The flurry of recent activity in Britney Spears’ conservatorship battle has been a prayers-answered moment for the many fans who’ve supported the singer’s battle to get out of the 13-year arrangement that she says has restricted her personal and professional life.
It’s been especially gratifying for two superfans in particular: comedians Tess Barker and Barbara “Babs” Gray, who helped light a fire under the #FreeBritney movement on their Britney’s Gram podcast last April when they posted an episode featuring allegations from an anonymous insider that the conservatorship was more focused on exploiting the singer than helping her live her best life.
“I don’t think a year ago we really saw this happening at that point,” Gray tells Billboard about what the duo’s expectations were when they pivoted the Gram podcast from a carefree dissection of Spears’ Instagram posts into a more serious look at her life under the conservatorship.
The pod heard ’round the world came more than a decade after the Spears fan site Breathe Heavy launched the original “Free Britney” campaign near the 2008 dawn of the conservatorship, amid concerns that the singer’s mental and physical health were deteriorating under the arrangement’s strict measures.
Though Spears had remained silent during about the conservatorship for most of its duration, she began speaking out about it this year. Her longtime manager, Larry Rudolph, resigned in early July, and in rapid succession her court-appointed conservators and lawyers all stepped down. On July 14, the singer earned the right to hire her own attorney.
“It’s not just that developments are happening weekly but now hourly, and it’s staggering to think about it. But for Britney, it can’t come fast enough because it’s something she’s been living under for 13 years,” says Lisa (who prefers not to use her last name), one of the co-hosts of the EatPrayBritney podcast. Over 93 episodes to date, the podcast has covered everything from Britney’s many magazine cover stories to pondering what it would be like to do a COVID lockdown with Brit, dissecting her music videos and, in a recent episode, interviewing Tess and Babs.
Billboard sat down with Tess and Babs to see how they feel about the whirlwind of recent court drama, their new 10-episode Toxic podcast, and what it felt like to be both inside and outside the courtroom during Spears’ bombshell testimony in June.
If I had asked you a year ago if you thought Britney would be speaking out and pushing against her conservatorship, what would you have said?
Gray: A year ago, I don’t think we really saw this happening at that point. We’ve been following it for a long time and hadn’t seen a lot of movement in that direction, so no, I don’t think we were really expecting to hear from her in this way.
Barker: A year ago, it still felt like all the social media posts from her were, if anything, these coded messages that were similar to the ones that made us start Britney’s Gram … so yeah, I guess we would have been pretty hesitant to think that we are where we are now with her speaking so openly.
What does it feel like to watch things unfold as they have over the past month or so?
Barker: It’s really the whole gamut of emotions. … The overwhelming emotion in the courtroom listening to Britney on [June] 23rd and then again last week, it was really just astonishment at her bravery and just pride and disbelief that anyone could be quite as resilient as Britney is. It’s validating [also] because this is all stuff we’ve been concerned about for a while. But it’s infuriating too, because this was the first time that the world at large heard Britney’s testimony, but the majority of what she said on the 23rd were things that a judge had heard previously and there had been no meaningful action on her case. So I think there’s a lot of anger around that too.
I joked earlier that you two changed the world, but it was only half-jest. It feels like part of what your podcast did was to bring this issue into the open in a different way. Do you feel like maybe you played a small, or not so small, part in making this happen?
Gray: Yeah, I think our podcast and the #FreeBritney movement is a large part of why she spoke out and felt the strength to do that. I think that she had not been listened to for so long and she knew that in this last hearing she needed to say, “Let’s make this open,” so that it would be not hidden behind closed doors yet again. I don’t know if it would have turned out that way without the #FreeBritney movement. I hope that it would have, but it was just so many people trying to be positive and support her and show her that it’s OK to come out and be brave and talk about it. Yeah, I hope that we were part of what made that happen. And I think we were.
The new podcast, Toxic, has taken us on this more narrative ride — from the beginning of her career, to breaking down Britney the earner, talking to her first ex-husband Jason Alexander about their quickie Vegas marriage and, in the latest episode, the year before the conservatorship. What was the initial idea for this podcast, and when did you start working on it?
