On April 3, 2019, TMZ reported that Britney Spears checked herself into a mental health facility, following her father’s ongoing physical illness and surgeries. The news arrived after she announced an indefinite work hiatus in January, when his health began to decline.
In response, #FreeBritney was born—a hashtag for the dubiously sourced theory that Britney Spears is being held against her will at the mental health institution, and has been there for much longer than previously reported. It’s a lot to take in. Let’s take a look the vagaries of this movement.
Tess Barker and Barbara Gray, two Los Angeles-based comedians, host a weekly podcast called Britney’s Gram, which usually consists of humorous dissections of Spears’s Instagram posts. But on Tuesday, April 16, the duo published what they called a “special, emergency episode” titled “#FreeBritney.” (Full disclosure: Barker is also a journalist, and has written for Jezebel in the past.)
In the #FreeBritney episode, which runs just over an hour, Barker and Gray discuss Spears’s ongoing conservatorship, which has been in effect since early 2008, after she shaved her head and was taken to UCLA Medical. A conservatorship is typically reserved for the elderly and mentally ill; according to the New York Times, it is implemented when “an adult with a relationship to the individual, perhaps a spouse or other relative, [petitions] a county probate court for control over his or her affairs.”
Under Britney’s conservatorship, Spears cannot make any personal or financial decisions without the approval of her conservators: her father Jamie Spears, who oversees her personal life and finances, and her lawyer Andrew M. Wallet, co-conservator of her estate. Both men began their positions in 2008—but on March 4, 2019, Wallet resigned. According to court documents obtained by The Blast, he announced his departure with a statement:
“The conservatorship is engaged in numerous ongoing business activities requiring immediate attention and it therefore is in the best interest of the conservatee that the acceptance of Wallet’s resignation and the issuance of amended letters of conservatorship of the estate occur immediately and without delay... Substantial detriment, irreparable harm and immediate danger will result to the conservatee and her estate if the relief requested herein in not granted on an ex parte basis.”
In October, Wallet requested a raise for controlling Britney’s estate to a total base salary of $426,000; according to Page Six, his reasoning was that when he began working with Spears, she was “nearly out of funds” and in “total chaos with tremendous liabilities.” He claimed her estate had since grown to $20 million, and he also cited Spears’s “increased well being and her capacity to be engaged,” as grounds for more money. Radar Online reported that on November 14, 2018, Spears’s conservatorship attorneys appeared in the Los Angeles Superior Court, where Wallet was granted his raise.
But back in 2008, MTV reported that Spears hired Adam Streisand, Barbara Streisand’s second cousin and an attorney who specializes in large celebrity estates, to challenge Wallet and her father from becoming her conservators. She was estranged from her father at the time, and Streisand told the court he was concerned the situation would cause “greater estrangement.” The commissioner sided with Samuel Ingham, the court-appointed investigator, who argued Spears was too unwell to hire her own lawyer, and Wallet and Jamie were given their titles.
The #FreeBritney theory that follows makes gargantuan assumptions about mental health without much concrete evidence—with the exception of MTV, all of the sources above come from tabloids—and the #FreeBritney podcast episode compiles them and presents them as concrete, based on a single anonymous source. But then again, it is also very possible for conservators to abuse their positions of power. In fact, it happens all the time, which leads us to the next section: What the hell is this conspiracy even about?
In the podcast, Barker and Gray lay out a series of events that lead them to the conclusion that Spears is currently in a mental health facility against her will and must be released from the confines of her conservatorship. It’s important to note that, aside from the sole source, their deductions are based on opinion and speculation. On Tuesday, TMZ reported that Spears was admitted to a mental health facility while doctors were changing her medication. Despite what the #FreeBritney theories may deduce, the TMZ report states that a conservator cannot force a conservatee to take medication, nor can they force a conservatee into an institution against their will.
The podcast begins with the events of the past few months: On January 4, 2019, Britney posted a throwback picture of her with her father Jamie and her mother Lynne, accompanied by a lengthy caption that announced the cancellation of her second Las Vegas residency, Domination. “A couple of months ago, my father was hospitalized and almost died... I had to make the difficult decision to put my full focus and energy on my family at this time,” she wrote, referring to her father Jamie’s colon rupturing and his subsequent surgeries. “I hope you all can understand.”
Three days after the announcement, on January 7, Spears was photographed driving—something she is allegedly not allowed to do under her conservatorship—through an In-N-Out drive-thru with her current boyfriend, model/actor Sam Asghari. After those images circulated, Spears stopped posting on social media; the paparazzi shots also ceased.
On April 3, after Wallet’s resignation and right before it was announced that Spears checked herself into a mental health facility, she posted a motivational self-care quote on Instagram with the caption, “We all need to take time for a little “me time.” :).” Gray makes it clear on the podcast that she feels this was slightly out of the ordinary—Spears favors emojis to old-school emoticons—which Gray says made her think something was up.
