Twenty years ago, Britney Spears was on top of the world. She was riding a four-year run of platinum No. 1 albums, a Grammy award and a string of world tours that paid her tens of millions of dollars. In 2002, Forbes named her the world’s most powerful celebrity, with an estimated $40 million of income before taxes and fees.
In terms of both earnings and star power, she was ahead of her contemporaries Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Lopez — and even today can say she’s sold more concert tickets and albums than either. But when it comes to net worth, the fallen pop queen has lagged far behind: Spears, once a dominant and ascending force in pop culture, has a net worth of $60 million; Simpson and Lopez each have built fortunes of more than $100 million, according to Forbes estimates. Beyoncé, who started her solo career a few years after the Mickey Mouse Club alumnus broke into her own as an adult, is worth seven times as much — not including any wealth from her billionaire husband Jay-Z.
So what went wrong? After several years of media scrutiny, Spears suffered a public mental breakdown and was put under court-ordered conservatorship in 2008. The judge handed control of her career and finances to her father, James, who is now the villain of the fan-driven #FreeBritney movement, a social media advocacy effort out to “free” Spears from the conservatorship.
The setup hasn’t been good for her career. Or her net worth. In recent years, Spears has resisted her father’s control while also paying millions of dollars in legal fees tied to the conservatorship that is charged with tightly controlling her lifestyle, as well as child support to her ex-husband Kevin Federline. Court documents reviewed by Forbes last year revealed that her assets are mostly held in various brokerage accounts, real estate and cash. Her personal fortune hasn’t lagged for lack of effort: By 2008, Spears had released five hit records and embarked on six major tours. In the decade that followed she delivered another four albums and four world tours, as well as a Las Vegas that ran from 2013 to 2017 and grossed $137.7 million, according to Caesars Entertainment.
But things began to unravel. Once a popular choice for endorsements — Pepsi, Skechers and Samsung — she stopped doing television commercials in 2015. Spears hasn’t released new music since 2016 and she stopped touring in 2018. The next year, she called off another lucrative Las Vegas residency that would have seen her earn at least $350,000 per night.
"My client has informed me that she is afraid of her father,” Spears’ lawyer Samuel D. Ingham III Ingham said in court in November, according to the Associated Press. “She will not perform again if her father is in charge of her career.” At the hearing, Spears was hoping to permanently remove her father as her conservator. Vivian Lee Thoreen, attorney for Jamie Spears, defended his stewardship and said Britney Spears was in debt prior to the conservatorship: “I don’t believe there is a shred of evidence to support my client’s suspension.”
Last week, a judge seemed to agree, keeping James Spears on, but also granting his daughter’s request to name independent fiduciary Bessemer Trust a permanent co-conservator. Thoreen and Spears did not return requests for comment.
While she has struggled, several of her pop star peers have thrived. Lopez has continued to work regularly, producing new music, touring the world and starring in a two-year-long Las Vegas residency of her own, while also collecting a fat check as the host of American Idol. Last year, while Spears was sidelined, J-Lo earned $47.5 million from starring in Hustlers, touring the world and endorsing brands like L'Oreal, Kohl's and Guess. Simpson made a fraction of Lopez’s and Spears’ earnings as a performer, but converted her popularity into an equity stake in her eponymous clothing and shoe company. In 2015, she sold her 62.5% stake in the venture to Sequential Brand Group for about $120 million.
Meanwhile, a fresh generation of pop icons including Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Taylor Swift have upped the stakes. Swift has embarked on five world tours since her debut album in 2006 — seven years after Spears released hers — including the 2018 Reputation Stadium Tour, which became the highest-grossing U.S. tour ever, racking up $266.1 million through 2 million in ticket sales in the U.S. alone. Her homes, which include a Rhode Island mansion, two homes in Beverly Hills and a Manhattan penthouse, are worth more than Spears’ entire fortune — not including her two Dassault private jets.
Rihanna has shown how to make big money off stage, converting her success in music into a mix of entrepreneurial ventures. Fenty Beauty, her makeup line with French luxury giant LVMH, had sales of more than $600 million in 2019. Forbes estimates Rihanna’s stake in the cosmetics brand is worth $375 million. Her stake in her Savage x Fenty lingerie line, which last week raised $115 million in its second round of funding, is worth more than $80 million.
No one knows what Spears would have done had she been in control of her fate and fortune. But it’s hard to imagine how she would have done worse than her estranged dad.
Additional reporting by Abigail Freeman.