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Everything you need to know about why Britney Spears is back in the news

As her conservatorship battle rages on, a new documentary explores her struggle for autonomy and the sexist trap of celebrity culture. Here’s a comprehensive primer on the rise, downfall, and exploitation of a star.

In 2018, singer Britney Spears made an appearance in front of the Park MGM hotel-casino in Las Vegas. Spears wants to be freed from her father. In a recent series of court maneuvers, Spears has sought greater say over her life and affairs.
In 2018, singer Britney Spears made an appearance in front of the Park MGM hotel-casino in Las Vegas. Spears wants to be freed from her father. In a recent series of court maneuvers, Spears has sought greater say over her life and affairs.Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun via AP/File

Pop icon Britney Spears, 39, is back in the news — not because of a hit single or Vegas appearance, but due to ongoing legal battles regarding a long-standing conservatorship controlled by her father. Jamie Spears currently manages his daughter’s financial affairs and personal decisions. A hearing is scheduled in Los Angeles for Thursday to revisit those terms, as the singer fights for greater autonomy.

The conservatorship began in 2008 amid Spears’s erratic behavior, ranging from shaving her head to attacking a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella, to custody disputes with her ex-husband, Kevin Federline, followed by psychiatric hospitalization. Such arrangements are designed for people who cannot make their own decisions and are usually reserved for the elderly, infirm, or mentally disabled.

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Does Spears qualify? In recent months, a #FreeBritney movement has sprung up to advocate for the singer’s welfare, with speculation that she’s being manipulated against her will for mercenary reasons. Think: shades of Judy Garland mixed with Whitney Houston.

Social media has swelled with hashtags from civilians and celebrities alike, ranging from #FreeBritney to #WheresBritney to #ImSorryBritney, spurred on by last week’s New York Times/FX documentary, “Framing Britney Spears.” It examines the singer’s cloistered life, unusual Instagram posts, and manipulation by hangers-on and the sexist media.

In the documentary, now streaming on Hulu, Spears is portrayed as a talented but tarnished pawn who was mocked, exploited, and manipulated despite — or perhaps because of — unspecified mental health issues, a helpless soldier treated as a punch line for the media and a moneymaker for parasitic conservators.

How did we get here? For those who lost track of Spears around the time of “Toxic” — or who just need a pop-culture refresher — here’s a primer.

Child stardom

Britney Spears was born in McComb, Miss., on Dec. 2, 1981. She spent her childhood in Kentwood, La., singing in the church choir and wowing locals with her performing skills. Her parents sensed that she had talent. Mom Lynne set about managing her auditions; dad Jamie was in and out of the picture. “Framing Britney Spears” notes that he suffered from alcoholism and held a variety of jobs, ranging from construction to cooking.

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Lynne Spears secured a children’s talent agent, Nancy Carson. The pair traveled from Louisiana to New York City by train, as lore goes, and began auditioning. In short order, a 10-year-old Spears landed appearances on “Star Search” — where she was grilled about boyfriends in an awkward interview with host Ed McMahon — and “The Mickey Mouse Club,” where she performed alongside future paramour Justin Timberlake.

Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake at the 28th annual American Music Awards in January 2001.
Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake at the 28th annual American Music Awards in January 2001.Rose Prouser/Reuters/file

Icon status

Spears took a break from performing after “The Mickey Mouse Club” but soon secured a record deal with Jive. Her mother returned to Louisiana to care for Spears’s young sister, Jamie-Lynn. Family friend Felicia Culotta became Spears’s chaperone and shepherded her through early stardom, touring malls to promote her 1999 debut album, “…Baby One More Time.” It was a smash, propelled by a video of Spears in a Catholic school uniform, a mix of Madonna and Shirley Temple. Fans found her relatable; critics condemned the exploitative blend of innocence and hypersexuality.

She followed up with “Oops … I Did It Again” and began dating Timberlake; the megawatt celebrity pairing foreshadowed “Bennifer” and “Brangelina.”

A cannily managed lightning rod for fan aspirations and parental derision, she was regularly grilled about her virginity and straddled a fine line between perky idol and jaded adult.

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A crack in the armor

Spears, long marketed as an innocent teenybopper, began to show signs of restlessness — and autonomy. She and Timberlake split up amid speculation that she had cheated; Timberlake released the angst-filled song “Cry Me a River,” which is thought to be a dig at Spears.

Spears married childhood friend Jason Alexander in a shotgun Las Vegas wedding ceremony. (The marriage lasted 55 hours.) She then married backup dancer Kevin Federline, with whom she has two children, Sean Preston and Jayden James. The pair filmed a reality show, “Chaotic,” in which Spears often appeared disheveled and rambling — a stark contrast from her packaged image. Spears later called it her “worst career move ever.”

She conducted various TV interviews appearing weepy and uncomfortable and was often photographed alongside early-2000s tabloid fixtures like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. She also kissed Madonna at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards, a symbolic passing of the rebellious torch. Spears was an angelic teenybopper no more.

Britney Spears and Kevin Federline in 2006.
Britney Spears and Kevin Federline in 2006. Danny Moloshok/AP/file

Erratic behavior

Fans began to worry — and the media began to fixate — when Spears started to display unusual behavior, which dovetailed with a custody battle with now-ex-husband Federline. In 2006, she was photographed driving with her infant son, Sean, on her lap while chased by the paparazzi, leading critics to speculate about her mental state.

