Content Warning: Mentions of abuse and mental illness.
Before Twitter, Instagram, and any other social media that allows celebrities to curate their lives to the public, there was tabloid culture, paparazzi frenzy, and gossip blogs. If you were famous, you were essentially under surveillance. This was normalised to a point where it was voyeuristic; people thought it was acceptable to dissect and scrutinise every piece of someone’s life because they felt like they knew everything about them. In the mid-2000s, few celebrities were as photographed, followed, and talked about as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Tabloids sought out scandals, and a beloved pop star like Britney Spears visibly showing signs of declining mental health was their goldmine. She and Paris were labeled as “party girls”, often being photographed leaving nightclubs together along with famous friends like Lindsay Lohan (there was a 2007 edition of New York Post with a picture of them and a headline that simply read “Bimbo Summit”).
They were easy targets. While Britney fell victim to the manipulation of misogynistic questions from interviewers and a twisting and pulling of her own narrative (going from being portrayed as an innocent girl next door type to being vilified for owning her sexuality), Paris strived to use the press to her advantage and build a following and empire from her image as a rich, fashionable socialite. Both women were perhaps aware of the pros and cons of being hyper-visible in the media, but unprepared for how that visibility would affect their mental health. This is evident in the documentaries Framing Britney Spears, directed by Samantha Stark for the sixth instalment of The New York Times Presents series, and This Is Paris, directed by Alexandra Dean.
Framing Britney Spears is the more fractured of the two documentaries, lacking access to interviews with Britney herself or anyone in her family who could speak to her experiences on a personal level. This might be due to the complicated and somewhat controversial nature of what the documentary is built on – the #FreeBritney movement, which began once fans took note of how out of character and cryptic Britney’s Instagram posts started becoming in 2019. It was as if someone else was controlling her posts, and fans were worried that it was related to Britney’s strict conservatorship. She was initially placed under emergency “temporary conservatorship” in 2008 when her father, Jamie Spears, petitioned the court to be a co-conservator for his daughter after she had recently been placed twice under psychiatric hold. Over a decade later, Jamie still held that position.
Her father’s push for conservatorship was after an accumulation of concerning public behaviour by Britney that escalated over a few years, including but not limited to: her messy divorce from Kevin Federline, going in and out of rehab, and the infamous night when she shaved her own head and lashed out at paparazzi. Although the Spears family are not interviewed in the documentary, people who have worked with Britney in the past and lawyers involved in conservatorship cases offer their insight, noting the strangeness of the situation. After all, courts usually only approve conservators for people who are elderly and/or incapable of handling their own affairs.
Jamie Spears was given executive control over his daughter’s financial, legal, and medical affairs, all while she was continuing to work. We are understandably meant to find this suspect, especially with the knowledge that Jamie had little involvement in Britney’s life before her public “breakdown”. Kim Kaiman, a former marketing executive at Jive Records, stated with bitterness that the only thing Jamie ever said to her was: “My daughter’s gonna be so rich, she’s gonna buy me a boat.”
The only time Britney has spoken about the conservatorship publicly was in the 2008 documentary Britney: For the Record, which was released not long after the initial court decision. She said “(the conservatorship) was worse than being in jail, because at least when you’re in jail, you know when you’ll get out.” She was 27 and dealing with a situation meant for people far older and typically unable to fully understand what was happening to them. At the same time, she was facing custody battles over her two young sons with her ex, Federline, and continuing to work on the same level as before. It seems like every project that Britney worked on post-public “breakdown” was talked about as a comeback, no matter how many appearances she made or music she released. The world was her stage, and Britney had to continuously prove that she deserved to perform.
Framing Britney Spears utilises archival footage of Britney’s performances, interviews, and encounters with paparazzi to fill in the gaps of her absence. We’re given reminders of just how cruel she was treated by the same entertainment media that put her on a pedestal at the beginning of her career, working as a visual timeline of the rise and fall of her stardom. In the beginning, Britney was heralded as a pop princess who had fans of all ages because she was marketed as this sweet, virginal, teen dream. She was someone that teenagers could idolise and adults could feel comfortable buying music from. But it didn’t take long for the safe image that was being pushed onto Britney to become fetishised (take the 1999 Rolling Stone cover story featuring her in her childhood bedroom, for example), and she was the one to receive blame.
In one of the more memorable segments from the documentary, footage is shown from a 2003 interview with Diane Sawyer, in which Sawyer holds up magazines (such as the Rolling Stone cover) that feature Britney and bluntly asks, “what happened to your clothes?” Later in the same interview, she is asked about her recent firestorm of a breakup with Justin Timberlake. “He has gone on television and pretty much said you broke his heart,” Sawyer says of what is basically his breakup press tour. “You did something that caused him so much pain, so much suffering. What did you do?” The directness of the question and the implied blame is almost shocking to see now, especially with Britney unable to answer because she breaks down crying, upset with herself for not keeping it together. While Justin was getting cheeky questions about whether or not he got to sleep with the virginal princess of pop, Britney was vilified for reportedly breaking the heart of the boy band heartthrob. Looking back, it’s evident that Justin controlled the narrative of their relationship.
