20 Years After the Iconic Madonna-Britney VMAs Kiss, an MTV Producer Tells All
In the hours that directly followed the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards on Aug. 28 in New York City, Madonna was on a plane to Scotland. Earlier in the evening, she had opened the show with a performance of her new single “Hollywood,” accompanied by Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Madonna dressed as a groom, while Spears and Aguilera were her brides. Madonna shared a kiss with each pop star in the middle of the performance. And then she went to Scotland.
A few weeks later, Madonna went on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show and expressed being surprised by how much attention the kiss had gotten. “I’ve been oblivious until this moment,” she said. “I had no idea that it was going to cause the ruckus that it caused. It was just a friendly kiss.” Wearing a houndstooth skirt suit, she claimed, “I don’t know why people are making such a big deal about it.” Winfrey, the master of the celebrity interview, pushed back: “You really don’t?”
At the time, Madonna pointed out that there’s no big deal about two girls kissing. True. But it wasn’t just two girls kissing: it was the Queen of Pop kissing the other two most famous pop stars on the planet at that time, with hundreds of celebrities (and a notable ex-boyfriend) watching. This year marks the 20-year anniversary of that memorable award show moment. MTV, award shows, and fame itself have all changed, but “the kiss” remains iconic. In fact, Spears re-created the kiss with Madonna for a photo taken at her own wedding in 2022. The year prior, a photograph of the kiss was auctioned as an NFT (whatever that means).
A lot else happened at that award show, including Beyoncé’s debut performance as a solo artist, during which she was joined by JAY-Z, whom she was rumored to be dating at the time. Even in that very opening performance, Missy Elliott popped up at the end to perform “Work It,” wearing a tracksuit tux. But the kiss set the tone.
“Award shows are won and lost in the first five minutes,” producer Alex Coletti told POPSUGAR. “If you start a show with uncertainty, you will get an uncertain show. If you start a show with negative energy, you will get a negative, so I think that this open really launched one of our best shows.”
Coletti produced the VMAs from 1999 to 2003, and was a co-executive producer in 2004. “I wouldn’t trade that era for any other in that show or in MTV’s history,” Coletti said. “That was the best time to be there.”
In honor of the 20th anniversary of the kiss on Aug. 28, we asked Coletti all our most pressing questions, from the planning process to the aftermath. “Let’s see what I could remember from 20 years ago,” Coletti said at the start of our interview. Here’s what followed.
POPSUGAR: Thinking back on the shows of that time, the VMAs were very much in its heyday. Did you feel pressure to continually outdo yourselves?
Alex Coletti: I don’t think we felt pressure. It was a time where that show in particular was taking all of pop culture, throwing it in the blender, and coming up with some crazy cocktail that no one else has. Everyone at MTV was creative, no matter what department they were in. It was never pressure, at least for me, because we were in such a great time for music, for staging. The show hadn’t outgrown Radio City yet, which I felt was the perfect home for it.
When you look at that particular audience in 2003, it was incredible. Great things are going to happen when you put all those people in a room.
PS: Describe some of what the initial planning conversations were like for the 2003 VMAs. How early on in the process was Madonna picked to open the show?
AC: She had a new song and a new record, and it was the 20th anniversary [of the MTV VMAs]. There’s a weird thing at MTV, especially then, where you don’t give out your age and you don’t look backwards. MTV had to be eternally new, eternally young, eternally creative. You didn’t want to be someone’s generation – it had to be youth culture for every age, every year. The audience could change age, but the channel couldn’t.
Acknowledging 20 was something we had to really talk about. How big a nod can we do? What’s that balance between keeping it fresh and relevant and in the moment, and how much are we allowed to wink back?
So we didn’t do too much. We bookended the show: we opened with a nod to Madonna’s 1984 performance of “Like a Virgin,” and we closed with Metallica doing a medley of songs throughout the history of MTV. We stayed in the year and we stayed in the moment because we had to. Even when we did look back, we did it by bringing in current artists like Christina and Britney and Missy. Even our looks back were updates and refreshes in a way.
PS: The “Like a Virgin” homage – was that an MTV idea, or a Madonna idea?
AC: We called Madonna with that, and she was very receptive. When you talk about the most iconic moments in the history of the VMAs, that’s the top of the list, or at least at that time was. It’s funny how now the tribute to that moment may have topped that moment on that list. I think more people will remember the kiss now than the original. We were able to really supersize it a bit. We had that tremendous wedding cake. I can’t tell you how many conversations I do remember about how big can we make the cake without it crippling the entire production.
PS: Did you end up reaching the limit for how big the cake could be?
AC: That was the limit to get it in and out of stage doors and elevators. And we kept it out for Chris Rock’s entrance partly because it gave him an entrance, but partly because there was no way to get rid of it until the first commercial break.
PS: At what point did Britney and Christina get added? And what was the thinking behind that?
AC: We wanted to re-create the opening, but we knew we couldn’t just have Madonna do it again. So how do you put a spin on it? Who’s the Madonna of today? And at that point it’s Britney and/or Christina. That was pretty much a given.
