‘Framing Britney Spears’ documentary looks at the pop star’s conservatorship — and whether she’ll ever get out of it

Suzy Byrne
·Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
·10 min read

No matter how loud the chants of #FreeBritney protesters get, it's a possibility Britney Spears will never get out of her controversial conservatorship — and that's just one takeaway from The New York Times Presents docuseries Framing Britney Spears.

The doc, airing Friday on FX and Hulu, tells the pop star's story — from her meteoric rise to fame through her battle to oust dad Jamie Spears as her conservator. Exclusive new interviews, including with Britney's former assistant Felicia Culotta and attorneys tied to the conservatorship case, provide new insight into the world of one of the best-selling artists of all time, who's been holed up in her mansion on a self-imposed work strike until she's free from her father's control. Archival interviews and footage seen in a modern lens are a reminder of how in control Britney once was — and how mistreated she was on many levels.

The New York Times Presents Framing Britney Spears airs Friday on FX and Hulu. (Photo: FX)

The New York Times Presents Framing Britney Spears airs Friday on FX and Hulu. (Photo: FX)

The New York Times's Liz Day, senior editor for the documentary, tells Yahoo Entertainment the intent was to "go back" to Britney's early days — as she faced criticism of her talent, prying into her sex life, shaming for her parenting and full blame for corrupting America's young girls — and her 2008 breakdown, for which she received little sympathy despite obvious mental health struggles, "and revisit what we can learn about America through her story." But also look at "the contradiction of the conservatorship years where she was presented as being able to perform at a high level," earning a whopping $138 million between 2013 and 2017 for her Las Vegas residency, "but also presumably so ill that she needed this intense layer of protection. And how could both of these be true?"

BEVERLY HILLS - FEBRUARY 23:  Britney Spears has a dinner date with her father Jamie Spears at Maestro's Steak House on February 23, 2008 in Beverly Hills, California. Britney Spears' presence caused quite a media stir, the photographers had to be held back by security.  (Photos by Hector Vasquez/BuzzFoto.com)   ***FEE MUST BE AGREED PRIOR TO USAGE ***   Buzz Foto LLC http://www.buzzfoto.com/ 1112 Montana Ave suite 80 Santa Monica CA 90403 1 310 441 4464 1 310 980 8822

Britney Spears and Jamie Spears in February 2008, the month in which a judge named him temporary co-conservator of her estate after she was involuntarily hospitalized. The conservatorship was to last days, but it's been 13 years. (Photos: Hector Vasquez/BuzzFoto.com/Getty Images)

One of the more interesting assertions in the Samantha Stark-directed doc is that the man overseeing Britney's empire since Feb. 1, 2008 — a temporary role in a conservatorship which was to last just days — didn't "seem to be a big presence in her life" prior to being made conservator. It's explained that during Britney's childhood, Jamie was struggling with his own personal demons, including alcohol addiction, which he went to rehab for, and had financial problems, including filing for bankruptcy in 1998, from failed business dealings.

Kim Kaiman, a Jive Records executive who helped establish Britney's career, said she only dealt with Britney's mom, Lynne Spears. In fact, Kaiman became upset recalling what she said was the one and the only conversation she ever had with Jamie in which she claimed he said, “'My daughter’s gonna be so rich she’s gonna buy me a boat.'" She adds, "That’s all I'm gonna say about Jamie.”

At a November hearing, Britney's court-appointed attorney since 2008, Samuel Ingham III, said the "Toxic" singer, 39, is "afraid" of her father, whom she hasn't spoken to since August. He said they have no "viable working relationship" and the star doesn't want to work as long as Jamie is in control of her estate. At the same hearing, an attorney representing Lynne, an interested party, called for her ex-husband Jamie to step down. (The turmoil in the family over this runs deep — as does the turmoil in general with Britney's young sons being granted a restraining order against Jamie in 2019.)

"It certainly points to a relationship [between father and daughter] that is very strained," Day says. Further, she says, "a takeaway we were fascinated by was that many of Jamie’s struggles mirror the perceived struggles that Britney may have later had. To lose control of her financial estate and/or possibly dealing with other issues, Jamie is able to recover from that in the grand scheme of things and [later] swoop in and be heralded by the press as the savior of her life and rehabbing her career. Whereas Britney is still stuck in these circumstances."

And stuck she seems. Vivian Lee Thoreen, an attorney who represented Jamie during the early years of the conservatorship and subsequently rejoined his team, spoke generally in the documentary about conservatorships — when a judge appoints a guardian to manage the financial affairs and/or daily life of an adult who's unable to care for themselves due to physical or mental limitations, or old age. It was a very telling moment when Thoreen was asked if she had any clients who had gotten out of one — and her answer was no.

Day says, "For someone who is as young and as seemingly productive as Britney," who has been described in legal documents as "a high-functioning conservatee,” it does "present a lot of questions about how does one get out of a conservatorship." Thoreen spoke about how the onus is on the conservatee to provide "evidence" to the court that they no longer need it. Until then, Jamie and the two others — business co-conservator Bessemer Trust, a financial company, and conservator of her person Jodi Montgomery — control who can visit Britney, hire 24-hour security to guard her, access her medical records, communicate with her doctors, oversee her finances, can cancel her credit cards and make recording deals and other work commitments for her.

