The Queen of Pop reportedly had everyone clear Radio City Music Hall during rehearsals for the 2003 MTV VMAs to ensure the performance's secrecy
In a new report from Rolling Stone, several former MTV staffers revealed Madonna kept details of the memorable performance under wraps from nearly everyone working on the production and even cleared the ceremony's venue, New York City's Radio City Music Hall, at rehearsals to ensure privacy.
Nearly two decades after her then-scandalous rendition of "Like a Virgin" on the 1984 MTV VMAs, the Queen of Pop, 65, delivered the 2003 performance, which opened with Spears, 41, covering the signature hit. Aguilera, 42, then joined her to sing its chorus, before Madonna appeared to sing her 2003 single "Hollywood."
Madonna then kissed Spears and Aguilera on their mouths, before Missy Elliott joined the performance to rap "Work It." However, she's not often remembered as part of the number, as the lip-locking prompted a media frenzy that's still discussed today.
According to the Rolling Stone report, executives knew the performance would cause a controversy — once they found out what it entailed. "When you turn to Madonna, [MTV network chiefs] were always very understanding that this is her creative moment," ex-MTV staffer Summer Strauch told the outlet, noting that she was given complete control over the performance. "They value whatever she chooses."
Details of the performance changed throughout production, as Jennifer Lopez was supposed to perform with Madonna and Spears before dropping out to film the movie Shall We Dance?. "I was fearful that the performance was in jeopardy," said Van Toffler, former MTV president, to Rolling Stone.
Aguilera then joined the number, and rehearsals were seemingly going well — but most people reportedly didn't know exactly what was going down until former VMAs director Beth McCarthy-Miller flew to Los Angeles to watch a run-through.
"'You’re not going to be able to tell anyone, but I think this is going to make you happy,'" Toffler recalled McCarthy-Miller telling him over the phone at the time, per Rolling Stone. "'Madonna kisses Britney and Christina.'"
"You knew it was going to be a moment," Strauch reportedly told the outlet of learning the performance's details. "I remember everyone smiling and high-fiving."
Tom Calderone, MTV's former executive vice president of music and talent, noted that Madonna's team reportedly asked for Radio City Music Hall to be cleared of people during rehearsals in the weeks leading up to the awards show.
"Radio stations around the country were coming to do live broadcasts from there, so we had to get literally everybody out," Calderone told Rolling Stone. "And then you’ve got the gift room — that had to be evacuated. Even security. At the end, there were only a handful of us in that room, and a few people in the truck outside [where McCarthy-Miller and her team dictated the camera shots]."
The secrecy paid off in the end, as the performance became a massive news item. It's still spoken about to this day, as fellow pop star Pink recently claimed to have been asked to be part of the performance alongside Gwen Stefani.
MTV reportedly appreciated the controversy at the time. In fact, it's part of why they wanted her to perform at the ceremony.
"You give Madonna the germ of an idea or just the real estate, and she’s going to take it," Toffler told Rolling Stone. "She had a history of pushing us and pushing culture, and that’s what was great about her and what was great about MTV. We pushed culture in provocative ways."
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