When a 16-year-old Britney Spears sang to the world her loneliness was killing her, she meant it. There was a time when the single best-selling teenage artist of all time was also the single most sought-after public figure on Earth. Ten headlining tours, 100 million records sold, five number-one singles, six number one albums (including her debut album, which entered the charts at number one), one Las Vegas residency that changed the face of Vegas entertainment and the most public mental breakdown in history are just a few of the popstar’s defining statistics.
So, how did one Louisiana girl go from the biggest star in the world to the center of an ableist rights issue and legal battle for the ages? The pop princess lived a seemingly charmed life, but as the world discovered in the mid-2000s, Britney was deeply troubled. Her battles with mental health started long before she had one of the most public psychological breaks in 2007, which lead to the most public conservatorship of the 21st century.
If you’ve been anywhere near Twitter in the last two months, you’ve probably noticed #FreeBritney trending semi-regularly, which is an online (and as of late, also offline) movement started to advocate for the release of Britney Spears from her conservatorship. Britney’s legal battle with her conservatorship has been a grueling, ugly process and a pretty public one at that. VALLEY is taking a deep dive into Britney Spears’s life before and under her conservatorship.
Miss American Dream
Britney Jean Spears was born on December 2, 1981. The second of the three Spears children, and their first daughter, Britney was her family’s shining star, taking up activities such as gymnastics and voice lessons from a young age. Her mother, Lynne Spears, was a school teacher, and her father, Jamie, was constantly in-between jobs because of his crippling alcoholism. When Britney told her parents she wanted to perform, they originally dismissed her, as they didn’t have the money.
After Jamie’s last attempt at holding a job, the Spears realized they needed a miracle and found one in their oldest daughter. Lynne quit her job to move with Britney to New York to pursue her dreams.
After appearing on “Star Search”, many stage productions (including an Off-Broadway musical), and holding many state and regional titles, Britney landed “The Mickey Mouse Club”, where she worked alongside young Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera and her later boyfriend, Justin Timberlake. She became her family’s sole provider. After starring on the show for four years, Britney moved home to Kentwood in 1996 but wanted more.
After talks of joining the girl group Innosense, Britney was pitched to record labels, recorded a demo and eventually signed with Jive Records, with whom she recorded “Baby One More Time”. After doing a shopping mall promotional tour, and her first concert tour opening for N’Sync, “Baby One More Time” was released. Both the single and her debut album of the same name premiered at number one on the charts and changed Britney’s life (and the world) forever.
The Birth of a Sex Symbol
Britney Spears was an international sensation at 17 years old, causing her to be consistently fixated in the limelight. She was under constant watch by the paparazzi and faced criticism from every magazine, news outlet and entertainment critic for the entirety of her early career. People felt she dressed too risqué, her music videos were too provocative and that she was not fit to be a role model for the young girls who idolized her. Rolling Stone, almost immediately after “Baby” was released, caught wind of this and began taking notes.
When they asked her to appear on the cover of their magazine, they pitched the shoot as a coquette-ish, coy, hyper-sexualized Lolita theme, which Britney’s father—who was in charge of her professional endeavors at the time, as she was a minor—originally declined. After learning how much money the shoot would make, though, Jamie changed his tune and sent Britney off to be photographed with a Teletubby in her bra. This would be a recurring theme throughout Britney’s career; she was often prostituted by her father for profit.
The Rolling Stone shoot became the focus of a brutal controversy: How much was too much? How far was too far? Where did the buck stop? Unfortunately for Britney, it never seemed to with her father. Cheap exploitation and objectification were just a part of Britney’s daily life, especially as a minor.
Britney’s team never marketed her as a musician so much as an adolescent blow-up doll, which made her marketable to a broader, wider and more inappropriately mature audience. This Rolling Stone cover was only the beginning of the exploitation Britney would face for the next 10 years, and the betrayal started with her own father. This was certainly not the last instance in which Jamie sold out Britney for profit.
A Star on The Rise: “Oops!”, Her Sophomore Season, and Love in The Spotlight
The incredible success of “Baby One More Time” was far more than anyone could have predicted. The “Baby One More Time” tour took North America by storm. Britney premiered songs from her current and upcoming album, and a professional recording of her concert live from Hawaii was released as a TV special. An extension of the tour, called Crazy 2k, was added, just two months before the release of her sophomore album, “Oops! I Did it Again”.
