From “The Jinx” to “Making A Murderer,” television docuseries in recent years have put high-profile cases directly back into the spotlight.
The Princess of Pop has been under a conservatorship since 2008, led by her father, Jamie Spears, meaning he controls her finances and essentially every other aspect of her life. This past November, the superstar lost a bid to remove her father from her conservatorship. He now remains in control, as co-conservator with financial company Bessemer Trust, though the judge did not rule out future petitions for his removal or suspension.
However, Spears took a strong stance, refusing to perform as long as her father remains in control.
“My client has informed me that she is afraid of her father,” Britney Spears’ attorney Samuel D. Ingham III told the judge in late 2020. “She will not perform again if her father is in charge of her career.”
All of this comes amid the ongoing #FreeBritney campaign, a movement led by Spears’ diehard fans — the Britney Army — who believe the singer is being controlled by her father against her will. #FreeBritney has gone viral on social media, and her fans have joined in protest outside of courthouse proceedings.
This is the crux of the new documentary “Framing Britney Spears,” which debuted this weekend on FX and is now streaming on Hulu. Produced alongside The New York Times, the doc is based on the newsroom’s reporting throughout the conservatorship case.
Ever since Spears broke out into international fame as a teen, she has been fighting against nauseating press attention with a sexist narrative framing her astronomical rise to superstardom — and fall, as the media has so long portrayed it.
While digging into the conservatorship at its core, the documentary is set against a backdrop of the misogynistic world of the late ’90s and early 2000s that is stunningly offensive, watching through the lens of 2021. Facing overwhelming tabloid exposure and societal pressures that never wanted to let her win, the doc showcases a side of Spears that has rarely been celebrated in the media over the course of her two-decade career: fiercely independent, strong-willed and incredibly resilient.
Of course, this is something that Spears’ fans have always known — which is why they’ve so passionately stood behind her throughout the #FreeBritney movement, and won’t back down until they believe justice has been served. And “Framing Britney Spears” raises questions that will absolutely add fuel to the fire.
“The main thing that’s getting expressed by the #FreeBritney movement is asking us to question the conservatorship system,” producer and director Samantha Stark of The New York Times tells Variety.
“The central mystery of our film is that she’s living the life of a busy pop star, and yet we’re being told that she’s at risk constantly. She’s making millions of dollars, and yet, we’re told she’s incapable of making decisions that are in her own best interest,” Stark says. “That’s such a conflict, so it’s hard to understand why it’s happening, and so many of the court records are sealed.”
Here, Variety speaks with the filmmaker about the misogynistic media surrounding Spears and what she discovered through her reporting about the conservatorship…
You reached out to Britney’s family members, but none of them participated in this piece. Why not?
A legitimate reason that she and her family wouldn’t speak to any media outlet right now is that they’re in the middle of what looks to be gearing up to be a court battle, and it’s standard for lawyers to advise their clients not to speak to the media when they’re in the middle of that. We reached out to everyone in every way we could imagine — through publicists, lawyers, family friends, people who lived on their street. We wanted to make a big attempt for everyone.
The documentary states that you are unsure if your request for Britney’s participation ever made it to her. What should viewers take away from that?
We tried every which way to get a smoke signal to Britney about the documentary, but there is such a tight circle around her that we don’t know if she got those requests or not. We didn’t a “no” from her. We never got anything from her.
It’s very rare that Britney talks to the media these days. Why is that?
If you’ve done any interview with her for the past five to ten years, it was under careful watch from her handlers. We’ve heard from a lot of people in newsrooms that if you want to interview Britney, her team has final cut over what’s in the piece. A lot of news outlets wouldn’t agree to that, ethically — so you can’t have a journalist ask her how she’s feeling. The only thing you can see is her Instagram.
Do you know how much control she has over her Instagram and social media?
It’s unclear how much of that she controls. A lot of celebrities have social media managers.
