From spying to denying Britney sneakers, what two new films reveal about Spears' conservatorship

Chilling details from "Controlling Britney Spears" & "Britney vs Spears" show the singer's prison-like existence

Published September 28, 2021 8:05PM (EDT)
Updated September 30, 2021 9:30AM (EDT)
Singer Britney Spears walks the red carpet at the 2017 Pre-GRAMMY Gala And Salute to Industry Icons Honoring Debra Lee at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 11, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California. (Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)
Singer Britney Spears walks the red carpet at the 2017 Pre-GRAMMY Gala And Salute to Industry Icons Honoring Debra Lee at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 11, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California. (Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

This summer, revelations about Britney Spears' nearly 13-year-old conservatorship overseen by her father shocked the nation, mobilizing many to rally to #FreeBritney. Spears' devastating testimony before a Los Angeles judge came just months after the New York Times' bombshell documentary "Framing Britney Spears" forced many to reflect on how young, female pop stars and celebrities have been treated through the years. 

And it turns out, that film only scratched the surface.

With the recent release of the follow-up "Controlling Britney Spears" and Netflix's "Britney vs. Spears," even more light is now being shined on Spears' harrowing story of alleged exploitation and abuse. Both documentaries ultimately peel back the layers of what we've already heard about the alarming power over Spears.

FX on Hulu's "Controlling Britney Spears" examines the people and companies that allegedly enabled Spears' conservatorship and her father's control of her life through interviews with assistants who held close relationships with Spears and a whistleblower from her security detail.

In contrast, "Britney vs. Spears" offers extensive, at times almost voyeuristic glimpses into Spears' past, with uncomfortable footage of her public struggles with mental health in 2007 and 2008. If you're able to stomach these images and the invasive inclusion of private text messages allegedly sent by Spears, the documentary also includes interviews with ex-romantic partners, and more insight into her private, years-long fight to be free of the conservatorship. 

UPDATE: On Wednesday, September 29, a Los Angeles judge suspended Jamie Spears as conservator of Britney's estate. Jon Zabel, a CPA, has been appointed temporary conservator until the next hearing on Nov. 12, when the judge plans on ending Britney's conservatorship, as NPR reports.

Below, check out the new, shocking revelations from each documentary: 

Jamie Spears' collaborators

According to "Controlling Britney Spears," Jamie Spears' ability to control his daughter relied on significant support from a security company called Black Box Security and Tri Star Sports and Entertainment, the company that handles her accounting and finances. 

In "Britney vs. Spears," Felicia Culotta, a family friend and Spears' longtime assistant, is visibly afraid to speak about Tri Star founder and CEO Lou Taylor and Taylor's partnership with Jamie to manage Spears' money and conservatorship. Culotta says of Taylor, "I will not touch that one. Sorry. She will chew me up and spit me out."

No one seemed to know what Taylor or Tri Star director Robin Greenhill's roles on Spears' team were — only that these women were in constant communication with Spears' father, and were highly controlling of Spears' every interaction and relationships.

But the main antagonist of "Controlling Britney Spears" is by and large Black Box Security, which was hired by and worked closely with Jamie to monitor and police Britney's every move, according to Alex Vlasov, a whistleblower and former executive assistant at Black Box. 

Black Box Security's "prison"-like surveillance

"It really reminded me of somebody that was in prison," Vlasov said of Black Box's surveillance of Spears, allegedly at her father's orders, in "Controlling Britney Spears." He continued, "Security was put in a position to be the prison guards, essentially."

Among Vlasov's most damning allegations are that Spears' father coordinated with Black Box to install recording devices in the singer's bedroom, recording hours of private conversations between Spears and her children, and anyone in her bedroom. Vlasov claims to have at one point been asked to delete the contents of a USB, presumably containing recordings of these conversations.

Additionally, he testified that Spears' desire for an iPhone caused significant backlash from her conservatorship, as they scrambled to find ways to surveil the device. According to Vlasov, Spears' father and Greenhill wound up entering Spears' iCloud login information on an iPad to retain access to all of her text messages, searches, notes and call logs. 

Black Box has since denied all allegations put forward in "Controlling Britney Spears," but Spears' legal team has taken the claims very seriously. Spears' lawyer, Mathew Rosengart, on Monday filed a third request to immediately remove her father as her conservator citing the allegations and issued a statement to Vulture that reads: 

Unauthorized recording or monitoring of Britney's private communications — especially attorney-client communications, which are a sacrosanct part of the legal system — represent an unconscionable and disgraceful violation of her privacy rights and a striking example of the deprivation of her civil liberties. Placing a listening device in Britney's bedroom would be particularly horrifying, and corroborates so much of her compelling, poignant testimony.

A fractured support system

Both "Controlling Britney Spears" and "Britney vs. Spears" depict the seemingly countless ways Spears' father and his associates allegedly maintained total control over her social relationships and support systems. Spears' father allegedly had to approve every man Spears met, interacted with or dated, and forced them to sign NDAs. Reiterating what Spears herself alleged in her testimony before a judge earlier this year, Vlasov and Spears' assistants claimed she wasn't even permitted to drive or be alone in a car with a man.

