rag time britney
Photo by X17.

The Power Struggle Behind Britney Spears' Conservatorship Saga

There are several parties jockeying for control of Spears' world, and it's hard to tell which one of them she's aligned with.

Rag Time is a bi-weekly media investigation of a single celebrity story that's vastly more in-depth than you ever thought you needed. This week: Britney Spears' ongoing conservatorship.

There is perhaps no greater tabloid figure than Britney Spears. From her relationship with Justin Timberlake to her 55-hour Vegas marriage to her mid-aughts partying with Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, just about every aspect of her personal life has been documented and dissected by Us Weekly, Perez Hilton, and TMZ, since she broke out as a mega-star in her teens.


In recent years, however, Britney enjoyed a period of relative quiet: She was engaged in a successful Vegas residency, dated a nice-seeming 25-year-old fitness enthusiast, and posted fun memes on Instagram. She seemed to be doing so well, in fact, that fans and journalists started to question the necessity of her conservatorship, which was put in place by her family in 2008 when she was struggling from an undisclosed mental illness and substance abuse issues. For the last 11 years, Britney’s father Jamie Spears has served as her conservator, tightly controlling all aspects of her personal life and finances. The situation has always been confusing for fans (and the media)—traditionally, conservatorships are used to protect the elderly or extremely ill, and Britney has never fit the category.

Now, Britney and the details of her unique situation are back in the tabloids, as she is legally challenging her conservatorship for the first time. How did she get to this point?

Things seemed to change for Britney at the beginning of this year, when she announced that she was cancelling her new Vegas residency to spend time with her dad, who was struggling with his health after being hospitalized for a colon rupture. Around the same time—according to TMZ—Britney’s cocktail of psychiatric medications started to lose efficacy, which led her to check into a mental health facility for a 30-day stay in April. She has since returned home and started the process to formally end her conservatorship. While she hasn’t spoken publicly about this legal challenge, reports suggest that she is determined to gain more freedom, even as she seems to be struggling with her mental health.


What is going on with her? And who’s controlling the narrative? Let’s try to make sense of what’s happening between the cover lines.

People gets the first scoop

People headline

At the beginning of April, Britney announced on Instagram—her preferred way of connecting with fans and the media over the last few years—that she was taking a little “me time” in the wake of her father’s illness. People quickly followed up that post with an exclusive report stating that she had checked into an undisclosed mental health facility for a 30-day stay. (The report did not cite a specific source, but it's likely the story came directly from someone on Britney’s team— People is the preferred tabloid of celebrity publicists, especially when it comes to delivering potentially scandalous or controversial updates on a celeb’s life.) A source told the tabloid that Britney was getting “all-encompassing wellness treatment” and that “there is nothing dramatic going on with her—she just realized she needs to make sure to take time to care for herself.”

Hardcore Britney fans didn’t buy this sanitized statement, however. Shortly after People’s report came out, hosts of the fan-led podcast Britney’s Gram made the startling—and as yet unproven —claim that Britney was being held against her will at the facility. The conspiracy-laden podcast reignited the #FreeBritney movement on social media and prompted a wave of tabloid coverage about Britney’s conservatorship that has yet to die down. (#FreeBritney has been around and vocal, to varying degrees, since Britney’s conservatorship was put in place in 2008. Vulture has a good primer on the movement here).


In the wake of this controversy, People has continued to provide positive updates about Britney’s life. In the last week, the outlet has published four (four!) separate stories online about how Britney has a great relationship with her fitness enthusiast boyfriend, Sam Asghari. “There is no question that Sam is great for Britney,” a “Spears family source” told the tabloid earlier this week. “He is very motivated to stay healthy and fit, and they often work out together.” So … that’s good, at least?

TMZ takes Jamie’s side

TMZ Britney headline

TMZ, meanwhile, has presented a more dire view of Britney’s situation. Picking up right where they left off with their coverage of her unfortunately public breakdown in 2007, the site has been posting round-the-clock about her conservatorship battle. Based on the exclusives the site has gotten so far, it looks like TMZ has a direct line to someone in Britney’s camp. (The site was the first to report that the pop star was having issues with her medication leading up to her stay in a mental health facility, intel that’s now been confirmed by People and other tabloids). So who’s TMZ talking to? Someone who seems to be very sympathetic to Jamie Spears.

