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After #FreeBritney and ‘Britney’s Gram’, a ‘Toxic’ podcast

Tess Barker knew how to get to the Stanley Mosk courthouse in Los Angeles as soon as possible if she wanted to land a seat at last week’s hearing over the trusteeship that has controlled Britney Spears’ personal and financial life for 13 years. Barker, often alongside his podcast co-host, Barbara “Babs” Gray, has attended dozens of hearings on the Spears case. Indeed, Barker’s long, pretty face is familiar to the bailiffs and reporters inside the courtroom and the hundreds of #FreeBritney activists carrying signs outside waiting for news.

“A lot has happened,” Barker said by telephone after the hearing. For the first time since 2008, when the guardianship came into effect, Spears regained some control when Los Angeles Superior Court judge Brenda Penny allowed the star to hire her own lawyer, the former Federal Attorney Mathew S. Rosengart, who quickly fought for his new client.

“There was this really dramatic moment in the courtroom where [Rosengart] called on Jamie Spears to step down immediately, ”said Barker, referring to the pop star’s father, who has been pushing for guardianship, who has the decision-making power over everything from psychiatric drugs and birth control methods to the singer to her estate worth an estimated $ 60 million. . “It was a really good feeling to finally have someone on her side of the courtroom for her, being a truly passionate lawyer.”

It can also be said that Barker and Gray, comedians turned podcasting stars, are firmly in Spears’ corner. Many give them credit for sparking the #FreeBritney movement through their first Spears-centric podcast, “Britney’s Gram,” which analyzed the star’s often cryptic Instagram feed. (Others used the term first, but Gray created the pink and white hashtag now seen on countless billboards and t-shirts to promote a pivotal episode of “Britney’s Gram” in 2019 called # FreeBritney.) The podcast also led to their appearance. in the New York Times documentary “Framing Britney Spears”. Earlier this month, they began posting episodes of their latest podcast, “Toxic: The Britney Spears Story,” intended as a 10-part informational podcast taking an in-depth look at Spears’ predicament as well as the issue. broader guardianship. But right before the podcast began, Barker and Gray had to rethink much of their first episode after a June 23 hearing that changed the trajectory of Spears’ story.

“Tess and I have been investigating Britney’s story for over two years,” Gray says in the first episode of “Toxic.” “On the day of this hearing, we were weeks away from the release of the first episode of this podcast, an episode in which we wondered why Britney was so quiet. And then she spoke.

For more than 20 minutes in Judge Penny’s courtroom, Spears, a participant over the phone, argued for an end to the guardianship with details longtime observers found shocking and moving. For Barker, even Judge Penny, usually difficult to read, seemed affected that day.

“Britney spoke publicly about … how she saw [her conservatorship] as abusive, controlling and something akin to sex trafficking, ”Barker says in“ Toxic ”. “It was a 13 year time in the making, a time, honestly, we didn’t think we could ever see.”

Not all “Toxic” episodes will follow the courtroom action so closely.

“I always stress to the team that we are unrelated and shouldn’t be guided by the latest news cycle,” says Kameel Stanley, executive producer of Witness Docs, the content-creating arm of Stitcher. high profile, including Barker and Gray’s. “Toxic.”

This week’s episode, for example, is a deep dive into competing narratives surrounding Spears’ life in 2007, which, as Gray and Barker put it in the podcast, was “his last year of freedom” before the Guardianship. . It was the year she attacked a photographer’s car with an umbrella, when her divorce from Kevin Federline was finalized and a custody battle heated up, when a lackluster performance at the MTV Video Music Awards led to one of the cruelest covers of the star’s career – and the “Leave Britney Alone” countermeme, in which a tearful Chris Crocker, very much on the minds of the future #FreeBritney activists, Spears defended. It was also the year she shaved her head, an act that many saw as a sign that she needed psychiatric help.

“It’s not illegal to shave your head,” Barker says in the episode. “No one would think twice if a man did.” But … these photos are still used as proof that Britney is definitely damaged. That she shouldn’t be responsible for her own life.

Listening to the podcasting partners from their respective homes in Los Angeles, it’s easy to see that what Barker and Gray bring to the table is laid-back best friend chemistry and the ready, encyclopedic Britney-ology that accompanies the fact of it. to be superfans. They met on the open mic in LA, and they’re still working on comics. While they do acknowledge that they are newcomers to the more formal arena of scripted, produced, and scrupulously verified podcasting, they do point out that entertaining bar drunks teaches a person a thing or two about storytelling – and about accepting. reviews.

