Finally, Britney Spears can say she is free. Or, at least, after a court decision on Friday, Spears will be able to avail herself of rudimentary freedoms that most of us take for granted but that have been denied to her during the thirteen years she lived under a probate conservatorship. She will be able to make her own medical decisions, sign her own contracts, and spend her own money. She now faces a legal battle with those who once managed her life and money, including her father and former conservator, Jamie Spears, and her former business manager, Lou Taylor, who has, along with her company Tri Star, resisted efforts by Spears’s lawyer, Mathew Rosengart, to obtain her financial records.
This moment is the culmination of many things, including a long and concerted push on the part of Spears’s fandom, the most devoted members of which have been flying the “Free Britney” flag for more than a decade. But the end of Spears’s conservatorship came about, above all, because of Spears’s own efforts. Since its inception, she has been fighting to get free. Early on, she tried to escape surveillance to contact lawyers who could help her, and to slip messages to the media through a friend. In recent years, she told a court investigator that she believed the conservatorship was an “oppressive and controlling tool against her,” and that she was being taken advantage of—after all, she was paying her own conservators, and their lawyers, often millions of dollars every year.
In April, Spears asked to address the court directly. On June 22nd, the day before the hearing, she called a 911 dispatch center—part of a tenacious effort that day to tell law enforcement that she was a victim of abuse. After driving to a Ventura County police station to do so in person, she was told that no officer was immediately available. She placed a second call, then went home, where a sergeant and a deputy met her later that afternoon. Michael McConville, the sergeant, had met Spears before. A year earlier, he had accompanied adult-protective-services personnel when they responded to a call requesting a wellness check on Spears. After initially declining to speak, Spears had warmed up when he praised her parenting, telling her that he’d met her children during an unrelated call. When McConville arrived this June in response to Spears’s request, “she was just upset,” he said. “I don’t know what to do,” McConville recalled Spears telling him and her boyfriend Sam Asghari. “I’m stuck—I feel like I’m not able to do anything because of the conservatorship.” McConville asked Spears how old she was. Thirty-nine, she said. Why didn’t she take further control of her life? McConville recalls asking. “And she looked at me and she says, ‘How do I do that?’ ”
Since then, Spears appears to have answered her own question. The next day, she told the court that her conservators sought to “enslave” her, forcing her to work and refusing her even the most fundamental forms of autonomy; they had even denied her request to remove an IUD. The major-crimes bureau at the Ventura County sheriff’s office considered opening a human-trafficking investigation, but dropped the matter after Spears and her attorney declined to pursue the conversation. However, after Spears’s riveting court testimony, the conservatorship quickly began to unravel. In the days that followed, Spears’s longtime business manager, Larry Rudolph, resigned, followed by Samuel Ingham, the court-appointed lawyer who had been representing her, at least in name, since 2008. According to a person closely involved with Spears’s team, its remaining members decided to unite behind Spears. “Jamie’s the only one left on team Jamie,” that person said. Spears was focused on getting a new lawyer, and the remaining team members—including an agent and an executive with the company that managed her social media—decided to help her retain new and more muscular legal representation. The agent had had prior dealings with Rosengart, a former federal prosecutor who has also represented Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Steven Spielberg, and Rosengart’s name was passed to Spears. In mid-July, Rosengart successfully petitioned the court to allow Spears to select her own counsel. After Spears retained him, Rosengart began pressing for the removal of Jamie from the conservatorship. In September, Jamie, rather than stepping down, filed a petition for the conservatorship to be terminated entirely.
Spears, communicating to the public through her Instagram, seemed to be newly unfettered. After Rosengart became her lawyer, she posted a video of herself doing cartwheels, writing, “New with real representation today . . . I feel GRATITUDE and BLESSED !!!!” Under a graphic that read “Take me as I am or KISS MY ASS EAT SHIT AND STEP ON LEGOS,” Spears wrote, “This conservatorship killed my dreams . . . so all I have is hope and hope is the only thing in this world that is very hard to kill.” She posted topless photos, photos of her ass captioned “Here’s my ass,” a picture of a rose in the barrel of a gun, a video of a man waving a pink flag that said “FREE BRITNEY.” In September she announced that she and Asghari were engaged.
A few days before the hearing on Friday that terminated the conservatorship, Spears wrote, in a now-deleted caption, that she hadn’t “prayed for something more in my life.” Asghari posted photos of the two of them in matching “Free Britney” T-shirts. On the day of the hearing, members of the Free Britney movement gathered outside the courthouse and hung notes to the singer on a pink Christmas tree. They urged the public to stream Spears’s single “Stronger,” from 2000, on which she sang, “I’m not your property as from today, baby / You might think that I won’t make it on my own / But now I’m stronger than yesterday / Now it’s nothing but my way.” On YouTube, under the “Stronger” music video, comments rolled in all day, wishing for and then celebrating her freedom. The refrain of that song rewrites the lyrics that made a seventeen-year-old Spears famous: she sings, triumphantly, “My loneliness ain’t killing me no more.”
More hearings will follow, including one to address requests from Spears’s parents that she cover their legal fees. Rosengart, for his part, plans to bring before the court breaches of Spears’s privacy and finances during the conservatorship. He has issued subpoenas to Jamie Spears (who, Rosengart’s legal filings assert, crossed “unfathomable lines” in his control and surveillance of his daughter) and Taylor, the former business manager.
Rosengart believes that Jamie’s willingness to terminate the conservatorship was intended to evade accountability, and, indeed, Jamie’s lawyers now argue that no further legal discovery related to his time as conservator is necessary. Taylor’s company, Tri Star, has not complied with the subpoenas, and has ignored requests from Rosengart to produce a copy of the management agreement it signed with Spears’s estate, and to provide a figure of the total revenues that Spears paid Tri Star. According to a filing by one of Tri Star’s lawyers, Rosengart said that he was prepared to publicly “unload” on the company, “no holds barred.” In recent letters to Tri Star, Rosengart accused Taylor and her firm of “stonewalling and obfuscation,” arguing that their failure to provide basic information to a former client about her own accounts “leads to the unfortunate and inexorable conclusion that Tri Star has much to hide.”
Spears is still in a profoundly difficult position, despite, and perhaps because of, her new control of her life. If Spears acts in any way that could be construed as irresponsible, it could be taken, in legal battles to come, as proof that she can’t handle her own life. In August, police records show, she placed three calls to police that she subsequently cancelled, and police were also dispatched to her home after she was accused of damaging a housekeeper’s phone. (The matter was referred to the district attorney’s office, which did not pursue charges.) In mid-October, Spears wrote on Instagram, “I’ll just be honest and say I’ve waited so long to be free from the situation I’m in . . . and now that it’s here I’m scared to do anything because I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake !!!” She had just regained the freedom to drive, for the first time in thirteen years, and the paparazzi were chasing her, “like they want me to do something crazy.”
Spears’s case has illuminated the impossible bind that conservatees can sometimes find themselves in: once a person has been formally deemed incapacitated, she might well lose the opportunity to ever prove her capacity. Few people who wish to fight their conservatorship have the chance to show that they are able to do more than what their conservators imagine. “There are hundreds of thousands of other Britneys across the United States, people who aren’t famous, but who deserve the same rights we all take for granted—until they get taken away,” Jonathan Martinis, the senior director for law and policy at a Syracuse University center for disability rights, said. “#FreeBritney can’t end with Britney being free.”