Is Britney Spears Ready to Stand on Her Own?

Is Britney Spears Ready to Stand on Her Own?

For years, the life of one of the world’s most successful pop stars has been controlled by a court-approved conservatorship, designed for people who cannot take care of themselves.

Serge F. Kovaleski and 

LAS VEGAS — The disturbing images seem so distant now: the pop-star-turned-cautionary tabloid tale — head shorn, face twisted, umbrella gripped like a police baton as she bashed a paparazzi S.U.V. window. More than eight years after her meltdown, Britney Spears, at 34, appears to be thriving.

In September, she announced a two-year, $35 million deal to extend her residency at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino here. Forbes named her the fifth-highest-earning female musician of 2015, ahead of powerhouses like Rihanna and Nicki Minaj. And she’s been hard at work on her ninth studio album, expected this year.

With her television guest spots and a wildly popular, often eccentric Instagram feed featuring her toned abs and adorable sons, Ms. Spears looks like that rare celebrity who has vanquished deep travails to snatch a second chance.

“I’m in a real good place in my life,” Ms. Spears told People magazine last year, in an interview about her personal life. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”

Ms. Spears’s team presents her onstage as fully in control, and backstage, as the mastermind of her show, an artist in top form. But that view seems at odds with the conclusions routinely drawn about her at probate court in Los Angeles, where an undisclosed mental illness and substance abuse led her family to take action in 2008.

Since then, Ms. Spears’s life has been controlled by a court-approved conservatorship, known in other states as a guardianship, designed for people who cannot take care of themselves.

According to the arrangement, which is typically used to protect the old, the mentally disabled or the extremely ill, Ms. Spears cannot make key decisions, personal or financial, without the approval of her conservators: her father, Jamie Spears, and a lawyer, Andrew M. Wallet. Her most mundane purchases, from a drink at Starbucks to a song on iTunes, are tracked in court documents as part of the plan to safeguard the great fortune she has earned but does not ultimately control.

While the conservators are widely credited with rescuing Ms. Spears’s career — and her life — her apparent stability and success could belie the need for continuing restrictions.

There are recent signs, in fact, that the conservators are now acknowledging the great progress she has made. After successfully fighting to keep her from testifying in at least three prior lawsuits — (a probate judge had previously agreed that doing so could cause her “irreparable harm”) — Ms. Spears’s conservators allowed her to testify on Monday in a case filed against her by a former self-described manager. They agreed that “giving such testimony is not likely to cause harm to her,” according to court papers.

Could this be the start of a major unfastening of the strictures she lives under?

New song “Breathe On Me” Added to “Britney: Piece Of Me” in Credit Video by Britney Spears

Neither the conservators nor her managers or lawyers will discuss her status, and Ms. Spears did not respond to multiple requests seeking an interview.

While it is not possible to get an accurate sense of someone’s mental state from afar, Ms. Spears’s friends and former associates said in interviews that, for her, the conservatorship has become an accepted fact of life — not a cage but a protective bubble that allows her to worry about her true passions: music and her children.

“If anyone knew the real Britney, they would know that she would rather be remembered for being the great mother she is rather than the artist she is,” said David Lucado, a former boyfriend whose relationship with Ms. Spears foundered in 2014 amid charges of infidelity that Mr. Lucado denies. “And if anyone could see her interactions with her kids, they would know that there is no need for a conservatorship over Britney’s personal life.”

Since the conservatorship began, some restrictions have been eased. More far-reaching rollbacks were discussed several years ago but never occurred, according to a person who has been involved in Ms. Spears’s care who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Ultimately some of the people who would help to decide whether to end it are the conservators and doctors who now help oversee it, many of whom receive fees from Ms. Spears’s estate for their work on her behalf.

Ms. Spears’s status and progress are measured by a court investigator for her case, who is assigned to file reports on her progress once every other year. (Those under conservatorship are not required to regularly appear in front of a judge after their conservators are appointed.)

And should Ms. Spears ask to be released, her cause would probably be led by the man the court appointed to be her chief advocate, a lawyer, Samuel D. Ingham III. Mr. Ingham’s role is, among other things, to ensure that the conservators do not loot her assets, abuse their power or inappropriately restrict her freedom.

