Growing up, Leanne Simmons always thought she’d go into the newspaper business, but eventually, her life led her to TV production. However, with the pandemic pushing her and many others to work from home, the 31-year-old has circled back to her childhood dream.
“I’m like an investigative journalist over here,” Simmons explains from her Los Angeles apartment-turned-#FreeBritney-headquarters. Since 2019, she’s been analysing court files dealing with Britney Spears’ conservatorship, compiling facts and urging Spears fans to take action – especially at court rallies, which she helps organise.
"Once I attended a rally, the rest is history," says Simmons, who’s attended five in-person and two virtual rallies.
Simmons is one of many fans leading the charge made infamous byThe New York Times Presents:Framing Britney Spears documentary on Hulu. And they’re not just aiming to change Spears’ life; they’re looking to overhaul a troubling part of the American criminal justice system forever: conservatorship abuse.
Plugging away quietly behind the scenes, it was tireless Britney fans who first brought the star’s case to light and helped keep it there while her troubles faded from public consciousness.
Simmons, alongside 36-year-old data analyst Kevin Wu and 34-year-old marketer Megan Radford, spearhead rally efforts in Los Angeles. They’re part of a noisy presence both online and outside court while fighting accusations that they are conspiracy theorists.
“We got made fun of a lot in the early days, but we kept pushing forward because we knew in our hearts we were right,” says Radford, who travels from Oklahoma City, OK, to attend rallies, often flying back home to her husband and three-year-old son the next day.
“So much has come out that has confirmed and re-confirmed that we were right time and time again,” Radford says. “Now, with the premiere of the documentary, we’re in a completely different ball game where people are understanding more and taking it seriously.”
Ever since Britney Spears entered in a permanent conservatorship in 2008, with her father, Jamie Spears, at the helm, fans have cried foul. The conservatorship, originally only temporary, came at the end of a tumultuous year for the singer, who faced a custody battle and two psychiatric holds. But with the release ofThe New York Times documentary in February – just over 13 years since the conservatorship was first granted – it isn’t just fans who think something’s amiss.
Framing Britney Spears retells the pop star’s timeline in the horrifying context of early Aughts tabloid culture and late-night fodder, prompting many to analyse their own internalised misogyny. Following the documentary’s release, Spears’ ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake issued an apology for his part in the media’s portrayal of Spears. Celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker, Paris Hilton, Charlie Puth and even shock-DJ Howard Stern, once a harsh critic, have come out in support of Spears.
Wu, Simmons and Radford help organise the rallies seen in Framing Britney Spears.
A die-hard fan since the beginning, Wu now spends all his free time calling awareness to Spears’ conservatorship – one that renders Spears powerless, unable to hire her own lawyer, manage her finances, choose her doctors or freely visit her two sons.
“As any Britney fan would tell you, we know she doesn’t have a good relationship with her dad,” Wu, an L.A. resident, says of fans’ initial suspicions. “It was always strange that he was the one appointed conservator. At the same time, we didn’t really understand what conservatorship meant.”
(As of September 2019, Jamie Spears is co-conservator of Britney’s estate with Bessemer Trust. He stepped down as conservator of her person in 2019, citing health concerns, although the timing aligned with an alleged physical altercation with one of Britney’s sons and subsequent restraining order.)
Back in 2009, Wu continued hoping that Britney was in good hands.
“I feel like her team did a very good job of pushing the narrative onto us that conservatorship was a good thing, that we as loyal fans should be supportive of it,” he says. “Our role was to continue buying albums and going to concerts, so that’s what I did.”
The Free Britney movement’s most tangible conception dates back to January 2009, on a blog post on Spears fansite Breathe Heavy. The site’s founder, Jordan Miller, was in college at the time when he wrote, “Open your eyes! Free Britney!” on a post alleging Spears’ father took her cellphone. Two months and many critical posts later, Miller says he received a letter from Jamie Spears, threatening legal action over copyright infringement if he did not close his website (Miller had published Spears lyrics without permission).
“I felt censored,” Miller told The Independent. “In my opinion, it’s not about lyrics. It’s because I was speaking out about an injustice, and they didn’t like that, and they wanted to control everything about Britney, including entities that they didn’t technically own.”
Nothing ever came of the situation, and Breathe Heavy remained online. But then the movement snowballed out of this early suspicion – albeit quietly, and only in fan forums or on niche areas of social media.
Ten years passed, and the media’s spotlight on Spears’s troubles fizzled out. The singer got back to work, and, as far as the public saw, she was a fairly normal, yet subdued, pop star again. But when Spears cancelled her Domination concert residency in Las Vegas in January 2019, citing her father’s health, suspicions arose again. And when fans got supporting evidence that Spears wanted out of her conservatorship via an anonymous call into the Britney’s Gram podcast, #FreeBritney bubbled vigorously back to the surface.
That month, the first #FreeBritney gathered outside West Hollywood City Hall. A month later in May 2019, they moved to the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, a tradition that continues for each conservatorship hearing. When the pandemic hit in 2020, people had even more time to commit to rallies. It’s where Wu met Simmons and Radford, and together, they brainstormed the movement’s next wave.
