It started, as so many movements do these days, with a protest. In this case, with signs that read, cryptically, #FreeBritney. The Britney in question, of course, was pop icon Britney Spears, and when fans gathered outside the West Hollywood City Hall on April 22, 2019, holding signs that read “The Truth Will Set Her Free” and “#FreeBritney,” it was not immediately clear to most of the world what they were trying to free the singer from.
Just days earlier, on April 17, rapper and The Talk cast member Eve was pictured wearing a shirt with the hashtag and Real Housewives of New York star Luann de Lesseps posted a video on Instagram with the tag one day later.
The rush of activity took place two weeks after Spears checked into a mental health treatment facility for what she deemed some “me time” in the wake of reports about her distress over her father’s health issues, which led to the cancelation of her second Las Vegas residency, Britney: Domination. That set off alarms in Britney Nation, with the loudest bell rung by fans speculating that Spears was being held against her will.
Arguably leading that campaign is the long-running Britney’s Gram podcast. Hosted by comedians Tess Barker and Barbara Gray, the popular show typically focuses on hilariously dissecting Spears’ Instagram posts. The April 16 edition, however, pivoted to an allegation that a secretive effort was afoot to hold Britney captive in the legal arrangement (a conservatorship) that had been in place for more than 11 years at that point — and that the conservatorship was more focused on exploiting the singer than helping her heal.
The “emergency episode” was based on what the pair said was information that they’d obtained from an anonymous paralegal who said they’d worked in an office handling the singer’s long-running conservatorship. That person claimed that the braintrust behind the effort to have others handle the singer’s affairs was forcing Spears to get mental health treatment against her will.
The unnamed source said, “What is happening is disturbing, to say the least. Basically, Britney was in rehearsals for Domination. It came to [her father] Jamie’s attention that Britney was not taking her medication as prescribed. She was missing a lot of doses and just full-on not taking them.” The source then claimed that her father “pulled the show” after Britney refused to take her medications, and that the singer had been in a mental health facility since “mid-January” of 2019.
All this drama came more than a decade after the Spears fan site Breathe Heavy launched the original “Free Britney” campaign near the dawn of the conservatorship, amid concerns that the singer’s metal and physical health were deteriorating under the arrangement’s strict measures.
On April 23, Spears posted a video on Instagram promising fans that “all is well,” noting that her family has been “going through a lot of stress and anxiety lately” and that she just needed some “time to deal,” adding that she is “strong and [I] stand up for what I want!” At that point, the then-37-year-old singer had released four albums, mounted four world tours and performed nearly 250 shows in a successful four-year Vegas residency (Britney: Piece of Me) under the auspices of the conservatorship.
The die, though, had been cast by the explosive episode, which helped launch what is now a global #FreeBritney movement, one that has also spawned other podcasts, endless Twitter campaigns and a Change.org petition with more than 259,000 signatures to date that seeks to let Spears hire her own lawyer to oversee her affairs. The person who started that petition, avowed superfan student Max Morgan, tells Billboard that he was unaware of the conservatorship before the #FreeBritney podcast episode aired, and that it put him in such a “state of shock” he was inspired to start the petition.
When reached by Billboard in late August, Morgan said he didn’t know if Spears supported the movement — but that changed when it was revealed last week that Spears had given a thumbs-up to the efforts to disentangle her from the conservatorship. In court documents filed on Sept. 2, Spears reportedly requested that the conservatorship case be opened up to the public, against her father’s wishes. The filing also noted that Spears was angered by her father’s recent comments in which he reportedly referred to the #FreeBritney movement as “a joke” concocted by “these conspiracy theorists.”
“Far from being a conspiracy theory or a ‘joke’ as James reportedly told the media, in large part this scrutiny [on social media] 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,” Britney’s attorney Samuel Ingham told Us Weekly. “Whatever merits his strategy might have had years ago when Britney was trying to restart her career, at this point in her life when she is trying to regain some measure of personal autonomy, Britney welcomes and appreciates the informed support of her many fans.”
