They Were Laughed At For Their #FreeBritney Activism. Not Anymore

Jul 26, 2021
Originally published on July 27, 2021 6:19 am
#FreeBritney protesters gather outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles. Similar rallies have been taking place around the world in recent weeks.
Emma McIntyre / Getty Images

It used to be that friends and family laughed when Leanne Simmons told them about her #FreeBritney activism. They'd tell her to grow up, that she wasn't 9 years old anymore. Why would anyone care so much about Britney Spears, anyway? Embarrassed, Simmons would find comfort online, talking on Britney message boards and to friends on social media.

These days, people don't laugh as much. But it wouldn't matter to Simmons either way.

"This is not a joke. This is very serious," Simmons says. "And if people want to make fun of me, I don't care, because I'm fighting for what's right."

Simmons runs freebritney.army and is just one of a growing number of people advocating for California courts to release pop star Britney Spears from her conservatorship, under the banner #FreeBritney. It's a fluid, grassroots movement in which members share and analyze court documents, help one another understand the ins and outs of guardianship law, organize in-person rallies around the world, and get the word out about Spears' story.

"It does feel vindicating"

"When the movement started, we were painted as conspiracy theorists and really dismissed," says Kevin Wu, co-founder of the FreeBritneyLA accounts on Twitter and Instagram. Even though their sourcing was often based on court documents, Wu says it felt like they were never given any credibility. "It was frustrating that it took as long as it did, but it does feel vindicating that the movement and our concerns are finally being taken seriously."

That changed in part thanks to Framing Britney Spears, the documentary from The New York Times and FX that helped bring wider attention to the pop star's story. But the major shifts in Spears' legal fight in the past few weeks have been proof enough that these true believers were onto something, even getting a shoutout from the pop star herself.

Of course, many #FreeBritney activists started as Britney Spears fans from back in the day. Some have gotten used to being dismissed. "I felt like even before the conservatorship, we had to defend ourselves for liking her," Simmons says. She was used to pushing back against music snobs who dinged Spears for lip-syncing or viewed her as just a pop star, who was manufactured by the machinery of the music industry. "It was kind of a smooth transition from defending why I'm a Britney fan to defending her human rights," says Simmons.

But even more casual fans were so shocked by the details of Spears' story that they felt compelled to do something about it. Pilar Vigneaux is a #FreeBritney supporter based in Papudo, Chile. She says she liked Spears enough but didn't obsess over knowing all her songs or even owning all of her albums. But as she read deeper into the oddity of Spears being in a conservatorship at all, her kids being taken away from her and her father spending all her money, Vigneaux felt a growing urge.

"If you are really able to put yourself in her shoes for three seconds, you can't just not get involved," she says. She emailed Wu and asked whether FreeBritneyLA was sending out press releases. Wu said no, so she volunteered to put her skills from her day job at a communications company to use.

An anonymous source inspires momentum

But while numerous #FreeBritney activists are lifers who had been paying attention ever since Spears was put in a conservatorship, many point to a particular episode from 2019 of the podcast Britney's Gram as the true impetus of the movement. In it, hosts Tess Barker and Babs Gray, who up until then hosted a more jokey and irreverent show overanalyzing Spears' Instagram account, played an anonymous tip from a credible source revealing some details about Spears' conservatorship and her relationship with her father, Jamie Spears. Now the two host a new podcast, Toxic: The Britney Spears Story, a more produced and reported examination of Spears' conservatorship.

"We're just really grateful for the people who took it seriously and took on #FreeBritney as a part of a cause," she said. "I feel like they really helped keep the momentum going."

That momentum is already going beyond Britney Spears. Go to any #FreeBritney rally and you're bound to hear the names of others stuck in guardianships, both famous and not. "I see very real potential with the visibility that they're bringing to the issue," says Rick Black, director of the Center for Estate Administration Reform, which advocates for victims of predatory guardianships. "Not only for Britney, but for future and current victims that don't have a face, don't have a voice, would never be known."

Black says the biggest asset the #FreeBritney movement has is its natural leverage of social media. "They're touching millions more people than a bunch of gray hairs like me are going to touch."

That work already has started to see fruit. Last week, two bipartisan U.S. representatives proposed a bill in the House known as the Freedom and Right to Emancipate from Exploitation Act (FREE Act), which would allow people in guardianships the right to petition the court to have their private guardian or conservator replaced with a public one.

