Britney Spears has dominated headlines since 1999. The Princess of Pop's highs and lows have been endlessly dissected by fans and the media, from her cryptic smash hits to her infamous public breakdown in 2007. Now it's Britney Spears' conservatorship and the #FreeBritney movement that's center stage, with the 2021 New York Times documentary Framing Britney taking a deep dive into the legal saga. And so #FreeBritney, once an online hashtag for the most devoted of fans, is back in the public eye, with Diet Prada and other blogs re-sharing details of her legal situation.
Despite the potentially alarming situation at hand, the legal intricacies and fan theories can be tough to sort through. So to help you figure out what's true and what's merely the stuff of speculation, we've broken down everything you need to know about #FreeBritney, so in the words of Brit Brit herself, you better work (or rather, read), b*tch.
How Does The Conservatorship Work?
Spears has been under what's known as a conservatorship since 2008, after the singer's tumultuous public breakdown. Basically, this means that the singer does not have control over her legal or business affairs. According to a 2016 report from The New York Times, Spears cannot make key personal or financial decisions without the approval of her conservators, her father, Jamie Spears, and lawyer Andrew M. Wallet. Despite fan speculation of what the singer is and isn't allowed to do on her own terms, the exact terms and restrictions of her conservatorship have never been made public.
Aside from the conservatorship essentially taking away much of Spears' autonomy, a major point of contention for fans is how Jamie has profited financially as her conservator. According to The Times, not only did he earn a $130,000 salary for his job, he was also awarded 1.5% of the gross revenues from her performances and merchandise sales connected to her Las Vegas residency, Britney: Piece of Me, despite his daughter being the one to put in work on stage.
The terms of Spears' conservatorship changed in September 2019, when Jamie requested to step down as her conservator "due to personal health reasons," People reported, following an alarming alleged physical altercation with Spears' son Sean Preston, then 13. Wallet had previously stepped down from her case that March. The singer's longtime “care manager,” Jodi Montgomery, was temporarily approved to take over, but fans want more than just her father stepping down — they don't want anyone making decisions for Spears but herself.
According to USA Today, as of October 2019, Jamie still had control over Spears' finances, with Montgomery stepping in to oversee her "security, visitors, and medical and psychiatric treatment." That same year, per The Times, the court appointed a lawyer, Samuel D. Ingham III, to review the terms of the conservatorship and act in Spears' interest. In November 2020, a judge approved Bessemer Trust Company, a independent financial institution suggested by Spears in a court filing, to act as co-conservator of Spears’ estate alongside Jamie, who still retains partial control against her wishes.
What Does Spears Think Of Her Conservatorship?
Spears herself has rarely spoken of the conservatorship publicly, aside from her 2008 documentary, Britney: For the Record, in which she didn't specifically mention the conservatorship but seemed to be frustrated with her new situation. "I think it’s too in control," she said. "If I wasn’t under the restraints I’m under, I’d feel so liberated. 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."
Currently, it seems she has no official objections (legally speaking, at least). As reported by USA Today, Spears skipped a hearing on her conservatorship in September 2019, with her lawyer Samuel Ingham explaining that her absence meant she did "not object" to continuing the conservatorship.
How Did The #FreeBritney Movement Start?
Many fans have questioned the circumstances surrounding Spears' situation for a long time. In January 2019, Spears' planned second Las Vegas residency, Britney: Domination, was canceled a month before it was set to open. At the time, Spears attributed the decision to her father's declining health, but TMZ later reported in April of that same year that Spears had actually checked into a mental health facility for 30 days. Neither Spears nor her team commented on the reports, but her former manager Larry Rudolph confirmed them in a later interview with TMZ in May.
When Spears addressed the news on Instagram, fans noticed that the singer used a text emoticon in the caption instead of her usual barrage of emojis. This, plus conflicting media reports about Jamie's health condition, raised suspicions about her situation and who was posting for her at the time.
The movement truly gained momentum thanks to the podcast Britney's Gram, which quickly turned from a tribute to Spears' iconic Instagram page into a full-blown investigation of her situation and well-being. On April 16, 2019, hosts and Spears super-fans Tess Barker and Barbara Gray received an anonymous voicemail from a man claiming to be a paralegal who worked for one of Spears' lawyers. Barker and Grey said they validated his profession and believed him to be a credible source, but did not disclose his identity. The man claimed that fans' worst fears had come true, insinuating that Jamie was forcing his daughter to take unnecessary medications and claiming that Jamie pulled the plug on Domination when Spears refused to take her prescribed medication. The claims have not been publicly verified by Spears or another source. Bustle reached out to attorneys for both Spears and Jamie for comment, but did not receive a response.
According to this source, a January incident when Spears reportedly drove to In-N-Out without permission led Jamie to involuntarily check her in to a facility in mid-January, not April as was previously reported. Neither Spears nor her camp has commented on the allegations, and it is not publicly confirmed whether Spears is even prescribed medication, although her now-former manager Rudolph did tell TMZ that Domination was canceled in part because her "meds stopped working." But for fans who were concerned for her well-being, this was enough to start a movement.
What Is #FreeBritney Trying To Accomplish?
Since the jaw-dropping podcast investigation, fans have been using the #FreeBritney hashtag online to raise awareness about Spears' conservatorship, even going so far as to publicly speculate about how the singer might be restricted in her day-to-day life. There have been claims that Spears isn't in charge of her social media. Supporters of the #FreeBritney movement want the singer to be freed from the conservatorship, and for her to be able to make her own decisions — whether they be legal, financial, medical, or personal — without any outside interference. The online movement spilled over into real life on April 22, 2019, when fans staged a #FreeBritney rally outside West Hollywood City Hall.
