Terri Black did not do much traveling during the pandemic. But this week the 60-year-old former accountant flew from North Carolina to California to show support for Britney Spears, the pop star who has lived under a legal conservatorship for more than a decade.
The case feels personal for Black. In a phone interview, she said her father was the victim of a fraudulent conservatorship that robbed him of his freedom before he died in 2015. She then co-founded the Center for Estate Administration Reform, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
“What is happening to Britney is happening to Americans across the country,” Black said. “I don’t want another family to go through what I have been through personally and what Britney is living through right now.”
Black was one of dozens of people affiliated with the #FreeBritney movement who stood outside a Los Angeles courthouse Wednesday as Spears, 39, addressed a judge remotely, saying she felt traumatized by the people who have controlled her life for 13 years.
The testimony was a pivotal and potentially vindicating moment for the loose collection of activists, fans and legal observers who in recent years have tried to draw attention to what they see as a craven plot to clamp down on the Grammy-winning singer’s personal rights.
The release of The New York Times documentary “Framing Britney Spears” in February put more focus on the case, painting a troubling portrait of her life under the court-sanctioned guardianship and examining how the news media sensationalized her mental health struggles.
The documentary further galvanized Spears’ fans, who have long felt a spiritual kinship with her and supported the #FreeBritney movement from its infancy — even as some critics dismissed their speculation as idle gossip or conspiratorial nonsense.
In interviews Thursday, some of those fans said they were horrified to see their worst fears about her welfare confirmed in her testimony.
Spears alleged that she has been subjected to numerous psychiatric evaluations and medications. She said she has been traumatized by her father, Jamie Spears, through his control, adding that she felt like she was “enslaved” by his demands.
“I feel absolutely shook and disturbed that what was referred to by the media, the gossip outlets and Britney’s team as ‘conspiracy theories’ are not only true but super true and way worse than we could’ve ever imagined,” said Josh Helfgott, who has been a fan of Spears since he was 10.
Helfgott, 32, who is gay, said Spears is a monumental figure in his life. When he was 13, he said, he was still not open about his sexuality. But the singer’s confidence emboldened him to embrace his identity.
When he met her after winning a contest in the early 2000s, he said, Spears was warm and kind, reinforcing his self-esteem. When they met again at a meet-and-greet in the late 2010s, he perceived that Spears’ demeanor had changed; her interaction with fans felt more restrictive.
“To know that we’re hearing the truth for the first time in 13 years, and to know that Britney is not OK and she’s not happy, is extremely sickening and saddening as a fan,” Helfgott, who lives in New York, said.
Spears’ fans were particularly devastated by her revelation that she does not have reproductive autonomy. She told the court that her conservators will not allow her to remove an intrauterine device, or IUD.
“I think the most jarring point that made everyone collectively gasp was when she said that they will not let her choose her doctors and that she has an IUD in place against her will,” said Sarah Khan, 33, who has been a fan of Spears since 1999.
“For it to happen in the United States for this long to someone who is literally an American icon is just so shocking for the world to hear,” Khan, who lives in Los Angeles, said.
Spears’ testimony should make us ask why it took so long for her experiences to be taken seriously, said Allison Yarrow, the author of “90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality,” which reappraised women such as Lorena Bobbitt and the former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding.
“I think hearing testimony directly from her is a turning point in how the public perceives her and the story of her career,” she said. “It’s a story about mental health. It’s a story about mistreatment by the mainstream medical establishment. It’s a story about freedom.”
“It’s part of bigger conversations we’re having about who has the right to live their life freely,” Yarrow added.