Movements like #FreeBritney are large and multi-opinionated, and some supporters don't think the bill goes far enough. But that's just regular business for any growing movement — especially one looking to have a lasting impact.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This was the scene outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles a few weeks ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Free Britney.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Now.

SHAPIRO: Supporters of pop star Britney Spears in her fight against her conservatorship held pink signs, waved flags and marched under the banner #FreeBritney. They say initially they weren't taken seriously, but as NPR's Andrew Limbong reports, they plan on sticking around.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: It used to be that when Leanne Simmons told people about her #FreeBritney activism, they'd laugh.

LEANNE SIMMONS: A lot of friends and family thought, oh, Leanne, grow up. You're not 9 years old anymore. Why are you so, you know, in love with Britney Spears? So I was a little embarrassed.

LIMBONG: She'd find solace online, on message boards and among friends on social media. But as she found out more about Britney Spears' case, disability rights activism and conservatorship abuse...

SIMMONS: I decided I'm just going to go in. And if people want to make fun of me, I don't care because I'm fighting for what's right.

LIMBONG: These days, Simmons is at real-life rallies, pulling and reading court documents, attending hearings and doing the hard work of grassroots organizing. And she's just one of a growing global movement. Pilar Vigneaux lives in Chile, and she wasn't even a super-hardcore Britney Spears fan. But she came across some #FreeBritney content on Instagram one day.

PILAR VIGNEAUX: Then I started reading and educating myself, and I don't know. It was something in me that - I couldn't stay away from what was going on.

LIMBONG: She's a communications professional in her day job, so she emailed the prominent activist account FreeBritneyLA and volunteered to help them send out press releases. The co-founder of that account, Kevin Wu, says that they used to be dismissed as conspiracy theorists. But after The New York Times and FX documentary "Framing Britney Spears" as well as Spears' own public testimony detailing her life under the conservatorship, people realized #FreeBritney was for real.

KEVIN WU: You know, it was frustrating that it took as long as it did, but it does feel vindicating that the movement and our concerns are finally being taken seriously.

LIMBONG: While many activists are lifelong Britney Spears fans, what really pushed them into doing something was an episode of the podcast "Britney's Gram" where an anonymous tipster gave some details about the conservatorship.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "BRITNEY'S GRAM")

BABS GRAY: And we got this voicemail. And I feel like we should just play it, and then we'll discuss.

TESS BARKER: Yeah. Here we go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hi there. I cannot disclose who I am.

BARKER: I noticed we had, you know, in our voicemail inbox, one that was, like, longer than the rest of them. So I hit play and, yeah, got goosebumps and went up to my husband, who was watching "SportsCenter," and was like, you're never going to believe what I just heard, and then texted Babs right away.

LIMBONG: That's Tess Barker, who, along with Babs Gray, co-hosted what was originally a more jokey and irreverent podcast. They've got a new podcast now called "Toxic: The Britney Spears Story," which is a more seriously reported deep dive into Spears' conservatorship. But working on that took them off the frontlines for a bit. Here's Gray.

GRAY: We're just really grateful for the people who took it seriously and took on #FreeBritney as a part of a cause because I feel like they really helped keep the momentum going when we were, like, busy working on this. I'm just - yeah, I'm grateful even though it is very surreal to think about.

LIMBONG: Rick Black is director of the Center for Estate Administration Reform, which advocates for victims of predatory guardianships, and he says activism is among the hardest things he's had to do. And when he got in touch with #FreeBritney supporters...

RICK BLACK: I was so impressed with their maturity, their understanding, their tolerance of the diversity within their own group.

LIMBONG: People of all identities, of different professional backgrounds working towards a goal. And it's bigger than just Britney. Just last week, lawmakers proposed a bill addressing guardianship concerns and called it the FREE Act. Here's Kevin Wu again.

WU: I think there's a lot of work to be done to fix things. And the attention that this movement has brought is going to help move the needle in that direction.

LIMBONG: #FreeBritney has faced some internal conflicts, in-fighting, differences of opinion, people trying to co-opt the movement. But that's just a sign of how much #FreeBritney has grown.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTIME")

BRITNEY SPEARS: (Singing) I guess I need you, baby. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.