In a rare court appearance, the pop star has urged the judge to end an "abusive" guardianship that gave her father control of her affairs in 2008.
Britney Spears was only 16 years old when she released her debut single "…Baby One More Time" in 1998. It topped global charts and became one of the best-selling singles of all time, with more than 10 million copies sold.
More than two decades later, the pop icon's career and her personal struggles returned into the spotlight through the New York Times documentary "Framing Britney Spears,"along with the court case surrounding the conservatorship giving her father control over her finances and personal life.
Spears' anticipated court hearing took place on June 23 in Los Angeles. It was the first time her own words were heard in open court since the start of the controversial conservatorship 13 years ago, and she made it clear that she wanted it to end.
"I just want my life back. It's been 13 years and it's enough," Spears said in the 20-minute address via videolink as diehard fans chanted their support outside the courtroom.
Why is Britney Spears under conservatorship?
Britney Spears' father James Spears, who goes by Jamie, took over as her conservator in 2008 after she was detained for psychiatric hospitalization following a custody dispute with Kevin Federline, her husband at the time.
"They are images not easily forgotten," wrote the LA Times about the singer in September 2019. "Spears driving with a baby in her lap. Shaving her head. Speaking in a British accent. Being wheeled out of her Beverly Hills mansion on a stretcher.”
Jamie Spears was then appointed as the conservator of his daughter's person and her business assets, together with Andrew Wallet, an LA attorney who was hired to help manage the estate.
According to California law, a conservatorship, or guardianship, is a justified legal arrangement for someone "who is unable to provide properly for his or her personal needs for physical health, food, clothing, or shelter" or for a person who is "substantially unable to manage his or her own financial resources or resist fraud or undue influence."
Jamie Spears not only has the right to negotiate business opportunities or sell his daughter's property, but also to restrict her visitors.
In the years under the conservatorship, the pop star has brought out several albums, appeared in TV shows like The X Factor and performed in a total of 248 shows for her Britney: Piece of Me residency in Las Vegas between 2013 and 2017, which brought in nearly $138 million (€116 million) in ticket sales, according to Billboard.com.
That's what made fans suspicious: How was somebody capable of performing so successfully unable to manage her own affairs?
The cancellation that triggered fans' suspicions
It got worse in 2019, when Spears announced she was canceling her next residency, Domination, citing her father's ill health as a reason for pulling out. For fans, this seemed to be a sign that their star was in trouble.
Subsequently, co-conservator Andrew Wallet resigned, although he had previously claimed in a 2018 court hearing that the Spears estate had grown by $20 million since his appointment.
Arguing that he had saved the singer from financial ruin, Wallet had asked for — and obtained — a salary raise bringing his compensation to $426,000 a year. Fans wondered why he would walk away from such a lucrative position.
Following Wallet's exit, Jamie Spears became the sole conservator of the Britney Spears estate.
Then, in April 2019, the pop star checked into a mental health facility.
Fans launch #FreeBritney movement
On high alert following the announcement, the pop star's fans and LA comedians Tess Barker and Barbara Gray launched an "emergency" episode of their podcast Britney's Gram, which discusses the singer's Instagram posts.
Barker and Gray are two of many fans who assume that the singer is trying to send coded messages about wanting to be liberated from her situation.
"Britney's social media is always posting something 'happy'… to make Britney look like she doesn't care about the conservatorship," #FreeBritney supporter Renato Silva told DW.
In the podcast, Gray and Barker detailed the long gap that Spears took from her Instagram account, analyzing her posts and finding clues that they might have been written by someone else.
The two podcasters also said they received an anonymous message from a paralegal who worked with lawyers on Britney's conservatorship, who told them: "You guys are on to something… What is happening is disturbing, to say the least."
The anonymous paralegal also held her father responsible for canceling the Domination residency in Las Vegas and said that she had been in a mental health facility since January 2019 and not April, as had been announced to the media. It was unclear how long she would remain there.
#FreeBritney began trending on Twitter soon afterwards. The singer herself appeared in a conciliatory Instagram video about wanting to maintain her privacy, but fans weren't convinced.
Pop singer Miley Cyrus famously called out "Free Britney!" in one of her concerts. Even Britney's own mother, Lynn Spears, was liking social media posts saying that her daughter was being held against her will.
In August 2020, Britney Spears' father called the #FreeBritney movement a "conspiracy theory" and a "joke."
In court hearings in November 2020, Britney Spears' attorney Samuel Ingham told the judge that the singer no longer wanted to have her father as her guardian and that she feared him. He also added that his client would "not perform again if her father is in charge of her career."
But the court rejected the attempt to have the singer's father removed as conservator of her estate.
Since then, organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, have spoken out in favor of releasing the singer from her legal straitjacket.
Her fans feel this is not just about her.
"Conservatorship is something very popular in the United States," Silva said. "We can see Britney as an example, and [actor] Amanda Bynes. If we don't look at the full context, some types of conservatorships can be used to control someone in a very inappropriate way… getting money, for example."
"Britney is a live example about abuse in conservatorship," he added. "A big star like Britney can't even vote, date or drive [without permission]."