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In 2007, she visited a hair salon and shaved her own head in full paparazzi view. Not long after, she threatened a persistent photographer with an umbrella. (The photographer, in true Hollywood fashion, later tried to auction off the item.) She performed a sluggish rendition of “Gimme More” at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards, leading to more speculation about her mental health.

In January 2008, she endured a three-hour standoff with police in a custody dispute with Federline, ending with a trip to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center “for her own welfare” while paparazzi hovered. She was placed on lockdown for 72 hours. Later that month, she was hospitalized for psychiatric reasons once again. Photos of her on a hospital gurney made the tabloid rounds.

In February 2008, a conservatorship was quickly established, with father Jamie Spears appointed as conservator. Jamie struggled to manage his daughter’s affairs while others in her inner circle — such as companion Sam Lutfi, portrayed in the documentary as a celebrity hanger-on — vied for control. Mom Lynne has testified that Lutfi has tried to isolate Spears from her family and routinely demeaned her, calling her an “unfit mother,” a “piece of trash,” and worse. Ultimately, Britney Spears obtained a restraining order against him.

Comeback and concern

Initially, the conservatorship appeared successful. Spears seemed upbeat and busy, with a Las Vegas residency, talk show appearances, and tours. But in 2019, things went awry when she abruptly canceled another yearlong Vegas residency, citing her father’s health issues. Longtime allies, such as Felicia Culotta, appeared sidelined. Federline gained custody of their kids 70 percent of the time.

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Fans, journalists, and assorted armchair psychiatrists and celebrity conspiracy theorists pondered her absence. Pop-culture analysts speculated that she could be sending coded messages through Instagram. The examination was led by the podcast “Britney’s Gram,” which is solely devoted to dissecting her cryptic posts. Fodder for discussion? Messages such as “Eyes are the window to the soul — protect your window,” “Sometimes it’s better to stick your tongue out so you can breathe,” and “There’s always a way out.” Her abruptly edited home-video dance routines also raised eyebrows.

Then, drama. No Instagram posts; no appearances. Fans panicked. “Britney’s Gram” even released a “Missing Person” poster. One of her co-conservators, the improbably named and handsomely compensated Andrew Wallet, abruptly quit. A #WhereIsBritney hashtag was born. She finally resurfaced with a post — “We all need to take time for a little me time” — and a smiley face. Fans fretted because she used an emoticon, not her preferred emoji. Was it a sign? Did she even write the post? TMZ soon reported that Spears checked into a mental health facility for unspecified issues and later reported allegations that her father committed her and forced her to take drugs.

"Framing Britney Spears" shows the singer being photographed at an airport on her way home from a tour in 2000. The singer was often followed by paparazzi.
"Framing Britney Spears" shows the singer being photographed at an airport on her way home from a tour in 2000. The singer was often followed by paparazzi. FX

Battle for control

Fans, mental health advocates, and journalists worried that Spears is being held against her will. The conservatorship persisted, all while Jamie Spears underwent investigation for alleged abuse of one of Spears’s sons. Around this time, 13-year-old Jayden Federline took to Instagram Live to rail against him. Lynne Spears also petitioned for involvement in her daughter’s medical decisions, saying she just wants to have a “voice” in her daughter’s life.

Meanwhile, throughout 2020, hashtags such as #FreeBritney gained popularity (there’s even a website with a full timeline of her legal issues). Was she being brainwashed? Trapped? Brother Bryan Spears gave an interview in which he described his family of “strong-minded’ women, admitted that there was a need for the conservatorship in the beginning, and commented, “All we can do is kind of hope for the best. … She’s always wanted to get out of it.” It was a rare peek inside the family dynamic.

Current controversy

The new “Framing Britney Spears” documentary highlights court documents in which Spears requests that her father be removed as conservator, asking that a qualified corporate fiduciary oversee her estate instead. Documents also state that Spears “welcomes and appreciates the informed support of her many fans,” referring to her legal struggles as a “family secret” perpetrated by her dad. Celebrity supporters include Paris Hilton, who commented, “I feel if you’re an adult, you should be able to live your life and not be controlled” — possibly speaking from experience.

Her father’s camp insists the conservatorship needs to continue and she does have freedom. At a public November hearing, attended by fans, Spears’s lawyer Samuel D. Ingham III reportedly stated that Spears is afraid of her father and that she will refuse to work until he no longer manages her career. Jamie Spears was not suspended, but a corporate fiduciary was added, per the singer’s request.

The documentary does not include interviews with Spears, but she appeared to comment on it in a new Instagram post, writing, “Each person has their story and their take on other people’s stories !!!! We all have so many different bright beautiful lives! Remember, no matter what we think we know about a person’s life, it is nothing compared to the actual person living behind the lens!”

A new hearing is scheduled for Feb. 11 in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, Spears’s current boyfriend, Sam Asghari, recently took to Instagram to criticize the singer’s father.

“I have zero respect for someone trying to control our relationship and constantly throwing obstacles in our way,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, the #FreeBritney movement rages on. Whether Spears can free herself is another story.

“Framing Britney Spears” is now streaming on Hulu.


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.