Why The Truth About Britney Spears Is So Elusive

“Framing Britney Spears” documentary director Samantha Stark wants to move the frame on one of millennials' most iconic mysteries.

Framing Britney Spears Interview
Photo: FX

Britney Spears is one of the most-covered and least-known celebrities of the modern era. She is a millennial icon whose songs were the soundtrack of a generation. A choreographed contradiction from her earliest burst onto pop stardom, the singer became a blank canvass for anyone carrying a paint brush. The FX docuseries The New York Times Presents “Framing Britney Spears” is an attempt to find the artist’s place in the gallery. It is also searching for Britney’s whereabouts in general. Spears was placed into a conservatorship when she was 26 years old. That was 13 years ago this month, and she has been petitioning the court to have that changed.

Britney’s conservatorship, overseen by her father Jamie Spears, has been profitable. With a net worth of over $60 million, maybe too profitable to ever get resolved. It could be a form of life imprisonment and wannabe jailers appear to come out of the woodwork regularly in Britney’s career. Spears also currently has a restraining order against Sam Lutfi, one of her former managers.

According to “Framing Britney Spears,” court documents call the singer a “high-functioning conservatee.” Britney’s fans point out their favorite star released four albums, went on three world tours, performed a sold-out five-year residency in Las Vegas, was paid $15 million to be a judge on The X Factor, and put her name on a billion-dollar perfume line. Yet, she has been deemed incapable of taking care of her finances or life, and even when she can drive.The case is being proceeded over by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny.

For a pop queen in exile, Spears hasn’t been invisible. She’s been spotted at Starbucks with her boyfriend, Sam Asghari. She’s posted clips of her dancing, working out, painting, and giving impromptu fashion shows on Instagram during the coronavirus lockdown. Her posts, of course, only fuel the fire of conspiracy theorists, regardless of their apparent mood or meaning. Spears’ song titles like “Work Bitch,” “I’m a Slave 4 U,” and “”Out from Under,” could also be read as messages concerning her career. 

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Spears commands loyalty, and her fans love her. This is poignantly evident in Chris Crocker’s viral 2007 YouTube plea to “Leave Britney Alone.” The #FreeBritney movement rose up spontaneously after the conservatorship. The fan-produced podcast “Britney’s Gram” has dedicated itself to getting information to the public. Miley Cyrus shouted “Free Britney” during a performance. Paris Hilton and Rose McGowan have shown support. Britney’s mother Lynne Spears has been known to “like” comments with the #FreeBritney hashtag. 

Samantha Stark, the director of The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears, freelanced as a choreographer while making the two-step into video journalism. Writing at The New York Times for the past 8 years, she also produced and directed episodes of The Weekly. Stark spoke with Den of Geek about the difficulties of reporting on Spears’ conservatorship, and the future of journalism in a changing media climate.

Den of Geek: What drew you to Britney, of all the cases?

Samantha Stark: We started filming this before a lot of these court filings about the conservatorship started happening. The original concept was to look back at media coverage of her through this 2020-then-lens, post-MeToo and post when things like talking about mental health are more mainstream. There’s not as much stigma. Looking back at the media coverage of her from the early 2000s feels so shocking now. That was the original concept. Then while we were filming, these court filings started pouring in.

Could you have picked two better names for this case than Wallet and Judge Penny?

Right? There are a lot of similar names that run throughout it. You have Jamie Spears and Lynn Spears and Jamie Lynn Spears. You have a lot of Kevins, just like a ton of Kevins running throughout. There are a lot of Sams also in Britney’s story. There are a lot of re-occurring names. But yeah, Andrew Wallet.

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What’s the first misconception “Framing Britney Spears” will clarify for the casual Britney Spears fan?

A huge misperception of her, that I had going into the project, is a lot of people think that the creation of her image and the music that she does and the way her shows are and the outfits she wears are other people’s decisions. But what I learned over and over again was how much of a say in her early career, including “Baby One More Time” at the very beginning, she had in her image and the way she was presented. How involved she was creatively in every show she did and every music video she made, particularly at the beginning of her career. I think a lot of people think she’s this puppet that was sexualized as a teenager and didn’t know it. And I think, from talking to the people who worked with her then, that that was her. She had a really big say in that.

