KENTWOOD, La. — The local museum that houses a virtual shrine to the town’s most famous resident, mega popstar Britney Spears, used to be a funeral home. It’s one of the few places still open among the abandoned and ruined buildings in the tiny town center.
The vibe is still funereal despite the best efforts of Fay Gehringer, curator of the Kentwood Historic and Cultural Museum, a friend of both Britney’s parents. She said she used to make the hair bows Britney wore “when she performed in everything she could when she was a little girl.”
Gehringer, who looks younger than her 80 years, gamely shows off artifacts like the angel wings Britney wore during the Femme Fatale tour of 2011 and the glassed-in replica of Britney’s entire teenage bedroom, made famous when the then 17-year-old posed seductively next to her dolls and teddy bears in a famous 1999 Rolling Stone cover story.
But it’s as if she’s describing a dead icon, not the one-time golden girl from this rough slice of northern Louisiana, just a few miles from the Mississippi border, who is still only 39 and very much alive.
Gehringer likes to point out the facial resemblance between Britney’s grandmother, Emma Jean Spears, who killed herself at age 31 with a shotgun on the grave of her infant son in May 1966, by gesturing first at a framed photo of a fresh-faced young “Jean,” as they called her, and a blown-up poster of Britney on the opposite wall.
“That death had a big impact in that family,” Gehringer said of Emma Jean’s suicide and Britney’s father, Jamie. “It took a big toll on Jamie.”
Gehringer, like many in this tiny, rural town (pop. 2,120), is shell-shocked by the recent revelations and fast-moving developments in the tortuous saga of Britney’s 13-year conservatorship.
But locals hate talking about it, especially to outsiders. Over the past 20 years, visitors have reported being threatened with guns or by the local sheriff. The author of a 2009 biography of Britney told The Post that he had been warned not to go into the local VFW bar, the “Dub,” or he would find himself “eating gravel” in the parking lot. This Post reporter was told to leave by the manager who came out as soon as I pulled into the driveway.
“I know what they’re saying about Jamie, but he’s not a bad man,” Gehringer told The Post. “[Britney’s mom and Jamie’s ex-wife,] Lynne is a good person, too. They aren’t monsters. This is a small town. We’re good, honest country people. They got swallowed up by the Hollywood machine, by people who aren’t like us. None of them were equipped to deal with it, not Jamie, Lynne or Britney.”
Two weeks ago Britney won a big victory in court when a judge declared that her dad’s control over her life was “toxic” and granted her request to oust him as conservator of her estate.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny agreed that it was in Britney’s “best interest” to suspend Jamie from the legal arrangement that has controlled the singer’s life and money for the last 13 years.
The ruling came after Britney’s attorney Mathew Rosengart petitioned the court to “immediately” suspend Jamie Spears from the role, arguing his continued involvement has done nothing but prolong “the Kafkaesque nightmare” that has been Britney’s life since the conservatorship was established in 2008, after her very public meltdown.
Jamie mostly lives in Kentwood, although he sold Britney’s childhood home, behind Greenlaw Baptist Church, for $275,000 in February.
The Spears’ next-door-neighbor of many years still lives in the same home and told The Post that she used to babysit for a “sweet and energetic Britney.” The woman, who did not want her name used, was quick to defend Jamie, as many here are.
Several local women in Kentwood and Osyka, Miss., which lies on the state border just five miles north, remember Jamie Spears back when he was the hot basketball and football star at Kentwood High School.
“Every woman wanted Jamie,” a Kentwood High classmate three years his junior told The Post. The 64-year-old woman asked that her name be withheld because she’s afraid of repercussions, even if what she says about the Spears family is positive. “He could really have gone places. He was so handsome and so talented.”
The woman’s friend, 63, said the criticism of Jamie is unfair.
“That man worked so hard for years,” she said. “He had a business building metal sheds out in the hot sun and he did that for years. He’s not some bloodsucker. I think Britney is spoiled, if you ask me.”
Some members of Jamie’s immediate family say it’s typical for people in the town to defend Jamie.
John Mark Spears, 52, who is Jamie’s half-brother, said that their father, June Austin Spears, who died in 2012, was a terrible man who was abusive to most of the 10 children he had with his three wives.
Some of the 10 are dead, like 62-year-old Austin who died earlier this year of cirrhosis and liver cancer after years of drinking and homelessness.
“These Spears men are something awful,” John Mark, Britney’s uncle, said. “They’ve gotten away with so much, especially to their women, for years.”
John Mark said all the family’s toxicity can be traced to his and Jamie’s dad.
