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July 31, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE: On Britney Spears, mental illness, and public stigma

September 10, 2007: Youtube user Chris Crocker uploads a new video “Leave Britney Alone”. Sitting in front of a white sheet, Chris combs through his blonde hair and sobs — “How fucking dare anyone out there make fun of Britney after all she has been through!” The previous night, pop star Britney Spears made a “comeback” performance at the MTV Video Music Awards after several years of erratic behavior. The performance is panned, deemed lacklustre, and slammed by the media, with Britney a shadow of her former peppy self as she wanders about the stage dazed and barely lip syncing to her new single. Chris, a long time Britney fan, is exasperated as he continues his plea: “She lost her aunt, she went through a divorce. She had two fuckin’ kids! Her husband turned out to be a user, a cheater, and now she’s going through a custody battle. All you people care about is readers and making money off of her. She’s a human! What you don’t realise is that Britney is making you all this money and all you do is write a bunch of crap about her.” In 2007, eight years after the release of her 1999 debut album …Baby One More Time, the public perception of Britney Spears had drastically shifted; the singer who once conjured up imagery of virginity, school uniforms, and sweetness had been replaced by your classic child star gone off the rails. Fast forward to 2017 and the stigma remains; for all her chart topping albums, her grueling tour schedules, and a 20+ year long career in the entertainment industry, Britney is always going to be remembered as that pop star who shaved her head. While pop culture is often derided as vapid and unimportant, does our treatment of Britney Spears not speak to our wider societal perception of the mentally ill?

Born Britney Jean Spears in McComb, Mississippi, on December 2, 1981, her parents always knew she was destined for stardom. At age eight her mother took her to Atlanta to audition for children’s variety show The Mickey Mouse Club, where she was initially rejected based on her age but eventually cast on the show three years later. The show was a success, and Britney starred alongside future musical contemporaries Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera (and even a young Ryan Gosling), but it was ultimately cancelled in 1996 and the family, then stationed in Atlanta, returned to Mississippi again and Britney enrolled in high school. Britney’s parents, Jamie and Lynne Spears, prioritised all their time and money into their daughter’s career, placing a strain on their marriage as Jamie lapsed into alcoholism to cope with stress. By 1997 Britney was in talks with Lou Pearlman (former manager of NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys, later convicted and imprisoned for defrauding his clients; it is also alleged he sexually abused many of the young acts he managed) to join a girl group he was assembling, but she declined last minute in favour of pursuing a solo career. Pearlman obtained an unused Toni Braxton instrumental and recording sessions were booked to produce a professional demo to send out to record companies; three out of four rejected her, saying there was no demand for more female solo acts, but the third, Jive Records, signed the 15-year old. …Baby One More Time was released January 12, 1999; it debuted at number one on the Billboard charts and was certified double platinum within a month. It would go on to become the biggest selling album by a teenage artist — it charted worldwide and sold over ten million copies in its initial year. In a 1999 cover story with Rolling Stone magazine, Britney mused on being a teenage girl with a work ethic different to her peers, on who she was supposed to be dating according to magazines (she was rumoured to be dating touring partner Justin Timberlake of NSYNC at the time — a relationship that would be confirmed in 2000 and continue through until 2003), and how ludicrous she found the uproar about her potential sexuality. The David LaChapelle cover photo would become iconic, with 17-year old Britney smiling coyly at the camera lying on pink satin sheets in a bra and short shorts. Britney Spears was an instant phenomenon.

After her debut, Britney’s career went from strength to strength, with consecutive number one singles including “Oops!… I Did It Again”, “Stronger”, “I’m a Slave 4 U”, and “Toxic”. She appeared in a slew of popular television shows such as Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Saturday Night Live, and The Simpsons, and in 2002 helmed the teen drama film Crossroads as lead Lucy. As she developed more creative control in her career, her lyrics reflected on her struggles to reconcile success with the pitfalls and emptiness of fame, particularly in the hit single “Lucky”: “She’s so lucky, she’s a star, but she cries in her lonely heart.” The music video for “Everytime” echoes these sentiments, with the singer depicted franticly trying to escape the flash of the paparazzi camera and maintain normality. After a fight with her partner, she begins to bleed from a head wound and drowns in a bathtub; the camera cuts to a delivery room where a baby is born, implying Britney has been reincarnated and is free to start life anew away from the spotlight. The video’s original ending — Britney overdosing on drugs to commit suicide — was ultimately scrapped for being too dark a narrative.