There has been some debate in California over whether court-appointed lawyers do enough to advocate the rights of those under conservatorship. Just last year, the state’s Senate Committee on Judiciary noted in a report: “In theory the court-appointed counsel should be arguing on the proposed conservatee’s behalf for a less-restrictive alternative to conservatorship whenever possible.”

Mr. Ingham has been awarded more than $2 million in fees for his work on Ms. Spears’s behalf since 2008. This is in addition to the $6.9 million paid from the estate to the conservators and other lawyers who have helped manage Ms. Spears’s affairs under the current arrangement. Ms. Spears has never publicly questioned any of these payments, but critics of the process have.

“As long as she is bringing in so much money and as long as the lawyers and conservators are getting paid, there is little incentive to end it,” said Elaine Renoire, president of the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse, an advocacy group. “Usually, the conservatorship just keeps going unless the conservatee makes a fuss or the family does.”

No one questioned whether Ms. Spears needed help in early 2008; on Jan. 30, her psychiatrist had called for assistance, and when the ambulance left the singer’s Los Angeles home, it was led by a robust entourage of police vehicles.

For days, Ms. Spears had been behaving bizarrely, speaking in a British accent and driving at breakneck speeds. Now she was strapped to a gurney en route to U.C.L.A. Medical Center. Helicopters buzzed overhead. It was the second time in less than a month that Ms. Spears had been taken to a hospital by ambulance for an emergency psychiatric evaluation.

Anyone watching that day would not have recognized Ms. Spears as the musical phenomenon who, a decade earlier, wide-eyed and 17, had posed in hot pants and bra on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. With hits including “…Baby One More Time” she dominated the charts, and her first four albums sold a combined 30 million copies.

Britney Spears – …Baby One More Time Credit Video by Britney Spears VEVO

But like child stars before her, Ms. Spears encountered the pressures created by sudden fame and wealth. And a rocky personal life did not help. In 2002, her relationship with Justin Timberlake ended. In January 2004, she married a childhood friend from Louisiana in Las Vegas — a union that lasted 55 hours.

Nine months later, she married again, this time to Kevin Federline, a local backup dancer. Two years later, in November 2006, after the birth of their second son, she filed for divorce.

Drug and alcohol issues fueled her decline. In 2007, Ms. Spears twice entered treatment but each time cut her stay short. The substance abuse would factor in her battle to retain custody of her children. The idea of losing contact with them tormented her, associates said. After being told she had lost custody of them in October 2007, she spent a night sleeping in a parking lot, according to court papers. (She has since worked out a custody arrangement with Mr. Federline.)

“It clearly wasn’t working with her in control of the ship,” said Peter Katsis, who was part of her management team in 2007. “It was overwhelming for her when she came of age.”

Just what kind of mental condition afflicts Ms. Spears has never been publicly disclosed. But, whatever the ailment, by 2008 it seemed to have full possession of her. Although divorced, Ms. Spears’s worried parents decided their daughter was in crisis.

Her father, a former welder, oil worker, cook and a recovering alcoholic, had subjected his family to years of “verbal abuse, abandonment” and “erratic behavior” as a result of his heavy drinking, Britney’s mother, Lynne Spears, wrote in her 2008 book, “Through the Storm: A Real Story of Fame and Family in a Tabloid World.”

But her parents rebuilt some kind of relationship after Mr. Spears stopped drinking, and they sought to intervene.

After days of fasting and praying, Mrs. Spears said, Mr. Spears asked the court to establish a temporary conservatorship for his daughter that would give him broad control over her treatment, visitors, security and daily life. On Feb. 1, 2008, while Ms. Spears was still in the hospital, a judge, Reva G. Goetz, granted his wish.

“I shuddered to think,” Mrs. Spears wrote in her book, describing her worries about those influencing Britney at the time, “what depths of desperation we would have to plumb to regain charge of our child.”

At the outset, Ms. Spears thought of challenging the arrangement, according to Adam Streisand, one of two lawyers whom she spoke to at the time. Mr. Streisand said Ms. Spears told him she was not comfortable with her father as conservator of her finances.

“It was clear to me that she seemed a bit agitated,” Mr. Streisand said. “But my sense was that she did have the capacity to pick a lawyer and that she could make a rational decision.”