After the conservatorship was instated in 2008, Spears released a new album, Circus, that December and embarked on a massive world tour just months later. Since then, she's been on two more tours, released three studio albums, served as judge on The X Factor, and completed her hugely successful, four-year Vegas residency. Fans argue that if she can handle those huge ventures, why isn't she capable of making the legal and financial decisions behind them?
What Does Spears Think Of #FreeBritney?
Spears indirectly addressed the movement in April 2019, when she asked fans to stop spreading rumors and give her family privacy in an Instagram post. Similarly, her family and team have never directly commented on the movement or any allegations. But Spears' mom, Lynne, who divorced Jamie in 2002 and is not legally involved in her daughter's conservatorship, reportedly liked several posts with the hashtag, including an Instagram comment that read, "I really hope you are supporting Britney in trying to end this conservatorship. I really hope your ailing ex-husband isn’t keeping your daughter somewhere against her will," as per Rolling Stone. But public support for #FreeBritney has only grown, with the hashtag even being used by celebs like Paris Hilton, Miley Cyrus, and even Real Housewives Luann de Lesseps and Leah McSweeney. Most recently, celebs like Rose McGowan have also spoken out in support of the movement.
In September 2020, Spears' lawyer seemed to express support for the movement while arguing that the conservatorship case should not be sealed from the public, as had been requested by Jamie. Though the lawyer didn't mention the movement by name, they responded to Jamie's earlier claims that the movement was a conspiracy theory. "Far from being a conspiracy theory or a 'joke' as [Jamie] reportedly told the media, in large part this scrutiny is a reasonable and even predictable result of James' aggressive use of the sealing procedure over the years to minimize the amount of meaningful information made available to the public," Spears' lawyer stated, per TMZ.
Does Spears Run Her Own Social Media?
A huge component of the #FreeBritney movement is some fans' concerns that Spears has no control over her social media accounts and speculation that her Instagram posts may contain hidden warning signs or messages asking for help. In response to the rumors, Crowd Surf co-founder Cassie Petrey, who helps manage Spears' social media, clarified the singer's social media presence in an Instagram post on Wednesday, Feb. 3.
In her statement, Petrey clarified that Spears is the one who writes her captions, finds images and quotes online to share, and takes all of her own photos and videos for Instagram, including her iconic dance videos. Sometimes, Spears will request a video to be edited a certain way, which her team will follow, but otherwise, she also edits them herself. Like many celebrities, Spears does work with a social media team to manage her online presence, but Petrey says the singer always has the final say on what gets posted onto her Instagram.
"She has stated many times that she creates the posts, but people continue to believe conspiracy theories over what Britney says over and over again," she wrote. "Britney is not 'asking for help' or leaving secret messages in her social media. She is literally just living her life and trying to have fun on Instagram."
What Is Framing Britney Spears?
Framing Britney Spears is an upcoming documentary produced by the New York Times that attempts to unpack Spears' conservatorship and dissect the relationship between her and her father, Jamie. While the singer herself doesn't speak in the doc, nor do any of her family members, some close friends and team members have come forward to share their perspectives of what Spears is currently going through.
According to the outlet, participants include backup dancers, a lawyer currently working on the conservatorship, the record label executive who helped Spears rise to stardom, and former assistant and longtime family friend Felicia Culotta, a beloved figure among Spears' fans. Of course, the doc will also explore the #FreeBritney movement and shine light on the fans who believe Spears should be freed from her conservatorship. The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears premieres on FX and streams on Hulu on Friday, Feb. 5.
What's Next For Spears' Conservatorship And #FreeBritney?
As of last September, Spears has been under the care of Jodi Montgomery, her temporary conservator, after Jamie stepped down for personal health reasons. The conservatorship had been extended until Aug. 22 of this year, but, during a private hearing on Aug. 19, a judge ruled for the conservatorship to be extended until at least February 2021. According to court documents, Spears is “strongly opposed” to having her father “return as conservator of her person” and has thus petitioned to have him removed and replaced permanently with Montgomery. She reportedly also no longer wants him to control her estate and finances — but instead prefers a “qualified corporate fiduciary” take on this role, per Variety.
Prior to the hearing, Spears, for her part, would regularly post freestyle dance videos on Instagram and uplifting messages amid the coronavirus pandemic, keeping up fans' spirits in the chaos that is 2020. But the #FreeBritney movement has picked up steam yet again due to the hearings about her conservatorship. Lynne has filed paperwork asking for more involvement in her daughter's finances, requesting to receive notice on "all matters" concerning a trust that's in place to protect the singer's assets and secure her two sons' futures, according to ET. And in May 2019, she specifically requested special notice about Spears' conservatorship without formally specifying why, hinting that she's also concerned about her daughter's situation.
In March 2021, Spears officially "requested the resignation" of her father Jamie as her permanent conservator, and reiterated her preference of temporary caretaker Montgomery taking over in his place. According to PEOPLE, her court filing also states that Spears "reserves the right to petition for the termination of this conservatorship,” hinting that this step is something she may pursue, should Jamie step down entirely as Spears requests.
Additionally, Spears' former photographer Andrew Gallery recently went public with a letter that he claims was written by the singer in third-person, in which she reportedly opened up about the infamous 2007-08 period and expressed dissatisfaction over her conservatorship, saying that she "has no rights." Bustle reached out to attorneys for both Spears and Jamie for comment, but did not receive a response.
While there's no telling what will happen post-extension, or even if the public will receive further information on the status of her conservatorship going forward, here's hoping that the results are to Spears' satisfaction — and only hers.
Additional reporting by Jessica Wang.
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