In the depths of her court-ordered conservatorship, while Britney Spears was performing hundreds of shows for her Vegas residency and raking in millions, the pop star was under a strict budget and intense, 24-hour surveillance that monitored her every move — including a wiretap in her bedroom. Those are some of the stunning claims in Controlling Britney Spears, the new documentary from The New York Times that premiered Friday night on FX and Hulu, just five days before a critical court hearing in the 13-year case.
A follow-up to the Emmy-nominated Framing Britney Spears, the 70-minute doc includes startling interviews with the pop star’s longtime former assistant, Felicia Culotta; a former tour manager, Dan George; her onetime head of wardrobe, Latisha “Tish” Yates; and former security staffer Alex Vlasov, who detailed for the first time the extreme security apparatus allegedly put in place by Spears’ father, Jamie Spears, when the conservatorship was initiated in 2008. The insiders describe how Jamie worked in tandem with two key people — Edan Yemini, head of Black Box security, and Robin Greenhill, an employee of Tri Star Sports & Entertainment, the company managing Britney’s business affairs — to oversee every aspect of Britney’s life.
The trio had a group chat where they would discuss “every step she took,” Vlasov claims. “Even in the sacred place, her home, every single request was monitored and recorded. Her intimate relations were closely managed. You know, Britney could not have someone in the privacy of her house without those three people knowing.”
According to interviews in the doc, the conservators isolated the singer from friends and loved ones, prevented her from accessing her own credit cards and accounts, and even spied on her while she spent time with her children — behavior that sounds outright abusive, and, as the documentary makes clear, possibly illegal.
“Ethically, it was just one big mess,” Vlasov says. “It really reminded me of somebody that was in prison, and security was put in a position to be the prison guards, essentially.”
Here are 10 of the most shocking revelations in Controlling Britney Spears:
1. When Britney asked for an iPhone, Jamie, Yemeni, and Greenhill used it for added surveillance.
Vlasov says Britney’s request for an iPhone prompted Yemini to ask him what types of “monitoring services” or “parental controls” they could load on the new device. When Vlasov questioned the legality of such a move, he says Yemini claimed the court and even Britney’s personal lawyer at the time, Sam Ingham, were in the loop with necessary approvals. Vlasov claims Greenhill eventually proposed setting up an iPad loaded with Britney’s iCloud account so it would “mirror” all her activity; that system allowed the trio to see all the singer’s messages, notes, call logs, browser history, and photographs.
“Edan would bring me text messages Britney would have, and he would ask me to encrypt those messages and give it to him so he could pass it on to Robin and Jamie,” Vlasov says. “They would also monitor conversations with her friends, with her mom, with her lawyer Sam Ingham.”
Vlasov later shows the filmmakers an email purportedly from Ingham, in which he asks Jamie’s lawyers for “written confirmation” that “no one other than my client can access her calls, voicemails, or texts, directly or indirectly.” Jamie’s lawyer Geraldine Wyle responds: “Jamie confirms that he has no access to her calls, voicemails, or texts.”
2. Black Box set up a recording device in Britney’s bedroom.
In what might be the most egregious invasion of privacy alleged in the new documentary, Yemini “had an audio recording device put into Britney’s bedroom,” Vlasov says. The device captured more than 180 hours of audio in 2016, including interactions between Britney and her then-boyfriend as well as her children, he claims. Vlasov, who notes that he was just 21 years old when he started working for Black Box, also states that Yemini brought him the recording device and a USB drive at one point and asked him to “wipe it.”
“They seemed very nervous and said that it was extremely sensitive, that nobody can ever know about this and that’s why I need to delete everything on it so there’s no record of it,” he says. “That raised so many red flags for me, and I did not want to be complicit in whatever they were involved in, so I kept a copy because I don’t want to delete evidence. And I don’t think it was a coincidence it was done days before she was due to meet with a court investigator.”
During that September 7th, 2016, meeting, Britney privately told the investigator she considered the conservatorship “an oppressive and controlling tool against her,” according to a copy of the sealed report obtained by the Times. The court investigator concluded her report by recommending that the conservators “do all possible to prevent giving Ms. Spears feelings of subjugation.”
3. Britney, who has a net worth of $60 million, was routinely denied minor indulgences for budgetary reasons.
Yates says she witnessed Jamie and Greenhill turn down relatively humble requests by the world-famous singer, citing financial restrictions. “Britney would say, ‘Hey, is there any way we could have sushi for dinner?’ And I would hear Robin say, ‘You had sushi yesterday, it’s too expensive. You don’t need it again,’” Yates recalls.
Another time, Yates says, Britney saw a pair of Skechers sneakers in a store window and asked if someone could get them for her. Yates volunteered to pick up the shoes but was told by Britney’s managers that it wasn’t allowed. “They said, ‘She doesn’t have any money to be spending on Skechers,’” Yates recalled. The stylist says she resorted to buying the shoes with her wardrobe budget and sneaking them to Britney on the side.
Meanwhile, the documentary notes, Jamie Spears was paying himself $16,000 a month out of Britney’s bank account — $2,000 more per month than he allotted her.