Here’s where it gets weird: an anonymous source called Barker and Gray’s podcast hotline and left them a voicemail, which they air on the podcast, and state they were able to verify as legitimate, but don’t explain how. In the recording, what appears to be a man’s voice reassures the women that they are “onto something,” and he would know because he “used to be a paralegal for an attorney that worked with Britney’s conservatorship” but he is “no longer with them” and finds “what is happening” to be “disturbing, to say the least.” The anonymous source claims that Jamie found out Britney wasn’t taking her medication as prescribed and cancelled the Domination residency because she refused it, telling her to “blame” her cancellation “on my illness.” The source also claims on the podcast that Spears entered the mental facility in mid-January, not late March or early April as publicly reported, and that there’s no truth to the 30-day stay.
Barker and Gray editorialize from there. They say they believe Britney wanted to do the Domination residency because it gave her “something to do,” or “purpose,” and otherwise couldn’t interact with the public under her conservatorship. Barker draws the conclusion that “according to this source, her employment was being used as blackmail to get her to take drugs she didn’t want to take.” She theorizes that the reason Wallet stepped away from his very lucrative gig, for which he had just received a hearty raise, was because he got caught doing something unfavorable.
Gray quotes their source again—this time, without playing a recording—and says he told her that Wallet backed out over his role as co-conservator because, as Gray puts it, he didn’t “want any sort of liability.” Barker says that their source made lots of claims about the involvement of Larry Rudolph, Britney’s manager from the beginning of her career, whom she fired and her father rehired when he became her conservator.
Jezebel has reached out to Barker and Gray and will update this post if they respond. Update, 5:03 PM: Barker tells Jezebel that she verified her source “via the same means that I would use to verify any source bringing forth sensitive information on any story.” She says she and Gray “think it’s heartening to see that so many people care more about Britney Spears the person than Britney Spears the brand,” and that they “hope that bringing this information to light leads to further journalistic and legal investigation of the individuals tasked with overseeing Britney Spears’s finances and well-being.”
Of course. Spears Stans believe her business manager, Lou Taylor (who also represents her sister Jamie Lynn Spears), is somehow to blame: There are wild conspiratorial theories making the rounds on Twitter that Lou was a stalker-witch who befriended Spears’s father and orchestrated the conservatorship. Some believe there is a ton of unreleased music in which Spears tackles her situation head on—but wasn’t allowed to share any of it with the world.
Dive into the hashtag and the theories are endless, but they mostly relate back to the podcast that started the movement.
Somewhat? Certain celebrities do. Courtney Stodden wore a #FreeBritney tank top over the weekend. Real Housewives of New York star Luann de Lesseps posted a video on Instagram strutting to Spears’ single “Me Against the Music,” emblazoned with the hashtag #FreeBritney.
Eve also wore a #FreeBritney shirt on Friday’s episode of The Talk as the hosts discussed the probability of there being some truth to the theory. “I am wearing the shirt because we all love her. I’ve always been a Britney fan,” she said on the show. “I want her to be getting the help she’s getting, but not under duress. You know? Unless, because we don’t know anything. We don’t know anything. Hopefully, this is putting the right eyeballs on it if, god forbid, anything wrong is happening, unless she’s a danger to herself. We’re praying for her.” The Talk posted a Facebook poll it ran, which claimed 27 percent of their viewers believe Britney is being held against her will.
#FreeBritney is particularly poignant—not to mention, speculative to the point of being potentially damaging—12 years after Spears’s very public breakdown in 2007. At one point in the podcast, Gray speculates that, of course, after years of being chased by the paparazzi, “You would have some mental issues with that... [she] can’t be sedated anymore.” Barker believes that whoever used the word “misbehaving” to describe Britney’s behavior didn’t think she was ill, because that’s language most commonly used with children, not those with mental difference.
Gray believes the reason Britney hasn’t spoken out publicly about the extent of her conservatorship and the lack of freedom is simple: “The overarching thing that they hold over her head is custody of her children,” she speculates on the podcast. “It has to be. Otherwise, what would she be doing this for?” Barker believes she hasn’t because she can’t—“She was already labeled as crazy” back in 2007 and 2008, Barker reasons, so who would believe her?
There is truth to the gendered implications of the term “crazy”—once Britney was branded with the term over a decade ago, it became a defining characteristic for the way people talk about her publicly. Still, it is no one’s place to assume anything about anyone’s mental state, and until the details of her conservatorship are made public, we won’t know how much truth there is to this. By speculating not only about Spears’s current mental health, but the legal status of her conservatorship and her reasoning for abiding by something they believe is unjust for over a decade, the #FreeBritney rhetoric fuels the flames of conspiracy theories. It invites the dissemination of misinformation that could endanger Spears, her family, those affected by the case, and beyond.
Barker and Gray have been making the press rounds: They visited Access Hollywood on Thursday to give the series an abridged breakdown of their theories.
Publicly, Spears entered a mental health institution “about a week” before TMZ first reported on it; after a reported 30-day stay, she should be expected to exit at any moment now. All fans can do is wait to see, and, of course, hope sensationalists like YouTuber Shane Dawson aren’t preparing to upload a conspiracy theory video about the subject, proliferating inaccuracies on an even larger platform.
Listen to the full #FreeBritney podcast here. It’s a ride.