Many of Britney’s fans believe she is sending secret messages through her social media. Based on your reporting, do you believe that she is sending a cry for help from her Instagram?
The thing about that is you can’t ask Britney if she needs help because there’s such a tight cone of silence around her that is enabled by the conservatorship. One of the things that a conservator of Britney’s person can do is limit who visits her, they can provide 24/7 security for her, so if you call Britney’s publicist or manager, you’re not going to get an interview. It feels like her Instagram is the only place you can actually hear from her. I look at Britney’s Instagram every day to see if there’s a new post and if I can look into it. We don’t know what’s in her head, and she never talks about the conservatorship, so I understand why fans are wondering if she’s sending messages through her social media.
The documentary showcases archival footage from interviews where Britney is asked by a male journalist about her breasts. She’s also asked during a press conference about her virginity. She didn’t say much, but she pushed back. She was very resilient with the press, but that never got attention.
That was new to me, too. I didn’t realize that. Everyone imagined that Britney was this puppet who was being controlled by these older male executives and then she “went crazy” and that’s all they think about her — but when you look at this footage, she is so young and you see that she was in control. It was important when revisiting all the media coverage that was so mean-spirited to her that we included everything we could find where she was fighting back and expressing a different opinion than what the journalist wanted her to express.
It’s shocking to watch that footage. Today, a female celebrity would talk back to the journalist asking those inappropriate questions, and the journalist would be canceled on social media for asking the question.
It wasn’t that long ago. These were between 2000 and 2008. To think that now, it would never happen, it’s really surprising. This wasn’t deep history when this was happening.
You are right in that there was always a narrative that she was a puppet. From your reporting, what did you learn about how in control she was over her career in the early days?
From everyone I spoke to, it was described to me that she helped contribute creatively to her image. It wasn’t put on her. This didn’t make it into the final cut, but during an interview, I was told that one time Britney and her stylist were in the green room for a morning show and Britney turned around and took scissors and made her shirt into a crop top. The stylist said, “That’s Britney! We can’t control her.”
How did the overwhelming media attention affect Britney in her early years?
I talked to Hayley Hill, who was a fashion director at “Teen People,” and then she became a stylist for Britney and became very good friends with Britney. She said that she remembers Britney crying and that it affected her a lot. When you’re a teenager and there’s a grown man shaming you for your sexuality, which you’re still trying to figure out, what are you supposed to say? A point that Hayley made is that after she was shamed so much for her sexuality from the “Baby One More Time” era, she stopped trying to please everybody. And that’s a lesson all women learn; she just learned it really early. I think that is unknown about Britney, but when you watch the footage, it’s true — she didn’t shrink back when all these adults were telling her that she’s a bad example for their kids. She actually took more control. I think that’s why she wore belly shirts all the time — because people told her not to.
What did people share with you about how she dealt with the negative attention and slut-shaming at the time?
Hayley and Felicia [Culotta, who was Spears’ former assistant] remember her crying in the bathtub and getting upset, but they just had to keep going. But they spoke about how she had these fans who loved her so unconditionally and it was at that time that her fans became so important to her. When she’s on the stage, there is no judgement. She really took solace in this idea that she could go out and perform for her fans and know that she could belong there.
How do you think that sort of hyper-sexualization impacted her psyche?
I don’t know what is in Britney’s psyche, and I was very cognizant of that when we were making this. So many people want to psycho-analyze her without knowing her, but I think Britney’s story is something that is representative of what happens to girls everywhere — she is this celebrated artist and then she starts getting shamed for being too sexy and then she gets in trouble for apparently cheating on Justin and then people call her a slut. People feel like they can say whatever they want about you. That happens in high schools everywhere. And, of course, it damages people.
Speaking of Justin Timberlake, did you reach out to him for this documentary?