By the beginning of 2004, Britney’s behavior had become increasingly erratic and was documented daily in tabloids and blogs: “Britney watch” had begun. In January, Britney stunned fans with a surprise marriage to childhood friend Jason Alexander (not to be confused with the Seinfeld actor of the same name) at one of Las Vegas’ infamous 24 hour wedding chapels, only to announce the union’s annulment 55 hours later. In March she embarked on the Onyx Hotel Tour to promote her most recent album In The Zone, but a fall in June saw the singer sustain a knee injury requiring surgery and the tour was cancelled after 54 shows. It was on this tour that Britney met Kevin Federline, a backup dancer from California with a fiancé and two young children; after three months of dating he and Britney were engaged in July, and married by September 2004. An MTV show, originally planned to document the Onyx Hotel Tour, was revamped around the couple’s relationship after the tour’s cancellation, and the five episode series Britney and Kevin: Chaotic aired in May. Critics branded the show “career suicide” for Britney, existing purely as a testament to the crude narcissism of celebrity (Britney would go on to call Chaotic “the worst thing I’ve done in my career”). In October she announced a career break to start a family, and her first child with Federline, Sean Preston, was born on September 14 the following year. In February 2006, Britney was papped driving her Range Rover with Sean, five months, on her lap, one hand on the wheel and one on her child. Heavily criticised for negligence, she was photographed again in May nearly dropping Sean, who was caught by a member of her security team. She was later seen crying at a toy store. Her second child with Federline, Jayden James, was born in September, but two months later Britney filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. Their divorce would not be finalised in court until July 2007 when the couple finally settled on a custody agreement.

Leave Britney Alone Illustration by Luna Debris

Illustration by Luna Debris

In the wake of her separation from Federline, Britney became a key player in the LA nightclub scene, partying with Paris Hilton and fellow members of the young social elite, as tabloids ate up the rumours of her escalating drug use. After her aunt Sandy died of ovarian cancer in January of 2007, Britney’s partying spiralled further and on February 14 she was admitted into a drug rehabilitation center in Los Angeles, only to check out less than 24 hours later. On February 16 she was spotted by paparazzi crying in her car just before 7.00pm before heading into a closed hair salon, where gleeful paparazzi snapped shots of the pop princess shearing her long hair off with electric clippers. Emerging from the salon, she told the paparazzi waiting outside “[I did it] because of you.” In an interview with TMZ, the salon owner was quoted saying: “The only emotions that she showed was when she said her mom was going to be mad that she was doing this to her hair and she got a little teary eyed, when she all of a sudden realised what she did. She wasn’t very talkative.” After shaving her head, Britney waded through photographers to a nearby tattoo parlour; when an employee asked her why she had buzzed her hair, she said “I don’t want anyone touching me. I’m tired of everybody touching me.” Widely speculated as a breaking point for the pop star, it is also alleged Britney shaved her head as a last minute attempt to prevent positive results for amphetamines in court-ordered follicle testing as part of her custody agreement. The photographs of Britney’s head shaving have become morbidly iconic in mainstream popular culture, from serving as patronising reminders to stay humble, to self-deprecating Instagram memes (“If you can’t handle me at my 2007 Britney, you don’t deserve me at my 2015 Britney”). After checking into a rehab facility again on February 20 and leaving again less than 24 hours later, Britney was seen attacking a paparazzo’s vehicle with an umbrella. She later apologised for the incident, alleging that she was preparing for a potential film role and became too immersed in the character. On the 22nd she checked into rehab yet again, staying for close to a month.

After time out from the public eye and live performances, Britney made a return to the stage at the September 2007 MTV Video Music Awards in a performance that was heavily lambasted in the media — with Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day quoted as saying, “Watching Britney Spears the other night was like watching a public execution. How could the people at MTV, the people around her, not know this girl was fucked up?” The next day Chris Crocker uploaded his video “Leave Britney Alone!”, a teary plea to viewers to rescind the judgement being placed on Britney during such a rough time in her life. In October Britney lost primary physical custody of her children, though the reasons were not revealed to the public; on the 26th, the same day as the release of her fifth studio album, Circus, she was seen yelling at a reporter outside a courtroom “Eat it, lick it, snort it, fuck it!” before running back inside crying. On the evening of January 30, 2008, Britney refused to relinquish custody of her children to Kevin Federline, resulting in a three hour standoff as police attempted to enter her house and retrieve Sean and Jayden. When police finally gained entry in the early morning and discovered her to be acting under the influence of drugs (although drug tests later returned negative), she was forcefully removed and hospitalised under a 5150 psychiatric hold, a process caught by the horde of paparazzi and reporters camped outside. Images of Britney strapped to a gurney were front page of every magazine the next day and any information on her condition that could be gleaned from hospital staff was updated online by the hour. Within 24 hours of her hospitalisation, Kevin Federline was granted full indefinite custody of the couple’s children, and Britney was placed under a then temporary court-ordered conservatorship, in what would be the beginning of a long battle, which continues to this day, for the singer to reclaim her autonomy.

