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The Legality Around Britney Spears' Conservatorship And The #FreeBritney Movement

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Perhaps you've been doomscrolling social media this week to find that the hashtag #FreeBritney has been trending. And were you to click through, you'd find that the Britney in question is, in the year 2021, the pop star Britney Spears. A new documentary has rallied public sympathies around Spears, particularly for her legal situation. For 13 years, she's not legally controlled her financial, professional and medical decisions. In fact, her case returns to court today. Meredith Blake has followed that case for the Los Angeles Times. She's here with us to explain.

Welcome to the program.

MEREDITH BLAKE: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Meredith, I want to start by hearing more about what's at stake here. What is the legal situation for Britney Spears in this moment?

BLAKE: Right now, she remains under the control of a conservatorship that is partly run by her father. There have been some small changes to it in the past year. A co-conservator was put in place at the end of last year over the estate - the financial portion of the arrangement. And there's a lot at stake there. We do know that Britney, for four years, had this residency in Las Vegas, and it was one of the most successful, lucrative residencies in the history of the strip. She made - the ticket sales grossed something like $138 million over 250 performances. So it was a huge success, and it was really her staking a professional comeback that has largely continued since then, although she hasn't been performing for the past few years.

CORNISH: While she hasn't been performing the last few years, I gather this is somewhat unique, this legal situation. How frequently is it used? What's special about how it's working out for her?

BLAKE: It is an uncommon arrangement for someone as young and seemingly productive and profitable as Britney Spears has been. It's typically reserved for someone older, often someone with dementia, who, you know, is thought to be in cognitive decline. Britney - there's a lot we don't know about her mental health. In fact, we know very little concrete, but we do know that she was able to be productive. And then last week, a documentary produced by The New York Times aired on FX. It's now streaming on Hulu, and that has really just ignited a huge conversation about the conservatorship and also about kind of the culture of celebrity that may have contributed to her personal struggles. And it's provoked a conversation that's really dominated all week long the cultural conversation.

CORNISH: What do you think has struck a chord about this FX documentary, which is really focused a lot about how she was treated in the media, issues of misogyny, sort of putting her experience in a modern context?

BLAKE: Yeah. I think beyond the questions about the conservatorship, which are really tricky because there is so much we don't know legally, financially, medically about Britney's life, it really has called attention to what we do know (laughter) and what we can see with the benefit of hindsight. And that is that there was a very pervasive and toxic, I would say, tabloid culture around celebrities, you know? There were clips in the documentary of journalists like Diane Sawyer really interrogating Britney Spears about her breakup with Justin Timberlake in this kind of accusatory tone. There's talk show interviews where she's asked about her breasts and whether they're real.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IVO NIEHE: Everyone's talking about it.

BRITNEY SPEARS: Right.

NIEHE: Well, your breasts.

SPEARS: My breasts.

NIEHE: You seem to get furious when a talk show host comes up with this subject.

BLAKE: This is not ancient history, right? This is, you know, 10, 15 years ago that we're talking about that Britney was going through a lot of personal crises that played out very publicly and which became kind of fodder for very cruel mockery. She really became kind of a national punchline. And I think it's forced us all to kind of reconsider the way that we talk about young women, their bodies, their sexuality and their romantic lives.

CORNISH: As we noted today, there is another hearing for Spears' case. What's expected to happen?

BLAKE: That, as far as we know, seems to be a routine status hearing about the management of her estate. It doesn't seem like there will be any bombshells to emerge from it. But what is interesting is that it's the first kind of one of these hearings to take place following the release of the documentary and kind of the resurgence of interest in the case.

CORNISH: You've been following this for a long time. Do you get the sense that a day is coming when she might be back in control legally of her finances, of her career?

BLAKE: The thing that we don't know is how much she wants that to be the case. You know, we know that she doesn't want her father to be in control of her life, but we don't know that she doesn't want a conservatorship. It does certainly seem that the public now supports whatever Britney wants and feels - certainly feels a lot of guilt about the way she was treated during her early years. So I think that certainly means something.

CORNISH: That's Meredith Blake, entertainment reporter for the LA Times.

Thank you for sharing your perspective.

BLAKE: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.