What's next for the #FreeBritney movement's most devoted supporters?

A #FreeBritney protest in Los Angeles in 2019. All photos by the author
Culture

On Wednesday, Britney Spears's conservatorship will be reviewed by a Los Angeles court. It’s not totally clear what the outcome will be — lawyers for Britney have asked that her dad, Jamie Spears, be removed as her conservator, while Jamie has filed to have the conservatorship dissolved altogether, and there are financial issues that could complicate both outcomes — but Britney's fans are hopeful that the hearing will signal the beginning of the end of the arrangement.

Britney's case has gotten widespread media coverage over the past few years, but initial public interest in the case was fanned in no small part by the efforts of the #FreeBritney movement, a dedicated stan army that’s spent the last few years advocating for the singer to be “freed” from the conservatorship.

While the term “Free Britney” has been floating around for quite some time, the movement really took off after an April 2019 episode of the podcast Britney’s Gram, in which a person claiming to be a former paralegal associated with Britney’s conservatorship called into the show and claimed that Britney had been secretly and involuntarily checked into a mental health facility. This led to a small #FreeBritney protest in Los Angeles later that month. That protest was followed by others around the world, petitions, government action, a lot of documentaries, social media conspiracy theories, and statements of public support from the likes of Madonna, Matt Gaetz, and Justin Timberlake.

For much of the time people were mobilizing and speaking out on her behalf, it wasn’t entirely clear how Britney herself felt about the conservatorship. But in June, she testified at a hearing, saying she wants out of the arrangement. She also criticized the conservatorship system in general, and compared her situation to human trafficking.

Ahead of Wednesday's hearing, we spoke with some prominent #FreeBritney advocates to get their thoughts on how things are going, and what they’ll do next if Britney’s conservatorship does end.

#FreeBritney activist Leanne Simmons at her home in Los Angeles.

Mic: How did you get involved with #FreeBritney?

Leanne Simmons: I’ve been a Britney fan since I was a kid. Like a lot of fans, I became a little alarmed around 2008/2009 knowing that she was placed under a conservatorship. At the time I didn't really know what that meant, but still felt a little bit strange about it. Then about 2019 when the [#FreeBritney] movement went a bit more mainstream, I became extra involved. At the time I thought it was a very isolated incident, that she was taken advantage of because she’s rich. I have now come to learn what a big issue this is, and I'm looking forward to the day that she’s free and we can shift this fight to help other conservatees.

Where were you when you heard Britney’s testimony?

I was at the #FreeBritney rally. It was a very out of body experience to hear those things. For her to call out that there are other abusive conservatorships and that the laws should change, I have full body goosebumps just repeating that, because we just weren’t sure how aware Britney was of the bigger issue. She brought it all out on the table and I think that that’s a huge catalyst to move us beyond just Britney’s case.

Do you have a prediction for what will happen on Wednesday?

I’ve stopped predicting what’s going to happen because it’s been so unpredictable. I’m trying to keep my expectations low. I am still hopeful, I think at the very least her father should be removed, but I think at the very least her father should have been removed two-plus years ago.

Tess Barker, host of the Britney Spears podcasts Britney’s Gram and Toxic, at her home studio in Los Angeles.

Mic: How did that Britney’s Gram episode in 2019 change your life?

Tess Barker: It completely changed my life. I went from having a podcast that was just sort of a silly little side project that we would spend a few hours a week working on to really being the main thrust of what I was doing. It took over all my other freelance work. It took over everything.

Was there any point where you doubted yourselves and the information you’d been given?

I mean we were talking to so many people from different areas of her life that I was pretty convinced that something really serious was going on with her. But Britney herself hadn’t spoken out about how she felt, so there was always that shadow of doubt, of “are we doing the right thing?” That was a huge concern, whether she wanted any kind of attention on this situation.

Has Britney acknowledged your podcast’s role?

She reposted a post of ours back in July. That was a post that we’d put on our Instagram like, two years ago. I don't know if she was going through our account and found it. She tagged us in that post. She’s acknowledged Free Britney, of course, and written some captions that have the hashtag #FreeBritney, but she’s never specifically mentioned our podcast as far as I know.

What’s next for you?

Well, we are going to be at the hearing on the 29th, and we will be doing a follow up episode. Then we are just working on a few other different projects, some of them related to Britney, some of them not.

#FreeBritney activist Melanie Mandarano. Every Monday, Mandarano sets up a #FreeBritney stand on the Boardwalk in Venice, California.

