Britney Spears walked out of a Los Angeles courtroom last week wearing a red skirt, black T-shirt and no shoes. Moments earlier, in a closed hearing room with paper covering the windows, her parents and their lawyers discussed with a judge the status of Spears' conservatorship. The court-supervised arrangement gives her father control over her (NZD)$72 million estate and personal affairs; it has been in place since Spears suffered a very public breakdown in 2008.
Outside, a group of fans hoisted signs in front of news cameras: "FREE BRITNEY" and "Human Rights Matter! End Britney's Conservatorship!" One woman, who traveled from Portland, Oregon, to attend the protest with her 10-year-old daughter, explained, "We pray for Britney every night at dinner." Another fan waved a poster that read "Britney we failed you in 2008; we will NOT fail you again."
For the second time in a decade, the personal struggles of one of the planet's most famous pop stars have been thrust into the spotlight. But it's different this time.
In 2007 and 2008, at the height of the Hollywood paparazzi era, Spears' well-chronicled troubles - the rehab trips, the head-shaving incident, her umbrella-wielding assault on a photographer's car - were often played for laughs and scorn in the media. Today, the culture has grown more sympathetic to matters of mental health. But as social media supplants gossip blogs, and mockery is replaced by calls for support, it's created a frenzy of fan speculation around Spears that some in her camp say may be just as detrimental.
Amid reports last month that Spears, 37, checked into a mental-health facility, a #FreeBritney movement went viral - the flames fanned by a podcast that aired unverified claims she was unwillingly forced into treatment. Die-hard fans demanded the end to the pop star's conservatorship, echoed by celebrities such as Miley Cyrus and Rose McGowan. There are indications that Spears herself craves more freedom. At the hearing, she reportedly told a judge that "her father ... committed her to a mental facility a month ago against her will and also forced her to take drugs," according to TMZ, though under the terms of the conservatorship, the conservator cannot do either of those things.
Sources close to the singer are pushing back on the #FreeBritney narrative, emphasising that Spears is in the conservatorship for a reason - long-term mental-health issues that they would not specify. They know #FreeBritney is born out of fans' love for her, they say, but insist that fans don't understand neither the details of Spears's condition nor the logistics of the legal arrangement, which is monitored closely by medical professionals and the courts.
"The last thing any California state judge wants is to do something incorrectly and inappropriately and be the subject of a story about a judge that has done something wrong by Britney Spears," said Larry Rudolph, Spears' manager, who is not involved in the conservatorship but has worked with her for many years. "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."
From the outside - and even for some inside Spears' world - the restrictions surrounding the pop star are startling. This is a celebrity who has toured the world, racked up a string of No. 1 hits and platinum albums and starred in a popular four-year Las Vegas residency. Yet under the rules of the conservatorship, her father controls her finances and personal and business decisions. This reality is difficult to reconcile with her confident, swaggering performances in so many iconic pop culture moments, from the 1999 "... Baby One More Time music video with her boundary-pushing jailbait-schoolgirl act, to her sensuous dance with a seven-foot python at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards.
"She's just a legend," said writer Vanessa Grigoriadis, who wrote about the star's travails for a 2008 Rolling Stone cover story. "Every generation has one massive, mass-market female pop star that people focus on. ... Madonna was the '80s into the '90s, and Britney was the '90s into the 2000s. For people who grew up with her, they'll never forget her."
Today, Spears exists in a carefully protected bubble, handlers shielding her from negative influences or hangers-on. She doesn't have an email address, and her father has the right to sign her tax forms, revoke all powers of attorneys and "pursue opportunities related to professional commitments and activities including but not limited to performing, recording, videos, tours, TV shows and other similar activities as long as they are approved by Ms. Spears's medical team," according to documents.
Several in the singer's circle stress that the conservatorship was enacted in early 2008 to save her life after a mental-health crisis involving several trips to rehab and two separate hospitalisation's under psychiatric holds. She lost custody of her two sons to ex-husband Kevin Federline.
And yet only about six months after she was put under a conservatorship controlled by her father, Jamie Spears, and attorney Andrew Wallet - temporary at first, then permanent - Spears was back in the studio recording Circus, her sixth album. She performed once again at the MTV Video Music Awards. In 2009, she went on tour.
Spears was clearly not thrilled with the conservatorship. In the 2008 MTV documentary Britney: For the Record, she compared the "restraints" on her life to being imprisoned: "Even when you go to jail, there's the time when you're gonna get out. But in this situation, it's never-ending."
But the restrictions stayed in place. In 2009, a lawyer who claimed he represented Spears - a hire she would not have been authorized to make under the terms of the conservatorship - attempted to win back her autonomy. The judge admonished him, saying it would be a "travesty of justice" in light of Spears's "remarkable" improvement, which she credited to the "superhuman" work of her conservators.
Indeed, Spears has largely stayed out of trouble and out of the scandal sheets since then - which has led some fans to wonder why she remains under a legal structure designed to protect the elderly and seriously ill. In response, Rudolph points to the "perfect storm" crisis that enveloped Spears in late 2018.