“He was a monster but nobody would say a bad word about him outside the family,” John Mark said. “Just like no one will say a bad word about Jamie around here.”
John Mark, who talked to The Post at his home in Osyka, where he has been a boilermaker, like his father, for 22 years, said June Austin beat his children violently and caused both of his first two wives to go off the rails.
“He ruined Emma Jean and he ruined my mama [Jo Ann, deceased,” John Mark said. “He shipped them both off to Mandeville [the state’s former notorious mental hospital] from time to time. So I’m not too surprised about what Jamie’s done to Britney. It’s all about control with the Spears men.”
Jamie’s half-sister and Britney’s aunt, Leigh Ann Spears Wrather, 54, who now lives in Springfield, Tenn., said she left home at 16 after being sexually abused by their father from the age of 11. After he raped her one day, she asked a friend to help her escape. The friend’s mother arranged to meet Leigh Ann at a local mall.
“I never went back except to visit a few times,” Wrather, who retired after 26 years in the Navy, told The Post. “I’ve been dealing with it my whole life. He used to line us kids up and whip us. We’d go to church where my daddy was the deacon and on the way home he’d make me beat him off. I hope he’s burning in hell.”
Wrather, who began a blog in August about her childhood, said her father forced her mother, Jamie’s stepmother, on the drug lithium for a while.
“My mom was like a debutante, she came from a good family and was considered a catch,” Leigh Ann said. “But Daddy — I hate even calling him that — drove her crazy. He institutionalized her at Mandeville a few times and put her on lithium. When I heard that Britney was put on lithium for a while I almost couldn’t believe it but it made sense. Typical for this family and how they treat their women.”
Both John Mark and Leigh Ann said they have some doubts about whether or not Emma Jean Spears’ death was really a suicide. The death got an unusual amount of attention, even running on the front page of the Kentwood local paper. It was also quite detailed for a suicide.
“The shotgun had been pressed against the woman’s chest and she apparently pulled the trigger with a toe of the right foot from which a shoe had been removed,” the newspaper said at the time. The account also said that Emma Jean “ splayed out her left leg across the grave” before checking that the 12-bore shotgun was ready and loaded with a single shell.
A Kentwood High classmate of Jamie’s recalled to The Post how, in May 1966, she was 8 years old in and “pushing cows” across the pastures near Osyka, Ms. when she and her parents noticed a “vehicle” at Roberts cemetery and no one around.
“Then we found out who it was and how it happened,” said the classmate, who did not want to give her name but took a reporter out to Emma Jean’s grave, right next to her baby son Austin Wayne, which lies in a cemetery surrounded by bucolic fields and pastures.
But John Mark and Leigh Ann question how anyone really knows how it happened. The local newspaper reported that Emma Jean’s husband, June Austin, told the coroner his wife had tried to commit suicide several times before and was still depressed over the death of her son, who died when he was three days old.
“No one knows what happened because no one was there,” Leigh Ann said. “But you can bet my daddy pulled the trigger one way or the other even if he wasn’t there.”
Leigh Ann said she was stationed in San Diego for the Navy and after a few years of therapy, called her brothers and sisters and their spouses to tell them their father had raped her.
“You know who believed me?” she said. “Only Lynne Spears. I got nothing bad to say about Lynne.”
“The Spears men need to be held accountable,” Leigh Ann said. “Thank goodness Britney got a good lawyer. Jamie did to her what my daddy did to my mom and Emma Jean. They are mean and they will destroy you if they can’t control you. But I think Britney will survive. She’s a beautiful person with a beautiful soul.”
Jamie Spears did not respond to voice and text messages so this reporter went out to a gate, leading to a small concrete storage unit, on a vast spread on the edge of Kentwood.
He’s been living in an RV behind the unit off and on for about two years. Some locals say he has done it to show he isn’t living large on Britney’s money.
After this reporter called Jamie to see if he wanted to come out and give his side of the story, a man wearing a baseball cap and driving a golf cart — accompanied by a furiously barking dog — pulled out from behind the storage unit and drove to the gate.
He identified himself as the “head of security” but looked very much like Jamie Spears, who has lost so much weight recently that John Mark said he didn’t even recognize him when he ran into him downtown recently.
“I called the law and they’s coming!” he yelled. “You got one warning. Where is your vehicle? Go get in your vehicle and get out of here now. Bye! Go! Now. BYE!”
“That sounds like Jamie,” said John Mark. “He doesn’t care about what the outside world thinks. He doesn’t care about his reputation. He’s a stubborn son of a bitch and I’ll probably get a visit from him after this story.”