4. Britney’s security was in charge of administering her medications.
Vlasov says that at one point, a new security agent on Britney’s detail approached him asking, “How is it OK that we’re in charge of her medication?” When Vlasov asked what he was talking about, the agent replied, “We give her prepackaged envelopes. We have to hand them to her. And she can’t leave. She has to take it there.”
Vlasov claims that whenever the issue of Britney’s forced medicating came up, he was told, “This is what security should be doing, because this is what the client is asking for, and this is what the client needs.” The “client,” he clarifies, is Jamie, not Britney.
5. Jamie allegedly threatened to block access to Britney’s sons if she challenged her conservators.
Yates, who was Britney’s head of wardrobe during her Circus tour between 2008 and 2010 and then again during the singer’s Britney: Piece of Me Vegas residency and tour, says that anytime the singer stood up for herself, Jamie was called in, brandishing the ultimate weapon. “If she pushed back a little bit, they pushed harder. And then the yelling got louder. Then Jamie would come up and say, ‘No, you’re not having this. And then it would escalate to not having the boys,” Yates claims, referring to Britney’s two sons with ex-husband Kevin Federline, Sean Preston and Jayden James.
6. Britney was forced onstage amid an apparent panic attack over the possibility of losing her kids.
Yates says the threat of losing access to her children once sent Britney into a tailspin during the 2009 Circus tour. The stylist explains that the singer would sometimes climb inside a large “road case” outfitted with a chair to conceal herself as she moved through the crowd. One night, Yates says, Britney burst out of the case, terrified that it smelled like weed. “She’s yelling, saying, ‘It smells like pot. It smells like pot. I can’t breathe this. I cannot breathe this. I’m going to fail a drug test. I won’t see my boys.’ And she bolted. I took off after her. She was running, trying to get back to her dressing room. … She was crying, she was screaming.” As Yates tried to comfort the singer, she says she was ushered away by Britney’s handlers; the next thing she knew, Britney was onstage performing. “The level of how scared she was really opened my eyes,” Yates adds.
7. Britney allegedly tried to sneak a new lawyer into rehab disguised as plumber.
Vlasov claims that when Britney was in a residential mental health clinic in 2019, after she’d cancelled her second Vegas residency and gone on indefinite hiatus, she was trying to find a new lawyer while her phone was still being tracked.
“She did not want to be there,” Vlasov notes. (Britney’s June 23rd statement to Judge Brenda Penny confirms as much, with the singer saying she’d felt forced into the residential program in Beverly Hills with her 24-hour security.) “I heard this from multiple people, including Robin and Jamie themselves when they would talk on the phone to Edan. I overheard multiple conversation where they knew Britney didn’t want to be there. They were monitoring everything — conversations with her friends, with her mom.”
Then, Vlasov says, “she reached out to an attorney, asking if he could sneak in.” According to text communications revealed in the documentary, Britney allegedly told the lawyer he should pretend to be a plumber so her conservators wouldn’t know that she was trying to contact a lawyer on her own.
8. The conservators were threatened by the #FreeBritney movement — and sent security to infiltrate it.
“The #FreeBritney movement was heavily investigated in its early days,” Vlasov says, claiming that Jamie and Yemini sent undercover operatives into the crowds protesting outside of Britney’s court hearings “to talk to fans, to ID them, to document who they were.”
Yemini was “very worried,” Vlasov explains, “because it was out of their control.” And the team’s covert operation was “all under the umbrella of, ‘This is for Britney’s protection.’” The team subsequently sent Britney and her boyfriend, Sam Asghari, out on a photo op in an effort to prove to fans that she was OK.
9. Jamie was fixated on any men who were interested in Britney, and spied on them, too.
Vlasov says Britney’s father had a particular “obsession with the men in Britney’s life,” noting, “They would have to sign contracts. They would have to sign NDAs.” The court-appointed investigator who interviewed Britney at her house in September 2016 also noted that Britney couldn’t befriend people, especially men, unless they were approved by her father. Once approved, new male friends were “followed by private investigators” to ensure “their behaviors were acceptable to her father,” the investigator wrote in the report leaked to the Times.
10. Britney’s ex-assistant was told the singer fired her, but allegedly it was a lie.
Britney’s longtime assistant Felicia Culotta, who previously opened up in Framing Britney Spears, returns for the new documentary with a story about how Jamie called her to an “urgent” meeting where she was told she wouldn’t be joining the European leg of the pop star’s Circus tour. “Britney said she doesn’t want you there. She said she never wanted you on this tour,” Jamie allegedly told her. Culotta says that since her rooms already were booked, she proposed staying on in a support role, while keeping her distance from Britney. Jamie allowed it, adding, “You’d better.”
After the last show of that leg, Culotta found herself at the opposite end of a hallway when Britney came through a far door. “She took a full, running leap, and ran all the way down the hall and leapt onto me,” Culotta says. “And she went, ‘Feeeee!’ And she wrapped her little legs and arms around me and went, ‘Where have you been?’ And it was at that point that I thought, ‘No, wait a minute. Were they trying to turn the two of us against each other?’
Culotta said she realizes now that her presence as part of Britney’s “support system” was “not welcome” amid the strict conservatorship.