Three Years After Britney, Wendy Williams Shows Celebrity Conservatorships May Still Be Toxic to Women

In 2022, Wells Fargo successfully petitioned a judge to put talk show host Wendy Williams under what was said to be a temporary financial guardianship. The judge froze her accounts and set a hearing to determine if a guardianship was needed, all while the talk show host disputed the decision and accused a Wells Fargo financial advisor of lying to get access to her accounts.

The guardianship became the subject of a documentary on Lifetime this year, and has drawn criticism from her family, who say they have struggled to get access to her for even a phone call as she languishes in a private facility to treat her cognitive issues. They, along with fans, are worried, especially in the wake of her aphasia diagnosis.

It's not an unfamiliar story. Celebrity conservatorships have entered the mainstream over the last several years, largely in relation to a few famous women. The issue hit a boiling point with Britney Spears, whose 13-year involuntary conservatorship ended in 2021 following a movement fans dubbed #FreeBritney, culminating in multiple documentaries and emotional testimony from the pop star about her life under conservatorship.

Now, fans everywhere are locked on Williams, 59, hoping things don't go south yet again.

ExpertsTheWrap consulted — including lawyers and professional therapists experienced in the area — said that while roughly the same number of women and men are put under conservatorships, female celebrities are often subject to adverse conditions. Men like Charlie Sheen have public meltdowns and are able to maintain control over their lives, while women like Spears are deemed unable to take care of themselves — or their wealth.

Conservatorships of celebrity women have become "almost a perverse financial incentive" for members of their families in some cases, Benazeer "Benny" Roshan, a partner at law firm Greenberg Glusker and chair of the Trust and Probate Litigation Practice Group, told TheWrap.

"They adversely and disproportionately impact women," she said. "Look at the women that are under conservatorship that have regained their cognition and are still conserved. And then you see male examples.

"Did you ever wonder, why wasn’t Charlie Sheen conserved when he was dealing with bowls of coke, and hookers and whatnot? Why wasn’t Kanye West conserved?" Roshan continued. "It’s because, I think on some level, they’re men, and somebody’s like ‘We need to conserve you’ and he’s like, ‘No! I’m fine!’ … The inquiry stops there."

Wendy Williams attends the world premiere of the Apple TV+ series "The Morning Show." (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

​Indeed, Sheen ​suffered almost no career consequences for his public  meltdown in 2011, though he lost his sitcom, for which he was paid $1.8 million an episode in his last season. (He later received $25 million in a settlement with Warner Bros. Television and Chuck Lorre over his firing.) Quotes from the interviews that got him fired from "Two and a Half Men" became catch phrases ("Tiger Blood," "Winning!"). In 2010, he pled guilty to misdemeanor assault and was removed from a hotel after causing $7,000 in damage during a bender.

At the 2011 Television Critics Association press tour, just prior to Sheen’s many drug-addled interviews, CBS' then-entertainment chief Nina Tassler noted about the actor: "On a professional level, he does his job and he does it well and the show's a hit, and that's all I have to say."

Within a month of losing "Two and a Half Men," Sheen launched a sold-out comedy tour. That September he was the star of a Comedy Central roast​. And by 2012 he ​had a new sitcom, "Anger Management," and new movie roles.

Spears, meanwhile, went from publicly shaving her head in February 2007 to an involuntary conservatorship in February 2008. She later testified that she was forced to continue working during that time, saying, "It was very threatening and scary," and that she only went ahead with another tour "out of fear."

Charlie Sheen in "Two and a Half Men" (CBS)

The singer also revealed she was forced to have an implanted IUD, preventing her from having more children. That imposed birth control appears to be a struggle unique to women under conservatorship as well. Tom Stenson, the deputy legal director of Disability Rights Oregon, told The Nation in 2021 that he'd never seen a case involving a man's family seeking to sterilize a man.

"I'm sure somewhere out there, there's somebody trying to get their son or brother with a disability sterilized," he said at the time. "But I've had a number of these cases arise, and they are, in my experience and so far, all women."

Differing perceptions of mental health

A conservatorship is put in place when it’s determined that someone cannot make necessary, safe decisions about their well being — physical, financial, or otherwise. Once that is proven to a judge, that person’s rights and decision-making are transferred to someone else, usually a family member or friend.

Those decisions are often subjective, as "every person operating within the larger guardianship system possesses some level of implicit bias," according to the Justice in Aging organization.

Spears was 26 when she first was conserved. Former Nickelodeon star Amanda Bynes was 27. Lindsay Lohan’s father attempted, but failed, to get his daughter into a conservatorship at 26. Each of these came at a time when the young women were having public mental health crises.

In stark contrast, conservatorships of celebrity men have been largely due to cognitive decline from old age: Mickey Rooney (90), Casey Kasem (81), Randy Meisner (69) and, most recently, Brian Wilson (81). 

[Conservatorships] adversely and disproportionately impact women. Look at the women that are under conservatorship that have regained their cognition and are still conserved.

Benazeer "Benny" Roshan, lawyer

That's nothing new to mental health professionals. Patrice Le Goy, a psychologist and adjunct professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, told TheWrap that mental health struggles often get "more connected to the 'fragility' of women, and with men it is sometimes chalked up to them simply going through a difficult period."