Complicating things further, Britney's conservatorship is lucrative for many — though not her. In 2019, a year she didn't work after calling off her second residency and going on an indefinite hiatus, she paid $1.2 million in legal fees and fees just to run the conservatorship, despite the legal arrangement giving her no say in who is running it. And not only does she pay the conservators (Jamie alone earns $128,000 annually), she pays for her lawyers and she pays for the lawyers her father hired to oppose what her lawyer said her wishes are. And with her finances — her estate is valued at $60 million, not including any trusts she has or royalties she earns— the conservatorship benefits a lot of people financially.

THE NEW YORK TIMES PRESENTS

Framing Britney Spears airs Friday, Feb. 5 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX and Hulu. (Photo: FX)

And it seems in contrast with archival footage showing a confident young Britney talking about knowing all the ins and outs of her business dealings, saying she was "not just some girl listening to my manager." Another bit showed her dismissing a "diva" label, saying she was just someone who knows what she wants. And backup dancer/tour director Kevin Tancharoen said that was his experience working with her as she was “definitely in control" of decision-making and no puppet.

But by 2008 that authoritative Britney seemed lost after back-to-back hospitalizations, losing custody and visitation of her two sons to ex-Kevin Federline, the shaved head, paparazzo boyfriend Adnan Ghalib and shady Sam Lufti controlling her life — and that's when the conservatorship was put into motion. Attorney Adam Streisand, whom Britney tried to retain at that time, recalled her being of the mindset that she couldn't resist the conservatorship, perhaps out of fear she'd continue to be blocked from seeing her sons. Streisand also said the star's "one request" to him was she didn't want Jamie as conservator. Ultimately, he was never able to represent Britney because the judge ruled she was not capable of retaining her own lawyer, citing a sealed medical report that he was not privy to — and Ingham was appointed by the court and has been in the role ever since.

As for what is in those medical reports, nobody knows. "That's a good point to acknowledge — there's a lot we don't know particularly because many if not most of the court records are sealed," says Day. "So we don't know exactly know what evidence the judge ruled on to put her under a conservatorship. And there was a lot playing out in public. Allegations of people taking advantage of her were quite serious."

Also represented in the documentary are her fans behind the #FreeBritney movement, who believe the singer has been denied basic human rights under a conservatorship reserved for incapacitated individuals. Britney acknowledged them in a September filing by Ingham amid his effort to oust Jamie, writing, "At this point in her life when she is trying to regain some measure of personal autonomy, Britney welcomes and appreciates the informed support of her many fans," which they have taken to mean keep going in their quest.

THE NEW YORK TIMES PRESENTS

#FreeBritney activists hold signs and march near the Stanley Mosk courthouse where a conservatorship hearing for Britney Spears is being held . (Photo: FX)

"That was kind of a shockwave moment throughout all this," Day says. "Previously, Britney rarely if ever acknowledged the conservatorship. Then Jamie gave an interview to Page Six," suggesting #FreeBritney was a "conspiracy theory" from fans who "don’t have a clue." So when Ingham made that filing, saying Britney welcomes the scrutiny and support many fans are bringing, "that was a changing point to the movement and the debate."

Day also says they worked hard behind the scenes to get Culotta, Britney's first agent Nancy Carson, stylist Hayley Hill and others to go on the record as Britney's nearest and dearest have been "skeptical about the press" feeling the star — who is really only seen in Instagram photos these days — because they feel she's "been treated so unfairly by the press throughout the years." And, as with any celebrity, potential non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), and just loyalty are factors.

(Photo: FX)

Britney Spears and Felicia Culotta, her assistant and companion in her early days. Culotta remains a close friend of Lynne Spears, who is on Britney's side in the conservator battle and not her ex-husband's. (Photo: FX)

That seemed apparent from Culotta, who remains close friends with Lynne, as she said in the film, “The one reason I agreed to do the interview is so we could remind people why they fell in love with [Britney] in the first place.” Culotta, who traveled with Britney during the early days and acted as her chaperone, also said she “didn’t then nor do I now understand what a conservatorship is.” Regardless, knowing Britney and what she watched her achieve, she knows “firsthand [what she's] capable of."

Also of note, nobody from the Spears family would appear on camera for this, despite great efforts.

"We reached out and made a lot of arguments to Jamie's team to speak on camera to us," Day says, "or, if not him, someone who could speak for him. We really felt that was an important part of the piece — to include his perspective and his story. Ultimately, they did not want to go on camera. Everyone else in the family declined our request to speak on camera."

There were also some interviews that took place that never made it into the doc. For instance, Britney's high school boyfriend Reg Jones and Jason Alexander, who was married to Britney for 55 hours in 2004 before the union was annulled at the behest of Lynne. Alexander actually joined a #FreeBritney protest in August. Earlier this year, Alexander attended the Trump rally in D.C., and just last week was arrested on DUI and drug charges.

The New York Times Presents Framing Britney Spears airs Friday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX and FX on Hulu.

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