Tess Barker and Babs Gray have different recollections of Britney Spears’s infamous 2007 “breakdown,” which led to her being subject to a conservatorship that stands to this day.
For Barker, it’s when she doubled down as a true Spears fan. “That to me is when she really started to feel like this subversive figure, this very kind of punk-rock rockstar who really just didn’t care about what anyone thought of her,” Barker says. “She seemed like a very liberated person.” Gray remembers it differently—if at all. All she can really recall thinking is what the tabloid headlines told her to think. Spears shaved her head and she’s gone off the rails.
But in recent years, the general public has started to re-evaluate how Spears was portrayed throughout her career (instead of, “She’s crazy,” it’s, “Maybe she was a victim of misogyny?”) and the success of that narrative shift partly belongs to Barker and Gray, co-hosts of Britney’s Gram, a comedy podcast that examined Spears’s Instagram account. The podcast turned into a news source when an anonymous individual called in to allege that Spears had been admitted to a mental health facility against her will.
“Once we got the voicemail, we were like, ‘OK, we have so much information, we need to put this into a bigger place. Let’s figure this out,’” Gray says.
That “bigger place” is Toxic: The Britney Spears Story, a serious investigative crime podcast that will launch in July. Witness Docs will produce it and the two women will have infrastructure, resources, a legal team, and fact checkers to make it all “super legit,” Gray says.
“We’re hoping what we’re doing will help [Spears],” Gray says.
The ten-episode podcast will cover probate law and tax law, it will dig into Spears’s court documents and the hosts will speak to lawyers, a judge, and people who have had issues with conservatorships, including one person who was successfully emancipated from a conservatorship.
“I feel like I’ve just had to become an investigative reporter basically over the last year and it’s been a crazy learning curve,” Gray says. “I finally started wrapping my head around it, but this stuff is so confusing, so convoluted. Obviously, legal shit is very confusing in general, but it takes a long time for you to wrap your head around it, which I think is good in a way because now we have to make it digestible for a lot of people.”
Barker and Gray’s Watergate moment—that call from their own personal Deep Throat—on Britney’s Gram changed their lives. It launched them into the Free Britney movement, where fans protest and draw attention to what they believe is an unfair and criminal conservatorship and it also certified them as full-fledged Britney Spears experts; they often get media requests to speak about her or speak for her (they don’t do the latter). And in The New York Times’ documentary, Framing Britney Spears—which Spears was not a part of but has acknowledged on her Instagram—Barker and Gray and other talking heads shed light on how they believe the media unfairly harassed and portrayed Spears.
“I’ve always had a sort of chip on my shoulder about the way that I think sexualized women can be diminished or dismissed and appear that their lives don’t matter or their rights don’t matter.” —Tess Barker
“[We realized] how much of the media coverage was so misogynistic in a way that feels like it wouldn’t fly today,” Samantha Stark, director of Framing Britney Spears, told Los Angeles in February. “And then it also asks these questions, like why did nobody bring up anything when these late-night hosts are making fun of her, her sexuality as a teenager, like why didn’t we as a society say don’t do that?”
Gray and Barker will follow in the footsteps of many other women podcast hosts before them who’ve dived deep into the world of crime or a specific crime. Barker says she thinks their gender will affect how the story is told.
“That’s a big part of what infuriates me so much about this story is that it happened in plain view and continues to happen in plain view,” Barker says. “And in my opinion, the reason that so many people look the other way is because there’s something in our society that does think women need protection and can’t be autonomous and it’s very easy to label women as hysterical or crazy and sort of write them off. I’ve always had a sort of chip on my shoulder about the way that I think sexualized women can be diminished or dismissed and appear that their lives don’t matter or their rights don’t matter.”
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