By AJ Willingham, CNN
It is human nature to gossip, to peer behind the gossamer curtain of secrecy separating the rich and famous from the common and curious. In the early 2000s, that age-old impulse reached a toxic nadir. There, in the corners of an internet that still felt novel and lawless, a new breed of bloggers redefined celebrity gossip and set in motion a ruthless media machine that chewed up and spat out any fresh-faced, high-heeled celebrity in its path.
Now, scrolling back through popular dirt sites like Perez Hilton, Lainey Gossip and TMZ feels very much like looking back on the cringiest years of a digital adolescence. But when they reigned, no young starlet was safe from the constant churn of upskirts, invasive paparazzi shots and humiliating headlines. The coverage was caustic and scalding, and thirsty devotees sipped it all down as loyally as a mid-morning latte.
Much has changed since the early aughts, or at least it’s nice to think so. The rise of social media and a socially conscious public have cooled the frenzied paparazzi surge and curbed the worst of the crude headlines. Stars who were once reduced to front page blog chum have found spaces to publicly reflect on their experiences. Perez Hilton and other gossip giants have apologized for the ruthless reputations that made them famous.
The cruel gossip blog era, for all intents and purposes, is over.
But not for Britney Spears.
For more than 10 years, Spears, now 39, has been fighting a conservatorship put in place during a long run of personal setbacks that began in 2007. At that time, celebrity gossip writers were at the height of their influence, and they gleefully documented and detailed every stumble: Britney shaving her head. Britney attacking a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella. Britney at custody hearings for her two sons. Britney reemerging at an uncomfortable awards show performance. Britney, at her lowest, for all to see.
In 2008, what was supposed to be a temporary arrangement to help get Spears back on her feet turned into a permanent set of legal restrictions that has influenced Spears’ personal and professional life ever since. In the meantime, pop culture has evolved, and so has Spears’ career. But overshadowing it all, her legal struggles remain as an enduring consequence of an era when no personal struggle was off limits for the powerful arbiters of the internet.
Through the wringer
In truth, Britney Spears has always been talked about. The icon was only 16 when her school girl skirt and fluffy “…Baby, One More Time” pigtails changed pop culture back in 1998, branding the image as deeply and permanently as Michael Jackson’s white glove or a pair of blue suede shoes.
From that moment, she captured a global fascination that has never seemed to abate, even through her troubles.
As it so happened, the worst of those troubles came during an especially fruitful period for burgeoning gossip machines. Her divorce, custody battle, mental health issues, and an involuntary hospitalization episode during which paparazzi jockeyed to get a picture of Spears on a gurney, all happened around 2007 and 2008. At the same time, Lindsay Lohan, another favorite gossip target, was facing myriad legal troubles and court appearances of her own. Interwoven were the exploits of other It-girls like Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Jessica Simpson, Christina Aguilera and Tara Reid.
What did these women have in common? They were all young, beautiful, rich, and successful. They had all navigated a lifetime of fame, many making the treacherous transition from child star to young, independent adult.
And in the newly established snark cathedrals of the internet gossip world, they deserved to be taken down a peg.
“We love to watch people rise and then fall, and come back, and then fall again,” says Erin Meyers, an associate professor at Oakland University’s Department of Communication and Journalism.
“Especially someone like Britney Spears, who had this squeaky-clean, Disney background and then became a teen star.”
Out of the woods
The advent of social media helped end the highly influential grip of tabloids and gossip blogs because it allowed celebrities to control their own narratives. With a well-placed tweet or Instagram post, a star could effectively defuse any incendiary blog rant or undercut the value of paparazzi photos, all while building a presence that feels more accessible to fans than even the snarkiest, most well-loved gossip rag.
“Before this time, the best way celebrities were able to speak back about their image was through their professional work,” Meyers says. “Spears did this as well. Songs like ‘Piece of Me,’ and ‘I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,’ though they weren’t written by her, were clearly intended to hit back at criticism and own her narrative.”
“But with social media, all of a sudden, celebrities could say exactly what they wanted to people, when they wanted to say it.”
The rise of new social norms and the #MeToo movement also had a hand in quashing the currency of cruel celebrity gossip. While blogs gloried in ridiculing Spears during her comeback performance at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards, and rushed to tear apart Jessica Simpson’s high-waisted jeans at a 2009 appearance at a chili cook-off, today’s young stars are quick to bite back at body shaming. The idea of scrawling derogatory names or crude doodles over the photo of a female celebrity, as Perez Hilton was known for doing, and actually publishing it on any platform, feels unimaginable.
In this new landscape, Paris Hilton, Mischa Barton, Megan Fox and other celebrities popular in the aughts have talked openly about feeling abused and diminished by the toxic celebrity culture of the time.
The question is, when will it be Spears’ turn?
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Spears does not have unfettered access to social media, as dictated by the restrictions of her conservatorship. She does not have freedom over her financial or professional choices. Simply put, the measures other women have taken to reclaim their identities after being put through the gossip wringer are not available to her.
Further to go
Spears rarely talks openly about her situation, which is why her comments during a recent court hearing, scathing and clear, were so remarkable. During the hearing, Spears asked to be released from her conservatorship, calling it “abusive.”
“I just want my life back,” she said.
Among the revelations about her life under the arrangement, she gave a succinct summation of what it is like to live life on two opposite sides of public opinion; to be envied, yet ridiculed. To be idolized, yet torn down.
“I thought people would make fun of me,” Spears said, explaining why she was hesitant to speak about the situation in past. “Or laugh at me and say, ‘She’s lying. She’s got everything. She’s Britney Spears.”
A week after her testimony, a judge denied Spears’ request to remove her father, Jamie Spears, as conservator of her $60 million estate.
Many of Spears’ contemporaries have voiced their support, and it’s worth noting many of them have weathered their own traumatic seasons in the public eye.
“Free Britney!” Miley Cyrus sang at a Fourth of July Performance.
“Give this woman her life back,” Madonna posted on Instagram.
“She deserves her freedom,” Paris Hilton said on social media. “I’ve been saying Free Britney for a long time, and I will keep saying it until she is free.”
After years of being haunted by cruel gossip headlines and inescapable images of her lowest moments, Britney Spears is finally making the most important voice in her story heard: Her own.
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