From my unscientific survey, asking everyone I came into contact with “what’s the first thing they think of when they think of Britney Spears”: A lot of people say, “Oh, that time she shaved her head,” or “the picture where she shaved her head.” One of the reasons it’s called “Framing Britney Spears” is there seems to be these very few still-image frames in our collective subconscious, that burned into us when we remember her.

We went into it wanting to figure out how we could learn what was behind the frame, outside of the frame. I think a lot of people don’t realize all the different factors that were leading up to that point. A lot of people don’t realize that she was going through a custody battle then and how important her role as a mother was to her, or is to her still. There’s a lot of pulling back the curtain we could do.

Danny Ramos, the photographer we interviewed, was one of the only people doing video during the big paparazzi explosion. We wanted to talk to him and use his video, so you could see what was happening outside of the frame. He describes the time with the umbrella, that’s another big photo that people remember, like the head shaving. What people don’t realize is how upset she was that day because she was trying to see her kids and wasn’t able to. And how much he pushed her buttons before that happened, some deep buttons. So that’s outside of the frame. 

Another one is the central mystery of our film. I think a lot of people don’t know that Britney Spears is still in a court-sanctioned conservatorship and that, for most of the 12 years, her father was the one in charge of her personal, medical, and economic decisions. He controls what happens with her money. The central mystery of our piece is something that Joe Coscarelli, one of our reporters, says in the film: “She’s living the life of a busy pop star, and yet we’re told she’s at risk constantly.” How is someone who can live the life of a busy pop star also be so at risk that she can’t make basic decisions for herself like medical-care decisions, where she lives, contracts, what to do with her money?

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Britney’s lawyer, Adam Streisand, mentions a health report he wasn’t allowed to see, and was told by the judge it was justified withholding. I’ve seen a lot of reported diagnoses on the internet. Do you have any idea what that report said specifically?

Absolutely not. I think that’s important. Part of the difficulty with reporting on conservatorships, Britney’s and also any conservatorship, is that a lot of it has to do with medical records. Also, they do have court investigators that go out and interview the people involved. They have different kinds of people who submit reports about the person, and they’re protected under HIPAA and also allow the person some privacy.

Britney has signaled recently through her court filings that she doesn’t want her records to be sealed, that she wants people to be able to see them. But that’s particularly with her estate, which is different from the medical records. Who knows if she would want people to see that report also? But her conservators and lawyers in the past have decided it’s against her best interest. That’s something else interesting about conservatorships, is that other people decide what is in the person’s best interest. As Britney is performing in Vegas, other people are deciding for her what’s in her best interest all the time.

Since we don’t know anything about that report, we don’t know if Britney has a mental health diagnosis. She could not, there could be nothing actually in that realm. A lot of people like to speculate what kind of mental illness she might have, but we don’t know if she even has one. I think that’s important to remember.

Britney’s request for an outside independent party taking conservatorship seems like the most rational solution to the situation. Why is this so difficult?

That is the question. It seems as if Britney requests, “I don’t want my father in charge of being a conservator of the estate. I want this trust, Bessemer Trust, instead.” Yet her father is still in charge. That is legal. The judge made that decision. We don’t know why. A lot of questions about the conservatorship system, as a whole, have been brought up during this process. When someone is under a conservatorship, they are under a conservatorship because it’s considered that they cannot act in their own best interest. Conservatorships are mostly given to the elderly with Alzheimer’s, because a lot of people try to take advantage of people with Alzheimer’s and get them to sign over their money or their wills. And this was put in place to protect those people, which is really necessary.

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It’s confusing because Britney is not. It’s a very unique situation, they always say, but we don’t know why.Jamie’s argument is that he has been doing a good job on this for the past 12 years. Her estate has grown, and that if he gets taken off and a whole new company takes over, it can harm her. Bessemer Trust does this professionally. They manage people with gigantic estates’ money all the time. So, the merits of that argument are questionable. But the judge decided that way. She’d left the door open. She didn’t decide he’s definitely staying on. She didn’t do an emergency suspension. That’s what they were asking for. They could still file to remove him.

These legal processes take a really long time, and as they’re happening, everybody’s getting paid. Britney’s estate pays the lawyers on both sides. She pays for her own lawyers, and then she pays for the lawyers arguing against her own lawyers, as well as the conservators’. That is oftentimes what happens with the conservatorship system. That’s also a place where people point to as something that could be a systemic issue in conservatorship systems: are these lawyers always acting in her best interest while also getting paid as long as the conservatorship is in place?