After their breakup, Britney was more susceptible to criticisms from the media. When she started embracing her sexuality and being a grown woman with control over her body and image, Britney was no longer treated or reported on in the same way. This harsh treatment by the media, along with increasing suffocation of paparazzi following her every move, obviously affected her mental health for the worse. The documentary features interviews with some paparazzi who were present during Britney’s most active years, especially leading up to the events that resulted in her conservatorship. In an especially poignant moment, one photographer while “working on her for so many years, she never gave a clue or information to us that ‘I don’t appreciate you guys, leave me the eff alone.’” This is said moments after footage is shown of Britney telling photographers to leave her alone, desperately trying to get away. The same photographers profited considerably from her public scandals and breakdowns.
Between her conservatorship and treatment from the media, it seems impossible for Britney to be in control of her own life. It might even be worth questioning if she ever had any control at all.
This Is Paris offers a different approach than Framing Britney Spears, most notably in the fact that Paris gives filmmaker Alexandra Dean and her crew an intimate and personal look at her everyday life. When the documentary starts, we see Paris in a frazzled state, looking polished and perfect as always but rushing around her house in anticipation of visitors. She alludes to a secret that she’s going to tell for the first time, visibly worried about the reveal to come. It’s clear from the beginning that the film is intended to be Paris telling her own story, sharing the version of herself that we haven’t really seen before – the real, authentic Paris.
Even if you didn’t pay much attention to Paris at the height of her fame in the mid-2000s, it’s likely that you still had a preconceived notion of who she was. The rich, socialite heiress to the Hilton chain of hotels who had a career in modelling and being a reality TV personality, but aspired to essentially be famous for being famous. She was the blueprint for the modern influencer, noting in the film that “sometimes she feels like she created a monster.” Although she still benefits from that culture she cultivated. Unlike Britney, Paris has never appeared to feel too suffocated by paparazzi. She knows that for her, it’s almost like a business transaction; they take their pictures, she gets publicity.
Maybe it’s because she’s older now (she was only 22 when The Simple Life premiered in 2003), or because she feels like she has nothing to lose, but Paris admits early on in the documentary that the persona she built her career from was just that – a persona. There are a few moments in the film when Paris has to remind herself to do things as simple as use her own voice, because she’s so used to turning on a switch inside of her when she’s in front of a camera. For the public, she played up the somewhat ditsy, inexperienced socialite image for so long that she’s now finding it difficult to separate herself from the persona.
There’s no denying that Paris is a committed person who takes herself seriously in both her personal image and the expansion of her empire. In a scene that almost didn’t make it into the documentary, we see Paris preparing her DJ set ahead of going on stage to perform at the Belgian music festival Tomorrowland, which she cites as the “most important DJ set of her life.” She’s frantically going through everything on her laptop, wanting everything to be perfect because she knows that if it isn’t, she’s not going to be taken seriously. Her boyfriend at the time, Aleks Novakovic, is talking to her passive aggressively the entire time, claiming that she’s been prioritising work over him all day. Paris pleads for him to stop making her feel guilty, especially before such an important event. Their argument escalates, resulting in Paris removing his access to the festival and security escorting him out. This is the first time we see Paris establishing boundaries for her own safety and wellbeing, which is more impactful after learning that she has a history with verbally and physically abusive boyfriends.
Throughout the documentary, Paris offhandedly mentions being exhausted because she has recurring nightmares. At first, it doesn’t seem like anything too unusual. But as she begins to open up to friends and family, it’s clear Paris has experienced trauma that extends beyond what even those in her close circle were aware of. She details the abuse she went through at behavioural schools she was sent to as a teenager, including being: locked in solitary confinement for over 24 hours, forced to take unknown medications, and beaten by authority figures. With this knowledge, the persona she initially created could be viewed through a different lens. Perhaps fame was not only an ambition for Paris, but also a mask for trauma that she didn’t have the tools to work through on her own. By becoming an influencer, she could step into a role separated from a reality she wasn’t ready to reckon with.
In Bessel A. van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and the Body in the Healing of Trauma, he says, “Trauma causes people to remain stuck in interpreting the present in light of an unchanging past.” If Framing Britney Spears and This Is Paris remind us of anything, it is that the voyeuristic nature of celebrity culture doesn’t make room for empathy. Court hearings about Britney’s conservatorship are ongoing, while Paris is also appearing in court to testify against the Utah school where she experienced a majority of her abuse. For better or worse, our fascination with them grows as we are allowed even more access into their lives.
by Paige Kiser
Paige Kiser (she/her) is a culture writer and cat lady from the Midwest of the U.S. with a degree in Mass Media. She loves thinking deeply about pop culture and passionately supporting women and underrepresented voices in media. You can find her on Twitter.