Pop

6 Most Revealing Moments From the 'Controlling Britney Spears' Documentary

Britney Spears
FX

From 'Framing Britney Spears,' an image captured by Spears' assistant Felicia Culotta from behind the scenes during the shoot for the "Lucky" music video in 2000.

Since the premiere of the FX documentary special The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears in February, details surrounding the pop singer’s restrictive conservatorship have intensified drastically. In June, the 39-year-old musician publicly denounced the exploitative arrangement that has controlled her life for the past 13 years for the first time. In a 20-minute testimony delivered to Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny, Spears described the conservatorship as abusive. She cited being denied permission to remove her IUD to have children and being forced to work and perform with no personal freedom or access to her earnings, among other harrowing revelations.

The new documentary Controlling Britney Spears, which premiered Friday (Sept. 24) on FX and Hulu, continues to pull back the curtain on the mistreatment Spears has endured since the conservatorship was first established by her father Jamie Spears in 2008. Directed by Samantha Stark and produced by Liz Day and The New York Times, the special features in-depth conversations with individuals who have previously worked closely with the singer and confidential court documents obtained by the Times.

The recently publicized details of Spears’ reality are disturbing enough on their own, but the allegations shared in Controlling Britney Spears have revealed that it somehow gets worse.

Here are six essential takeaways from the documentary.

Britney’s Conversations at Home Were Allegedly Recorded in Secret by Security

One of the new voices introduced into the narrative of Spears’ inside circle in the documentary is that of Alex Vlasov, a former operations manager for Black Box Security. Vlasov worked for the company, which was appointed as the singer’s official security provider through the conservatorship, from October 2012 until April 2021, and shared details of the behind the scenes developments he witnessed during his time with them. He alleges that Black Box Security President Edan Yemini had a recording device placed in Spears’ bedroom and secured over 180 hours of audio without her knowledge or consent, rendering the act illegal. Yemini has denied this through a lawyer.

Vlasov shared that the audio was brought to him on a USB drive by an agent working for Yemini with a request to erase all traces of its existence. “I had them tell me what was on it,” he shared. “They seemed very nervous and said that it was extremely sensitive, that nobody could ever know about this and that’s why I need to delete everything on it so there’s no record of it.” Suspecting wrongdoing, but lacking full knowledge of the conservatorship’s details, Vlasov secretly retained a copy of the recording. “I didn’t want to delete evidence,” he said.

The request to erase the audio is said to have been made in the days leading up to Spears’ 2016 meeting with a court investigator scheduled to visit her home to assess the state of the conservatorship. “Placing a listening device in Britney’s bedroom would be particularly disgraceful,” the singer’s current lawyer Mathew Rosengart shared in a statement presented in the documentary. “We intend to fully and aggressively investigate these matters.” The recordings included audio of Spears in conversation with her boyfriend and children. Whether the courts were made aware of these recordings is unclear, but doubtful.

Britney’s iPhone Was Linked to an iPad That Reported Her Usage to Jamie Spears

At one point in the documentary, Vlasov compares Black Box Security’s presence to that of prison guards. The constant monitoring of Spears’ every move and communication was taken to even greater heights, he says, when Yemini requested encrypted messages from her iPhone to share with her father Jamie and Robin Greenhill, a business manager at Tri Star Sports and Entertainment. The trio gained access to Spears’ confidential conversations with her mother and sister as well as her recently relieved lawyer Sam Ingham –– who was appointed by the court at the start of the conservatorship –– through an iPad.

The device, which was often kept in a safe, was purchased alongside the singer’s first iPhone and linked to the same iCloud account so that every notes app entry, message and photo stored on her phone would appear on the iPad, too. Even her browser history. “Her own phone, her own private conversations were used so often to control her,” Vlasov said. “I know for a fact that Jamie would confront Britney and say, ‘Hey, why did you text this person?’” Again, it is unclear if the courts were made aware of the monitoring of Spears’ conversations and phone usage, though Vlasov shared that Ingham was aware of the surveillance.

“Intercepting or monitoring Britney’s communications, especially sacrosanct attorney-client communications, represents a shameful and shocking violation of her privacy rights and civil liberties,” Rosengart, her current lawyer, shared in a statement.

In August, Spears posted a high energy Instagram video to commemorate the purchase of her first ever iPad of her own, not one used to deceive and control her. “So, I've got my hair up, I'm in my yard, and I've been working. But, I came into the kitchen and saw something I ordered, and it is a freaking new iPad,” she shared with her 34 million followers. “This is just a groundbreaking day. I've always had a little phone, but now this iPad is in my hands and I feel like my life is changing as we speak and I am so excited.”

Concerned Staff Members Around Britney Were Intimidated Into Silence

While Vlasov provided the security perspective to the documentary, Spears’ former head of wardrobe offered insight into the singer’s life on the road. Tish Yates, who worked with Spears on the Circus tour and her Las Vegas residency, Britney: Piece of Me, communicated with her largely through Greenhill, who received 5% of the gross income from that tour. “I had to have Robin’s approval before I spoke to Britney about a question Britney had,” she shared. When Spears wanted to communicate with Yates directly, she’d write notes to leave in her dressing room.

