IIn the wake of Britney Spears’ emancipation from her long-term conservatorship, some of Britney’s fans have turned their attention to Star Trek actor Nichelle Nichols. Last week, a dozen protesters, a mix of Free Britney activists and Nichols fans, demonstrated outside Stanley Mosk’s Los Angeles courthouse, chanting “Free Nichelle!”
Nichols has been living under guardianship since 2018. Her son Kyle Johnson successfully applied to be his mother’s curator after his former manager, Gilbert Bell, was accused of financially abusing Nichols. Protesters believe Nichols is sane and wants to be released from the arrangement.
Nichols is best known for playing Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in the original Star Trek TV series. As the first black woman to play a leading role on 1960s television, her character was an inspiration to many, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who persuaded Nichols to stay on the show. as she considered leaving to pursue roles on Broadway. Black actresses of the time were generally relegated to the role of maids or other racist tropes like Sapphire Where Jezebel caricatures. Nichols was also the first African-American actress to place her handprints in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
A civil rights activist, his influence was felt on and off screen. After criticizing NASA’s lack of diversity in a speech, Nichols has volunteered to work with the space agency by making recruiting and training films, and advocating for people such as astronaut Mae Jemison to reapply after being rejected. Jemison, a longtime fan and friend of Nichols, was the first black woman in space.
“We are going to do everything we can to ensure that there is lasting change not just for Britney, not for Nichelle, but for everyone who is trapped in this corrupt system,” said Free Britney campaigner Kevin Wu . told BuzzFeed News.
Free Nichelle activists are largely following the example of Angelique Fawcette, 26, a producer and actress who first met Nichols in 2012. Fawcette has several photos and videos with Nichelle Nichols on her social media as proof of their close relationship and claims she is carrying out Nichols’ wishes. Fawcette thinks Nichols doesn’t need a guardianship and is abused by her son’s control over his finances.
Fawcette has filed several motions with the court seeking to end Nichols’ conservatorship, although the court has so far declined to intervene and recently ruled that Fawcette lacked standing to press charges.
There is no doubt that Nichols suffers from dementia. Her diagnosis predates guardianship and as early as 2013, when Nichols was hospitalized with pancreatitis, there were indications that the former Bell manager may have exercised improper influence to get Nichols to sign papers giving him power of attorney. In one GoFundMe created by his sister, Marian Nichols Smothers, his family alleges that after asking Nichols to grant him power of attorney, Bell transferred the deed to his home to himself in 2018, triggering the petition for guardianship. (Bell, who reportedly first met Nichols in 2010, disputes those claims and insists he was helping the star get back on his feet financially.)
So, if Nichols has already been saved from an abusive situation, why are fans protesting her son acting conservative? Fawcette has filed a lawsuit claiming that Nichols does not need a restaurateur, just support in running his business. She also alleges that Nichols’ son, Kyle Johnson, isolated Nichols and acted against his mother’s wishes by selling his Woodland Hills home and moving it to New Mexico. Protesters also fear that Johnson is not an adequate caregiver for his mother, highlighting a problem not only with the guardianship system but also with the lack of other options for people who may not be able to take care of themselves.
Nichols, who suffered from a mild stroke in 2015, may not have retained the cognitive facilities that Fawcette remembers possessing them. When The Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone interviewed Nichols in 2016, a year after the stroke, she appeared to have largely rebounded, needing only the help of a resident assistant/therapist. But there’s no way of knowing if her good days always outweigh the bad or if she meets the guardianship requirement that a person”can’t take care of himself” and is unable to “meet his basic needs for food, clothing and shelter”. However, given reports that Gilbert Bell attempted not only to take her house in 2018 but considered marrying her to prevent her son from having access to itbrief public appearances may not be the best indicators of Nichols’ ability to take care of herself.
Elderly care in the United States is very expensive in general, but memory care is exceptionally expensive, costing an average of $6,935 per month for a formal care facility. Home care, although less expensive, remains expensive, costing on average $54,000 per year for a trained caregiver. It’s unclear if Nichols had the funds available for either option, especially after Bell’s alleged financial abuse. Although he claims to have helped her earn money, her family believe he stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from her under the guise of being her manager. Financial abuse is one of the most common forms of elder abuse, and a common consequence is that older people are unable to age in place.
Although Fawcette and Bell alleging that the sale of the house was unnecessary, her son Kyle Johnson says the proceeds from the sale are in an account to fund his mother’s care. Fawcette says she will continue to fight the case in New Mexico, where Nichols now lives.
About 1.3 million conservatorship or conservatorship cases are active in the United States, with more than $50 billion in assets controlled by conservatives. Laws vary from state to state, but in many systems people living under guardianship have almost no rights, with all decisions about their lives being made by the curator.
Guardianship laws are being reviewed in California after the Spears case. Brian Maienschein, a Democratic Assemblyman, is proposing a bill that will require conservatories to be used only as a last resort and make conservatories easier to end.