“Nothing gives you more immediate feedback than a stand-up comic,” says Barker. “I think we’re both very straightforward when it comes to getting feedback from producers. It’s not like an ego affair. It’s like, ‘It’s not working? Let’s cut it! ”

“I also think the natural cynicism of the comics helps,” says Gray. “You always try to understand people. ”

None of them expected to be immersed in the intricacies of the California legal system, but here they are. Sitting in her Eagle Rock living room, Barker explains how they learned about inheritance law. “We joke that we’re like ‘Legally Blonde’,” she says of Reese Witherspoon’s comedy about a shopaholic turned underrated law student. “If we don’t understand something, we’ll call a lawyer and ask them to explain ‘Inheritance Law for Dummies.’ Over the past year, we’ve both figured it out.

“A ‘catch’,” Gray repeats dryly. When it comes to reporting, she sees herself as the one who plays catch-up. Barker, who has an eclectic journalism portfolio, infiltrated Jezebel to report a story about underpaid NBA cheerleaders and wrote humorous articles for Vice with headlines like “I Corrected My Credit With The day to drink “.

While Peter Clowney, vice president of podcasting at Stitcher, worried about the couple’s ability to navigate Spears’ airtight universe, his first meeting with Barker and Gray allayed his fears. “My team had worked on all of these questions, and their answers made it clear that their ambitions were greater than trying to exploit this place they have in [the #FreeBritney movement]”Says Clowney.” They just impressed us. There’s all these NDAs in Britney’s world. Finding things takes another level of getting people to trust you, to talk to you, and it’s very clear that they know how to get people to believe in them.

Like all good reporting teams, they clearly know who does what best. “Babs is very good at active sources,” says Barker. “At the end of the day, a source is the same as making a new friend or going to a bar and [talking] to a lot of people. It’s a social skill that I don’t think everyone has and Babs is really good at making people feel comfortable.

“Tess is just amazing to have this willingness to understand what’s going on and synthesize information,” says Gray. “To make this complicated thing make sense.” She must have explained some things to me 10,000 times because I’m like, “What’s going on here?

Between the heightened interest in Spears’ story and Barker and Gray’s track record, “Toxic” became a podcast hit almost immediately. It has appeared consistently in the top 20 of Apple’s podcast charts since the series debuted on July 7, and their cachet as Spears analysts has only grown. They are frequently asked for interviews and even appear on other Britney Spears podcasts, which can sometimes distract them from their own reporting.

“Part of the problem is that everyone called them for comment,” says Clowney. “We say, ‘Guys, it’s good to do the press. But we really need you to work.

They also continued to post episodes of their comedy podcast “Lady to Lady” with comedian Brandie Posey.

Still, Barker and Gray know there is exponentially more ground to cover on the Britney Spears story, and that’s where they’re putting their energy right now – especially as the developments in the case is accelerating, including the hasty withdrawal of key figures from the tutelage. “It kind of reminds me of the end of the Trump administration, where everyone started jumping off the ship and pointing fingers,” Barker said, referring to the resignations of Spears’ duty counsel, Samuel Ingham III, and his longtime talent manager, Larry Rudolph, as well as Bessemer Trust, a wealth management company that was to oversee Spears’ finances.

It’s a long way from where they were in 2019 when their usually easygoing podcast “Britney’s Gram” took a turn after comments they made questioning the guardianship led to an anonymous tip on their voice hotline. Google claiming that Spears had been taped into a mental health facility Against his will. They went into reporter mode and, after checking the source, posted what they called a “special emergency episode” of their podcast with the hashtag #FreeBritney in April 2019. (Spears herself reportedly made some similar statements in a closed-door hearing in May 2019 and in his open-court statement last month, although representatives for his father denied the charges.) After this episode, everything changed.

“That’s where it kind of took off,” Gray says. “It was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to dig deeper into this thing and see what’s going on here.'”

Currently, podcasters are switching between studiously taking notes in court one minute and displaying Britney’s fandom the next minute. On July 14, after leaving court, Barker called Gray. That’s when Britney fan Tess made her entrance.

“I wanted to educate her and I said, ‘That’s the Matthew McConaughey type. [lawyer] we were missing, ”she says, citing the 1996 legal drama“ A Time to Kill, ”which contains a famous and moving closing argument. “[Rosengart] is kind of a smart ass. He has a real irreducible approach to things. So it gave me hope [for Britney]. For the first time in a long time, things could really change.

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