Barker: Pretty early on after releasing the #FreeBritney episode of Britney’s Gram, we were contacted by a lot of people and getting leads in email and our DMs and we realized the project was more than Babs and I could handle on our own. So we sought partners to help us tell this story, so really Toxic is a culmination of two years of us digging around. Some of our sources took a year for them to even come on mic [and talk]. We wanted to take a really forensic look at how she got into this conservatorship, because we do think it was fraudulent and suspect from the [start]. In order to do that, we had to look back at the early controls on her life previous to the conservatorship and how Britney was treated.
And Tess, you have experience as both a stand-up and a journalist (with bylines in Vice, The Guardian, Vox and other outlets), so it must have felt very satisfying for you to dig in like this.
Barker: Definitely. And we’re working with really smart producers and fact-checkers from The New Yorker. It’s really great to have this team of people helping us and also poking holes in what we’re doing and making sure we’re telling the story as objectively as possible.
You are but humble comedians/reporters, but now conservatorships in general are coming under review and the House had a hearing about a possible reform bill. Does it feel like we’ve reached a tipping point in this story of both Britney and conservatorships?
Gray: Certainly her getting a lawyer of her own choosing is a tipping point after she spoke out and people started jumping ship. … I think that’s definitely a sign that things are changing. And the bill in the House is not perfect, but it’s a starting place and it’s huge that the discussion is being had.
Barker: Those are some of the most surreal moments for us. I couldn’t get over the fact that both [Senators] Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz have come out and said #FreeBritney. That’s what’s very unique about this story and this cause: In this very divided time, everyone from Cher to Elon Musk is getting behind it. To see any legislation proposed is a testament to all the hard work of the people in the #FreeBritney movement who’ve been very vocal about the bigger systemic issues at play here.
In your position now as the world’s foremost Britney experts, what do think the best thing would be for her at this point?
Gray: We would like to see what she’s asked for, which is for the conservatorship to end without her being evaluated. … She’s had to endure a lot of these evaluations in which they said, “The conservatorship will end after this” [and] it doesn’t end. They’ve held it over her head for a long time and that’s what she’s asked for and that’s what we hope she gets: access to her money and she decides when she works and where and if she ever wants to work again.
It might be that she decides if she gets free of the conservatorship that she doesn’t want to tour or record again. Is that the best-case scenario for her, and as self-described superfans would you be a bit sad if that’s the case?
Barker: The best-case scenario is Britney doing what Britney wants to do. Obviously the fan in me would love a new Britney album where she writes music about what’s been going on in her life. That would be amazing. But I think her real fans recognize what she’s been through over the past 13 years and her true fans don’t expect anything of her. If she wants to make music, I think everybody will devour it, but most people will understand if she chooses not to.
Babs, you went to the hearing on the 23rd. Can you talk about what it was like? It felt like there was a real amazing energy there.
Gray: I was actually outside the courtroom and it was one of the most exhilarating scenes I’ve ever experienced. We have been in this for years and we’ve seen the #FreeBritney movement and her fans pour their blood, sweat and tears into this and we were all huddled around one phone listening for most of it. To sit there and watch them see their hard work come to something and see her speak on all these things — some things were new, some things we knew already, some we didn’t — it was just really an extremely surreal, emotional moment. It was really validating for all of us.
What about for you inside the courtroom, Tess?
Barker: One thing that was really strange about it was that we’d been instructed by the judge and the bailiff to be very quiet — there weren’t very many reporters in the room due to COVID restrictions — so it was this really shocking and emotionally charged moment when Britney broke in and said she wanted to have the hearing opened. But that contrasted with the level of silence we had to upkeep, so all of us reporters in the room were silently making eyes at each other like, “Is this really happening?”
And I always have to ask: Have you gotten any direct feedback or acknowledgement from Britney herself now that she’s mentioned the #FreeBritney hashtag explicitly?
Barker: We’ve not heard from her, but the day before Toxic launched, she reposted a Britney’s Gram post and tagged us in it. We don’t know how or why that happened, but it was from two years ago. So I don’t know if that was her scrolling through our feed or what, but that was an interesting moment for us.
Gray: It had always been a joke on Britney’s Gram when we started it that, “Oh, our whole goal is just for Britney to re-post one of our memes someday.” And then she did it the day before the podcast launched. It was a really weird moment.