We didn’t ask Justin Timberlake for comment, just like we didn’t ask a number of other people who appear in archival footage for comment. Interviewees make points about the media coverage surrounding the breakup, and NYT’s critic-at-large assesses a music video from a very successful album. Unlike other people who we did ask for comment, we don’t make any allegations against Justin. We simply let the footage play…So much coverage about Britney revolves around the men in her life, and we really wanted to not make it about the boyfriends and her relationships. They did affect what happened to her, but we didn’t want to focus on them. Britney has so much say for herself.
Tabloid culture was at an all time high in the early 2000’s. The paparazzi had an immense amount of power because celebrity photos sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Nowadays, celebrities post their own photos on social media. How different was Britney’s path to stardom than the young stars breaking through today?
The industry is not the same at all. It was really hard to pick what to put on screen because a lot of it could be re-traumatizing for Britney. It was kind of a dance to figure out how to use just enough to confront us with our own complicity and look back at things that are so surprising now.
Aside from the tabloid and paparazzi culture during Britney’s rise, no one was talking about mental health at that time. Nowadays, we see stars like Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato openly discussing mental health.
We didn’t talk about that back then. Why did people want to see a train wreck? I think it’s changed because a new generation is in charge now. Most of the people consuming this media back then were in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and Britney was a teenager. Most of the people in media condemning her were that age. Now, most of the people in media and who are running magazines are closer to Britney age’s.
The media coverage surrounding Britney Spears, even to this day, is so damaging. She is often framed as a “crazy” person.
We don’t know if Britney has a mental illness. That’s a rumor in the media. Her medical records are sealed. Nobody knows. One of the reasons it’s called “Framing Britney Spears” is because we wanted to pull out of the reframes about her — whether it’s shaving her head or whatever — and show you what else what happening, and try to correct the narrative, knowing what was outside the images that we saw.
In the documentary, an executive from Jive Records alludes to the fact that Jamie Spears spoke about money from the day he walked into their offices when Britney was a teen. Based on your reporting, is it your best judgment that Britney’s father is taking advantage of her and is solely interested in her money?
I don’t know, but many people we interviewed said things that indicate that. A lot of people didn’t want to go on camera and say that. What we do know is that he struggled with alcohol and went to rehab when Britney was young. It appears he was not a big part of her life at the beginning. It was so hard of us to find any image of him with her. You see her with her mom and her siblings a lot, but it’s hard to find photos of him — so you can take what you want from that. He has said himself that he wasn’t around a lot. He and Britney’s mom, Lynne, got divorced as Britney was rising, and we know that the two of them filed for bankruptcy very close to when Britney hit it big when she was finishing up her first record. To think about that, you are 15 or 16 years old, your parents are struggling and you do not come from a rich background, and you have the opportunity to help your whole family? That’s a lot.
Britney was so young and so many people were profiting off of her — which is one of the problems with childhood fame. During the early days of her success, did Britney realize her earning power?
Hayley told this story that’s not in the doc. They were giving Britney different Barbie dolls that were going to be Britney dolls and they were picking out the clothes for the Barbies to wear. She said to Britney, “You’re going to make a million dollars from these,” and Britney said “Hopefully more!” Hayley said she was so floored that this teenager had this business sensibility. I bring that up because Britney was able to make money so her family wouldn’t struggle, and she knew that.
Fast forward to today, and even though Britney’s father is in control of her finances, she’s paying for him and he’s profiting off of her. That seems a bit backwards, no?
The film shines a spotlight on the conservatorship system because Britney is deemed incapable of hiring her own lawyer, so she was appointed an attorney that she has been paying for the past 13 years. The way the system is set up, she pays for her attorney, for her conservators and for her conservators’ attorneys. Britney right now is filing for her father to not be in charge and she’s paying for her own attorneys and her fathers attorneys that are fighting against her attorneys. It was estimated last year at $1.2 million in legal fees, and I would imagine it would be more this year because more is happening. So, it’s really confusing.