TMZ has posted dozens of stories about Britney since she checked into the facility last month, and together they form a three-part narrative that goes something like this: 1) Britney is currently making bad decisions about her health, 2) Jamie has been the best thing for Britney since he became her conservator in 2008, and 3) the conservatorship should continue, despite what other people close to Britney (like her mom, Lynne) might think. According to TMZ, Lynne, who divorced Jamie in 2002, has been staying with Britney since she left the mental health facility and advocating for her in court. But this is not a good thing, per TMZ’s sources. Here’s how the gossip site summed up the current state of affairs in a post from last week:


“As we reported, Britney is not doing well after her 30-day stay at a mental health facility. As we told you, her meds stopped working and doctors have been unable to find the right combination of drugs. As one source said, ‘Britney is making bad decisions and it's a problem.’

Jamie has been trying to provide structure and discipline, and we're told the conflict is that he believes Lynne is way too permissive and just wants Britney to like her.”

TMZ’s sources have also tried to undercut Lynne’s connection to Britney, claiming that the two have been somewhat estranged since Britney broke up with Justin Timberlake in 2002. In a post suggesting that Britney is “using” her mom to gain more freedom, the site noted that Lynne “used to be extremely close to Britney, but when Britney and Justin Timberlake broke up back in 2002, the singer cut her mom out of her life. Their relationship has been spotty ever since … we're told Lynne hadn't seen Britney for around a year.”

But Us Weekly says….

Us Weekly's Britney hed

TMZ has dominated the coverage of Britney’s conservatorship battle, but all the other tabloids are covering it as well. Us Weekly, it seems, has a line into Lynne’s camp. Last week, the tabloid reported that Lynne has Britney’s “best interest at heart” and that commentary that she is being too permissive with her is false.


“Reports that Lynne is trying to help Britney loosen the constraints of the conservatorship are false,” a source told the tabloid. “If anything, Lynne wants Britney back in treatment, and that angers Britney.”

Us Weekly has also exclusively reported on Kevin Federline’s view of the situation. Kevin, who has had full custody of his two sons with Britney since Britney’s conservatorship began in 2008, is apparently limiting Britney’s visits with her children while she recovers. “Kevin won’t allow the boys to spend more time with their mother until Britney is once again stable and therapeutic on medication,” a source told the tabloid. “He allows the boys to spend time with Britney, but it’s at his discretion.”

What about Britney?

Looking out over the tabloid landscape, it’s clear that People is getting official updates from Britney’s PR, TMZ is getting Jamie’s view of the situation, and Us Weekly has sources connected to Lynne and Kevin. But none of the tabloids are talking to Britney directly, save for this week, when, in response to conversation about whether or not she'd ever perform again, she told a paparazzo in a drive-by that "of course" she would. Instead, she has been using Instagram to connect with her fans since she left the mental health facility earlier this month.


On April 23, she posted a video on Instagram where she indirectly responded to the #FreeBritney movement, telling fans “all is well” and that “my family is going through a lot of stress and anxiety lately and I just need time to deal.” In the caption, she added, “You may not know this about me, but I am strong, and stand up for what I want!”

Since she’s been home from the mental health facility, she has posted selfies with her fitness enthusiast boyfriend, Sam Asghari, and videos of herself doing yoga outside and dancing to Michael Jackson in a home gym. At least one of the videos was filmed over a year ago, per The Blast. And it may not even be Britney who is sharing these snippets with the world. Here’s a tidbit from all the TMZ coverage that seems to be getting overlooked: According to a source connected to Jamie, Britney doesn’t even have a smartphone.

In a post about Britney “using” her mom Lynne to gain more freedom in court, TMZ provided previously unknown details about the pop star’s phone usage. “Our sources say Jamie is alarmed Britney is using Lynne to get more freedom, during a period where her judgment is extremely bad,” the site reported last week. “She's not allowed to drive with her phone -- security stopped her after she was caught texting and driving a week ago. Security takes her phone when she takes the wheel. By the way … Britney doesn't have a smartphone -- only a flip phone -- because of what she might do if she has access to the internet.”

Over the weekend, a source told the tabloid that Britney has been asking for an iPhone, but “Jamie has put the kibosh on that because of concerns over social media and people with ulterior motives contacting her.”

At this point, Britney seems to be talking about her current situation only in the courtroom. Last Friday, she attended a closed hearing about her conservatorship with Jamie and Lynne, who has petitioned the court to see Britney’s medical records. (So far, Lynne has not attempted to join Jamie as a co-conservator, but she has shown an interest in becoming more involved in Britney’s care.) According to multiple tabloids, Britney asked the judge for more personal freedoms under her conservatorship—a request that was denied. But the judge did order an expert evaluation in the case, which would be the first step toward ending the conservatorship all together. People reported that Britney left the LA courtroom “comfortable, happy and glowing.”

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Follow Allie Jones on Twitter.