If you're a music fan and have been on social media in the last week or so, chances are you've seen an alarming hashtag #FreeBritney trending. Maybe it was Luann de Lesseps' Instagram post that was your first exposure. Or perhaps you just tuned in to The Talk and saw host and rapper Eve rocking a shirt with the message emblazoned across her chest.
Whatever the case, there's a good chance it left you wondering: Just what is going on with Britney Spears?
The emergence of the hashtag, made viral by well-meaning fans concerned about the princess of pop's well being, comes after the early April revelation that Britney had checked into a mental health facility to help cope with her father Jamie Spears' illness, months after he suffered a ruptured colon and allegedly "almost died." "We all need to take time for a little 'me time,'" she wrote on Instagram on April 3 as reports began to circulate that she was seeking inpatient treatment at an undisclosed facility.
"Britney decided to do this on her own," a source close to the superstar told E! News at the time. "It had a lot to do with the stress of her father, but both Jamie and Britney are doing much better. It's the hope that in the next week or so everything will be more stabilized, but she'll be at this wellness facility for a few weeks."
The startling decision to seek treatment came some three months after Britney left fans stunned on January 4 with the announcement that she was taking an indefinite hiatus from work to devote all of her time to her family and efforts to care for her father in his recovery. And that meant that her new resident at the new Park MGM in Las Vegas would be put on hold—a month before it was set to debut.
"I don't even know where to start with this, because this is so tough for me to say. I will not be performing my new show Domination," she wrote on Instagram. "I've been looking forward to this show and seeing all of you this year, so doing this breaks my heart. However, it's important to always put your family first… and that's the decision I had to make...I had to make the difficult decision to put my full focus and energy on my family at this time. I hope you all can understand."
While fans were left disappointed at the thought of Britney stepping away from the limelight for an undetermined length of time, they met her with nothing but support as she continually expressed her need to devote her time to the man whom she once told the Daily Star "saved my life," adding "I probably wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him...I owe him my life."
After all, how could she not repay the man who, following the very public meltdown in 2007 that eventually left her hospitalized, became one of her permanent conservators, alongside lawyer Andrew Wallet, helping to not only revitalize her career, but usher her into a prolonged period of stability after a truly scary time? If that's what was most important to her at the moment, who could blame her?
And so, when the news broke that the stress of Jamie's health woes was such taking a toll on her hard-fought mental health that she needed to seek out some form of treatment, it, again, seemed like the right thing to do, the only thing to do. Fans and family alike supported Britney's decision. Boyfriend Sam Asghari praised her on social media, writing on his Instagram Story, "It isn't weakness, it's a sign of absolute strength, people should only be inspired by this, at least I am." And ex-husband Kevin Federline, with whom she shares two sons, Sean Preston and Jayden James, told ET, though his attorney, that he "commends Britney for recognizing that she needs to take a step back and that she is taking reasonable steps to dealing with her situation in a responsible way."
So you might be wondering, then, where this whole #FreeBritney movement came from. How, exactly, did we go from supporting her to fearing for her autonomy? It turns out that, as with most internet conspiracy theories, it wasn't just one big thing. (Until it was. More on that in a second).
First off, there was the conspicuous decline in social media posts from Britney herself. Celebrated for her delightful Instagram feed, full of inspirational quotes, art she loved, and videos of her filmed by her sons—aka, the ultimate mom feed—Britney was known for being a frequent poster. Until she wasn't. After announcing her hiatus in early January, she posted exactly once—on January 12, in celebration of her debut album's 20th anniversary—before returning with her "me time" post in early April. Not entirely out of line for someone devoting their time to an ailing parent, but not unnoticed either. If her dad had fallen ill a couple of months prior to her hiatus announcement, as the IG post from Britney read, why did her social media only change after the announcement, fans wondered?
Similarly, fans began to wonder why, prior to entering treatment, she hadn't been spotted out since January 7, when paparazzi caught her and Sam in the drive-thru at an In-N-Out Burger. And on top of that, why had Wallet—who'd been sharing conservator duties with Jamie since 2008—file documents with the court in early March to sever his ties to Britney, leaving her father as the sole conservator? And why did he want it done with such expediency?
"The conservatorship is engaged in numerous ongoing business activities requiring immediate attention and it therefore is in the best interest of the conservatee that the acceptance of Wallet's resignation and the issuance of amended letters of conservatorship of the estate occur immediately and without delay," the lawyer wrote, according to The Blast. "Substantial detriment, irreparable harm and immediate danger will result to the conservatee and her estate if the relief requested herein in not granted on an ex parte basis."
It was enough to make diehard fans go "hmm," but things didn't truly explode until last week when the podcast Britney's Gram, hosted by comedians Tess Barker and and Barbara Gray, dropped what they dubbed a "special emergency episode" on SoundCloud, complete with a bombshell allegation regarding the supposed true nature of Britney's voluntary treatment. Saying that they'd received "an anonymous tip from a credible source," they played a voicemail from someone claiming to have been a paralegal working with an attorney connected to the conservatorship who alleged that Britney had entered treatment against her will.
"What is happening is disturbing, to say the least. Basically, Britney was in rehearsals for Domination. It came to Jamie's attention that Britney was not taking her medication as prescribed. She was missing a lot of doses and just full-on not taking them," the unidentified voice claimed. "So they got her to the doctor and the doctor said, 'OK, if you don't want these medications, let's get you on a new one.' She refused to take the new one. Jamie said, 'Either you take this medication or the show's off, and I'm pulling my support and you can't do it.' Britney did not follow Jamie's instructions, so he was true to his word—he pulled the show, he verbatim said, 'Blame it on my illness.'"
According to the anonymous tipster, whose identity the podcast hosts claim to have verified, Britney's allegedly been in treatment for a lot longer than we'd been told. "Britney has been in the mental facility since mid-January. There is no timeline, there is no end date particularly in sight for this stay at this mental facility to end. She did not want to go," he claimed. "From what I understand, this is not a decision she made, at all."
And like that, #FreeBritney was born.
Adding fuel to the fire in the aftermath of the podcast episode's debut is Britney's mom, Lynne Spears. Divorced from Jamie in 2002 before reconciling in 2010, Lynne has been spotted on social media liking comments on her Instagram page from fans who've directly referenced the theory that Britney's been forced into treatment against her will as the result of her conservatorship. "I really hope you are supporting Britney in trying to end [her] conservatorship," read one such comment. "I really hope your ailing ex husband isn't keeping your daughter somewhere against her will."
And the post in question receiving these comments? An image with a cryptic message that reads, "When God's warriors go down on their knees, the battle is not over; it has just begun." The caption: "This is 'Faith!'"
In the immediate aftermath of the alarming podcast release, a new report surfaced on The Blast containing information allegedly coming from a source "with direct knowledge of the situation," who claimed that, around the time Britney's new residency was being negotiated, it had clear that her life had grown "out of control" and she was in no position to handle her workload. According to the source, her mental health had "deteriorated" to such a degree that they feared if she did not begin treatment, "she would be dead."
For those trying to keep the timeline straight, Britney and MGM announced Domination in Las Vegas on October 18, 2018, placing the negotiation period in late summer and early fall. Choreographers were hired, rehearsals were underway, and tickets were sold for a set of shows beginning in February 2019 that wouldn't get canceled until January.
As the report further alleged, Jamie realized the severity of the situation and made the call that "everyone on the team" felt was "the right move for him to 'take action.'" Worried that the apparent true nature of his daughter's mental health would, the idea of using Jamie's illness "was fabricated as a smokescreen to the truth" by her team.
For the fans who care deeply enough about their beloved Britney, it was enough to make them consider taking to the streets. And some did, with a protest forming in West Hollywood, Calif. on Monday evening outside City Hall to bring attention to what they view as a once-necessary legal remedy that's become abusive and stripped Britney of her rights as an individual.
As of press time, requests for comment from Britney's team on all of it—the podcast, the new reporting from The Blast, the protest—have gone unanswered.
But here's what we do know: However Britney entered into treatment, whether voluntary or not, she has been able to come and go. On April 11, E! News learned that she'd been spotted at a Los Angeles-area hair salon, getting her roots and extensions retouched. "She seemed fine and content... [She] was definitely excited to her hair done," an eyewitness told us. And nearly two weeks later, on Easter Sunday, she and Sam were spotted at the Montage Beverly Hills Hotel where an eyewitness told us the couple spent a "relaxing day." "She had a small smile and just looked chill, like she got to get away from things for a little while and enjoyed a normal day with her boyfriend," we were told.
As a separate insider told us, "It's going to be a long road to get her well and on her own again. Sam is there for her and wants to see her get better."
Jamie, meanwhile, was photographed alone in Louisiana on Easter Sunday, behind the wheel of a yellow Jeep. "Her dad is doing better," a source told E! News. "His health is OK, it's just a long road to complete recovery. It's taking time, but he's getting better little by little."
As the insider explained, Jamie remains concerned about his daughter after stepping in to "try and get her help and back on track."
It should be noted that not everyone is buying what team #FreeBritney is selling. For one, not a word of the claims made in the podcast have been corroborated by anyone. And while the conjecture and conspiracy theorizing has been enough to work some overzealous fans into a true frenzy, there are those who are quick to remind that conservatorships are the sort of last-resort legal interventions that happen for a reason and not without clear evidence as to why, institutional holds (even under conservatorship) can't happen without someone's consent unless a doctor signs off and there's, again, clear evidence that the individual is a harm to themselves or others, and fans can sometimes take things just a step too far on social media.
At the end of the day, there's a lot we don't know here. Nor should we. Someone's mental health—and the way in which they and their appointed legal guardians choose to treat it—is none of our business, quite frankly. As much as we may feel connected to Britney through her music and her live shows and her adorable social media postings, we are owed nothing by her when it comes to the machinations of her personal life and the quest to keep herself mentally, physically and spiritually well. And at a certain point, we're all going to have to accept that.
Maybe, just maybe—as the unforgettable Britney fan Chris Crocker once beseeched—it's time that we finally just leave Britney alone.