Mic: What are you doing here today?

Melanie Mandarano: Basically I wanted to do something more. I was leading the marches and outside [the courthouse] with the megaphone and I wanted to create something that could help the case more. [#FreeBritney activists] were encouraging people to write [letters to California’s governor and attorney general] and I was just thinking, instead of people writing in letters, which is a lot of work, what if we just like, made it into a postcard and then asked people to sign it and we mailed it in?

Mandarano's postcards

Then I decided let’s come here every Monday and talk to people and see if they understand what's going on in Britney's case, in the probate court systems, with conservatorships, with guardianships. Britney is such a global icon that we can really use the obsession that society has on celebrity culture to create a positive movement. I love the #FreeBritney movement because it's shown me more than ever that social media, us, individuals, micro-influencers — we hold the real power.

What’s next for you, assuming the conservatorship is dissolved?

Definitely to focus on changing the laws around conservatorships in general. Like, OK, great, Britney Spears, she has all of this public attention on her so we can free her. But what we actually need to do is abolish conservatorships and offer alternatives to the people who are still in guardianships and conservatorships in America. But I think in terms of another major icon, we are going to be going after Amanda Bynes’ conservatorship. I think that would be a natural follow for us.

Attorney Lisa MacCarley at her office in Glendale, California. MacCarley is also the executive director of Betty’s Hope, a nonprofit that advocates for reform in California’s probate courts.

Mic: Could you tell me how you got involved in the #FreeBritney movement?

Lisa MacCarley: I had begun advocating for probate court reform in April of 2019. Things were going very well. I’d spoken to many legislators and I was very excited about the possibility of creating programs to educate lawyers and judges. And in the blink of an eye everything stopped when COVID landed on our continent. I was despondent. I had spent so many hours and so much money trying to advocate for reform. So I got a phone call in Spring 2020 where [#FreeBritney activist] Kevin Wu said would you come to this rally in July. You know, life was so sad. I had nothing to do. I just [went] to support a young person who asked me to show up.

What’s your involvement been since?

I consider myself someone that supports the #FreeBritney movement, all the young people, because I think there’s something very charming and very special and winsome about a group of young people who showed up and understood intuitively that there was something very, very wrong with this conservatorship. So I try to provide guidance about what legal documents mean, [and] interpretation of probate notes. I support them whenever they ask a question on social media.

It seems like a lot of people within the movement have trained themselves to be legal experts. I see them on Instagram breaking down complex documents.

I love it. Yes, to me that’s one of the most exciting parts. Listening to and watching everybody get excited about new legal documents. I'm like, “Now you get it!”

Because Britney’s so high profile, she’s raised the public’s interest in conservatorships. Do you worry that interest might disappear if her conservatorship is dissolved?

I’m not worried that this will disappear, because there is both state and federal legislation that is being discussed. And of course so much more information is coming to light as the stories come out. What happened to Britney is terrible. Absolutely a travesty. But Britney’s is not the only story.

#FreeBritney activist Kevin Wu at his home in Los Angeles.

Mic: Say the conservatorship is dissolved on Wednesday. What would be next for you and the #FreeBritney movement?

Kevin Wu: We would celebrate that immediately. That would be a huge victory. Then I and many other advocates will continue the fight to dismantle this corrupt system. We’re already working to change the laws around [conservatorships]. We’ve successfully swayed public opinion and the way we think about, not just Britney Spears, but about conservatorships, about the court system, about disabled communities. I think that we have a huge opportunity to partner with disability rights activists who’ve been working on this issue for years, to change the way we think about how we protect vulnerable individuals in our society. In California at least, there is a bill on the governor’s desk right now that strengthens some of the protections for people who are potentially facing conservatorships. Specifically it will protect their right to choose their own lawyer, which is something that Britney did not get to do in 2008.

Britney dolls in Wu's living room

How has this movement changed your life?

It’s certainly taken up a great deal of my time, but I've found it very rewarding to know that I'm helping not only Britney Spears but potentially a lot of other people.

Is it weird to think that as someone who has appeared in multiple #FreeBritney documentaries and articles Britney probably knows who you are?

Yeah, it is. That’s just a crazy, crazy thought to wrap my head around. I get a lot of people telling me that they hope I’ll get to meet her and I will say sincerely that is not why I joined this movement at all. What I’m advocating for is for Britney to live life on her own terms. Whatever that means.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity