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Those among Britney Spears’ inner circle are coming forward to share how they’ve witnessed the pop star be treated under her conservatorship in The New York Times Presents: Controlling Britney Spears, a documentary which debuted on FX and Hulu Friday night.
In the follow-up to Framing Britney Spears, Controlling Britney Spears is directed by Samantha Stark with Liz Day as a supervising producer and reporter, and features interviews with insiders who had knowledge of Spears’ life while in the conservatorship. In their interviews, they speak openly about how Spears’ life was controlled and react to the singer’s emotional testimony. Those featured include Spears’ former longtime assistant Felicia Culotta, her former head of wardrobe Tish Yates, promotional tour manager of Spears’ Circus Tour Dan George, and Alex Vlasov, a former executive assistant, operations and security manager of Spears’ longtime security company Black Box Security.
The documentary opens with the scene outside Spears’ June 23 court hearing in which the singer spoke publicly for the first time and requested her conservatorship come to an end. While appearing virtually in court, Spears read from a prepared statement to offer insight into her life while in the conservatorship, which she said has led her to feel like she can’t “live a full life.” Among the grievances she shared were having her medication changed without her consent, being forced to perform on a 2018 tour and given no break, and not being allowed permission to visit a doctor to remove her IUD so she can have a baby and get married.
“I was extremely proud of her and the bravery that it took to take up for herself,” Culotta says of Spears’ testimony. “Once Britney started telling her story, I felt like there were going to be many people and many memories that would need to be talked about to put all the puzzle pieces together and make the truth of the story come out.”
Now Culotta and others are helping give insight into the full story behind the scenes and the control they witnessed Spears be under.
“I’ve never spoken about what we’ve witnessed. We signed those NDAs and it has been hard to come forward knowing there are people in her management that could stop me from making a living. But this is important. This is a human life that’s been tortured,” Yates said.
Meanwhile, George added, “I had to muster the courage to speak out because if not me, then who?” He also shared that “the first rule of the conservatorship was you don’t talk about the conservatorship” and he was warned at one point by management, “Be careful. Don’t get too close. People have a way of disappearing.”
Of the bigger accounts shared were from Vlasov, who assisted Black Box Security Inc. president Edan Yemini for nine years. “I was the only person at Black Box who knew everything,” he shared. “Edan was so relieved when he saw the first documentary [Framing Britney Spears]. He was so relieved that he wasn’t mentioned, Black Box wasn’t mentioned, Tristar wasn’t mentioned. It was his biggest fear that security would somehow draw any attention.” Yemini declined to answer questions about his firm’s work with Spears for the documentary.
Vlasov explained that he would see Spears “very briefly” but everything he knew about the conservatorship would be from Yemini. “We were told the conservatorship was there for her own good. That it was there to protect her from influence, from her losing money, that it was a way for her to have custody of her kids. The same thing was always repeated, ‘This is something she wants.” He was also told that 24/7 security was part of the conservatorship.
Vlasov detailed that security’s duties included providing Spears with her medication which would be in pre-packaged envelopes and they’d have to hand it to her to take while they were present. When it was questioned or discussed as to why that would be a security duty, Vlasov said it would be reiterated, “This is what security should be doing because this is what the client is asking for and this is what the client needs.” However, the client asking was not Spears but her father Jamie, Vlasov said.
“It really reminded me of somebody that was in prison. Security was put in a position to be the prison guards essentially,” he said.
He later shared that everyone grew worried when Spears wanted an iPhone and Yemini asked him whether there were any monitoring services that he knew of or a way to put parental controls on the phone for her “protection,” all things he was told the court and Spears’ lawyer was aware of.
Robin Greenhill, a staffer of Tri Star Sports & Entertainment, which handle Spears’ business management, was closely involved in the pop star’s account. “Jamie, Edan and Robin were basically a part of every step Britney took,” Vlasov said. “Britney could not have someone in the privacy of her house without those three people knowing.” According to the documentary, a lawyer for Tri Star Sports & Entertainment said all allegations involving Greenhill and Tri Star founder Lou Taylor were false.
Vlasov said it was Greenhill’s suggestion that they sign in on an iPad with the same iCloud account Spears would use for the iPhone so her activity would be mirrored and they could see her messages, Facetime calls, notes, photographs, browser history, and more.
“They openly talked about monitoring her,” Vlasov said as he added that even her conversations with friends, mom and former lawyer Samuel D. Ingham III would be monitored. Vlasov adds, “Her own phone and own private conversations were used so often to control her. I know for a fact that Jamie would confront Britney and say, ‘Hey why did you text this person?’ … It didn’t feel like she was being treated like a human being.”
“Working at Black Box, I saw so much… Ethnically it was just one big mess,” Vlasov said. He later revealed that Yemini had a recording device put into the singer’s bedroom. Vlasov recalled being handed the audio recording device and a USB drive and asked to wipe it. “That raised so many red flags with 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. I don’t think it was a coincidence that it was done, days before she was due to meet with a court investigator.”
