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Twenty years ago, the MTV Video Music Awards staged the Kiss Seen ‘Round the World, when Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera engaged in a three-way onstage makeout session during the ceremony’s sizzling, instantly iconic opening number.
Well… Spears’s kiss was seen, at least. During the telecast, awards show director Beth McCarthy-Miller made the split-second decision to cut away from the second smooch, between Madonna and Aguilera, and instead focus on the scowling reaction of Spears’s ex-boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, who was sitting in the Radio City Music Hall audience that night.
A “disappointed” Aguilera blasted the network’s decision to play up the Spears/Timberlake breakup scandal as “predictable" and “pathetic” to Blender magazine, and called it a “cheap shot” years later during an interview with Bravo’s Andy Cohen.
“The tricky thing was you couldn't go from that reaction shot and get back to Christina in time,” Alex Coletti, who produced the VMAs ceremony that year, laments to Yahoo Entertainment. “So, yeah, Christina got slighted a bit. It was never about how Madonna kissed Britney and Christina. It was always known as the ‘Britney/Madonna kiss.’ And I feel bad for that.”
But Aguilera — who according to a recent Nylon report had been “much hotter and sexier” and had committed more to the kiss during closed-set rehearsals — didn’t appear to realize that night that she’d been short-changed.
“There was no echo-chamber. Things didn't spread that fast back then. No one had the technology to watch it and respond in real time,” Coletti says of those pre-social media days. Aguilera, who Coletti notes had had “a big year,” did get her own spotlight during the 2003 VMAs broadcast, performing a medley of her Stripped hits “Dirrty” and “Fighter” with Redman and Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro. And she was seemingly oblivious at the time.
“I can't imagine that in between her first and second performances, someone told Christina that they’d missed her shot,” Coletti says. “She came off that stage feeling great about both performances — and then maybe the next day had some new thoughts.”
As Coletti puts it, “We got some upset-ness from the Christina camp the next day, and that's unfortunate.” Aguilera, who was managed by industry big-wig Irving Azoff back in 2003, was reportedly so perturbed that her camp requested a re-edit for the ceremony’s reruns.
“In the edit, we did slide it a little bit. I think for repeats, there was probably a better version,” says Coletti. “I do think that instinctually, we probably would've tried to give her a few [extra] frames of it, while not taking away from the moment that the whole world was talking about. So, I think we probably fudged it a little bit [for the reruns] — but not enough that you'd probably notice.”
Timberlake most likely would have appreciated a revised edit as well. Before the kiss even happened, the former *NSYNC star — whose three-year relationship with his onetime All-New Mickey Mouse Club castmate Spears had ended abruptly in March 2002 amid rumors of Spears’s infidelity — already looked annoyed in one cocked-eyebrowed audience closeup during Madonna, Spears, and Aguilera’s “Like a Virgin”/“Hollywood” medley.
“He probably was pissed that the camera guy was there, but if he's a pro, he knows it's going to be here, so it’s like “I'm gonna give ‘em something,’” Coletti shrugs. “And we knew where the gold was. You go where the shot is exciting. … Beth McCarthy-Miller is one of the greatest live directors ever, and we let her do her thing. In the moment, she can follow anything and not be so rigidly scripted that she wouldn't take a chance on something. So, I think she knew to keep an eye on Justin. We had a chart of who was sitting where, and obviously during a Britney/Madonna moment, you're going to look for a certain people. And she's looking at 12 or 15 camera monitors and deciding which is the right one at the right moment.
“If I had to do it all over again, I'd tell Beth to take the same shot,” Coletti adds.
Timberlake would actually win two trophies at the 2003 VMAs for his Britney-skewering “Cry Me a River” video — but Spears clearly got the last laugh by dominating the historic ceremony. That being said, Coletti assumes that getting revenge on a bitter ex was far from Spears’s mind.
“I don't know that she was worried about him in that moment,” Coletti chuckles. “She was performing for the world. And she was up onstage with her idol, Madonna. I think that commands your attention more than worrying about your ex-boyfriend in the audience — even if he is Justin Timberlake.”
Spears didn’t just upstage her supposed Mickey Mouse Club rival Aguilera and ex-boyfriend when she leaned in for her Madonna lip-lock. Missy Elliott actually won the ceremony’s biggest honor, Video of the Year, but few viewers remember that — or that Elliott formed what Coletti calls “a Mount Rushmore of female artists” during the show’s opening number, when she briefly joined Madonna, Spears, and Aguilera to spit a few bars of her winning song, “Work It.”
But Coletti insists that Elliott, unlike Aguilera, remained unfazed. “Missy is a pleasure to work with,” he raves. “Always, always, always, always.”
From the beginning, it was intended that Spears, the biggest female pop star of the time, would be part of that “Mount Rushmore” performance — which was a nod to Madonna’s career-catapulting opening number of “Like a Virgin” at 1984’s inaugural VMAs on the same Radio City stage, complete with floor-rolling choreo. MTV producers were using that fact that this was the 20th VMAs ceremony “as a creative kind of springboard, so having Madonna pay tribute herself seemed about right,” Coletti chuckles, recalling the moment when a smirking Madonna, in a Marlene-Dietrich-style tuxedo and top hat, popped out of a giant hydraulic wedding cake and then cavorted with her two lingerie-clad superstar brides.