How We Got Here
To rewind a bit: after suffering a public breakdown in 2008, Spears was placed under a legal guardianship (conservatorship) in which her financial assets and estate were placed in the control of her father/guardian, James Spears, and a lawyer. The structure of the conservatorship has long bothered some of the singer’s fans, who claim it is being used to control and possibly manipulate her against her will. In early 2019, due to reported serious health issues, Britney’s dad stepped away from his duties in the conservatorship and professional fiduciary care manager Jodi Montgomery — who had already been overseeing Spears’ finances through her firm, Pais Montgomery Fiduciary — was named as his temporary replacement; Montgomery had not returned Billboard‘s requests for comment at press time.
Earlier this summer, according to court filings, Spears requested that her father be removed as the sole conservator of her estate, though a judge ruled that it must stay in place as is until Feb. 1, 2021. The singer, who had been in the midst of a successful Las Vegas residency, has mostly stayed silent about her conservatorship, but according to the Aug. 31 court filings, requested that Bessemer Trust Company be appointed the conservator. More interestingly for the #FreeBritney Nation, the document referred to the legal arrangement as “voluntary.”
Of course, Britney’s fans held a protest outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in L.A. during the Aug. 19 hearing, with ET reporting that the singer’s ex-husband, Jason Alexander, was on hand to support the movement. The ACLU also stepped in to the fight, pledging support for the star in a post that read, “People with disabilities have a right to lead self-directed lives and retain their civil rights. If Britney Spears wants to regain her civil liberties and get out of her conservatorship, we are here to help her.”
Spears’ older brother, Bryan — who normally does not get involved in family affairs — spoke out in July, reportedly telling the As NOT Seen on TV podcast that “obviously there was a need for [the conservatorship] in the beginning… now they’ve made some changes and all we can do is hope for the best.” He also noted that Britney “always” wanted to get out of the “frustrating” conservatorship.
The #FreeBritney Catalyst
Though they’ve co-hosted the Britney’s Gram podcast since Nov. 2, 2017, and posted 87 episodes to date, Gray tells Billboard that she’s kind of a “medium” Spears fan and that she and Barker started the show after “constantly” analyzing the singer’s Instagram posts off-air. By the time the now-infamous episode aired, though, she says they’d spent months doing a “substantial amount of research” on the conservatorship. In the meantime, the broadcast shifted from “a silly comedy show to something akin to a true crime show” around Nov. 2018, when Barker says she attended a hearing in which the then-co-conservator reportedly petitioned the court for a raise.
“From then on we were sort of constantly taking a deep dive into any court documents we could get our hands onto,” she says. With Spears appearing to retreat from social media in the weeks before the episode amid speculation about what was going on, Gray says nothing could have prepared them for the arrival of the mystery voicemail. “It was shocking, to say the least — we both were stunned by it, followed by a sense of urgency,” says Gray. “It seemed like it could be a dire situation she was in, and we felt like the information needed to be shared.”
Barker, who has a background in journalism that includes investigative reporting for MTV News and The Guardian, says she immediately went to work verifying the person’s identity and workplace, as well as calling former editors, attorneys and other professionals for advice on how to release the episode safely. “It was very scary — we knew we could possibly be exposing ourselves in various ways, but it just felt like the right thing to do,” says Gray.
Aware of the low hum of the #FreeBritney movement, but admittedly not that engaged in the Britney fan community beforehand, the pair say they were intrigued by the issues of “consent and control” raised by the source’s claims, questioning how much autonomy the star could have if “other people” were approving her contracts and controlling her activities. A spokesperson for Spears did not return requests for comment for this story.
While giving credit to Breath Heavy founder Jordan Miller for originating the hashtag, Gray says she and Barker decided to cook up a pink #FreeBritney graphic that they suspected would be eye-catching. “And it worked. We released the episode overnight in the hopes that if anybody tried to take it down it would have already spread too far,” she says. “By the next morning her mother Lynne was liking #FreeBritney comments, and that’s what really encouraged people to get behind it.”
The impact of the episode was immediate, with neither woman getting any sleep the night it was released and Barker saying that by sunrise it was “all over the internet, and the daytime talk shows were discussing it,” with Eve wearing the shirt on TV. “A lot of people sort of immediately took it as a call to action,” she says.
