In 2009, Britney Spears superfan Megan Radford read a blog post about her idol’s new legal arrangement, and something didn’t feel right.
So Radford staged a one-woman protest outside the star’s concert in Dallas, wearing a T-shirt she’d made herself, emblazoned with a quirky slogan: “Free Britney.”
“I was all alone … I think some people definitely thought I was a nut,” Radford told CNN. But, she added, “when you really care about a human, it’s not that much bigger of a step to start advocating for her rights.”
Radford, 34, who says she never “grew out” of her adolescent love for Spears, had never heard of a conservatorship before. The Spears fans around her had little concern about the cause, and the phrase on her clothing wasn’t a hashtag yet – just a couple of words she’d read on a fansite.
“It was just a way of trying to convey the situation,” said Jordan Miller, the owner of the fansite and the man who coined the expression “Free Britney” in a series of breathless posts to his readers in late 2008. “I was 19, 20 years old … all of this came flying out of me.”
Today, those two words describe arguably the defining pop culture crusade of the internet era. The #FreeBritney movement, which claims the star is being kept against her will in a legal stranglehold that denies her even the most basic personal freedoms, has outposts around the world and has drawn intense media scrutiny onto the singer’s case in recent years.
Virtually all of its adherents’ claims – such as that Spears does not handle her own social media, that she is not allowed to drive or own a phone, and that she has been threatened or prohibited from criticizing the arrangement in public – are strongly denied by those close to Spears or involved in the conservatorship.
They say the order, which has been in place since 2008, exists for Spears’ protection and has helped the singer get her career and personal life on track – while noting the singer has never asked a court for it to be dissolved. Neither Spears nor her publicist responded to CNN’s request for comment for this article.
But the band of internet sleuths and hardcore supporters, once generally dismissed as fringe conspiracists, have nonetheless dedicated much of their lives to their cause of “freeing” her, spreading their concerns online under the ever-present #FreeBritney hashtag and winning over a number of celebrities and public figures. A New York Times documentary highlighted their cause earlier this year, drawing attention to the movement from beyond the avid Spears fanbase.
So for many of the campaigners, Wednesday – when Spears is expected to speak at a California court hearing, potentially ending a years-long silence on the matter – feels like a day of reckoning.
“It’s nerve-racking, because finally we’re going to have some answers and some insight,” said a Free Britney leader, Junior Olivas, who plans to be demonstrating outside the Los Angeles Superior Court. “We’ve been hearing from everyone around Britney, but not Britney herself.”
Spears’ father, Jamie Spears, was first court-appointed as a joint conservator of his daughter’s estate in 2008, along with attorney Andrew Wallet, following a series of personal issues that played out publicly for the singer. For most of that period, he also oversaw her health and medical decisions, and in 2019 he became the sole conservator of the singer’s $60 million estate when Wallet resigned.
The elder Spears temporarily stepped aside from overseeing his daughter’s medical decisions after he experienced his own health problems in 2019. Jodi Montgomery has since been temporarily filling in, a role that Jamie Spears’ team hopes to make permanent in the coming weeks. In November last year, Judge Brenda Penny appointed Bessemer Trust as the co-conservator of the singer’s estate.
According to court documents obtained by CNN in December, Britney’s court-appointed attorney, Samuel D. Ingham III, said Britney would not perform again as long as her father remained in control of her fortune. Ingham told CNN he “can’t comment on a pending case.” Jamie Spears’ attorney, Vivian Thoreen, did not respond to CNN’s request for comment, but has previously told CNN that Jamie wishes his daughter no longer needed a conservatorship.
Despite several rounds of hearings in the past year – at which Spears has not spoken – it is unclear what, if anything, Britney Spears will say when she takes the stand remotely on Wednesday.
But whatever she focuses on, many of her fans will be listening intently online after flooding the court’s website to secure audio links – with more expected to be taking part in demonstrations in LA and in cities as far away as London and Cologne, Germany.
“I’ve played out like 50 different scenarios in my head,” Radford said, as she looked toward the hearing. “I’m nervous, but I’m trying to set those nerves aside … I hope that she feels, for the first time ever, possibly, the support that she has behind her.”
‘It’s like a second job’
The last time the world publicly heard Spears’ thoughts about the constraints on her private life was in 2008, just a few months into her conservatorship, when she spoke to filmmakers on the MTV documentary “Britney: For the Record.”
“If I wasn’t under the restraints that I’m under right now, with all the lawyers and doctors and people analyzing me every day … if that wasn’t there, I’d feel so liberated,” Spears said, apparently talking in general terms about her life, and likening her experience to “Groundhog Day” or a prison cell. She described her life as “too in control – there’s no excitement, there’s no passion.”
Then began a 13-year silence on the issue from one of the world’s most famous people.
Occasionally, Spears will discuss some of her fans’ questions in Instagram videos – last week she said she doesn’t know if she’ll perform again; earlier this year she said she “cried” after the New York Times documentary on her case was released, and she has repeatedly reassured followers she is happy – but she seems to have avoided discussing her legal situation in public.
“For a long time it seemed kind of odd to everybody. It seemed like she never talked any more about what she was feeling,” said Guido Willweber, a Free Britney disciple in Cologne, Germany, who has organized rallies for her in the city.
As the question of Spears’ true wishes swelled into one of pop culture’s biggest mysteries, her fans decided to do the talking for her – “literally becoming private investigators,” as Radford puts it.
And in the past three years, supporters have organized into a bona fide protest movement. For many of those involved, that quest has meant giving up their spare time to brush up on California law, organize protests and seek out media coverage.
