorneys, like L.A.-based Troy Martin, argue that Spears’ case is a “success story.”
As Martin told USA Today last year, “Everybody looks at conservatorship as a terrible thing foisted on her... Britney was in a downward spiral, there were 5150s (involuntary temporary psychiatric holds) filed on her as a possible danger to herself or others. Her life was a wreck... By all appearances, things are a heck of lot better now than they were in 2008.”
Speaking with the Washington Post last year, Spears’ longtime manager Larry Randolph said, “The conservatorship is not a jail. It helps Britney make business decisions and manage her life in ways she can’t do on her own right now.”
In May, TMZ reported that Spears herself had told a judge that her father, Jamie, had indeed committed her to a mental facility for 30 days against her will. The singer had stopped taking her medication, TMZ reported; she told the court that she’d been forcibly medicated at the facility.
TMZ reported that Spears wanted more freedoms within her conservatorship, but was granted none of them. Earlier this summer USA Today was unable to find any court documents indicating Spears has petitioned to end the arrangement outright. Court documents filed Tuesday state that Spears is “strongly opposed” to her father returning as her sole conspirator after stepping back due to health issues; she “strongly prefers” that her care-manager Jodi Montgomery, who became her temporary conservator last year as Jamie stepped away, to remain in the position, per Us Weekly.
And earlier this summer some fans believed Spears was sending them covert messages through her Instagram posts—both with certain dance movements in videos and the colors of her chosen outfits. Last month, a status hearing regarding Spears’ conservatorship had to be postponed after reported “Zoombombing” by hackers who refused to leave the call for more than two hours.
“It’s really unfortunate that hackers messed up her chance to speak and we’re really praying that this time it’s more secure and there’s nothing of that nature that delays progress,” Gray wrote.
Still, Gray said it’s been “amazing and encouraging” to see #FreeBritney grow the way it has. “This has definitely gotten bigger than we ever anticipated when we first heard that voicemail,” she wrote, adding that she and Barker hope that Spears’ story can shed light on those being abused by the probate court system—most of whom lack the fame to draw such attention.
“So in the long run we are hoping that this movement can benefit many people beyond Britney as well,” Gray said.
As for what the two expect from Wednesday’s rescheduled hearing? Gray wrote that following this case for two years has largely inured her from setting her hopes too high. Still, she wrote, “we have a lot of hope that there’s so much action happening within the conservatorship, and that Britney will have the opportunity to say her piece.”
Added Barker, “It appears based on the document filed today by Samuel Ingham, Britney’s court-appointed advocate, that Jamie Spears is declining to step down as conservator of Britney’s estate, and, as such, a trial may be requested by Ingham with the intent of having Jamie removed. We think it’s highly possible that at tomorrow’s hearing, a date will be set for said trial.”
A representative for Jamie and Britney Spears did not respond to multiple interview requests.