Both singer Joni Mitchell and actress Nichelle Nichols were placed under a conservatorship due to neurological problems in 2015 and 2018, respectively. Mitchell suffered an aneurysm that hospitalized her, and Nichols was diagnosed with dementia. (That said, Nichols’ situation also drew protestors prior to her death, many of whom worked in the Free Britney movement).

For her part, Wendy Williams was diagnosed with the same aphasia condition as Bruce Willis — which impacts language and communication abilities, as well as behavior and cognitive functions — but Willis remains independent. (Roshan suspects that's because the "Sixth Sense" actor had done proper estate planning, making a conservatorship unnecessary.)

It’s unclear exactly what kind of conservatorship Williams is under, but she has a court-appointed guardian in Sabrina Morrissey. Even her family does not have many details. According to Williams’ niece who spoke to People magazine, under the rules of the conservatorship, Williams is allowed to call her family, but they cannot call her.

In his 30 years of practicing conservatorship law, David A. Esquibias, who served as Bynes’ lawyer when she ended her conservatorship in 2022, said he's never noticed a "demonstrable" gender bias. He noted that a conservatorship only comes when "there is a perception" that someone specifically needs outside help, but an exact agreement cannot be reached privately.

"I would assume that you would never go through a conservatorship if you’re able to take care of matters," he said.

Of course, perception of women’s mental health tends to differ from the perception of men’s. The National Institute of Mental Health notes that some mental disorders are "diagnosed at comparable rates for men and women or at higher rates for men," but that "men are less likely to have received mental health treatment than women in the past year."

"In general, it seems that the mental health of women is more up for public debate than that of men," Le Goy said. "When women have mental health issues, it also seems to live in the public domain for longer than it does for men."

The money

According to Esquibias, "family dynamic is everything" and will dictate how smoothly the process of conserving someone will go. But mental health experts note conservatorships change and twist family dynamics in particularly detrimental ways for young conservatees. When that conservatee is a celebrity worth millions of dollars, it gets tricky fast.

"When the breadwinner is the child, there is already a dynamic shift that they may have power over their parents," Le Goy said. "In a way, a conservatorship can almost adjust this power, but not always in a healthy way."

In her 2020 memoir, Mariah Carey revealed that she was nearly put into a conservatorship as a young adult by her own family, writing that "to my family, I'd been an 'ATM machine with a wig on.'"

In the case of Britney Spears, it was revealed in 2022 that her father and lawyers took more than $36 million from her estate throughout the course of her conservatorship. 

"It really can be an unnatural and unhealthy family dynamic if not approached with the ultimate care, and with the individual’s mental health as the key priority," Le Goy added.

Britney Spears (Getty Images)

Wendy Williams was making $10 million annually for her talk show, and in 2015 she got a seven-year contract extension. But in the trailer for her documentary, she declared, "I have nomoney."

Having money — or not having it — can certainly impact how a conservatorship goes, particularly for people of color, experts said.

"Wealth and skin color are positively correlated to how one fares when going through the conveyor belt of conservatorship and guardianships," Roshan said.

Developmental impact

Experts say there's an additional detriment to putting someone under a conservatorship at a young age, as most female celebrities are: stalling the "natural development" processes.

"Part of our development and growth is the need to take on challenges and fail or succeed, but learn from the experience either way," Le Goy explained. "When we don’t have the opportunity to make our own mistakes, a crucial part of the development process is missed and this can leave us 'stuck' at a younger emotional age than we should be."

Conservatorships must be terminated by mutual agreement, and with a lot of proof. As Esquibias detailed, the person under conservatorship must demonstrate he or she is able to manage their finances, make their own medical decisions and resist fraud or "the undue influence of others."

And the burden of proof can have its own effects on a person’s mental health, especially when they've been made to doubt their decision-making abilities.

Amanda Bynes attends an appearance at Manhattan Criminal Court in 2013, the year her mother was granted a conservatorship over her. (Getty Images)

"It’s very important to mental and social development to integrate into society with self-trust and the ability to think for yourself," Asha Tarry, a psychotherapist and CEO of Behavioral Health Consulting Services, told TheWrap. "But, when that’s removed from you, there are all sorts of ramifications … that may make one vulnerable to exploitation."

These days, Bynes mostly stays out of the public eye, save for a TikTok account, and is headed back to school. In July 2023, she checked herself into a new inpatient mental facility, just a month after she called police on her own behalf, reporting she felt she was a danger to herself.

For Spears, the end of her conservatorship didn't mean the end of her struggles. She had a very public divorce, an equally public falling out with her younger sister when Jamie Lynn Spears released a book called "Things I Should've Said," and, even still, has had her well being speculated about. She was sent a welfare check at the end of last year after a social media post showed her dancing with kitchen knives (something she did not appreciate).

Still, Spears' situation and the Free Britney movement helped change things in the system. It led to legislative measures that tightened rules and regulations surrounding conservatorships. Law practitioners have come to refer to them colloquially as "The Britney Spears Rules." 

TheWrap reached out Spears’ lawyer for comment on this story.

Roshan concedes there is "a double-edged sword" element that comes into play with conservatorships, particularly in celebrity circumstances. Her advice for those who might be facing one: "Get educated, as knowledge is power."

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