“Oops!” topped the charts and is still considered one of the best-selling records of all time. With a lead single of the same name, as well as “Lucky” and “Stronger”, the album was nominated for two Grammy’s, one American Music Award and won two Billboard Music Awards. The “Oops! I Did it Again” began in June of 2000 and was professionally recorded at a sold-out performance at the London Arena.
Britney was, like many young female artists, constantly being asked about boys. Every interviewer, paparazzi, magazine and website wanted to know if Britney was seeing anyone, what her type was, or what she was looking for. For quite a while, she denied having any kind of relationship, but rumors had already been flying. After much speculation, Britney publicly announced her relationship with childhood costar Justin Timberlake, a member of N’Sync (who Britney previously toured with).
The childhood sweethearts were on every magazine’s radar, seeing as they were two of the biggest names in the music industry. As the “It Couple” of the early 2000s, they went everywhere and did everything together. They even headlined the 2001 Superbowl Halftime Show together, alongside the rest of N’Sync and Aerosmith. Justin and Britney were the quintessential young couple of Hollywood.
“Crossroads”, “Britney”, and The Snake at the VMA’s
By 2001, it was clear Britney was going nowhere any time soon. Whether they loved her or hated her, the world simply could not get enough of her. After headlining the Superbowl with her beau, she signed an advertising contract with Pepsi, who she’d make commercials for years to come. Her third studio album, “Britney”, dropped in November of 2001, but she had released some of the singles prior to its release. “I’m a Slave 4 U”, the album’s first single, debuted at the 2001 VMA’s.
The performance included elaborate staging, dozens of backup dancers, a caged tiger (wrangled by Bhagavan Antle of “Tiger King” fame) and—the pièce de résistance—a large snake draped around Britney’s shoulders. The snake was not her idea (another money grab tactic her father implemented), and while she was told it didn’t bite, what they failed to tell Britney is that pythons constrict their prey. So, there strut Brtiney, a constricting python grazing her neck on national television. The visuals of this performance were so wildly appealing that it captivated audiences everywhere and solidified Britney’s place as the queen of the VMA’s.
Outside of “I’m a Slave 4 U”, “Britney” had 3 other major singles: “Overprotected”, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” and “Boys”. The album received two Grammy nominations and was listed as one of Entertainment Weekly’s “100 Best Albums from the Past 25 Years” in 2008. Britney wanted this album to more grown-up, more mature and more adult, which resulted in a lot of hypersexualization in the music videos and promotion for the album. Britney began the Dream Within a Dream Tour in November 2001, adding a second leg to the tour, and finishing it in July 2002. The tour was one of her most extravagant and most successful endeavors as an artist.
2001 was also the year Britney landed her first major acting gig. “Crossroads”, a teenage coming-of-age movie, was a concept originally developed by Britney and then later expanded on by writer Shonda Rhimes. The movie was released in February of 2002, and served as an outlet for some of Britney’s new music, closing with “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”. The film was meant to be seen as a serious acting endeavor from Britney, but she took a lot of heat for her performance.
One of the major criticisms of Britney’s performance was the scene where she danced around her bedroom in her underwear, which felt like another cheap shot at objectifying Britney, as this was not the case with the rest of the cast. Also starring Zoe Saldana and Taryn Manning and Kim Cattrall, “Crossroads” was a box office success, despite negative reviews from critics.
The Nightmare After A Dream Within a Dream
Despite being ranked as Forbes’ Most Powerful Celebrity, grossing almost $50 million on her Dream Within a Dream Tour and her third studio album debuting at number one, 2002 was a difficult year for Britney. Her very public relationship with Justin Timberlake came to an end after three years, resulting in one of the messiest breakups of the decade. Her parents were also going through an equally messy divorce, and instead of taking a six-month hiatus from her career as she had originally stated, she was forced back into the studio that November to record her next album.
Britney didn’t get to fully heal before going back to work as the biggest superstar in the world, and this would prove later to be a horrible mistake. After a teary, emotional interview with Diane Sawyer in 2003, rumors of a breakdown began to circle but were consistently denied by Britney, her family and her team.