Is Britney a hostage, or is this a self-imposed exile?

I have no idea. We don’t know. Another really hard part of reporting this is there’s such a strong circle around Britney, seemingly controlling who she interacts with, because of the conservatorship, that we can’t talk to her. And she has not said anything publicly on her social media. Through her court documents, she said she appreciates the long “informed support” of her fans and that she “doesn’t want this battle hidden away like a family secret.”

Those were quotes from her court documents written by her lawyer, Sam Ingham, who legally is responsible for speaking for her since she’s not legally necessarily supposed to speak for herself. She could. So, that’s a mystery. Why isn’t she saying anything? Is it because there are people around her stopping her, or is it because she doesn’t want to say anything? Maybe Britney doesn’t want to talk to anyone about this. We have no idea. It makes it very frustrating to report on.

Just because you report on something doesn’t mean you agree with it. Do you think Spears speaks in code on her Instagram posts?

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I don’t know. I have looked at every post since 2015 and some before that. It’s really fascinating to look at. Something about her Instagram that I love was this period of time where she was posting a lot of herself with her kids. It was just so beautiful to see her as a mom, because I know from talking to people close to her, that’s the number-one thing she’s ever wanted, to be a mom and to be seen as a mom. So those are really moving to me. Whether or not she’s speaking in code with other things, it’s so hard to tell because they’re always so surprising what she puts up there.

It seems she’s been doing it consistently, even in her songs throughout her career.

Yeah. It is interesting to listen to some of her songs now that we’ve seen all this come out in court. Even the song “Overprotected.” Listening to that now, wow. It has such a different meaning knowing that she does not want her father to be “protecting” her. A lot of her music videos and music has this bondage theme. Britney is often seen in chains or in cages. Also, a lot of themes of people taking from her, like “Gimme More.”

I think people haven’t taken that seriously, but when you look at it and you think of these as art and expression, even if she doesn’t have a song-writing credit on the songs a lot. Felicia [Culotta], her assistant and friend, who’s been with her for most of her career, said she would go into the studio and talk to the people who were writing the songs about what was happening in her life. And they would often write songs based off of what she was saying, which I guess is standard in the industry. I didn’t know. But we can draw our own conclusions to why there is such a big theme, yeah, of bondage and of people taking stuff from her.

Britney was a trendsetter musically. She explored dubstep, and she really is the face of the millennials. Do you think the #FreeBritney movement will also become a millennial icon?

Well, one of the things I find so compelling about the #FreeBritney movement is talking to Kim Kaiman, who was the marketing director at Jive Records. She was the person who met Britney when she first came in at 15, and decided how to market her, what her image was going to be. She very much expressed that she wanted it to be based off of who Britney actually was as a person. She describes her as “your friend that you kind of idolize a bit and look up to, but is the same as you, has the same hopes and dreams as you have.” And the 12, 13-year-old preteen age was who they were marketing her towards, I think she really connected with that.

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Kim says she captured so well the dichotomy of what a teenage girl is. Teenage girls want to be grown women, but they’re also kids. It’s this wanting to be sexy and in control feeling that she captured that really spoke to these young people. Almost everyone in #FreeBritney who I talked to was in their late 20s or early 30s. So they were that age then. They were those kids that she was being sold to. I feel like the idea that she’s your friend really carried over, because they’re like, “This is my friend that they’re doing this to. I have to go stop it,” from what they said to me.

When they were that age, she was sold as this perfect, all-American girl. Kevin Wu, who’s one of the #FreeBritney organizers, says this in the film. He was saying finding out that she wasn’t perfect, that time where she was super vulnerable to people, and she was having public issues. I hate saying meltdown because I really don’t know what it was. But the vulnerability that she showed there really, really speaks to this group, and also, I would say, that age bracket in general.

I keep quoting people, but Felicia, it’s not in the film, said “Britney was judged and criticized for who she was. Even when she came out as a teenager, she was judged and criticized for being too sexy. A lot of people who are kind of these outsiders or people who were bullied or LGBTQ people, they were judged and criticized for who they were when they were younger, and so there’s this connection. They can relate to each other.” She said, “Britney relates to them as well.”

