Words: Conor Sharkey Glackin
It’s been a wild week with pop superstar Britney Spears finally being freed from her father’s oppressive conservatorship, after 13 years. BIMM’s own Professor Jennifer Otter Bickerdike had been putting a book – ‘Being Britney: Pieces Of A Modern Icon’ – together, and with terrific timing its release last week coincided with Britney’s good news. LDN thought we should find out more…
Everybody’s talking about Britney at the moment. Can you explain what happened?
“Britney was under a huge amount of pressure in 2008. She had two children, back-to-back, and she was arguably suffering from postpartum depression, which was not diagnosed. That caused her to have a mental breakdown. We weren’t talking about mental health in the same way then that we are now. That caused her to not really have sympathetic people around listening to her. So she was taken away not once, but twice on what’s called a 5150 in America, which means you’re put into a psychiatric hold for 72 hours and against your will. After the second one, she was put under what’s called a conservatorship in the state of California, which means you basically have the rights of a child. You can’t make any decisions for yourself. And her father, who was fairly opposite during her life, was the person that was put in charge of the conservatorship, and she was under that for the last 13 years.”
Would you say there’s a precedent for this?
“There have been quite a few conservatorship cases, especially with younger stars. the difference with Britney has been one of the biggest celebrities in the world. With a rabid fan base, it feels like they’ve grown up with Britney and have some sort of ownership over her. So that’s what’s made it different. But because conservatorships have been around for a long time, one person I did interview for the book is my best friend who I grew up with, she’s a private investigator. Her area of specialty is conservatorship. And she’s been doing it for 25 years, and she said she’s never gotten as many calls or asked for interviews in 25 years as she has in the last six months.”
Would you say that this is just a woman issue or is it happening to male actors and childhood stars as well?
“The conservatorship goes across both sexes, for sure. I do think a lot of the things in Britney’s case, the way the media in particular has framed her, is definitely a female situation. If you compare Justin Timberlake for example with Britney, the way the media has treated them even now is completely different start if you go back 20 years. When Britney and Justin broke up Justin worked his way through just as many starlets and actresses and random people, but there was not a constant drip feed of “Oh my god, who’s this slag that Justin’s hitting on now?” versus every time Britney set foot outside with someone, it was news. I mean, at one point, there was a statistic that 75 per cent of all the TMZ gossip sort of news was revolved around Britney. Britney going to the pet store was news at one point.”
Would you say that this hounding by the press is more of an American issue than perhaps a global one?
“[Take] Amy Winehouse. The UK forced her to her death because of this kind of thing. One of the glorious things about America is we export our values around the world, whether it’s McDonald’s, pollution, the way we treat celebrities, all that stuff [laughs]. This is just another thing that is mimicked around the world, but celebrity is not a new thing. Since Alexander the Great there’s been celebrity.”
What made you want to write a book about Britney?
“I really wanted to do a book to carry on from my last one, ‘You Are Beautiful, And You Are Alone: The Biography Of Nico’. Nico was someone that was under-publicised. She was someone that was not talked about very much when she was alive. I thought, ‘Let’s go the other way. Let’s write about Britney.’ I decided to do a book on Britney in November of 2020. What was fascinating to me is there weren’t really any books about Britney, there was one or two unauthorised biographies, but they were all over a decade old, there was nothing recent at all. With everything that Britney’s done, I could not believe there was not more out there. So that was where the genesis of the idea came from. I’m such a nerd, I like to really kind of go down deep into the foundations, whether it’s going to the British Library, whether it’s going to the hometowns, or going into an archive, I just get high off the smell of the dust mites. With the Britney story, there’s none of that stuff, because everything has been played out in real time. Almost everything is on TMZ or from Perez Hilton. It’s a story that’s ever evolving. So that has been a massive change from my last book. It was two totally different experiences.”
Many kinds of celebrity have many versions of themselves. But which one were you primarily concerned with in regard to Britney?
“The way I’ve done the book, it’s 40 separate pieces. So short essays, we call it mosaic style. It’s a new way of doing narrative biography. And what I really wanted to do is there are definitely personal aspects of Britney. But what was important was to capture how we – and when I say we it’s America – has exported our culture and our values via the vehicle of Britney Spears around the world. So there are definitely personal parts in terms of her as well as the ultimate American Dream gone awry. Britney’s the starting off point for a larger conversation on things.”
‘Being Britney: Pieces of a Modern Icon’ is out now via Bonnier.