Even though Britney had returned to the studio and was working diligently, most of it was behind the scenes, and she was quiet for quite a bit of 2003. The following August, she opened with 2003 VMA’s with her childhood costar, Christina Aguilera and pop legend Madonna, who both girls kissed onstage (immediately before panning to a shot of Justin Timberlake). Once again, Britney was at the center of an objectified controversy; however, the stunt was later known as one of the most iconic moments in the history of the VMA’s and one of the sexiest moments of primetime television.
As much criticism as Britney faced for this incident, it would not be the last time that year she worked with Madonna. In November of the same year, Britney released her fourth studio album “In The Zone”, which featured songs such as “Me Against the Music”, her critically acclaimed collaboration with Madonna; “Outrageous”; and “Toxic”, which earned her her first Grammy.
A Fall From Grace
Professionally, Britney had never been better. “In the Zone” was a commercial success and premiered at the top of the charts, making her the first female artist of the SoundScan era to have her first four albums debut at number one. Compared to 2002, 2003 seemed to be a better year for her. The height of her success wore off quickly; in January of 2004, Britney was married for the first time to childhood friend Jason Allen Alexander at a chapel in Las Vegas. 55 hours later, the couple’s marriage was annulled, starting further rumors about her mental stability.
Not long after their annulment was finalized, Britney started rehearsing for The Onyx Hotel Tour, her fifth concert tour. Not long into the tour, during the filming of the “Outrageous” music video, Britney fell and hurt her knee, resulting in surgery and physical therapy, forcing the tour to be cut short.
In the midst of a messy lawsuit regarding her insurance and the cancellation of The Onyx Hotel Tour, Britney started seeing Kevin Federline. The relationship was highly publicized and received global attention, as Kevin had also just left a serious relationship and the two had only recently met. Britney and Kevin were married in September of 2004, just nine months after Britney’s first marriage. The chronicles of their relationship were broadcast in “Britney and Kevin: Chaotic”, a five-episode reality TV show about the couple that aired in 2005.
The show was highly criticized and ultimately pulled from the air. The chaos and drama of the last few months of 2004 led to a break in Spears’ career, reportedly to start a family with Federline. Her first son, Sean Preston Federline, was born in September 2005, after the release of “Someday (I Will Understand)”, a single Britney dedicated to him.
The End of An Era
Surely you’ve heard a variation of the expression “if Britney can make it through 2007, you can make it through today”. Frankly, it is a miracle Britney made it out of 2007 at all. The trauma she endured from the press, complications with her family, her destructive relationships and constantly being forced to live in the spotlight had all led up to her breakdown in 2007. This year was inarguably a turning point in her life and in her career, where she truly began to fall out of favor with the public.
In February of 2006, Britney was seen driving her car with a seven-month-old Sean on her lap instead of a car seat (a result of an incident with the paparazzi), causing an uproar from child advocate groups around the country. That September, her second son, Jayden James Federline, was born, just days before Sean’s first birthday. That November, Britney filed for divorce from Kevin Federline due to irreconcilable differences. The legal battle and the fight for custody of their children lasted until July of 2007, nearly 10 months after Britney originally filed for divorce.
By 2007, Britney had had several serious encounters with the paparazzi. She was acting out in ways that resembled a manic episode, making irrational, brash decisions very publicly. She was spending a lot of money, partying almost nightly, had been kicked out of clubs, collapsed at a New Year’s Eve party and many people were suspecting she was using heavy drugs.
Britney was spiraling in January of 2007, Britney’s aunt passed away due to complications with ovarian cancer. Roughly a month later, Britney checked herself into a rehabilitation center for a very brief amount of time. The following night was the infamous night she shaved her head over a sink at a salon in LA.
After the finalization of her divorce, Britney lost custody of her children to Kevin Federline. Her management team and her divorce lawyer both turned in their resignations. She began having serious run-ins with the law and was in the courtroom more than the studio. Her fifth album, “Blackout” released that October, following a performance at the VMA’s that faced a lot of negative criticism.
