Pop phenom, tabloid target: the fight to #FreeBritney

The #FreeBritney movement gained steam this year as Britney pushed to remove her father from the conservatorship's charge. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (AFP) - The legal agreement barring Britney Spears from managing her own life and finances is now older than the pop star was when the public met her as an effervescent 12-year-old on Disney Channel - and controversy over who steers her life is starting to boil.

Spears, 39, has lived under the strict arrangement since her infamous unravelling, which in 2008 led a California court to place her under a unique legal guardianship largely governed by her father, Jamie.

The conservatorship - the precise reasons for and terms of which are buried in sealed or redacted court documents and non-disclosure agreements - has come under increased scrutiny in recent years, especially after Spears cancelled her second Las Vegas residency in 2019 and went on indefinite professional hiatus.

Now a feature-length documentary on FX produced in partnership with The New York Times probes the popular narrative on Spears, who soared to global fame as a teenager on a burst of hits - including her breakout ...Baby One More Time (1998) - before a dramatic downfall saw her become a paparazzi punching bag.

The film emphasises the role of the early-2000s celebrity journalism machine in her collapse, depicting Spears as a relentlessly pursued media target - the blonde, bubbly, wildly successful American princess whose dirty laundry triggered the schadenfreude of a nation.

'Afraid of her father'

The #FreeBritney movement, fervent fans who believe she is being held against her will, gained steam this year as the artiste pushed to remove her father from the conservatorship's charge.

Its advocates - who many people, including Mr Spears, dismiss as conspiracy theorists - say the star is begging for help via coded messages, emojis and outfits on her eccentric Instagram account.

They have claimed vindication as Spears has signalled gratitude, and after her court-appointed lawyer told a judge that "my client has informed me that she is afraid of her father".

The judge opted not to immediately remove Spears' father as head of her estate, but did appoint financial company Bessemer Trust as a co-conservator.

Mr Spears temporarily stepped back in 2019 as head of her person - a role that gave him power including over her medical and mental health decisions - after he suffered a ruptured colon.

The pop icon, for now, is not seeking to scrap the conservatorship - an arrangement normally intended for the elderly or infirm - but rather turn it over to professionals.

She would like the licensed conservator who now holds provisional control over her person to stay on, and would like a bank to oversee her estate.

The next court hearing is set for Feb 11.

'Cheap shots'

The documentary, Framing Britney Spears, suggests the performer who once ruled global pop was used by some of her handlers and pummelled to the point of emotional ruin by an exploitative media environment, in which images of her went for upwards of US$1 million (S$1.33 million).

The film employs the extensive cache of footage of the star who came of age as mediatised consumption of celebrity, including gossip blogs and reality television, exploded - and when mental health was taken far less seriously.

From her days as a spunky pre-teen on TV show Star Search in 1992 - when host Ed McMahon awkwardly asked her if she has a boyfriend - to her infamous head shaving in 2007, the documentary traces a path that suggests a magnetic superstar who became voiceless in her own life, and whose image became everyone's but her own.

It shows Spears as a teenager, needled over her virginity (or lack thereof).

Prominent prime-time newscaster Diane Sawyer pushed her to explain why she "did something" to cause fellow pop celebrity Justin Timberlake "so much pain" in their high-profile breakup, a situation that saw Spears cast, as one interviewee put it, as "the school slut".

Sawyer also appeared to justify comments from Maryland's former first lady, who said "if I had an opportunity to shoot Britney Spears, I think I would".

"Because of the example to kids and how hard it is to be a parent," Sawyer said to a visibly distressed Spears.

And Matt Lauer - the now-disgraced former morning television personality - pushed the star to tears in a 2006 interview in which he challenged her maternal fitness while she was pregnant with her second child.

During her prolonged mental breakdown that followed her 2006 divorce and custody battle, Spears was captured in petrol stations barefoot and driving with one son in her lap.

In another infamous scene, as her cousin begged photographers to leave, Spears took an umbrella and began bashing a paparazzo's vehicle.

"It was a money shot," that photographer says of the spectacle in the documentary.

New media landscape

Dr Moya Luckett, a media historian at New York University whose research includes celebrity culture, says the "cruelty" Spears experienced today is diffused across a social media landscape in which stars can curate their own images.

"You become your own producer," Dr Luckett told AFP, pointing to stars like Taylor Swift or Beyonce who have seized the conversation on Instagram or by airing their own documentaries.

As her legal battle picks up fascination, Spears is likely to persist, especially as fans - many of them in their 30s and 40s, who adored her in their youth - take her plight as their own.

"Everything that she goes through resonates with the kind of frustrations a lot of us have, in a neo-liberal world, where we're told you can do it all if you want to," Dr Luckett said. "And then find out that we really can't."

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