Despite an online campaign by fans to "Free Britney," there remain more questions than answers about the pop star's well-being. Here's what we know.
In recent weeks, Britney Spears has burst back into the spotlight, as her private turmoil has led to several court hearings, spawned viral hashtags and fuelled frantic fan speculation about her well-being.
The renewed preoccupation follows her abrupt announcement that her planned Britney: Domination performance residency in Las Vegas was being put on hold indefinitely, new concerns about her mental health and questions about the role her ill father, and conservator, can continue to play in managing her financial and personal life.
At the age of 16, with the release of the song and subsequent album … Baby One More Time, Spears became an international sensation and would go on to become one of the best-selling artists of all time. But her career shifted dramatically amid reports of drug and alcohol abuse and a rash of erratic behavior in 2007 and 2008.
Those events led to multiple psychiatric evaluations and, eventually, a court-ordered conservatorship, which is designed for people who are unable to take care of themselves. (Spears' father, Jamie Spears, acts as his daughter's conservator, meaning that he is in charge of her finances, as well as her physical and mental health.)
Now it appears that Britney Spears, after 11 years, has asked the judge to consider ending the conservatorship. Why now? How do her mother and father feel about the request? Much of this celebrity saga is happening behind closed doors, and Spears' family, managers, lawyers and publicists have declined to discuss her status. But here is what we know.
What is the #FreeBritney campaign?
This phrase originated in 2009, when a Spears fan site, BreatheHeavy.com, started a campaign to "Free Britney" from the constraints of her new conservatorship setup. The website's owner, Jordan Miller, said at one point that he received an irate call from Jamie Spears, who threatened to have the website taken down.
Fast forward 10 years: In that time, Britney Spears has released three major-label albums, appeared frequently on television (including a stint as a judge on singing competition The X Factor) and performed live several times a week as a star attraction in Las Vegas. Through all that, Spears lived under the constraints of a complex legal arrangement in which her father and a lawyer acted as her guardians.
In April, the call to "Free Britney" was revived after a fan podcast dedicated to playfully analysing Spears' Instagram, called Britney's Gram, released audio of a voicemail message from someone described as an anonymous paralegal who claimed to have been involved in the conservatorship. The voicemail raised concerns about Spears' well-being and personal autonomy. The hosts of the podcast speculated about why Spears' Instagram, usually a free-spirited diary of her life with her two sons, had been mysteriously inactive for months.
Manager: Britney Spears may 'never perform again'
The cryptic account spurred some Spears fans to object to the continued restrictions on the pop star's life, given what, until recently, appeared to be a period of stability and success after earlier meltdowns.
Why is this issue surfacing now?
In October, Spears' team announced that she would start a new Las Vegas residency called Britney: Domination in Las Vegas, moving from Planet Hollywood to the new Park MGM's Park Theater. But in January, Spears, 37, said that the residency would be put on hold and she would begin an "indefinite work hiatus," citing the declining health of her father, who had recently suffered a ruptured colon.
Last month, TMZ reported that Spears had checked into a mental health facility, leading to an uptick in fan speculation about the reason for her stalled residency. That fervent speculation only intensified after the release of the Britney's Gram episode.
Spears responded to the online speculation in an April 23 Instagram post. "I am trying to take a moment for myself, but everything that's happening is just making it harder for me," the post said. "Don't believe everything you read and hear."
Last month, the conservatorship case had a status hearing in Los Angeles probate court. Spears' mother recently involved herself in the case, requesting that a lawyer appear on her behalf at a hearing May 10, according to court documents. CNN, citing two anonymous sources close to the singer, reported that at the hearing Spears asked the judge to consider ending the conservatorship.
As the hearing proceeded, fans representing the #FreeBritney campaign marched outside the courtroom with protest signs that seconded that request.
What exactly is a conservatorship?
A court-approved conservatorship, known in other states as a guardianship, is typically used to protect the elderly, the mentally disabled or the extremely ill. This arrangement means that Spears cannot make personal or financial decisions without the oversight of her father.
The details of Spears' conservatorship have not been made public, nor has her mental condition or diagnosis. But based on the arrangement, Spears' financial and personal lives, including her health, have long been overseen by two people appointed as her conservators — her father, and, until recently, a lawyer, Andrew M. Wallet. They are required to submit accountings of her finances to the court, down to the minor expenses she makes at places like Mrs. Fields, Sonic and Six Flags Magic Mountain (she has two young sons, remember). The idea is to safeguard her fortune that she has earned but does not control.
View this post on Instagram
I don’t even know where to start with this, because this is so tough for me to say. 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. A couple of months ago, my father was hospitalized and almost died. We’re all so grateful that he came out of it alive, but he still has a long road ahead of him. I had to make the difficult decision to put my full focus and energy on my family at this time. I hope you all can understand. More information on ticket refunds is available on britneyspears.com. I appreciate your prayers and support for my family during this time. Thank you, and love you all… always.
A post shared by Britney Spears (@britneyspears) on
The lawyer, Wallet, resigned as a co-conservator last year, and no one has been appointed to replace him. That leaves Jamie Spears, whose health had been a recent concern, as the sole conservator. In addition, the court appointed another lawyer, Samuel D. Ingham III, who reviews the actions of the conservatorship as an independent advocate for Britney Spears to ensure there is no exploitation of her money or other abuses of power.
What happens next?
At the May 10 court hearing, Judge Brenda Penny ordered an expert evaluation of the case, likely in response to Spears' reported request that it end. Some have speculated that the evaluation Penny ordered will include a psychological assessment of Spears, but court documents do not specify the nature of the evaluation.
The next status hearing is scheduled for September.
Spears' longtime manager, Larry Rudolph, told Billboard this week that the Las Vegas residency is officially cancelled and that he is not sure "if or when she will ever want to work again," clarifying an earlier statement to TMZ saying that her performing career might be over. Rudolph told TMZ that the residency was canceled because Spears' medication "stopped working" and she was distraught over her father's illness.
Written by: Julia Jacobs
Photographs by: Andrew Cullen
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