Doctors altered part of her prescription-drug regimen, right around the time Jamie Spears fell gravely ill with a life-threatening colon rupture requiring multiple surgeries - two ordeals that left the star feeling rattled and destabilised, Rudolph said.
At the time, she was preparing to launch her second Las Vegas residency. Highly distracted and struggling to adjust to a new combination of medications, she started missing rehearsals. Eventually, she told her team she didn't think she could be ready for the scheduled opening in February. "At some point, she called me and said, 'I don't think I can get this done to the level I need to get it done,' " Rudolph said.
Spears announced the news on her website in early January. "This is so tough for me to say," she wrote.
"I will not be performing my new show 'Domination.' I've been looking forward to this show and seeing all of you this year, so doing this breaks my heart. However, it's important to always put your family first ... and that's the decision I had to make."
Cancelling a Vegas residency can cost millions, so alarm bells went off for fans - including Tess Barker and Barbara Gray, hosts of "Britney's Gram," a podcast devoted to analysing Spears' quirky Instagram account. In January, they discussed possible "mega conspiracies" behind the canceled residency on an episode of their show.
It was hardly the first time conspiracy theories have proliferated about Spears. The phrase "Free Britney" first cropped up on a fan site in 2009; her father threatened legal action against the site's owner.
But then in March, Wallet abruptly resigned as conservator, a couple months after asking the court for a pay raise. In a cryptic statement, the attorney said "substantial detriment, irreparable harm and immediate danger will result to the conservatee" if he wasn't discharged from the assignment. (Wallet did not return a request to clarify his statement.) In early April, People magazine reported that Spears was seeking "all-encompassing wellness treatment" at a facility in Los Angeles.
This triggered another spasm of rumours. On their podcast, Barker and Gray played an anonymous voicemail they received from a man who identified himself as a former paralegal at a law firm that worked for Spears. He claimed that the star's father pulled the plug on the Vegas residency when Spears stopped taking her medication. He also said her father forced her into the facility as far back as January for a stint with no end date.
According to Rudolph, neither Spears' team nor her lawyers have been able to identify the anonymous caller, whom they believe is an impostor with no connection or insight into the matter. Rudolph denies the man's story, noting that conservators have no legal standing to force medication or a stint in treatment. Spears was the one who asked to go to the facility - in late March, not January, Rudolph said, adding that her father was actually hesitant about the plan, since it would draw media attention.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Barker and Gray said they had verified the tipster's place of employment, though they did not elaborate how. They recently put the podcast on hiatus as they research tips they've received and try to figure out their next step.
Despite the podcast's posture of solidarity with the beleaguered and beloved star, it has drawn backlash from critics who note that the hosts have no firsthand knowledge into what's going on in the life of a woman with a documented history of complex emotional struggles. Barker and Gray maintain they are careful not to speculate about the singer's mental health; their concerns, they say, center on the conservatorship and how the people tasked with her well-being are financially benefiting from her career.
"We really just hope for her to be able to speak her truth," Gray said. "And if autonomy is what she wants - which we think it is, from (her) past (statements) - that she's able to have that."
The media coverage of Spears in 2019 has been a dramatic pendulum-swing away from a decade ago, when reports about her breakdown were tinged with mockery and outright cruelty, and mainstream publications made cringe worthy cracks about "Sheared Spears" and "Breakdown Britney."
In 2008, there wasn't a sophisticated understanding of how mental illness could manifest in celebrities, Grigoriadis said. The conventional wisdom back then, when tabloids were flush with cash and paparazzi photos fetched big paydays, was that "celebrity culture is so crazy that it's driving celebrities crazy," she recalled. "Everything was looked at through that lens."
Today, while the outpouring of support for Spears may be rooted in good intentions, the hashtags, sign-waving and conspiracy theories may also be putting more stress on the singer. She indicated as much in a caption to an April Instagram video: "There's rumours, death threats to my family and my team, and just so many crazy things being said. I am trying to take a moment for myself, but everything that's happening is just making it harder for me," the caption read. "Don't believe everything you read and hear."
Mental-health experts say that privacy is an essential part of treating psychological issues - and privacy is hard for someone of Spears' fame to achieve. Even with the layers of security around the star, her deeply personal battles eventually seep out into the news.
"Certainly we know Britney Spears has troubles, and every time she tries to get help for them, it becomes a public matter," said psychoanalyst Mark Smaller, past president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, who notes he has not treated the singer. "One wonders how much that potentially interferes with her getting better."
While Spears' circumstances change nearly every day, many people within her orbit are making new attempts to get involved in her care. An attorney for her mother, Lynne Spears, who has not been involved in the conservatorship, requested to be present at the hearing last Friday. (Fans noticed on Instagram that Lynne Spears was "liking" comments about the #FreeBritney movement.) The singer's lawyer filed a new restraining order against her ex-manager, Sam Lutfi, who is considered a malign influence; court documents claim that in recent weeks he embarked on a "campaign of harassment" against the Spears family. A judge ordered an evaluation for the singer, and another hearing is scheduled for September.
Meanwhile, Rudolph said, Spears' father is as eager as any fan to see the day that she can live on her own terms.
"He doesn't want this to continue forever," he said. "It's his daughter. He wants to see her happy. A functional life without any intervention like this."