“Some weeks it’s a second full-time job. It’s definitely a second part-time job,” said Radford, who recounted late nights sifting through legalese while balancing her passion with her marketing job in Oklahoma City. She travels to Los Angeles roughly every other month to attend protests, and is a co-founder of the LA chapter of the Free Britney movement.
“It crosses over into your everyday life – there’s not a day where you don’t at some point think about Free Britney,” Olivas added. And virtually all fans who spoke to CNN point to the importance of the internet, where their community was built, where word was spread – and where some members even believe, without evidence, that Spears herself is leaving clues in social media posts.
Most fans realize they cannot prove much of what they suggest, but their intense and unifying gut feeling has been the foundation of one of social media’s most unique recent phenomena. “You’re going against such powerful people, and what if you’re wrong?” said Olivas.
Now, still riding high from the New York Times documentary that drew wider attention to Spears’ case, the movement has increasingly spilled off computer screens and onto the streets of major cities around the world. In Germany, Willweber will be organizing a “Free Britney” protest in the center of Cologne on Wednesday – the second he’s held for the singer.
He’s unsure how strong turnout will be, but he is stoical. “If we are 10 people and we raise awareness, then we did our job right,” he said. “Being a Britney fan, you get really used to being frustrated.”
The organizer of London’s Free Britney demonstration the same day says he is expecting a healthy attendance of a few dozen devotees. “I’ve got a ton of T-shirts that I’ve been posting out to quite a lot of people,” said organizer Adam Oliver.
The plan mirrors Oliver’s earlier rally in April. “We walked from Westminster, past Downing Street, through Soho chanting ‘Free Britney,’ and everyone was supportive,” he said. In the evening, attendees will gather at a bar and listen to a live audio feed of the hearing.
Another rally is scheduled to take place outside the US Embassy in Oslo, Norway. And in Paris, superfan Fabian Harlow attended local virtual rallies during the pandemic, every time a new court session took place. He supervises Facebook and Instagram groups for French fans, and says there are “many French supporters of the movement.”
“Thanks to the internet, we are able to be part of this movement, even though we are living in France,” Harlow told CNN.
‘Am I actually helping her?’
The Free Britney movement has morphed from a disparate ensemble of fans online to something that resembles a traditional activist organization – aided in large part by its associations with groups that campaign on the issue of conservatorships more generally.
But critics have also drawn attention to darker elements within the movement. Lou Taylor, Spears’ former business manager and a frequent target of Free Britney campaigners, stepped down from her role last year after receiving death threats and becoming the subject of false accusations, her lawyer told CNN.
And even as their campaign picks up strength and support, there’s a question nagging at some members: Is this what Britney wants?
“I understand the paradox that I’m in – I want Britney to have more privacy, and yet here I am contributing to this movement,” says Miller, whose fansite Breathe Heavy is often credited with lighting the fuse of the movement back in 2009.
“People want answers, but do they need them?” asks Perez Hilton, the celebrity writer whose blog was the online epicenter of sensationalist celebrity coverage in the early 2000s. “Do they deserve them? Should they know her medical records, and all of the details surrounding it?”
Hilton understands the fascination more than most, given his years following the turns of Spears’ personal troubles. “Britney is so gripping for so many people,” he said. “She transcends generations. The world saw her, on a massive scale, grow up in front of our eyes … it’s almost like she’s an extended member of the family.”
He now tells CNN he has “tons of regret” about his brazen coverage of celebrities’ private lives. “There’s so much that I would do differently,” he said. But he sees a similar thirst in some elements of the fans’ movement; “for some of them, it’s become entertainment. For some of them the Free Britney movement is a hobby, and it’s this woman’s life.”
Miller says he has felt “vindication” in recent months, following Spears’ moves, through her attorney, to adjust elements of the conservatorship. But he’s spent “10-plus years doubting myself and wondering: am I doing more harm than good? Am I actually helping her?”
After all, there is no precedent in pop culture for Spears’ situation or her fanbase’s campaign.
“(Spears) was very famous before you could jump on Instagram and see your favorite artist every single day,” notes Miller, who says his Britney-centric fansite now rakes in hundreds of thousands of viewers each month. “She’s always had this kind of mystery around her.”
And experts say mystery is hard to replicate in celebrity culture today. “Our image of and relationship with modern celebrities … is different from even a couple of decades ago,” said Amber Melville-Brown, a specialist in media law and reputation management at international law firm Withers.
“The internet and social media have empowered and enfranchised the public” to feel “ownership” over stars, she added. “And as social media has taken over our lives, celebrities have had to manage their relationships with their fans and their detractors, and manage their public personas on a 24-hour basis.”
“What it means to be a celebrity is different” now than when Spears shot to global superstardom, Hilton says, a change he attributes in large part to the rise of social media and the increased visibility of celebrities.
And that same technology has emboldened and unified fanbases. “It can mobilise (fans) … but they can also really bully people,” Hilton said.
Miller is urging calm after Wednesday’s court date, particularly if Spears’ remarks differ from their own hopes. “If she’s going to make a decision, who are we to say: ‘You can’t say that’?” he said. “I think the movement should support what Britney wants.”
Some supporters have a more uncompromising goal: they want to see Spears released from her conservatorship. But regardless of what happens in court, Free Britney campaigners hope the newfound visibility of their movement will have a ripple effect beyond LA, changing the way celebrities are treated and handing more credibility to their fanbases.
“Once we finally do blow the lid off this, it’s going to disrupt the entire system,” Radford said, insisting that the campaign can have a tangible impact on both the use of conservatorships and the music industry.
“I truly believe that will happen. I just don’t know how old I’ll be when it does.”
CNN’s Chloe Melas contributed reporting