In Spears’ testimony, she details how she was forced to enter a mental health treatment facility in 2019. Vlasov confirms that Spears did not want to be there: “I heard this from multiple people including Robin and Jamie themselves when they would talk on the phone with Edan.” He also shares that it was “orchestrated” for Spears to be photographed walking out of a hotel to show she was okay as the #FreeBritney movement grew and it was speculated the pop star was being held against her will.
When Spears was eventually released from the facility, Vlasov said security was asked to prepare an iPhone for her that would only be allowed to make phone calls and not allow text messaging or internet access. Other security measures included any men in Spears’ life having to sign contracts and NDAs and the #FreeBritney movement was also monitored in its early days. “Undercover investigators were placed within the crowds to talk to fans, to ID them, to document who they were. It was all under the umbrella of ‘This is for Britney’s protection.’ “
“I heard Britney’s testimony and I think that was the final indicator that I wanted to come forward with what I know,” Vlasov said. He also showed an e-mail thread he was forwarded from Yemini in which Ingham emailed the legal team to inform them that he needed written confirmation that no one other than Spears could access her calls, voicemails or texts to which they responded and confirmed Jamie would have no access.
When leaving Black Box, Vlasov explained that he vocalized that he disagreed with how their business was run and how they operated ethically. He alleges that when speaking with Yemini in his office, Yemini took his gun from his holster and put it on the table and said, “So you don’t like the way I run my business?” “It’s not a threat, but it’s a threat,” Vlasov said. The documentary states that through his lawyer, Yemini denied the incident occurred.
When speaking of her experience with Spears, her longtime assistant Culotta said “it slowly became where I wasn’t allowed to be by her side and wasn’t allowed to have a conversation without having other people present.” During a leg of Spears’ Circus tour, Culotta said she was eventually told by Jamie Spears in a meeting that his daughter no longer wanted her there and “never wanted” her on the tour. “She says if she ever sees you, she won’t go on stage,” Culotta recalled Jamie Spears telling her. Though she wondered whether Spears was upset with her, she still stayed but wouldn’t see the singer. However, when she accidentally ran into Spears, “It’s almost like the very air was sucked out of the hall,” Culotta recalled. “Everybody knew that I wasn’t supposed to be there.” She said once Spears saw her she immediately “took a full running leap” and gave her a hug asking where she had been.
“It was at that point that I thought, ‘Now wait a minute, were they trying to turn the two of us against each other?’ ,” she said. “I, being part of the support system, was not welcomed. I feel like at some point the reason that I was moved away from being part of the support system is that I simply said, ‘If I see something with my eyes, I will tell it.'” She also recalled Greenhill telling her, “You just don’t know who she is anymore.”
“Maybe I didn’t know the person that they were trying to make her be, but I knew the person that she was and I knew the heart. Your heart stays the same no matter what,” Culotta said.
While speaking about Spears’ conservatorship, Yates said, “I really do not think that Jamie is the one that was controlling everything. Who I dealt with was Robin Greenhill… I thought she was Britney’s assistant.” She explained that she had to have Greenhill’s approval before speaking with Spears about a question Spears would have and Greenhill controlled “little things.” She recalled a moment Greenhill told Spears she couldn’t have sushi for dinner since it was “too expensive” and she just had it the previous day.
“If she [Spears] pushed back a little bit, they pushed harder and then the yelling got louder. Then Jamie would come up … it would escalate to not having the boys,” Yates explained.
When discussing Spears’ allowance, Yates recalled the singer liking a pair of shoes she saw while walking through the mall in Vegas but wasn’t allowed to buy them. “They said, ‘No, she doesn’t have any money to be spending on sketchers,'” Yates said, adding that she eventually bought them herself and expensed it through the wardrobe department.
Yates also explained that Spears would be forced to always carry on with meet and greets at the Vegas show — which reportedly cost fans $2,500. “I witnessed management telling her if she did not do the meet and greets that it would be a huge loss of money.”
“There’s so many of us that were in the background that did see the truth. This isn’t a ‘he said, she said.’ These are things that we saw with our own eyes and heard with our own ears,” Yates said.
Culotta and Yates say that they have no way of getting in touch with Spears given all her previous numbers have been changed. As an end-of-tour gift, Yates says she gave Spears a necklace with her phone number engraved on it “in case she needed me.”
Controlling Britney Spears arrives just days ahead of the Tuesday release of a secret Netflix documentary about the conservatorship from director Erin Lee Carr called Britney vs. Spears, and a high-profile hearing on the arrangement. Earlier this month, Spears’ father asked the court to end his daughter’s conservatorship, with Spears’ attorney previously filing a petition to have her father removed as conservator of her estate.
Stark and Day previously indicated in interviews with The Hollywood Reporter that they were working on a follow-up. While appearing on Good Morning America, Day said that Spears’ testimony inspired people to speak out. “A lot of people who had been involved over the years felt motivated to come forward to support her story and say, ‘Here’s what I witnessed and it backs up some of the serious stuff she said,’ ” Day said.
Controlling Britney Spears is available to stream now.
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