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By Lyndsey Parker
Twenty years ago at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards, Britney Spears, at the peak of her performance powers, delivered one of the most electrifying and talked-about numbers in VMAs history. Showcasing a sultrier, more sophisticated sound on the Neptunes-produced “I’m a Slave 4 U,” she strutted onstage at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House with a 7-foot albino Burmese python draped around her dainty shoulders, looking like the ultimate in-control snake-charmer. But that was just a testament to the pop star’s professionalism — because Spears was actually deathly terrified of her scaly co-star, according to that evening’s python-wrangler, Mike Hano.
“She was extremely, extremely scared at first. I was very impressed with the way that she was able to just focus and force herself to do what she needed to do,” Hano, a former vice president of the New York Herpetological Society, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “She's from Louisiana, and there are several types of venomous snakes down there and people do get bit sometimes. So, when I first showed up for the first rehearsal day, she was very frightened.”
Spears did have some reason to be concerned. Hano, who didn’t initially realize when he was hired how elaborate the “I’m a Slave 4 U” production would be, explains: “Britney Spears is pretty small — and she was going to be dancing with [the python]. She had to position the snake on her shoulders by herself and dance around, and then she had to hand it off to a third person … and it's easy to screw up that kind of thing. You know, it gets wrapped around your arm and doesn't want to let go. It could have been really risky, because that was a live performance, one take.”
Hano notes that the python was a “relatively young animal” and not fully developed — it later grew from about 7 feet and 25 pounds to 15 feet and 100 pounds! — and that the Burmese breed is usually “pretty mellow” and “pretty handleable” when raised in captivity. “The bad thing is that they get tremendous, and most people have no business keeping one of these, because they get big enough to kill you easily. And it's not that they mean to kill you; it's usually a so-called accident, a feeding response, where they think that they're constricting a prey item. … Once they're wrapped around something, they can't even see what they're wrapped around. All they know is that it's warm and it's struggling, so the snake keeps squeezing. There was an incident back in the ’90s where a young man, I think about 19 years old, right here in New York City, was killed by his pet Burmese python.” Hano adds that in 1999, Burmese pythons became illegal to keep as pets in New York City, and he had to obtain a special permit from the NYC Department of Health in order for one to be used in Spears’s VMAs performance.
All this considered, it’s no wonder that Spears was skittish when it came time to rehearse with the python, so it was imperative to Hano that he spend some quality one-on-one time with her to put her at ease. But in order to do that, he had to go through her entourage.
“They had some person who I guess was supposed to be my handler or whatever, my liaison, and they had me sitting in the audience area,” Hano recalls. “So, I'm just waiting until they're going to need me, and I told this guy several times that I would like to have a few minutes alone with Ms. Spears, so that if she had any questions or concerns, she could speak to me in private. And if she's going to be holding the snake, she could try it away from everybody watching — just me and her and the snake. Sometimes with that kind of thing, if they're a little uncomfortable, they can hold the rear part of the snake’s body while I'm holding the front part of the body, and as they get more comfortable with it, they can gradually move to the point where they can hold the snake on their own. That's the way that I prefer to do it. Why would you want a hundred people watching you, if you're scared and you might be a little embarrassed? And I told this guy that a couple of times, ‘Give me a few minutes alone with her, especially if she's scared.’ I don’t think she had ever handled a snake before.”
Finally, Hano was granted his request, although it was awkward. “They didn't even let me speak to her before. This is my first time face to face with her — and I'm holding this python! And all of a sudden, she's not ready to do that. I could see that she was uncomfortable,” he recalls. “But [the liaison] gave me a few minutes — and it only took just a very few minutes — where she was able to sit with me on the sidelines and realize that it's not a big deal to hold a snake. So, we did the rehearsal that day, and then it was either later that day or the next day that I got a call from the agent that they wanted to do an additional rehearsal with the snake, just so that she would get very comfortable with it.”
