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Child stars who took their parents to court

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It’s hard to believe that over twenty years after taking the pop charts by storm, Britney Spears would be in court contesting the rights to have control over her own finances and career choices. The revelations of the most recent court case has fans calling into question the treatment of Spears over the past 11 years, and pondering if she has been held hostage and mistreated by her own family.

When ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ went worldwide, Spears was already a celebrity in her own right. At 16 years old Britney had already found fame as part of The Mickey Mouse Club (along with other stars such as Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling, and Justin Timberlake), as well as performing on Broadway. Her rise to international Pop Princess was astronomical - from the Superbowl to Pepsi sponsorships Britney was dominating the music world. However it wasn’t long until her stardom began to fall.

Following her divorce from husband Kevin Federline in 2006, and the loss of her aunt to ovarian cancer in early 2007 Britney found herself at the centre of the public eye. Following stints in and out of rehab and erratic behaviour, Spears lost custody of her sons in late 2007. In January 2008 refusal to return her boys to their father ended with a standoff with police. It was at this point that she was hospitalised and later committed to a psychiatric ward under an involuntary hold. Following her admittance the courts put her under the conservatorship of her father and attorney giving them complete control of all her assets. She was released from the ward only five days later.

#FreeBritney and the fight for her rights.

Since the conservatorship came into play, fans of Britney have believed it to have been an arrangement that was made against the consent of Spears herself. First appearing in 2009, the #FreeBritney movement rose to prominence again in 2019 when Spears checked into a mental health facility. Internet sleuths were on the case and speculation grew around the cancellation of her show Britney: Domination and her sudden and suspicious inactivity on Instagram. Whilst Spears remained tight lipped around the situation, it wasn’t long after that she discussed ending the conservatorship after 11 years with the judge. To date her only comment to the public so far has been made through her lawyer in a court filing where she states that she “welcomes and appreciates the informed support of her many fans”.

However one of the wider points to take away from this is the question around the ethics and accountability of child celebrities and the potential for exploitation from their guardians. Indeed Spears isn’t the first child star who has sat across the courtroom from their family. Here are three more shocking examples of celebrities who took legal action against their parents.

Gary Coleman

Best known for his role in Diff’rent Strokes, Gary Coleman was one of the highest-paid child actors of the 70s. Estimated to have $18 million in his trust fund, at 18 Coleman was shocked to find that it was closer to $220,000 having been misappropriated by his adoptive parents and financial advisor. In 1989 he successfully took the three to court and was awarded a $1.28 million dollar judgement in 1993. As if one legal battle wasn’t enough - Coleman was also in the fight over conservatorship following allegations from his mum that he was being 'brainwashed'. His parents were seeking guardianship of Coleman and control of his finances which Coleman claimed was a ‘vicious response’ to his lawsuit.

Drew Barrymore

Shooting to stardom in ET at just seven years old, Drew Barrymore famously ‘divorced’ her parents as a teen. Having acted since the age of 11 months, Barrymore has been outspoken on the neglectful upbringing she received from her parents. As a child Barrymore’s mother opted to take her to nightclub Studio 54 on Broadway over taking her to school. At the age of 8 Barrymore was a self described ‘party-girl’ joining her mother for nights out at the club up to five times a week. She quickly took up smoking, and by the age of 12 had already been in rehab. At 13 she was once again admitted to hospital for her addiction to drugs and alcohol. Whilst there the institution made the suggestion that she be separated from her mother, and legally declared an adult. She was awarded emancipation at the age of 14.

Jackie Coogan

Abuse of power by a guardian of a child celebrity isn’t something that is limited to recent decades. Jackie Coogan, star of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Kid’ took his mother and step-father to court following the theft of his earnings in 1938.

In 1935 at 21 years old, believing his wealth to be intact, Jackie learned that his mother and step-father (formerly the family's financial advisor) had drained his fortune buying diamonds, fur coats, and other luxury items. Initially managed by his father who died five months prior to his 21st birthday (in an accident that also killed his best friend Junior Durkin), Jackie’s wealth was estimated to be worth around $4 million. Sadly after the cost of legal fees Jackie received just $168,000 of the $250,000 he was awarded by the courts. The legal battle set a precedent for child actors in Hollywood and resulted in the enactment of the California Child Actor’s Bill (often referred to as Coogans Law) that ensured that children had a specific amount of money put away in trust as well as rights around hours and schooling.

So what does that mean for Britney?

Whatever the motivations for the continuation of conservatorship, the recent legal battle has once again shone a light on the ethics and abuses of parents and their child stars. From neglect, to physical or financial abuse, Spear’s case has once again shed light on the most sinister side of childhood celebrity and raised questions surrounding the protection of children in the entertainment industry. With further hearings booked for March and April, it will be interesting to see the outcome of a case that is already a precedent for mental health, capacity, and human rights in the 21st century.

Image source:© Glenn Francis,