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Breaking Down The Details of Britney Spears' Conservatorship

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

One of the biggest questions surrounding the conservatorship of Britney Spears is how a woman who's been able to perform, cut records and work for her millions of dollars is somehow unfit to make decisions about her own life. She has been subject to her conservatorship, which gave control of her to her father, Jamie Spears, and others for 13 years. And in dramatic courtroom testimony last month, she claimed she's being abused by her father, among others on her conservatorship team. Jamie Spears is now asking for those allegations to be investigated by the court, and he has denied wrongdoing, saying he's acting in his daughter's best interests.

A new article from The New Yorker magazine has fresh details about why Britney Spears was put into this arrangement and why she is so desperately trying to get out. It's by Jia Tolentino and Ronan Farrow. And Jia Tolentino joins me now. Hello.

JIA TOLENTINO: Hi, Lulu. It's great to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have an astonishing amount of detail about this story. I think at the heart of it, though, it's about Britney's love for her kids, right?

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, take us back to 2007, when the paparazzi was saying Britney was, quote, "going crazy." What was really going on behind the scenes?

TOLENTINO: Yeah, so this is an aspect of the story that I don't think has been central enough to the public narrative around her so-called breakdown. So she's in her early mid-20s. She got married six months after meeting Kevin Federline, you know, has two children within 12 or 13 months of each other. You know, many people who are close to her around the time suspect that she was dealing with severe postpartum depression. And we have to remember how famous she was, how central she was to a tabloid industry that was reaching its all-time aggressive peak. Everywhere she goes, there's mobs of paparazzi, you know, jumping out of their cars in the middle of the road, chasing her down on foot, flashbulbs everywhere, shouting provocations to get her to break down.

And so she gets divorced when she's still nursing her 2-month-old second child. The more that she's not with her children, the more she sort of spirals; the more she spirals, the less likely it is that she will have access to her children in the future. And I think it's important to note that the two incidents that sort of cemented that era as her, quote-unquote, "crazy era," when she shaved her head and when she hit the paparazzo's car with an umbrella, those were directly preceded by her driving to Kevin Federline's house, followed by photographers, asking to see the children and being refused.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then enters a man called Sam Lutfi, who got very close to Spears. Can you briefly explain who he is?

TOLENTINO: Yes. So Sam Lutfi, he's this sort of obscure Hollywood operator with undefinable, somewhat suspicious motives, a history of legal disputes. But he swoops in to her life after Britney has fired her longtime manager, Larry Rudolph, and he sort of assumes this controlling role. And what Lutfi told us in an interview that - one of the things that created this conflict between him and Britney's parents, who were genuinely worried about her and worried that he was exploiting her, was that he would tell her, you want to cancel that meeting? Go ahead and cancel it. You want to buy this car on impulse? Just buy it. And her parents become afraid that he is just going to siphon her money off while she's in crisis - that, you know, she's going to end up underwater in debt, exploited, sort of drained of this fortune that she has built.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you and your colleague Ronan Farrow got to speak with a woman called Jacqueline Butcher, a close friend to the Spearses for a long time. And she testified 13 years ago to create the conservatorship because she wanted Spears also away from Lutfi's influence. But she now regrets that. What did she tell you?

TOLENTINO: So Jacqueline Butcher was a close friend of Lynne Spears and close to the Spears family for, you know, close to a decade. And she was present in Britney's house and, you know, had good reason to believe that the parents were right in thinking maybe this crisis is due to this man, Sam Lutfi, that is in her house at this time of breakdown. And she gives this primary testimony that is central to the conservatorship going into place. And, you know, she says in an interview, I thought we were helping, and I wasn't, and I helped a corrupt family seize all this control.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's talk about Britney Spears' parents because we had then a fragile Spears, surrounded possibly by people who did not have her best interests at heart, and then her father - tell us about him. I mean, once Britney has her breakdown, for lack of a better word, you did tell this horrific scene with her father screaming at Britney.

TOLENTINO: Yeah, so by all the accounts that we heard, Jamie and Britney did not have the best relationship growing up. It's sort of well-documented. Lynne Spears, Britney's mother, writes about in her memoir that Jamie was wrestling with pretty severe alcoholism for most of their, you know, life as a family together. And Jamie, though, assumes authority as conservator. And Jacqueline Butcher, who was there in the room at the - you know, at the lawyers' offices around much of this, she says that one of the reasons was that Jamie wasn't afraid of Britney being angry at him.

And there is this brutal scene that Jacqueline told us about - you know, it's shortly after the conservatorship is in place, and they're all sitting in Britney's office in her house in Beverly Hills. And Jamie turns to Britney and says, baby, you're fat; we're going to get you a trainer. And within eight weeks from now, we're going to look at that TV, and they're going to be saying, Britney's back.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What did you find out about how her father controlled her during this conservatorship? Because he was controlling, according to your reporting. He wouldn't allow her to use the phone or talk to anyone. She couldn't even pay for a fancy dinner because she's only allowed $2,000 a week while making millions.

TOLENTINO: So it's important to mention that throughout all of this, she has only ever had a lawyer who was appointed by the court that she did not have a choice in selecting. And she has never been able to hire her own lawyer because in the eyes of the conservatorship, she is formally incapacitated to do so. And so one of the central ways, multiple people told us, that she was manipulated or coerced or coaxed into cooperating with the conservatorship structure is that the conservatorship becomes a singular condition of being able to continue to see her children. And that is one of the reasons that, especially from the outside, she has seemed to cooperate, or so our reporting bore out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The judge this past week refused to take her father off her conservatorship despite accusations that she is being abused - accusations by her, we should say. What is next for Britney? I mean, what can she do? And do we know any information about what her diagnosis is?

TOLENTINO: We don't know. And it's not our right to know, right? It is not our right to know any of this, really. I think that's one thing that weighed heavily on me as I - as we were reporting. But one thing that I'll say about the diagnosis thing - conservatorships, probate conservatorships of the type that Britney Spears is under, these are intended for people that cannot provide for their own food and shelter. These are structures for people who are elderly, dealing with severe dementia, for people with profound disabilities, for people with, you know, sort of catastrophic terminal conditions, right?

And we spoke to disability rights attorneys who - you know, who spoke to the fact that someone might be wrestling with a mental illness, even a severe one, doesn't mean that all of their rights should be taken away in the form of the conservatorship structure. One pointed out that, you know, Britney could have been found holding an axe and a severed head, and she still would have had the right to hire her own attorney. And she wasn't in this case.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess, finally, what really emerges from your story is a woman who has, since she was a little girl, been exploited, you know, by the media, by her fans and by her own family and someone who is now trapped. What does it tell you after reporting this that someone as famous as Britney Spears is in the position she is for the whole world to see?

TOLENTINO: There's a way in which Britney Spears is so talented, so famous and so perfectly suited to the - you know, kind of the terrible celebrity machine that her fame was used against her in this respect. Her fame and success were used against her. She was making so much money. She was so valuable that people said that makes you inherently vulnerable. There's a way in which she was made to pay for other people's desire to use her. And it strikes me as a genuine injustice. It is a tremendously sad story.

You know, I don't know about you, but if you if you've heard the audio of her testifying in court a couple weeks ago, I was reminded listening to her of the unbelievable amount of strength that she has to be able to speak up for herself like this after what she's gone through in the last couple of decades. And you were reminded of why she's Britney Spears in the first place.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Jia Tolentino from The New Yorker. Thank you very much.

TOLENTINO: Thank you.

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