The press was not kind to Britney Spears, in 2007 or 1998 when she was a 17-year-old girl. After almost 10 years under constant surveillance, Britney was starting to crack and was in desperate need of help and she was made fun of relentlessly by the very people who used to sing her praises. The press, her publicity team and many of the people she loved, namely her own father, built her up only to ruin her.
The Beginning of the Conservatorship
Many hospitalizations, court dates and rehabilitation centers later, Britney was finally beginning to recover from the devastation she had faced in the last several years. After Britney’s nearly year-long meltdown, she was placed under a conservatorship in 2008, making her father, Jamie Spears, her legal guardian. Conservatorships were created to protect people who are deemed no longer mentally sound enough to sign legal documents, usually much older people with serious disabilities, whether they be mental or physical. Someone else, the conservator, is placed in charge of the conservatee’s finances, assets and sometimes, daily lives.
The costs and fees that come with a conservatorship are paid for by the assets and finances of the conservatee. Conservatorships are only intended to last one year, as most conservatees are typically older, but if it is deemed legally necessary by a judge, they can be extended on a yearly basis. The conservatee loses Power of Attorney and is forced to draft a living will if they have assets they wish to distribute in the event of their passing. A conservatorship is meant to protect those who suffer from serious, debilitating disabilities and who are no longer capable of supporting themselves.
Britney Spears, who will turn 39 this coming December, has been under her conservatorship for 12 years, meaning she has had no control over her life or her money since 2008. Financial documents from 2018 revealed that Britney’s net worth is roughly $59 million, which around $1 million is automatically applied to the fees and costs of her conservatorship.
Forced to hand over her Power of Attorney, it was recently revealed that her younger sister, Jamie Lynn, is a trustee of her estate and will be a distributor in the event of Britney’s passing. Britney still does not have full (or even equally shared) custody of her children or any control over her finances. She is given access to only a small portion of the multi-million dollar fortune she worked for nearly 20 years.
A Superstar’s Shine Dimmed
Almost immediately following the court order of her conservatorship, Britney released “Circus”, her sixth studio album, and embarked on a tour of the same name. The show Britney performed for the Circus tour included several special effects, such as Britney being repelled from the ceiling, “floating” on a giant umbrella and performing difficult choreography amongst various other stunts.
Since The Circus Tour, Britney has released three more studio albums, has been featured on numerous singles produced by other artists, embarked on several more international tours, and held a Las Vegas residency that redefined Vegas entertainment. Britney, since the beginning of her career, has been known for her challenging and complex choreography, which she has continued to execute since 2008. She said repeatedly throughout her career that she loved her career as a performer and that she wanted to perform the rest of her life.
The longest time Britney Spears has taken a hiatus since her conservatorship began is roughly two years, which began in 2018 after her Piece of Me Tour concluded following the end of her Las Vegas residency. Brtiney announced the indefinite hiatus via her Instagram account after her father fell ill. Afterward, Britney herself entered a psychiatric facility, which she was allegedly held against her will.
According to a podcast called Britney’s Gram, Britney’s professional hiatus and hospitalization were mandated by Jamie following a violation of the guidelines of her conservatorship. Fans (and as of late, the mainstream media) have noticed Britney’s Instagram suddenly being bombarded with oddly-captioned, suspicious posts on Britney’s Instagram account. For quite a while, Britney posted pictures of the same red wall in what appears to be the same (or an incredibly similar) outfit and has recently begun sharing photos of her outside in what appears to be a garden, again in a strikingly similar outfit each post.
Britney has claimed some of these pictures are older and were not taken the days she posted them. She has posted many videos of her dancing, as well as many videos of what seems to be a poorly scripted monologue explaining her strange, recent behavior online that many belief is a result of her conservatorship, or is not even truly her posting.
A Necessity or An (un)Necessary Evil?
On USLegal.com, a website dedicated to explaining legal jargon, a conservatorship is given the following definition:
“A conservatorship is created by the appointment of a conservator, also sometimes called a guardian. A conservator is a person or entity appointed by a court to manage the property, daily affairs, and financial affairs of another person, usually someone who is incompetent by reason of a physical or mental infirmity or age.”
