Courtroom Drama is an original podcast series from Crime + Investigation that looks at the celebrity court cases that went down in pop culture history. Join Jackie Adedeji as she investigates the trials that dominated your timelines.
There’s something surreal about seeing celebrities in the sombre context of a courtroom, far from their natural habitat of red carpet events and St Barts beaches. So it’s no wonder that these judicial sagas made headlines for weeks, months and, in some cases, years on end.
1. Spears vs Spears
The legal bust-up between pop icon Britney Spears and her father, Jamie Spears, was a seismic cultural phenomenon, inspiring Britney fans to organise street protests and vent their fury online with the #FreeBritney hashtag.
The debacle stemmed back to Britney’s erratic behaviour in 2007 and 2008. This culminated in her being held at a psychiatric ward and her financial affairs being placed under the control of her father and various legal associates – the now-infamous ‘conservatorship’.
Rumours swirled about the rigid constraints of the conservatorship, with many believing that every aspect of her life – from whether she could become pregnant right down to the interior décor of her properties – was being controlled by her father.
Jamie Spears angrily refuted the rumours, but Britney fought the conservatorship in court, providing explosive testimony about its ‘abusive’ nature, and saying that her father ‘loved’ having total control over her. The conservatorship was finally terminated in 2021, sparking street celebrations and euphoria across social media.
2. Depp vs Heard
It’s hard to recall a time when Johnny Depp and Amber Heard were a couple, so completely has their relationship been eclipsed by its apocalyptic aftermath.
Heard accused Depp of domestic abuse during their breakup in 2016, a claim which Depp vigorously denied. A few years later, the movie star sued News Group Newspapers for an article in The Sun that called him a ‘wife beater’. The ensuing libel trial at London’s High Court in 2020 became a media circus, with Depp stating that he was himself the victim of a violent, ‘sociopathic’ Heard. She, meanwhile, testified that he was a drug-addled abuser who’d assaulted her on numerous occasions.
The trial ended in victory for News Group, with the judge concluding that Depp had carried out multiple assaults on Heard. But the saga didn't end there. In 2022, the ex-couple clashed in another trial in the US, with Depp suing Heard over an article she’d written about domestic abuse and Heard countersuing Depp over statements his lawyer had made saying that her abuse claims were a ‘hoax’.
This time, both parties claimed a kind of ‘victory’, with the court ruling that both Depp and Heard had been defamed – a judgement that many onlookers found baffling.
3. Sanderson vs Paltrow
One of the more bizarre celebrity trials unfolded in 2023 when optometrist Terry Sanderson launched a $300,000 suit against Hollywood star Gwyneth Paltrow for allegedly crashing into him on a ski slope in Utah and leaving him with broken ribs and a ‘traumatic brain injury’.
She denied fault, countersuing him for the ‘symbolic’ amount of $1 and claiming he was trying to exploit the incident because of her fame. The trial soon began to backfire for Sanderson; his own daughter testified that he was ‘domineering’ and ‘easily frustrated’, while his claims of becoming a recluse after the accident were obliterated when Paltrow’s lawyers exhibited Facebook photos of him going on multiple holidays during that time.
Paltrow decisively won the case, with the jury finding Sanderson ‘100 per cent’ at fault for the collision. The whole strange episode ended in a touchingly cordial fashion, with Paltrow whispering ‘I wish you well’ to her accuser as she left the court.
4. Winslet vs The Daily Mail
When the Daily Mail published a flippant story headlined ‘Should Kate Winslet Win an Oscar for the World’s Most Irritating Actress?’, they probably didn’t expect her to haul them into court. Haul them she did – not because the article called her irritating, but because it suggested she’d been fibbing about her exercise regime.
Describing Winslet as ‘impossibly vain’, the article accused her of downplaying her Hollywood-strict diet and exercise routines in a cynical effort to seem more relatable to ordinary folk. ‘Come on Kate,’ the article read, ‘just be honest about how hard it is to be that size – don’t pretend that you are still normal.’
Suing the paper in 2009, Winslet said she wanted an apology for ‘an unacceptable accusation of hypocrisy’. The court found in her favour, and the Titanic star was awarded £25,000 in damages.
5. Rooney vs Vardy (aka Wagatha Christie)
When footballers’ wives Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy clashed in the High Court in 2022, it was the sensational culmination of the ‘Wagatha Christie’ saga – so-called because Rooney had shown Poirot-esque detective skills in unmasking Vardy as the woman who’d been leaking stories from Rooney’s private life to The Sun.
The saga commenced in 2019 when Rooney – suspicious that someone close to her was leaking information – posted fake stories on her Instagram and changed the settings so that only Vardy could see them. When those stories duly appeared in The Sun, she knew Vardy had to be the ‘mole’, and triumphantly announced her discovery to the world.
Vardy pleaded innocence, telling one paper that arguing with Rooney was ‘like arguing with a pigeon. You can tell it that you are right and it is wrong, but it’s still going to sh*t in your hair.’ She subsequently sued Rooney for libel, leading to the trial which saw Vardy interrogated on her alleged propensity for divulging personal details to the press – including the time she described Peter Andre’s penis size to the New of the World.
Rooney emerged victorious, her sleuthing skills vindicated. But, while Vardy lost the case, she did seize one prize: the phrase ‘Wagatha Christie’, which she was savvy enough to trademark.
Learn more about all of these cases by listening to Courtroom Drama on your favourite podcast service.