There’s kind of this counterculture fandom that the #FreeBritney people are like the people who were bullied when they were younger. And it is kind of millennial. We want to be more open talking about mental health. We don’t want bullying. We want diversity. I do think that it really speaks to that.

You worked extensively with the #FreeBritney movement players. In the review, I wrote you treated them like stringers. How do you rate them as journalists?

I would not say that we treated them like stringers because we did all our own reporting ourselves. We have our own journalists. Liz Day, who’s featured in the piece. Everything that they were finding out and bringing up we independently investigated and verified, absolutely. But I will say, I think they became their own investigators for themselves. There weren’t people doing investigations into it when they first started in 2019. And so, they definitely became their own investigators trying to dig up court documents. But we definitely did that ourselves.

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But part of the story is that they became these investigators, so we do feature that in the story. It’s fascinating. Some lawyers are involved with #FreeBritney, and they know how to find the publicly available court documents. They would take them and put them online and highlight them. And as soon as a new court document would come out, like if Sam Ingham, Britney’s court-appointed attorney, would file something new, they would know immediately and post it online and dissect it. But we did that ourselves too.

It’s so much easier for us to do it because we have a full infrastructure set up for it. These people were spending so much time. The reason they started doing the investigating is because there wasn’t any media covering it, and they really wanted that. They wanted people to look into this. And so, they started doing it themselves, and it got a lot of attention. Then the media did look into it.

We had an investigation into her conservatorship in 2016, so we were one of the only people to be looking at it in that way. It was by the reporter who’s in the film, Joe Coscarelli. They did this “Is Britney Spears Ready to Stand on Her Own” questioning: is she ready to not be in this conservatorship? A lot of people are interested in it because of what they started digging up.

I see it similar to the hijacking of right-wing hashtags by the K-pop stans or what’s happening right now with the GameStop stock. The community is bringing the attention and journalism is keeping up with it.

The fact also that the age of a lot of these people means they’re so adept at internet culture and social media culture. They are using social media in a sophisticated way to get people to pay attention to them, for sure.

Do you think Britney had any idea how creepy the Star Search Q&A with Ed McMahon was, or was she just blindsided by the stupidity of it?

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I think you can look at her face and be the judge of that. She was 10, but she handled it very well. I think it boded for the future of men asking inappropriate things to her. She just kind of like, “It depends. Boys are mean. It depends.” She kind of shook it off quite well as a ten-year-old.

And you see her in our piece later, when there are men asking her inappropriate questions, she sidesteps it in a really good way, in a really way that’s interesting to watch.

The shocking one was her being told about a mother saying that she wanted to shoot her because she was a bad influence.

The wife of a governor, by the way. That’s the kind of thing that you look at and you wonder would it happen now? I think we’ve come some way of not trying to shame people for their sexuality, but who knows?

There’ve always been persistent dark rumors about Britney, along with other celebrities who reach a certain tier. Why do you think people are so eager to demonize them?

Well, I wonder if that is still true today. I feel like it was very true during this height of the tabloid era, like 2004 to 2009. We’re not as eager to enjoy celebrities’ crashing and burning. If they’re going to rise, they have to fall, that kind of narrative. I feel like our culture is not as into that now. I think we’re less mean-spirited. And I don’t know. That’s what I was trying to figure out this entire time making this piece. Like, why? Why Britney? Why are we, as a culture, consuming all of this?

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The reason that there was paparazzi around her all the time is because it sold. We consume that. It sold the magazines better than any other light “storylines.” I don’t know why. I mean, just my opinion, maybe the idea of what could be beautiful in society and perfect in society was so narrow that people were resentful of that. The majority of the US Weekly readers were women, so the majority of people buying those photographs were women. Is it because this ideal was so narrow back then that people became jealous and resentful of her? Now, I think the standard of beauty has opened up much wider, but that’s just my guess.

One of the experts says she’s never seen anyone successfully terminate a conservatorship. If Britney does succeed, will that upset the guardianship designation in the future?

Only time will tell. Who knows? I mean, if there are issues within the system that need to come to light, I think it would help them come to light.

Just because we’re Den of Geek and you’re from The New York Times, I have to ask, are you at all related to Tony Stark?

You know, I get that question a lot, and the true answer is we don’t know.

The New York Times Presents “Framing Britney Spears” debuts Feb. 5 on FX and FX on Hulu.

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