The judge, though, citing a recent medical evaluation, said the singer was not capable of hiring her own counsel. Mr. Streisand said he respected the doctor’s opinion and went away.

“Britney wanted to oppose the conservatorship,” he said, “but she was also extremely worried about her kids and seemed to understand that the best thing to do to see her kids was to accept it.”

By the end of 2008, the conservatorship had been made permanent. By March 2009, Ms. Spears was back on tour.

Initially, though, she seemed frustrated by the restrictions.

“I think it’s too in control,” she said during a 2008 interview with MTV. “If I wasn’t under the restraints I’m under, I’d feel so liberated.”

She continued, “There’s no excitement, there’s no passion.” And then: “Even when you go to jail, you know there’s the time when you’re going to get out. But in this situation, it’s never-ending.”

Since then, Ms. Spears has said little publicly about this arrangement.

The conservatorship system in California, troubled for decades, has undergone reforms in recent years that were designed to further protect the old and infirm people who are its typical clients.

Ms. Spears hardly fits that bill, but this system operates for her the same way as it does for others.

Probate judges in California can appoint two kinds of conservators: ones responsible for a person’s physical and mental health, and others who are put in charge of the individual’s finances.

Ms. Spears has both.

Her father, 63, is responsible for her physical well-being — making sure she takes her medicine, for example — and manages her estate. He shares the financial oversight with Mr. Wallet, who specializes in conservatorships and probate law.

Mr. Spears takes in about $130,000 a year as a conservator and is also reimbursed for the rent on an office he uses. His bills are reviewed and approved by the judge. He has sought only modest increases over the years, though he also requested 1.5 percent of gross revenues from the performances and merchandising tied to Ms. Spears’s Las Vegas show. The court, Ms. Spears and her court-appointed lawyer signed off on it.

For a time, during 2012, Jason Trawick, then her boyfriend, also served as co-conservator for her personal well-being.

As conservator, according to his court filings, Mr. Spears’s work has included “overseeing and coordinating Britney’s [redacted], business, costuming, personal, household stuff, and legal matters (touching upon entertainment, music, other business opportunities, family law issues, the litigation, trial and/or resolution of other disputes, and ongoing litigation and conservatorship matters).”

He negotiates business opportunities, such as her 2012 stint as a judge on “The X Factor,” as well as interviews and sponsorships, even the maintenance of vehicles and the custody arrangement for her children.

Mr. Spears and his lawyers have also aggressively kept at bay anyone they consider a threat to Ms. Spears’s stability, including a former business manager, a former boyfriend and a lawyer who once sought to intervene in her case, all of whom were served with restraining orders.

In 2009, after a Spears fan site,, started a “Free Britney” campaign critical of the conservatorship, its owner, Jordan Miller, said he received an irate call from Mr. Spears, who threatened to have the website taken down.

Speaking today, Mr. Miller says he can understand the lengths her family took.

“It was a really volatile situation, and they were trying to protect her,” he said.

The conservators’ work is monitored by Mr. Ingham, Ms. Spears’s veteran court-appointed lawyer.

Though the court’s typical maximum hourly fee is $250, Judge Goetz awarded Mr. Ingham as much as $475 an hour to represent Ms. Spears, citing an exception in court rules that allows higher fees “in cases involving unusual problems requiring extraordinary expertise.”

Mr. Ingham, who describes himself as a lawyer with expertise in high-profile conservatorship cases, told the court his typical hourly fee is $595.

For a time in 2014, Mr. Ingham’s clients included both Ms. Spears and Casey Kasem, the radio personality, then 82, who was also in a conservatorship until his death that year; his wife was challenging the size of the lawyer’s legal bills. Mr. Ingham said the case was particularly complicated, but Mrs. Kasem’s lawyer at one point accused Mr. Ingham of padding his bills, a charge the judge dismissed.

Mr. Ingham declined to comment. Ms. Spears is not known to have ever questioned any of Mr. Ingham’s fees.

The rules for meeting Britney are tight. No selfies. No autographs. No invading her personal space.

