Inside 3 Iconic MTV VMAs Moments With Madonna, Britney and Lady Gaga

From left: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images; Gregg DeGuire/PictureGroup; Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect
Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Madonna

The MTV Video Music Awards have never really been about videos, or about awards. At their core, the VMAs are about which performer delivers the most memorable, mind-blowing moment of the night. With Miley Cyrus—who shed her Disney image for good at the 2013 ceremony—hosting this year’s show on Sunday, Aug. 30 at 9/8c, another one of those instances seems imminent. “Miley, in and of herself, is a one woman freak show,” says the show’s executive producer Van Toffler. “So I think she feels a lot of pressure to make it great.” Ahead of the big night, we look back at three iconic VMAs moments celebrating anniversaries this year—and the untold stories behind them.

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25 Years Ago: Madonna Gets Dangerous

Often recalled as the “Marie Antoinette” performance, Madonna’s game-changing 1990 rendition of her hit “Vogue” was based on the film Dangerous Liaisons, with Madge donning Michelle Pfeiffer’s actual dress from the movie. Luis Camacho and Jose Gutierez, both of whom danced on Madonna’s “Blonde Ambition” tour and choreographed and danced in the original “Vogue” video and VMA number, recall that unforgettable night.

Gutierez: At first, we were going to do another song, ’cause people were already sick of us doing this. We had already vogued all year. It was between “Keep it Together” and something else.

Camacho: The idea [for the “Vogue” performance] came about during a game of charades. During the last days of the tour, we were in the South of France, in Nice, and one of the charades was Dangerous Liaisons. I was sitting next to her, and Madonna goes, “You know, that’s very ‘Vogue.’ ”

Gutierez: For the choreography, I was trying to basically keep the same stuff that was in the chorus section [of the video]. Everyone remembers those counts of eight from the chorus. Voguing is very arrogant and very aristocratic with all this attitude, so I think the theme and the costumes made us emulate it even more.

Camacho: The only thing that had us a little nervous were the fans the women [dancers] had. At one point in the choreography, they flipped the fans in the air, and they’re supposed to catch them. At almost every rehearsal, somebody would drop the fan.

Madonna Vogue

Madonna performs “Vogue” in 1990.

Gutierez: Janet Jackson’s dancers also were performing that night, and there was always this Janet and Madonna competition throughout the years. Janet opened the show with “Black Cat” and we were closing the show, so we got to see them go on first. We were so amped because we were like, “Oh my God, they sucked! They were so bad!” We were like, “Oh, it’s in the bag!”

Camacho: We were also up for an award that night for best choreography.

Gutierez: I really wanted to win, but I knew that we weren’t going to. Madonna told us, “Don’t get your hopes up, because it’s very political in these awards ceremonies. They’re not going to give it to two young kids from the Lower East Side.” I was like, “You don’t know that!”

Camacho: By the time we went to perform, we [hadn’t won]. Standing offstage, Jose and I felt like, “We are about to show you why we should have gotten that award.” We always did a prayer circle before we went on stage. Madonna was like, “Let’s go out there and give it to them! Let’s serve it up, ladies and gentlemen!”

Gutierez: You can see our energy. It’s that moment when the curtain goes up and we are there, and everyone in the crowd just rises to their feet. I was jumping out of my skin.

Camacho: And no one dropped a fan! After they all caught it, we all clapped and breathed a sigh of relief. It was a nail-biter.

Gutierez: Talking about it now is like reliving those moments of being on stage—it gives you this rush of wanting to be the best and wanting to leave such an impression. It’s crazy because 25 years later, people still remember. I still get recognized on the street from this job that I did 25 years ago, and it feels so good.

15 Years Ago: Britney Goes Nude

Back in 2000, Britney Spears was just beginning to light a fire to her virginal schoolgirl uniform, and no moment was more emblematic of that than when she ripped off a suit to reveal a barely-there ensemble that gave the illusion of nudity. Designed by Kurt and Bart, the duo behind the most recent Hunger Games costumes, the look caused swift, national outrage. But the shocking reveal during her medley of “Oops! I Did It Again” and the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” didn’t go exactly as planned. While Spears was on stage walking down a spiral staircase, the Velcro on her pants began to come apart, revealing a peekaboo of skin on her right hip.