Why was the dad put in charge of the conservatorship, in the first place? It appears that Britney has a much closer relationship with her mother. Why wouldn’t she be put in charge?
That’s a very good question. The kind of conservatorship that Britney is under is the kind that is often used for people with Alzheimer’s — the point of it is to protect the person and act as the person would have acted as if they were in their right mind, so whoever is the conservative is supposed to know what’s in the person’s best interest and know how they would act. With Britney, it’s really odd because she was 26. This is usually for a person who is dying, and a family member is usually in charge, and it’s so hard to get out of a conservatorship because the person usually dies during it. Somebody, usually a family member, has to file for it and they nominate themselves or another person to do it. So, her father was the one who filed for it. From what we know, her mother wasn’t on the filing. That’s how the system works.
It’s obviously more complicated than this because the courts had to approve the conservatorship, but essentially, Britney’s father came up with the idea that she needed to be under a conservatorship, he nominated himself, he was appointed to be in charge and now he remains in charge. Is that a fair understanding of the conservatorship process?
Once you’re in it, it’s very rare to get out of it because it’s usually set up for people who were going to die while they’re under a conservatorship. So, Britney is in this legal tangle, it seems. It seems like a Catch 22 because in order to get out, it’s your burden of proof, so if Britney wants to get out of the conservatorship, she has to prove that she is capable of managing her own life and handling her own money — but how do you prove that if you’re a under a conservatorship where you can’t handle your own life and your own money?
Britney went right back to work in 2008 on the “Circus” tour, and was a guest star on “How I Met Your Mother.” There has been a lot of speculation that it was too soon, and that she became very profitable again — which benefits her father. Did she want to go back to work?
It’s pretty surprising that two months after the conservatorship is in place, she is guest starring in a TV show. She brought a lot of attention to that show when she did that. A lot of these things that she did, not only were they making money for her team, but there is so much money being made on Britney that she is making money for everyone. There is a contradiction that she made fortunes for so many people, but she can’t make her own fortunes today.
The obvious question that people have been asking for years is: if she’s so fit to work, why does she need to be under a conservatorship?
I think it’s valid to ask that question. Conservatorship is supposed to be a last resort.
There has been a lot of speculation about why Britney abruptly canceled her second Vegas residency in 2019. Is it fair to connect the dots between her not moving forward with her Vegas residency and her father being in control?
We don’t know because Britney has never told us. But she canceled this residency, and we heard it was a huge surprise to people working on the residency. It seems that it was a decision that was made when everything was almost ready — we heard they were finishing making her costumes. Another thing that happened around that time is that Kevin Federline got a restraining order against Jamie for the children because of a physical altercation between him and one of the sons — so Britney’s father has a restraining order and can’t see her kids. All of these things were happening around a similar time. I don’t know, but there appears to be a connection.
What is her relationship with Kevin Federline today?
From what we’ve heard, she and Kevin Federline are very good co-parents and everyone basically said that they have a good relationship. We heard that from more than one person.
What is their custody agreement?
I don’t know. We haven’t been able to find anything.
When Britney’s lawyer said in a court filing that she would not perform until her dad was not in charge, that was a huge turning point for the #FreeBritney movement. What was the significance of that letter?
These filings were mind-blowing when they came out because there have been so little changes for so many years that it was so surprising to everyone. We were filming for a while when those came out, and we changed the whole narrative after that. She is for sure indicating that she does not want her father in charge of her business dealings and her money. Her attorney is saying that she is refusing to perform until her father is not in charge of the conservatorship. That is a big stance.
Britney also acknowledged the fans in the legal letter. How much has the fans involvement through the #FreeBritney movement made an impact?
That was the first time she has acknowledged the #FreeBritney movement, and it was really surprising, but also a very assertive thing to say. The filing said that Britney doesn’t want to keep this locked away like a family secret and that the whole world is watching, so she is indicating that she wants something to change and maybe acknowledging that the #FreeBritney fans are onto something.