Each night before Ms. Spears appears in her “Piece of Me” show at Planet Hollywood’s Axis Theater here, she poses for photos with fans backstage, maintaining her brand at a time when her public appearances and interviews are rare and tightly controlled. (Interviewers who are approved seldom mention the conservatorship.) The meet-and-greet packages start at $1,500 and include a backstage tour led by a longtime Spears employee.

“Britney is very shy,” Felicia Culotta, the V.I.P. coordinator, said on one night last year. “I know y’all find that very hard to believe — she goes out on that stage, and she is a powerhouse. But she is extremely shy.”

“Britney plays off energy,” Ms. Culotta added. “If you go in scared of her, she is going to be scared of you. So don’t be scared of her. She’s very normal.”

The routine and consistency of her Las Vegas residency — typically three shows a week for six weeks followed by six weeks off — are a good fit for a mother of two looking to avoid the grind of a tour.

During her 90 minutes onstage, Ms. Spears recycles two dozen hits into an act that features backup dancers, pyrotechnics and showers of confetti. She changes costumes repeatedly. At one point, she jumps in a harness from a 31-foot-tall tree. During each performance, a man or woman picked from the audience is strapped into a leather bondage harness and forced to creep across the stage on all fours.

On this night, Ms. Spears, in a bustier, held the leash on a man. “Your ass is out of this world!” she screamed.

To be sure, the show does not showcase the Britney of old: Once a fluid, natural dancer, Ms. Spears can appear stiff, even robotic, today, relying on flailing arms and flashy sets. Her vocals are largely prerecorded, and the lip-syncing can lapse. She seems to be doing a job, but a good job, and there is no arguing that the show is doing well: It often fills the Axis, the largest theater on the Strip.

Ms. Spears splits her time between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, where her sons are in school, often taking the one-hour flight back after a weekday performance.

She and her children are spotted around town in Las Vegas — by the Planet Hollywood pool or at the Sonic Drive-In near the Strip. (The fast food outlet was the hub of Kentwood, La., the small town where Ms. Spears grew up.)

In addition to the residency, Ms. Spears’s next album, her first since 2013, is expected this summer. For months, she has teased her new music — a single, “Make Me (Oooh),” is due in May — and logged studio time with hot songwriters. Online, she has promoted herself in photos as a sexy pop star back in fighting shape.

“Honestly, I’m just particular with this record,” she told V, the magazine. “It’s my baby, and so I really want it done right.”

Music is only one part of the business of being Britney Spears these days. More than a dozen interconnected businesses, including profitable lines of lingerie and perfume, are overseen by the conservators.

Occasionally the businesses and Ms. Spears are sued.

Britney Spears, Iggy Azalea – Pretty Girls Credit Video by Britney Spears VEVO

When a company, Brand Sense Partners, sued Ms. Spears in 2011, in a dispute over a licensing agreement for one of her fragrances, its lawyer at the time, Geoffrey A. Neri, argued that the singer had to be capable of testifying. He pointed out in court papers that she takes care of her children, makes numerous public appearances and was then on a 79-date tour across much of the world.

“The notion that Britney Spears is mentally or emotionally unfit to testify under oath is a sham,” Mr. Neri wrote.

But in that case and two others, Judge Goetz ruled the singer too fragile, mentally, to testify. The judge, now retired, declined an interview request; the case has since been transferred to a new judge.

On Monday, after years of maintaining that the singer was too vulnerable to be questioned, her conservators consented to a deposition by Ms. Spears in a lawsuit filed against her and her father by Sam Lutfi, an associate from the time of her breakdown. (He claims Ms. Spears owes him money, asserting she made an oral agreement in 2007 to have him serve as her manager and that her father assaulted him.)

Despite an attempt by the conservators to separate Ms. Spears and Mr. Lutfi during her testimony — his “physical presence in the same conference room as Ms. Spears poses serious risks” to her well-being, they argued in court filings — both parties were present for her deposition, which lasted about four hours.

Ms. Spears, in a magenta blazer and pearls, testified without incident in Mr. Lutfi’s presence, even snacking on a cookie during a down moment.

Soon after, she was back to posting on Instagram, including an image that read, “All energy is contagious.” Hundreds of supportive comments flooded in from fans seemingly well aware of the latest legal twist in her life.

“You have gone through hell and back again but you have persevered every time,” one wrote. “You got this.”

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