A conservatorship, by California law, is a court order enacted when a person is deemed incapable of adequately caring for themselves, due to severe physical or mental limitations, and the individual is placed under the care of a court-appointed minder. While most conservatorships begin as limited arrangements, they can be extended indefinitely until the recipient is able to care for themselves again; at each renewal the individual’s mental capacity is determined by a medical physician or psychiatrist. While under a conservatorship, the individual is forbidden from making any personal, legal, financial, or medical decisions. Britney’s conservatorship contains two sections, personal and business, managed by her father Jamie and lawyer Andrew Wallet respectively. As her primary conservator, Jamie Spears earns $130,000 per year for his duties. Though some restrictions have eased since 2008, there have been few alterations to the initial agreement. The ultimate decision to end the conservatorship belongs to the conservators and the doctors employed by them, who all receive heavy compensation for their involvement in her case. In 2012 TMZ reported that there were no plans to end the conservatorship, with the agreement projected to remain heavily profitable for many years to come. Britney has been performing under a residency at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas since 2013; initially scheduled as a two year commitment, in 2015 the residency was extended through until the end of 2017, and further extended in early 2017 to an international tour, and has made over $100 million in ticket sales in four years. Despite this, the conservatorship remains, which begs the question: if Britney is well enough to perform live for four years straight, then why the need for her conservatorship? Have Britney’s publicly documented misfortunes become a scapegoat to control her career

Beyond a handful of vague remarks in interviews, Britney has never directly commented on any official diagnosis that she may or may not have. In the 2013 E! special I Am Britney Jean she makes a flippant comment about her change in behavior when she performs as being “bipolar” — “I turn into this different person seriously. Bipolar disorder.” — which was then widely circulated online and in tabloids as a public admission. While scouring forums for threads on the topic, I found an array of diagnoses ascribed by die-hard stans and gossip rag hounds, not limited to: clinical depression, bipolar disorder, social anxiety, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, postpartum depression, postpartum psychosis, and simply “drugs”. For the fans that believe that Britney does not suffer mental illness, there is a large disconnect between this belief and the implications of her now nine-year conservatorship, with some claiming its entire existence to be an elaborate hoax to protect her privacy. During her February 2008 hospitalisation TMZ reported that “sources” close to Britney “have known for a while that Britney has a very serious mental condition — likely a bipolar disorder that is now in the red zone” due to her heavy substance abuse. All mentions of Britney’s mental health status are redacted from public versions of her conservatorship agreement, while still specifying that the conservatorship is imperative to her coping with day to day life.

The trope of the “troubled child star” isn’t a new one in pop culture; before Britney there was Michael Jackson and Drew Barrymore, just as Lindsay Lohan and Shia LeBeouf were to follow her. While placing any regular person on a pedestal and exposing them to public criticism and rapidly idealising and devaluing their character is cruel in itself, it seems particularly cruel that the celebrity trainwreck narrative puts the blame squarely on the celebrity: yes, pressure can make diamonds, but that saying isn’t going to ring true every time. Among other things, the pressure my own father placed on me to succeed and be perfect left with me my own host of mental illnesses, and thank God none of that was ever printed in a tabloid. At the time of writing this article I am 25-years old, and in 2007 Britney was 26. No one ever told the world about my stays at psychiatric hospitals or my self-destructive coping mechanisms — and I’ve never been on one world tour let alone six — and I still find it an ongoing and difficult process to cope with the overwhelming stigma towards mental illness, and the battle to merely exist as a mentally ill person.

So for all the speculation in this article, disregard it. Everything you assume about Britney Spears, disregard it. As an avid consumer of pop culture and a quote unquote “crazy person”, I always want celebrities to use their platform to be open and honest about their experiences with mental illness, but at the end of the day Britney’s mental health status is none of my fucking business. Britney Spears does not owe us anything. Her struggles are hers to divulge and she has been in situations that would ruin the most stable of us and it’s time we really, truly left her alone.

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