A conservatorship is meant to protect those who suffer from serious, debilitating disabilities and who are no longer capable of supporting themselves. Britney Spears has exclusively supported herself and her family financially since entering her conservatorship in 2008. She has also consistently performed choreography and potentially dangerous stunts at sold-out performances that would be physically and mentally impossible for anyone with the disabilities that truly require a conservatorship. She has been legally deemed not stable enough to handle her own finances but is by all means allowed to make her own money doing things that should be considered unachievable for someone in her position.
By 2007, Britney Spears was burnt out. She had been prostituted by her own family, taken advantage of, objectified by the world she lived to serve, and expected to run on empty. Britney was a lot of things; a money-making machine, a sex object, a body to be desired. The one thing Britney Spears never was, to anyone, was a human being. Not a single soul had ever considered Britney to be a person with feelings; that was made clear when her family began relying solely on her talent before she was nine years old to support them.
The Britney Spears that entered her conservatorship in 2008 was a product of the toxic environment she quite literally grew up in. She was traumatized, exhausted and according to the mental health diagnosis performed to obtain the conservatorship, suffering from untreated bipolar disorder, as a consequence of the actions of the father who has used her as his sole source of income.
While many people have acted as Britney’s co-conservators in the past 12 years, there has been one constant; Jamie Spears, who has acted as Britney’s conservator since 2008. Jamie has repeatedly proved via his role in Britneys’ breakdown that he is willing to do whatever it takes to make a buck. Conservators are paid to maintain their conservatees and are placed in charge of their monetary decisions.
As many fans have pointed out, it seems highly suspicious that the same man who has sold Britney out repeatedly her entire life is the one in charge of her finances and her career, especially when she has been petitioning the court to end the conservatorship. Jamie has repeatedly called #FreeBritney a hoax and discounted it as nothing more than a conspiracy theory.
The #FreeBritney movement has been around for quite a while but didn’t gain notoriety until after Britney’s hospitalization at the beginning of 2019, but really wasn’t even mainstream news until this summer, around the time of her recent court dates to end the conservatorship. Devoted fans have been researching the complicated details regarding the conservatorship, posting their findings with the hashtag in the hopes of the information falling into the hands that could possibly free her.
As #FreeBritney has become more mainstream, more mainstream celebrities have announced their support of the movement. Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, Ariel Winter, Heidi Montag, Miley Cyrus, Cher and Britney’s longtime friend Paris Hilton have all spoken up in support of #FreeBritney; unlike Jamie Lynn Spears, who has done the total opposite. Jamie Lynn has repeatedly gotten into Instagram arguments or shared posts about how Britney is a strong, independent woman and that nothing is outwardly wrong, but blatantly disregards the issue at hand.
By denying that there is a problem, Jamie Lynn is only confirming that the conservatorship is, at very least, in need of revisions. If Britney is so capable of being independent, why is she in need of a conservator? What disability prevents Britney from being financially independent that does not prevent her from other forms of independence? The contradicting statements from and among the Spears family are negating one another and admitting that there is a problem at hand.
Bigger Than Britney
It is important to call Britney’s legal battle to end her conservatorship what it is: an ableist rights issue. Britney’s conservatorship is greater than just her immediate rights, but the rights of all people who are considered disabled, calling to question the qualifications of disability or the extent to which people with disabilities are able to exist in a society fixated on able-bodied beings.
Up until 2007, Britney Spears was the textbook definition of an able-bodied individual who had it all, but at the cost of her mental health and well-being. Britney existed solely to serve others: her father, the young girls who idolized her, the men who desired her, the people who profited off of her ability. As soon as she was no longer considered an able-body, the world that supposedly adored her turned their backs on her just as quickly as they fell in love with her.
This is a conversation we are not comfortable having. Despite our recent societal focus on mental health, we are still not willing to discuss the way we view people with mental illness and disabilities, and Britney Spears is a perfect example of this. The discourse about Britney shifted drastically in just a period of a couple of months in 2006, and has still never fully recovered or been acknowledged. Although we are more willing to discuss mental health, we are not willing to change our perspectives and opinions about those who live with mental illness.
All people, including those with disabilities, are entitled to live independent lives. As long as Britney Spears’ conservatorship is still in place, there should be an open discussion about what is considered able-bodied and why we value it more than those who live with disabilities. Britney’s loneliness was and still is, killing her, just like millions of others who live with mental illnesses.