“Just a little message to let you know I appreciate all of your kind words and patience with me behind the stage,” Spears wrote. “You truly are an angel and just knowing in the back of my mind that there are genuine people like you in this cruel world, it helps me to sleep better at night.” Staff members like Yates who did question the control of the conservatorship, whether directly or internally, often found themselves in a situation where they believed it was better to not say anything than to speak out and consequently be removed or separated from Spears.

“It’s hard on me to know that I could be a person to help,” Yates said. “But maybe that’s what I’m doing now.” Later, she mentions discreetly sending Spears a message of support and communication by gifting her a Tiffany & Co. necklace with her phone number engraved on the back in case they were to lose touch. The buzz around the singer’s camp, according to Vlasov, was that outspoken people tended to disappear quickly, if they were allowed there at all. When Spears wanted to speak with a new lawyer, she contacted him through her phone –– which was being monitored –– and suggested that he come disguised as a plumber in order to gain access.

Spears’ former assistant Felicia Culotta, who spoke extensively in the Framing Britney Spears documentary as well, makes another appearance in Controlling Britney Spears. Here, she recalls being told not to attend the European leg of the Circus tour on account of Spears not wanting her to be there. She came anyway on the condition that she wouldn’t see or interact with the singer. After avoiding Spears for the entire tour, they found themselves accidentally in the same room on the last night of the trek. “She took a full running leap and ran all the way down the hall and leapt onto me,” Culotta said. “She went ‘Fe!’ and wrapped her little legs and her arms around me. ‘Where have you been?!’” It was then that she realized the tactics being used to keep Spears isolated.

Others Were Threatened

One of the most chilling moments in the documentary comes when Vlasov details an interaction he had with Yemini after he left Black Box Security earlier this year and shared his dissatisfaction with their ethical practices. After being invited to speak privately about the matters in Yemini’s office, “he takes the gun in his holster with his clip out, puts it on the table and starts with: ‘So you don’t like the way I run my business?’” The Black Box Security president has denied, through lawyers, the occurrence of this incident.

In the documentary, Vlasov also shares images of private emails sent between Yemini, Jamie’s attorney Geri Wyle and Ingham that raise suspicions as to whether or not Spears’ father had access to her personal phone calls, voicemails, text messages or other means of communication. “I know that this is what I should do,” Vlasov said of sharing his story. “But I don’t know what’s going to happen after this comes out.”

Black Box Security Kept Tabs on #FreeBritney Protest Attendees

Vlasov also revealed that Black Box Security often sent undercover investigators into crowds at #FreeBritney protests, where dedicated and outraged Spears fans gathered to stand against the conservatorship and raise awareness for those who are in similarly restrictive arrangements but lack the same visibility and platform. The investigators would allegedly attend the events to speak to and probe fans for information including anything that could identify them to be monitored later. “It was all under the umbrella of this [being] for Britney’s protection,” Vlasov said.

The Same Concerns Britney Raised at June’s Hearing Were Shared in 2016 to no Avail

In the documentary, Liz Day reveals details of Spears’ 2016 visit from a court investigator via a copy of confidential report. The reading of the documents strikes an eerie semblance of familiarity, flashing back more recently to the singer’s June court testimony. The report, filed as part of a periodic review under the conservatorship, found Spears expressing concerns of control and stating that she felt taken advantage of. It noted that her credit card was managed by her assistant or security team and used at their discretion. Elsewhere in the documentary, Yates recalled an instance where Spears saw a pair of Sketchers in a storefront and was denied the ability to purchase them due to her allowance. Yates purchased them anyway and had it charged to the tour’s wardrobe department.

Spears mentioned to the investigator that she was often punished over miniscule disputes. Earlier, Yates mentioned that whenever the singer would push back on decisions being made by her conservatorship team –– like whether she has the allowance to order sushi for dinner –– it would quickly escalate from Greenhill denying her request to Jamie threatening to cut off access to her children if she didn’t comply. It's one of the small privileges that she has often been denied, just as she recently expressed wanting to simply be able to get in a car and leave on her own.

“She cannot drive alone. She cannot befriend people, especially men, unless they are approved by her father,” the report read. “Then they are followed by private investigators to make sure their behaviors are acceptable by her father.” Spears spoke extensively in her recent testimony about Jamie’s desire to control “someone as powerful as me,” and had requested in 2016 to be made aware of steps to take towards terminating the conservatorship. The report’s conclusion reads: “It appears the conservators have done an excellent job of protecting Britney and it is apparent that they have made commendable efforts to help her reach the positive places in her life she has to this date.” Though the document mentions an eventual termination of the conservatorship, the process to do so only recently yielded any successful developments, as we’ve seen.

“I will be honest with you. I haven’t been back to court in a long time, because I don’t think I was heard on any level when I came to court the last time,” Spears said in June. It rings true when examining how the comments from the investigator failed to reflect the fear and concern Spears had shared with them in 2016. On September 29, Judge Brenda Penny will address the recent changes in Spears’ case including her petition to remove Jamie as conservator of her estate and his own petition to end the legal arrangement entirely, possibly publishing the final chapter in the singer’s battle for freedom.