But in addition to policing and surveilling Spears' romantic and non-romantic relationships with men, Culotta alleged in "Controlling Britney" that on Spears' "Circus" tour in Europe, Greenhill had lied to her that Spears didn't want her present and didn't want to see her. Culotta claims that she soon encountered Spears while on the tour, and the popstar was overjoyed to see her. This prompted Culotta to realize that Greenhill and Spears' father were actively working to isolate Spears from her close relationships, and ensure only people who supported the conservatorship had access to her.

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Allegations about Spears' conservatorship have been widely compared to abusive relationships, with many highlighting the obvious — that she doesn't consent to the conservatorship, or Spears' allegation that her family planning and reproductive decisions have been controlled by her father. Additionally, isolating someone from their support system is another devastating and common component of domestic abuse.

An inside look at the men in Spears' life

An early focus in "Britney vs. Spears" is Sam Lutfi, who says he served as Spears' manager shortly before the conservatorship began. Spears and Lutfi became fast friends after meeting at a bar, some time amid her 2007 divorce from Kevin Federline. But according to Lorilee Craker, a biographer of Spears' mom Lynn, there was a key reason Spears' conservatorship moved forward with such urgency, with Spears not even given the traditional five-day notice. Her family was concerned with Lutfi, who had allegedly bragged about crushing drugs and putting them in Spears' food. 

"The only reason given for depriving Britney of five days' notice is that Sam Lutfi is dangerous and needs to be kept away," Craker recounted. 

Lutfi categorically denied these claims and called himself "the perfect scapegoat" for her family.

"Britney vs. Spears" also includes interviews with a paparazzo named ​​Adnan Ghalib, who had dated Spears and recounted how fans judged their relationship because "You want the Prince Charming to be as equally as attractive and as equally as charming," and "There was this multi-millionaire and me, there was this famous girl and then there was me."

Ghalib defended Spears against claims that she was "crazy," and recalled staying by her side when she stayed awake for three days on prescription drugs in 2008. Ghalib said he was with Spears on the evening her conservatorship took effect, and her father called demanding that Ghalib bring her home immediately. When they got to her house, Jamie was outside with security and police officers. The relationship deteriorated shortly after.

As for Spears' 2007 divorce from Kevin Federline the following year, Spears responded to Federline's "tell-all" People magazine cover story in 2008 by writing a private letter that she gave to a friend, cinematographer Andrew Gallery, asking him to read it on TV. In the letter, which Gallery had never shared before, Spears describes being essentially forced by her lawyers to end her marriage to Federline, and her inability to speak up or do almost anything with her conservatorship in place, out of fear her conservators would take away her children.

A years-long, private battle

Despite how mainstream attention and support for the #FreeBritney movement is relatively new, Spears wanted out for years — not just from her conservatorship, but from the lifestyle it had entrapped her in, "Controlling Britney" reports. 

When court investigators interviewed Spears about her conservatorship in 2016, she expressed her frustration, fears and discomfort under her conservatorship, as well as her desire to change her lifestyle entirely. She was considering retiring, getting married, and having more children, which her conservatorship barred her from doing. 

Instead, as Spears described at length in her June testimony, her conservatorship continuously forced her to work grueling tour lineups and residencies against her will, taking her money and punishing her for seeking rest, her assistants recall. For years despite these private frustrations, Spears mostly kept silent about the conservatorship and her struggles with her father.

Who was footing the bills?

Speaking of taking Spears' money, Tish Yates, the head of Spears' wardrobe for a significant amount of time between 2008 and 2018, offers alarming anecdotes about how the conservatorship totally controlled Spears' purchases, allowing her only a small allowance. 

Ahead of one of Spears' Vegas shows, Yates claims that the star wanted and was denied a pair of Sketchers because Yates was told they were "too expensive" for Spears' allowance. In other cases, when Spears wanted to order dinner, she would also be told the meals she wanted were too expensive, Yates recalled.

Of course, this was all while the conservatorship's many legal and media appearance fees were all charged to Spears herself. According to "Controlling Britney," her father's lawyers and other costs associated with upholding and positively representing the conservatorship were paid out of Spears' bank account, while she was barely allowed the luxury of enjoying her own earnings.

Spears' conservatorship has its eye on #FreeBritney

One of the most jarring revelations of "Controlling Britney," which contains ample footage of #FreeBritney supporters protesting in the streets and outside courthouses, is that Spears' conservatorship has been concerned about the movement for years. Vlasov alleges that Black Box Security agents have attended #FreeBritney events undercover, meeting and identifying protesters, and keeping information about them.

Both "Controlling Britney" and "Britney vs. Spears" come days before a Wednesday hearing this week, regarding Spears' request to remove her father from her conservatorship. It's to be seen whether her legal team will cite any of the findings and allegations reported in these recent documentaries to further build their case against Jamie Spears.

"Controlling Britney Spears" is now streaming on Hulu. "Britney vs. Spears" is now streaming on Netflix.

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

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