Wu calls #FreeBritney a “leaderless movement”, but the trio spearheads a lot. Every Friday, they meet virtually to strategise. They maintain a centralised website for the cause, FreeBritney.Army. Wu updates the @FreeBritneyLA Twitter and Instagram, and books speakers for virtual rallies (their latest Zoom had 1,000 people in attendance). Simmons crafts foam rose pins – Spears’ favourite flower – for rally attendees to wear, and perhaps more importantly, she’s compiled an exhaustive timeline of news stories and court documents that outline the conservatorship – a wealth of information for those curious about getting involved.
Radford uses her marketing skills to write press releases publicising each #FreeBritney rally. She collaborates with volunteer graphic designers to make fliers for social media. It’s a lot of work, she says, but it’s worth it.
“Britney Spears fans have always had to defend why they love Britney Spears,” Radford says. “It wasn’t that much bigger of a step to have to start advocating for her human and civil rights, because we’ve been defending her forever.”
Radford, Simmons and Wu worked with director Samantha Stark on Framing Britney. Stark inherited the idea and research for the documentary from her colleague Liz Day, but as Stark continued the investigation, Spears gave a statement through her court-appointed lawyer, Samuel Ingham, that seemingly endorsed #FreeBritney in September 2020.
Ingham wrote in a court filing: “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.
He added that Britney "vehemently opposed to this effort by her father to keep her legal struggle hidden away in the closet as a family secret”.
Spears’ statement through her lawyer validated everything #FreeBritney fought for and added more fuel to their fire.
The pop star has an accounting hearing on 17 March, and fans have a rally planned at the courthouse at 1:30 p.m. The hearing will review annual accounting paperwork – yearly conservatorship maintenance – except this year, Ingham is expected to make some objections, according to court filings. Radford, however, says fans aren’t expecting much to happen in the way of #FreeBritney.
“Some of the things that these fans were finding out were legitimate questions to ask about the conservatorship system, to ask about this public judicial system,” Stark told The Independent. “And I think a lot of people weren’t listening to them because they were laughing at them as conspiracy theorists instead.”
Of course, there are the conspiracy theorists – the ones who scour Spears’ Instagram for clues, the ones who think she’s wearing a yellow shirt to send a message to fans. It was through a viral TikTok of that nature where attorney BJ Courville found out about Britney’s case and started digging deeper through court documents. And, to Courville, this isn’t about theories (although she doesn’t discredit them); it’s about consent and the legality of it all.
“I do not think it matters whether Britney wants or doesn’t want to get out of the conservatorship,” Courville says. “If she doesn’t qualify legally for one, she cannot be in one.”
But Courville, who’s made some #FreeBritney TikToks of her own, says it shouldn’t have taken a slew of lawyers and a documentary to understand that, and perhaps Spears’ demographic of women and gay men have been too easily dismissed: “If we were talking about … Elon Musk’s fansbase, we would’ve been having this discussion years ago.”
Even before Spears voiced her opposition to the conservatorship, #FreeBritney supporters were unearthing injustices within the probate court system – families separated, conservators unfairly profiting, autonomy stripped. Inspired by a Los Angeles Magazine piece about conservatorship abuse, Wu reached out to every advocate mentioned.
“I have found a strange sense of purpose in this movement,” Wu says. “Because I do think it has huge potential to impact not just Britney Spears’s life, but more people, as we’ve learned more about the systemic issues that cause this to be possible in the first place. We are committed to reforming the system.”
And there seems to be progress. On 8 March, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz filed for a Congressional hearing on conservatorship due process, citing Framing Britney Spears and the singer’s case. On 10 March, Jamie Spears’ lawyer Vivian Thoreen claimed that Britney is not a victim.
“Any time Britney wants to end her conservatorship, she can ask her lawyer to file a petition to terminate it; she has always had this right but in 13 years has never exercised it,” Thoreen wrote in a letter to Entertainment Weekly. “Britney knows that her Daddy loves her, and that he will be there for her whenever and if she needs him, just as he always has been — conservatorship or not."
Wu says even after Britney is freed, they will “100 per cent” continue fighting for the victims of conservatorship abuse.
For lawyer and activist Lisa MacCarley ,that is music to her ears. MacCarley has been a probate and conservatorship attorney since 1993 and runs a charity, Bettys’ Hope, which aims to ensure that a conservatee doesn’t lose their right to see their family. Wu contacted her last Summer about Spears.
A few weeks later, MacCarley found herself walking up to a #FreeBritney rally in front of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles, armed with books and case documents. When she finally met Wu, he handed her a pink megaphone.
“I think I’ve had 10 years of anger and frustration and sadness, I just kind of belted out what I felt was wrong,” MacCarley says.
Fans of Spears, wearing #FreeBritney T-shirts and holding protest posters, broke out in applause.
“I hit a chord,” she says. “[I] acknowledged that they were right and that they were righteous, which they are.”
“What they did was add legitimacy to something that has been a burden on me emotionally and professionally for a decade,” she says.
“All these years I’ve been praying for a miracle,” MacCarley says. “The #FreeBritney movement is my miracle.”