‘Free Nichelle’: protesters want to liberate Star Trek actor Nichelle Nichols from conservatorship
In the wake of Britney Spears’ emancipation from her long-term conservatorship, some of Britney’s fans have turned their attention to the Star Trek actor Nichelle Nichols. Last week a dozen protesters, a mixture of Free Britney activists and fans of Nichols, demonstrated outside the Stanley Mosk courthouse in Los Angeles, chanting “Free Nichelle!”
Nichols has been living under a conservatorship since 2018. Her son Kyle Johnson successfully petitioned to be his mother’s conservator after her former manager, Gilbert Bell, was accused of abusing Nichols financially. Protesters believe that Nichols is of sound mind and wants to be released from the arrangement.
Nichols is best known for playing Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on the original Star Trek television series. As the first Black woman to play a leading role on 1960s TV, her character was inspirational to many, including Dr Martin Luther King Jr, who persuaded Nichols to stay on the show when she was considering leaving to pursue roles on Broadway. Black female actors of the time were usually relegated to playing the part of maids or other racist tropes like Sapphire or Jezebel caricatures. Nichols was also the first female African American actor to place her handprints in front of Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
A civil rights advocate, her influence was felt on and off screen. After criticizing Nasa’s lack of diversity in a speech, Nichols volunteered to work with the space agency making recruitment and training films, and advocating for people such as astronaut Mae Jemison to reapply after rejection. Jemison, a longtime fan and friend of Nichols, was the first Black woman in space.
“We’re going to do whatever we can make sure that there’s lasting change for not just Britney, not just Nichelle but everyone who is trapped in this corrupt system,” the Free Britney activist Kevin Wu told BuzzFeed News.
The Free Nichelle campaigners are largely following the lead of 26-year-old Angelique Fawcette, a producer and actor who first met Nichols in 2012. Fawcette has several pictures and videos with Nichelle Nichols on her social media as proof of their close relationship and claims that she is carrying out Nichols’ wishes. Fawcette believes that Nichols does not need a conservatorship and is being abused by her son’s control of her finances.
Fawcette has filed several petitions with the court seeking to end Nichols’ conservatorship, though the court has so far declined to intervene and recently ruled that Fawcette does not have standing to lodge her complaints.
There is no question that Nichols suffers from dementia. Her diagnosis predates the conservatorship and as early as 2013, when Nichols was hospitalized for pancreatitis, there were indications that former manager Bell may have exercised an undue amount of influence to get Nichols to sign paperwork giving him power of attorney. In a GoFundMe established by her sister, Marian Nichols Smothers, her family alleges that after getting Nichols to grant him power of attorney, Bell transferred the deed on her home to himself in 2018, and that triggered the petition for conservatorship. (Bell, who allegedly first met Nichols in 2010, disputes these allegations and insists he was helping the star get back on her feet financially.)
So, if Nichols has already been rescued from an abusive situation, why are fans protesting against her son acting as her conservator? Fawcette has filed suit claiming that Nichols doesn’t need a conservator, merely support in managing her affairs. She also alleges that Nichols’ son Kyle Johnson has isolated Nichols and acted against his mother’s wishes by selling her Woodland Hills home and moving her to New Mexico. Protesters are also concerned that Johnsonmay not be an adequate caregiver for his mother, which highlights a problem not only with the system of conservatorships, but also with the lack of other options for people who may not be capable of caring for themselves.
Nichols, who suffered from a mild stroke in 2015, may not have retained the cognitive facilities that Fawcette remembers her having. When the Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone interviewed Nichols in 2016, one year after the stroke, she seemed to have largely bounced back, needing only some assistance from a live-in assistant/therapist. But there is no way to know if her good days still outweigh the bad ones or whether she meets the conservatorship’s requirement that a person “cannot care for himself or herself” and is unable to “meet their basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter”. However, given reports that Gilbert Bell attempted not only to take her house in 2018 but contemplated marrying her to prevent her son from having access, brief public appearances may not be the best indicators of Nichols’ capacity to care for herself.
Elder care in America is very expensive in general, but memory care is exceptionally expensive, costing an average of $6,935 a month for a facility that specializes in structured care. In-home care, although cheaper, is still expensive, costing an average of $54,000 a year for a trained caregiver. It is unclear if Nichols had the funds for either option available, especially after the alleged financial abuses by Bell. Though he claims to have helped her make money, her family believes he stole hundreds of thousands from her under the guise of being her manager. Financial exploitation is one of the most common forms of elder abuse, and a common consequence is elders who are unable to age in place.
Although Fawcette and Bell allege that the sale of the house was unnecessary, her son Kyle Johnson states that the proceeds of 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 1.3m guardianship or conservatorship cases are active in the US, with assets of more than $50bn controlled by conservators. Laws vary from state to state but under many systems those living under conservatorship have almost no rights, with all decisions about their life made by the conservator.
Laws around conservatorship are being reviewed in California, after the Spears case. Brian Maienschein, a Democratic assemblyman, is proposing a bill that will require that conservatorships are used only as a last resort and make conservatorships easier to end.