Neither one was surprised when father Jamie dismissed the movement, with Barker chalking his reported comments up to someone who was feeling “very evasive and defensive.” What did surprise them, though, was the seeming acknowledgement from Britney, which they consider a victory for them and all the other people who’ve been following this story for several years. “For court documents to actually say that Britney welcomes the support of her informed fans, that was a big win for those of us who’d been gaslit over the last two years,” Barker says.
In the end, the pair say that the episode served as the “kindling for the fire” of accelerating advocacy for Spears. “I think for a lot of people, it confirmed suspicions they’d had about the way Britney was being treated,” says Barker. “It made them question whether they felt comfortable continuing to financially support a business that appeared to hinge on the exploitation of an artist they really care for… Many people fall victim to conservatorship abuse in this country, but sadly, they are often society’s ‘invisible.’ Britney’s story has shined a light on this larger issue, and hopefully that continues to be the case.”
While the ongoing private saga has increasingly played out in public, a number of superfans have made it their part-time jobs to keep a spotlight on the conservatorship, including two former college roommates who go by Jaclyn and Lisa, founders of the Eat Pray Britney podcast and social feeds, which cover all things Britney, with a laser focus on her legal issues lately.
Lisa — who tells Billboard she and her podcast partner prefer to keep her last names private — says she and Jaclyn have been Britney obsessives since they were teenagers. They decided to launch their podcast last year after wondering “how someone as famous as Britney could be in such a restrictive situation while still being very much in the public eye, and with most of the public having no idea that the conservatorship even existed.”
They launched their podcast around the same time that the now-legendary Britney’s Gram voicemail episode exploded. Rather than focus on incidents from Spears’ earlier career, they have spent much of the past year digging into the minutiae of the conservatorship and giving fans weekly updates on it in episodes titled “Spears Family Values,” “Live From Kentwood it’s… Bryan Spears!” and “The World Don’t Have a Clue.”
Now, with more than 60 episodes under their belts, Lisa tells Billboard that as first-generation Britney fans, she and Jaclyn may not have been an empathetic as they could have when Spears was going through her difficult period in public a decade ago. “We weren’t thinking critically about the messages behind the media reporting, the misogyny and classism at time,” she says of the tabloid headlines surrounding Spears shaving her head, divorcing former dancer Kevin Federline, and other public incidents that the co-host wishes she had treated with more empathy.
Now 33, Lisa says in retrospect it all felt weird even at the time, and that the podcast — which both women do in their spare time around their full-time gigs — was their attempt to discuss their conflicted feelings that the singer’s behavior was being constrained, while reframing the narrative “through a feminist lens, and talk about how mental health is stigmatized.”
When they launched last April, Lisa says they knew the conservatorship would be “part of it,” but after the Britney’s Gram episode, they realized they would need to dive deep, with “no idea” how far down the rabbit hole they’d land. “We didn’t realize that we would be part of something that would evolve in the moment,” Lisa says. “We feel that any increased attention on the conservatorship is important, because in the previous decade it was not discussed at all.”
While admittedly not up to speed on conservatorships when they started, like Barker and Gray, the pair have done a lot of research since then, digging into the history of the practice (as well as the history of its abuse by some conservators). “I hope this is a chance for people to re-evaluate how they might have viewed Britney earlier in her career and how they talked about her and how it relates to their own lives,” Lisa says. “Britney is symbolic of a certain time and the ideas of women’s agency and the right to choose how you live is tied to the Britney discussion now.”
Neither has heard from Spears so far, but both women are confident they’ve opened a lot of eyes and ears, and feel like some of the recent developments may not have happened if not for the renewed interest spurred by the efforts they and others have made.
“In the larger outcome, we’re interested in Britney getting to choose what’s going on in her life and what’s best for her,” Lisa says. “For someone who has given pop culture so much it’s not fair that Britney doesn’t get to fully decide what happens in her life. That’s our end goal.”
Listen to the #FreeBritney episode that started it all, as well as the latest episode of Eat Pray Britney below.