On the second day, Spears “said something to me about how she ‘broke out in hives’ everywhere that the snake had touched her during the rehearsal — which is just really not possible,” Hano chuckles. But in the end, he says she was “very professional, very focused. Like, I remember a couple of times when the director said, ‘OK, everybody take five’ and basically everyone walked offstage, and she kept by herself and you could kind of hear her counting: ‘One, two, three, four...’ She kept practicing her moves by herself, without the music playing. You could tell that she was a really hard worker. And she did fine. She did great.”
Interestingly, there was also a tiger in Spears’s jungle-themed “I’m a Slave 4 U” number — but even though it turns out that that big cat was handled by none other than Tiger King star Doc Antle, most fans remember only the yellow python. Animal rights activists groups like PETA did condemn Spears’s VMAs performance at the time, although Hano recalls the outrage was more focused on the tiger than on the snake. “And I sort of agree about that,” he says. “Those animals are not really meant to be around pyrotechnics and loud music. In a perfect world, we wouldn't be doing that with tigers. With snakes it's different, because they can't see or hear or whatever.”
And so the performance became iconic specifically because of the snake, and it is still referenced in pop culture — like in Grimes’s “Genesis” music video or Kaley Cuoco’s epic Britney tribute on Lip Sync Battle. Even Spears, despite her misgivings, went on to have fond memories of the landmark performance, even tweeting about the python 11 years later and retroactively christening it “Banana.” (Hano isn’t sure where that moniker came from, because Banana — as the female python will henceforth be known for the remainder of this article — was nameless at the time. “It can't even hear you saying its name, you know,” he quips.)
At first, Hano himself didn’t realize how momentous the performance was; while he was excited to be working at the Metropolitan Opera House because he’d sung in a children's choir there from 1976 to 78 and had even shared the stage with Luciano Pavarotti at a televised 1977 concert, he wasn’t well-versed in modern pop music and wasn’t even aware that Spears was a major superstar. However, when he returned home that evening with Banana after the 2001 VMAs wrapped, he quickly realized that he’d been part of MTV history.
“I actually took the subway on the night of the job — because how are you going to park down there? — so I just had the snake in a cooler,” Hano confesses. “And after I did that job, I took the train home ... It was a half-hour later that I came out of the train station and walked into my building, and there's all these kids hanging out on the front stoop of my building. And they all knew me; they knew that I had a bunch of animals. So they saw me coming and said, ‘Hey, did you see that VMAs thing with Britney Spears? She had a snake!’ The whole neighborhood already knew about this thing. And I'm telling them, ‘Yeah, I just did that job. I got the snake right here on my shoulder in this cooler.’ They didn’t believe me … and then I actually took out the snake for them to check out. They could not believe it.”
Hano, who was just the wrangler and not the actual owner of the snake, says that as of last year, the original Banana was still alive and residing “somewhere in upstate New York,” although at an estimated age of 23, she is “getting up there” in years. However, he and the snake did work together again on a fashion shoot about six or seven years after Spears’s performance, and at that time he was shocked to see how much larger the python was. “The snake had gotten much bigger [and heavier] since 2001, but the owner failed to admit it to me, and when I picked up the snake on the way to the job and realized how big it had grown, it was too late to look for another one,” Hano recalls. “Fortunately, at this job the models were completely covered in greasy black body paint — which I had also not been informed of — so the decision was made to suspend the snake from the pipe structure behind them, instead of draping it on their bodies.”
As for Spears, who has been on an “indefinite work hiatus” from her Las Vegas residency since January 2019, it’s possible that she will never grace the MTV Video Music Awards’ stage again. Her last VMAs performance was in 2016, when that appearance was actually hyped by a promo starring a slithering Banana lookalike. But Hano wishes Spears well in her ongoing conservatorship battle, admires her talent, and is all about #FreeBritney.
“As far as her professional career or career in entertainment, I have no thoughts or feelings about that,” Hano states. “But I'd say that she's already accomplished an awful lot. I hope she's able to get through that and enjoy her life. She's worked hard and she's had a lot of success, and she deserves to enjoy it. And if she does work again, I hope it's just because it's something she wants to do, and not for anyone else and not for money. She should be able to do whatever she wants to do.”
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