I first met Claudette Lali Anaya during the coronavirus pandemic, first on Clubhouse, then over Instagram. Along with my friend Ines, we started to chat more regularly, opening a Clubhouse room together for our ‘She Owns Her Story’ Network. She was charming and witty, a spirited New York Latina who’d appeared on SNL and kept us laughing on Clubhouse while she sat in a hospital waiting-room as her mom underwent surgery.

Most of all, she spoke eloquently about the things she loved, like NFTs as a crypto liberation movement for female artists. It just so happened that the subject she was most passionate about, however, was the ‘liberation’ of Britney Spears from her conservatorship. “OK,” I said. Was this the same Britney Spears who acts as a cautionary tale in the musical pantheon of Millennium-era greats; she who found fame too young, flew too high, and burned out in spectacularly wild-eyed frenzy as the world looked on? The same Britney Spears around whom paparazzi spent the mid-2000s circling like vultures as she struggled with substance abuse and custody battles? In short, yes. “But that was thirteen years ago,” I said.

It was then I discovered that these were wounds no amount of double denim could patch. Because, thirteen years ago, Spears was placed under psychiatric evaluation and her father assumed a temporary conservatorship over his daughter, ostensibly to protect her interests. Time, of course, healed Britney, but thirteen years later, the conservatorship remained firmly in place. Until this week.

For diehard fans like Claudette, not to mention Britney herself, the removal of Jamie Spears as his daughter’s conservator is the culmination of a two-year campaign to right the wrongs of a caustic exercise in exploitation, one that has prevented an adult woman of sound mind from making her own personal, creative, and financial decisions. The end of such an era, however, has served only to pose more questions about why the conservatorship lasted so long, and what this says about attitudes to mental illness in the public eye.

The answer, perhaps, lies in who Britney Spears was ‘before’. The peculiar case of Ms. Spears in the cultural consciousness stems from her variable and often paradoxical persona- Britney was first a schoolgirl, then a coquette, and thereafter a woman who just really liked snakes. Seems simple enough. She’d arrived from nowhere with a veritable bucket-load of Number One hits. She’d dated Justin Timberlake. She’d kissed Madonna. She’d been young and in the public eye. Britney was what you needed her to be, so long as you didn’t need her to be anything serious.

So when things did become serious, nobody knew what to do. It was almost as though Britney had exceeded the parameters of public acceptance- Spears had followed a long lineage of troubled former child stars, and a mental breakdown was merely the next, pathetic stop on the express train to a volatile guest spot on Big Brother. If Spears was an entertainment commodity, she had not malfunctioned in the eyes of those who anticipated her every move; rather, she had matured and developed a new use- that of the ‘tortured celebrity icon’. Britney Spears was never supposed to be fixed, let alone fix herself.

For the moment, it remains unclear as to why exactly the conservatorship lasted as long as it did. But if we are to heed society’s understanding of female emotional health in the modern age, there is something almost romantic about women who are young, serve as sex-objects, and struggle with mental illness. Britney Spears was the perfect intersection of all three, the unholy trinity of feminine incapacity to function without reliance on some ingenue desire to seek self-betterment. It was Britney’s life and livelihood that condemned her to eternal ‘brokenness’; her chosen path absolved her of responsibility- in some respects, it was easier if she didn’t get better. We may wonder if the public debate around her conservatorship is a product of Spears’ obstinate refusal to slide into obscurity. Her continued reign as Princess of Pop bucked the trend for those who are considered mentally ill- that Britney was to be anything other than delicately unwell defied how young women in the spotlight were supposed to behave.

That’s where fans like Claudette Lali Anaya come in. Claudette worked as Britney’s stylist in the late 90s and early 2000s; she saw in her former boss a woman who was not only a victim of circumstance, but whose fight was ongoing. Lali Anaya is one of the senior and most vocal figures in the #FreeBritney movement, a campaign by those who had discovered the depth of Spears’ plight to remove her father from his position as conservator; their aim, simply put, was to finally give Britney the right to own her story.

It was the tireless campaigning of the #FreeBritney movement that, in the words of Britney’s lawyer “carried the ball across the finish line”; we might consider Spears’ victory a testament not only to liberating those who have been denied the chance to write their own narrative, but to the power of activism in general. “When everyone was saying that we were insane, and that this was a conspiracy- thank God that we did not stop,” says Claudette. Her point, whilst true, stings a little; what stops us from wholeheartedly believing survivors of exploitative conservatorships in the first place?

Claudette paints an unpleasant picture of her time in Britney’s entourage, one in which honest friendships with the star were imbued with a sense of paranoia and distrust- a product of spin from faceless suits and industry moguls who knew that Britney Spears was most at her most bankable when isolated and scared. Lali Anaya’s battle to see her former employer liberated is captured not only in her love of Britney as a woman, but for the “millions of people under abusive conservatorships who feel supported for the first time”. Claudette’s work within the #FreeBritney movement is also distinctly feminist- her work with the She Owns Her Story Clubhouse room has become a recruitment outpost for those who, like me, were not aware of Britney’s situation, and the unconscious bias that comes in turning our head the other way whenever someone designated “mentally ill” speaks out.

Perhaps, it’s Britney Spears who says it best: “I want my life back.” With her father removed as conservator, she may finally get it. Meanwhile, as media furore around Spears begins to die down, fans like Claudette and the #FreeBritney movement will keep on fighting- their battle may be won, but handing the narrative back to Britney marks the beginning of a new, silent war. The marches will continue, as will the Clubhouse meets and campaigning, not just for Britney, but for anyone who has been disregarded because of their mental health. The time to believe survivors is now. But for the moment, Claudette and her fellow campaigners can rest easy- Britney’s finally free.

Check out this podcast about Britney Spears.