“It was a torch-passing, of sorts — but Madonna's still holding the torch. Don't ever think she's passing it. You're going to have to pry it out of Madonna’s dead hands,” Coletti laughs.
However, other pop divas of the aughts who owed Madonna a debt, like Gwen Stefani, Pink, and Jennifer Lopez, were all in the mix at one point, before Aguilera got on board. Interestingly, second-generation rock rebel Kelly Osbourne — daughter of Ozzy — who’d recently recorded a cheeky cover of Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach,” was even considered, although she just ended up sitting in the audience, looking surly and bored next to fellow “anti-Britney” archetype Avril Lavigne. (Other TRL stars in attendance, whose reaction shots ranged from bemused to amused to enthused, included Beyoncé, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, Snoop Dogg, Mya, Vivica A. Fox with 50 Cent, the Hilton sisters, and the original Queer Eye cast; meanwhile, Madonna’s own daughter Lourdes Leon, who was 6 years old at the time, was onstage playing one of the flower girls.)
Madonna had wanted Lopez because of the Latin pop star’s dancing prowess, but J.Lo was unable to commit because she was shooting the rom-com Shall We Dance?, so eventually Aguilera was selected. “Really, I think everyone wanted Britney and Christina,” Coletti recalls. He claims that he didn’t witness any evidence of their long-rumored feud, which dated back to their Mickey Mouse days, even if the VMAs spectacle did play into that — and even if Aguilera, in her infamous 2003 Blender interview, criticized Spears for allegedly lip-synching that night while she and Madonna sang live.
“Like I said, I do feel bad because the controversy was always going to be about Britney, just based on their images: Britney was the sweet schoolgirl, and Christina had an edgier image,” Coletti concedes. “But I thought it was great to see them both up there together. I sensed no rivalry between them in that experience, and it wasn't positioned in the performance that way. That never manifested in the performance or in the rehearsals in any way.”
Coletti admits that when he got a call from choreographer Jamie King, who was in Los Angeles rehearsing with Madonna, and was asked, “What do you think about Britney and Madonna kissing?,” he simply answered, “Sounds good to me!” He even claims that he didn’t think the kiss would generate much attention at all.
“This was not the Super Bowl halftime show. This was our airtime, our channel, our audience. We knew what the boundaries were. This did not seem to raise any flags,” says Coletti, who would produce Janet Jackson and Timberlake’s infamous “Nipplegate” halftime show at the Super Bowl XXXVIII for CBS the following year. “I knew we had a moment brewing — a viral moment, before that term existed — but didn't know to what extent, that it would be above and beyond. I walked over to the producer table and was like, ‘Hey, I think Britney and Madonna are going to kiss.’ It was like saying, ‘I think it's going to rain today.’ It was no big deal. It was just like, ‘Yeah, fine. Sounds on-brand.’
Coletti actually remembers being more preoccupied with that massive onstage wedding cake. “The trickiest thing was the cake. Every phone call was about that. Every day it felt like we were talking about that damn cake,” he chuckles. “Because they rehearsed in L.A. and the cake was being built offsite in Lititz, Penn., and our set designers had to fit that cake through the doors at Radio City in New York and they had to rehearse and choreograph around that. The cake became a problem because we couldn't get it off the stage quick enough, so it had to become [part of host] Chris Rock's entrance. That was the solution: that he would enter through the cake, because we just couldn't get rid of it before the commercial break. That was pretty funny.”
Coletti soon figured out that the kiss “didn't land in the way in rehearsal that it did on TV with an audience,” and he theorizes that it was in fact the Radio City audience’s outrageous reaction — including, of course, the Timberlake cutaway — that made the performance so very memorable.
“Imagine an alternate universe where we'd never cut to an audience shot, where we’d stayed on that stage shot: Madonna kisses Britney, then kisses Christina, and the performance continues. Did you need the audience shot to tell you how to feel and how to react? I don't have the answers, but it's an interesting question,” the veteran television producer muses.
Two decades later, the lip-locked performance still regularly lands on lists of the most shocking VMAs moments of all time, and Coletti boldly states that he thinks it’s even more iconic than Madonna’s original “Like a Virgin” MTV Video Music Awards performance from ‘84. (“The first one doesn't hold up — nor does anything from the first VMAs, which was just shot differently. That format doesn't age well. I’d think that the more recent one would just resonate more.”) Coletti, who’d been eager to “have a little more fun” after the previous year’s VMAs (which he’d also produced) had been dominated by Bruce Springsteen and Sheryl Crow’s somber 9/11 tributes, was thrilled with how everything turned out — even if Aguilera, and probably Timberlake, were less pleased.
“The opening performance in an awards show oftentimes sets the tone for the next three hours, and that was just a really joyful overall performance, with a nice little splash of controversy and sexiness, and I think that rippled throughout the show. It set it off on a good path,” Coletti explains. “And I think more people should kiss at the VMAs. It's an excellent place for kissing.”
And as for where the 2003 VMAs performance figures in the respective histories of its three participating divas, Coletti declines to comment on the current careers of Aguilera, Madonna, or Spears — particularly the latter two, who’ve made headlines lately for less joyful reasons. However, he asserts: “I hope all three of them live very long lives, but that whenever whatever version in the future of Access Hollywood runs their obituaries, the kiss will be in it.”