Question that left Britney horrified
A disturbing new documentary examining Britney Spears' unusual conservatorship arrangement is leading to a swell of support for the reclusive singer.
#FreeBritney, already a growing movement among fans, now has some serious star power as celebrities including Sarah Jessica Parker, Bette Midler and Khloe Kardashian have spoken out publicly after having watched Framing Britney Spears .
There's no word yet on when the 73-minute film will be available for Australian viewers - streams appearing on YouTube are quickly deleted - but it's well worth a watch for even the most casual fan.
Not only does it examine Spears' bizarre "conservatorship" arrangement, which has seen her father control her life and finances for 13 years, it also examines her treatment at the hands of the tabloid press and gives new insight into her final bizarre public appearance in 2018, before she retreated from the public eye to her remote Californian mansion.
One vintage pre-fame clip included in the documentary shows a 10-year-old Spears being interviewed by Star Search host Ed McMahon after giving a surprisingly gutsy vocal performance on the TV talent show.
"You have the most adorable pretty eyes - you have a boyfriend?" McMahon, then in his 60s, asked Spears. "No sir … they're mean," she joked.
"I'm not mean, how about me?" he countered.
It seemed a bizarre, inappropriate line of questioning for a little girl - but it was just a taste of things to come when Spears found worldwide fame.
Interviewers - usually male, usually much older than Spears - are seen asking the teen star whether she had breast implants and whether or not she was a virgin, as she squirmed and tried to answer their questions politely.
Australia's own Mike Munro also appears in the documentary, interviewing Spears for A Current Affair in 2001.
"To many, you are a contradiction. On the one hand you're a sweet, innocent virginal type. On the other hand you're a sexy vamp in underwear," he told her, a suggestion she baulked at.
"I wouldn't say 'in underwear'. On the cover of Rolling Stone, that was the only time. But not when I perform, no," she insisted.
Sit-down interviews with (then) respected reporters like Matt Lauer and Diane Sawyer in the early years of her career also saw Spears struggle, with Sawyer pressing the star to reveal "what she'd done" to cause her break-up from Justin Timberlake.
Lauer confronted new mum Spears with accusations she was a "bad mother". In both interviews, the fragile Spears seemed to surprise herself as she suddenly burst into tears.
BRITNEY'S DARKEST DAYS
2007 was Britney's annus horribilis - and every chaotic turn in her personal life played out publicly. Fourteen years later, the footage still shocks: Britney shaving her own head in a beauty salon, as a wall of photographers lined the window. Britney, eyes wide like a hunted animal, attacking a photographer's car with an umbrella. Finally, the inevitable climax: Britney strapped to a gurney, taken from her home and entered into a mental health facility against her will.
One paparazzo who followed her constantly during that time, Daniel Ramos said: "It was like she needed us and we needed her. We both needed each other.
"It was a great kind of a relationship," Ramos insisted, amid footage of Spears circa 2007 begging photographers to leave her alone.
"Working on her for so many years, she never gave a clue or information to us that, 'I would appreciate you guys leave me the f**k alone.'"
Ramos is the very photographer whose car Britney attacked with an umbrella in those infamous shots. Not seeing it as a signal she may, indeed, want to be left alone, in the documentary Ramos instead marvels that he was able to get a "money shot" from the chaotic encounter.
CONSERVATORSHIP TURNED 'BUSINESS MODEL'
The documentary details how an arrangement originally put into place when Spears was clearly experiencing severe mental distress has now morphed into something very different. In January 2008, Spears' father Jamie, who the documentary paints as a distant figure in her childhood, became her conservator, taking control of her business and financial decisions. It's a drastic legal arrangement, usually employed to help care for those who are severely mentally incapacitated.
With that arrangement in place, Spears' life turned around remarkably quickly after the dark days of 2007: A successful new album came in 2008 and by 2009 she was embarking on a world tour. The Britney Spears money machine was back in full swing - but as she toured the world, released new music and entered into new business arrangements, decisions about her life, finances and health were still made by her father and a lawyer.
Soon came perhaps the most lucrative period in Spears' career: From 2013 to 2017, she performed 248 shows as part of her Piece Of Me Las Vegas residency. It raked in around $US310,000 per show - and as well as managing all those profits, Jamie Spears was approved to keep 1.5 per cent for himself.
One court document showed then-co-conservator, lawyer Andrew Wallet, requested a raise for his role managing her estate and finances. The raise was required to reflect that Britney's "business activities have greatly increased due to her increased wellbeing and her capacity to be more engaged in furthering her business activities."
Which begs the question: Why did she still need to be in the conservatorship?
"The next several years promise to be very lucrative for the conservatorship estate … this conservatorship should be viewed more as a hybrid business model," the court documents said.
THE MOMENT BRITNEY TOOK BACK CONTROL
The film casts new light on Spears' puzzling final public appearance to date: The October 2018 event held to announce her planned new Las Vegas residency, Domination. Streamed live across the world, the event was labelled a "complete mess": After much anticipation, Spears emerged from beneath a stage in front of Vegas' Park MGM hotel. Hordes of screaming fans waited for her to talk, or perform - instead, Spears immediately walked off the stage, strolled down the red carpet past waiting media and hopped into a waiting car to leave the event. Her appearance was over in seconds.
At the time, it seemed a bizarrely mismanaged event - all that hype for a brief, silent appearance from Spears herself? But key players in Framing Britney Spears claim she was meant to address the crowd, and even to perform. It appears her refusal was a sign of things to come.
Weeks later, she would cancel the Vegas residency entirely, announcing an "indefinite hiatus" from the entertainment industry that continues today. According to multiple reports, this has been Spears way of exercising what little control she has under the conservatorship: She will not work until her father is removed and therefore cannot profit from her efforts.
WHERE TO NOW?
In recent months, cracks have started to show in the arrangement between Spears and her father. In November 2020, a Los Angeles courtroom heard Spears is "afraid" of her father, and that the two barely speak.
Lawyer Samuel D. Ingham described Spears as a "high-functioning conservatee" and said she and her father have no "viable working relationship".
Other court documents strongly suggest that fans who take to the street outside her court hearings with placards shouting "Free Britney" are not the "conspiracy theorists" Britney's father has dismissed them as.
Britney's lawyer said she "welcomes and appreciates the informed support of her many fans".
"Britney herself is vehemently opposed to this effort by her father to keep her legal struggle hidden away in the closet as a family secret … In this case, it is not an exaggeration to say that the whole world is watching."
After the release of Framing Britney Spears, this couldn't be more true. The next court date over the battle for conservatorship is due to take place later this week.
Originally published as Question that left Britney horrified