Chris Moss was the back-up dancer assigned to rip off the tear-away pants. From a pod on stage right, he was to reach out, grab her waist and inner thigh and pull. In rehearsals, he’d been timid to be so forceful with a celebrity of her stature. “We were working on it,” says Moss, “And finally she just looked at me and was like, ‘Look. Grab where you need to grab to rip this f—king thing off so it comes off when it’s supposed to.’ ”

But during the live show, he never got the chance. “In my head, I was going, ‘Oh s—t,’ ” he says. “Is she changing something up? What’s going on?”

Britney Spears performs in 2000.

Britney Spears performs in 2000.

To cover the mishap, Spears tore the pants straight off herself in a forward motion—not exactly a fluid movement. “You can tell that it was a struggle to get out of [the pants],” says Brandon Henschel, another one of Spears’ dancers in the performance. “That’s part of watching a live performance… you’re just going for it.”

The audience never knew the difference, and the next day, no one was talking about a wardrobe malfunction. Instead, they were talking about a sexual revolution. “She was smart enough to know what Madonna had done at the VMAs [in 1984, performing “Like a Virgin”], and she was raising the stakes,” says Rob Tannenbaum, coauthor of the book I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution. “‘Oops! I Did it Again’ is this teasing notion that you’re not really aware of what you’re doing… But you don’t come out and strip off your clothes down to a nude bodysuit unless your goal was to shock people and get them to talk about your sexuality.”

5 Years Ago: Lady Gaga Wears Meat

When artist Franc Fernandez showed up at his family butcher in L.A. declaring that he was making a dress for Lady Gaga and needed to know what type of meat would be best, Palermo Deli owner Danny Vega was dumbfounded. But he suggested what in Argentina is called matambre—a flank steak—because it wouldn’t break or bleed. And, being a friend of the family, he cut Fernandez a deal. Says Vega today, “I should have charged a lot more!”

Indeed, he couldn’t have foreseen that those slabs of beef would become one of the most talked about dresses of all time. Fernandez didn’t allow himself to think about the possible impact as he crafted the dress from about 40 pounds of meat, thick carpet-like thread and a bodice from a lingerie store—all in the two days leading up to the VMAs.

Lady Gaga in 2010.

Lady Gaga in 2010.

MTV producers didn’t know exactly what Gaga had planned—she wasn’t a performer that night—but Van Toffler, who spearheaded the VMAs for years while running the network, says they were suspicious. “We knew something was happening when we were asked to get her a separate dressing room, which we don’t typically do for people who are in the audience,” he says. “[But] her manager at that point, said, ‘Trust me, it’s something special.’”

That it was. The polarizing dress Gaga donned while accepting the award for video of the year greatly overshadowed musical numbers that night from the likes of Eminem, Rihanna, Taylor Swift and Kanye West, and it incited vitriolic backlash from animal rights activists. “I got so many emails that were threatening, like, ‘I’m going to skin you alive,’ stuff that’s pretty intense,” says Fernandez. “But I think I got a really good 50/50 [split] of people wanting to murder me and people loving me because I stirred so much s—t up.”

The dress proved a career launchpad for then 24-year-old Fernandez, who has since worked with Katy Perry and Beyoncé and is currently collaborating with hip-hop artist Vic Mensa. “It changed my life overnight,” he says. “I finally had a platform and an audience and a reaction.”

Preserved by taxidermy, the dress was displayed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland before touring the country in a special exhibit (the Hall of Fame still has the dress on loan, but is not currently displaying it). As for Vega, the butcher who at one point held the completed dress in one of his coolers for Fernandez, he has just one regret. “If I knew that it was going to be so famous,” he says, “I would have put it on and took a picture.”