People are hounding Britney Spears again – have we learned nothing?

britney spears tmz restaurant video
Why can’t people just leave Britney Spears alone?Getty Images

Cast your mind back to 2007. It was the year that the first-ever iPhone was released, the smoking ban came into effect in the UK, and The Sopranos aired its last episode. Feels like a long time ago, right?

It was also the year that Britney Spears, sick of being hounded by the paparazzi and having her every move documented in the tabloids, shaved her head and bashed a paparazzi’s car with an umbrella. Pictures of Britney taking clippers to her scalp appeared on the front pages of newspapers all over the world, with headlines like “Britney Shears” and “MELTDOWN”.

For Britney, that year changed everything. As we now know, those incidents lead to a 13-year-long conservatorship, which saw her father Jamie Spears and lawyer Andrew M Wallet become her conservators, giving them control over her finances, her career and her personal life. Even her reproductive rights. Over the years, fans became increasingly concerned for Britney, and the #FreeBritney movement began to grow. In November 2021, after a legal battle, the conservatorship was finally terminated (although she is still fighting related legal battles).

In the 16 years since those photos of Britney shaving her head emerged, we might hope that lessons have been learned – that we, as a society, understand more about mental health as well as the damage that can come from press intrusion and relentlessly invading people’s privacy. That there’s been a reevaluation of tabloid culture. It’s something at the core of Prince Harry’s new best-selling memoir, Spare, in which he painfully recounts the death of his mother, Princess Diana, and how the paparazzi surrounded her body and took photos – rather than offering her comfort or trying to get help.

And yet, right now it feels like history is repeating itself. This weekend, American tabloid news website TMZ published a video of Britney Spears at a restaurant in LA, shot without her permission, along with the headline: “Britney Spears: ‘Manic’ episode in restaurant”. In the story, it’s claimed that Britney had “a bizarre meltdown” and that “eyewitnesses say Britney became ‘manic,’ yelling and talking gibberish”.

britney spears restaurant la
Britney Spears pictured with her husband, Sam AsghariPaul Archuleta - Getty Images

The video is 33 seconds long, and while I’m no lip-reading expert, it’s pretty hard to hear exactly what Britney is saying. But what you can see is that she’s speaking to someone – presumably a waiter – and raises a menu to cover her face a few times when she realises that she is being filmed. Frankly, it doesn’t exactly scream “meltdown”.

Since TMZ shared the video, Britney’s husband, Sam Asghari has taken to Instagram to share his thoughts. Posting on his stories, he wrote: “Don't believe what you read online people”. Britney has also weighed in on Instagram, saying: “I know the news is all hyped about me being a little drunk at a restaurant… it’s like they’ll be WATCHING MY EVERY MOVE!!! I’m so flattered they talk about me like a maniac THEN have the balls to talk about all the negative things that happened in my past!!!”.

It’s hard to know exactly what is going on in that clip. Some people have been concerned about Britney’s wellbeing based on her Instagram posts over the past couple of years, others are saying she had an argument with Sam in the restaurant (which is unconfirmed). But regardless of what may or may be going on with Britney, it’s not okay to to film her, publish it on the internet and brand it a “meltdown”.

This “incident” comes a couple of weeks after TMZ published a story about how Britney’s husband Sam had said he does not control her, after there was speculation online that Britney was not in charge of her own social media accounts. This is just one of the conspiracy theories around Britney that are flooding Instagram and TikTok at the moment, too – despite not having made a public appearance in years, she’s still at the centre of so much discussion and dissection. Search “Britney Spears” on TikTok and some of the top suggested searches are “Britney Spears conspiracies”, “Britney Spears missing”, “Britney Spears not free”. There’s even “Britney Spears illuminati”. TikToks with the hashtag #whereisbritney have been viewed 230.1 million times. Of course, given everything we know about her conservatorship now, it is perhaps not surprising that some fans are on high alert for anything that seems off around Britney.

But the truth is, none of us knows what is happening with Britney Spears right now. Maybe she’s totally fine, maybe she’s not. What we do know, however, is that her mental health has previously suffered because of having her privacy invaded and being hounded by the press. So, isn’t it time the likes of TMZ backed off and refrained from using words like ‘meltdown’?

Thinking back to the year 2007, we might like to believe that things have moved on a lot. Instagram has taken away some of the demand for paparazzi pictures, and the conversation around mental health has become more open. But the choice of words used to describe the clip of Britney published by TMZ are pointed and purposeful. Calling it a “meltdown” and a “manic” episode is a throwback to those front page headlines about Britney from the noughties. The message is simple: she is crazy, she is out of control. It all feels very familiar – and begs the question: has anything really changed since 2007?

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