I love how Madonna dressed like the groom – how she subverted that role – because that changed her role in the performance, and then Missy doesn’t come out until after the kiss, but she’s also dressed more as a groom or a groomsman.
Once we got the basics, it happened separately from us. They were rehearsing in LA, and that’s when we would get calls about, “The cake. The cake. How big the cake? The cake.” Mostly about the cake.
We knew that it would be a medley because she had a new track. Upon rewatching it, it was a shame that it wasn’t one of the years that the show was in LA, because the song “Hollywood” does feel a bit out of place in Radio City, but in the moment, I don’t think anyone cared. She could have done anything in that moment.
PS: I mean this very respectfully, but the song is a bit of an afterthought. I bet if you polled people and asked what she performed that year, they probably wouldn’t remember.
AC: Everyone will swear that the kiss happened during “Like a Virgin,” which it didn’t. We’d already moved past that by the time Madonna came out, and then Missy’s the only one to perform her own song, and she did “Work It.” Christina and Britney didn’t get to do any of their own songs, although they clearly had hits at the time.
It was truly an homage, but it was cool that Missy got her own moment within that as well. I refer to that as a female Mount Rushmore. We had the four of them up there, and in that moment, they were arguably four of the most famous female singers on the planet.
PS: Jennifer Lopez has since said that she was asked to perform, but then couldn’t because of scheduling conflicts, and then Christina got added. Is that true?
AC: I don’t recall that, but it doesn’t mean it’s not true. Jennifer was part of our universe in a big way, so there could have been a couple of conversations. But I do think the combination of Brit and Christina, when you look at it, feels inevitable and right.
PS: Pink and Gwen Stefani are a few other names that have been thrown out over the years as being approached.
AC: I remember Gwen. I do, but it’s not like we came and said, “This is the idea fully baked.” We had some thoughts and names, but then you have to run them by Madonna firstly – see who she’s excited about, comfortable with, and then who’s available.
PS: When it came time for rehearsals, how much did production know about the kiss being a thing that was going to happen?
AC: We were in Radio City while they were still rehearsing in LA. And then two or three days prior to the show, we were in rehearsals and just living at Radio City, and I remember getting a call on my cell phone from [choreographer] Jamie King, who said, “Hey, how do you feel about them kissing?” And I was like, “I feel pretty good, but let me talk to my bosses.” I walked over to the production table and said, “So, this is interesting: Britney and Madonna are going to kiss.” And everyone was like, “OK.”
PS: And there was no pushback from the network?
AC: We were the network. The beautiful thing about the MTV Awards is you are the governing body of the award show, you are the production company, you are the network. We made decisions that crossed all those lines, and I don’t think there’s any other award show that’s like that. It makes for quick answers, you know?
PS: Did you know at that time that it was going to be such a thing?
AC: No. On a show like this, there’s so many moments that you’re excited about and can’t wait to see. The thing that made that moment is the audience. It’s the reaction from Justin [Timberlake]. It’s the reaction of the “Queer Eye” guys. The brilliance of our director, Beth McCarthy-Miller, was nailing those shots live in that moment and knowing exactly who was going to respond.
“The viral moment – before that term even existed – was the audience’s response to it.”
She felt out that audience and saw the “Queer Eye” guys were up and singing and kept a camera with them. Obviously Justin, with his relationship with Britney, that was going to be an interesting moment. It almost looks like he knew, because he kind of foreshadowed it. He gives that eyebrow into the camera prior to the kiss, but he looks truly surprised when it happens so I don’t think he did know. The viral moment – before that term even existed – was the audience’s response to it.
PS: The cut to Justin does eclipse Christina’s moment. Was there any guilt for that?
AC: It happened so quick, and I do feel bad for Christina, although she killed it vocally. Like, she’s Christina, right? But yeah, she did get shortchanged, and I always felt bad about that. She also had a performance later in the show, and maybe that went into the thinking, but I doubt it. It’s just cutting a live show like that, it’s pretty intense.
PS: What was the energy like among the production team?
AC: We reacted the same way the “Queer Eye” guys did. We were up and laughing and just having the time of our lives in the truck, because it was going so well.
The minute you go live on a show like this, there’s this immense relief like, “We’re doing it finally. We’ve been talking about this thing for a year. Here it is.” But then for it to start off so epically and to go so smoothly. It’s not like the Janet [Jackson] moment, which was a mistake. [Editor’s note: Coletti was a producer of the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.] It was going according to how it was rehearsed, so that’s a great feeling.
PS: What kind of statement do you think Madonna was trying to make with the kiss?
AC: Look, I think partly she was promoting a new song. As important to her in that moment was getting “Hollywood” out there. I don’t want to suppose anything for Madonna, but I think she was just doing what Madonna does best, which is pushing some buttons and having some fun.
PS: We talked a bit about Christina getting eclipsed, but it’s also easy to forget that this was the show where Beyoncé and JAY-Z perform “Crazy in Love” together.
AC: Oh my god. That performance – still one of my favorites. I think that was right in the middle of the show, too. We landed that right at 9:30 or something like that. That was the plan: that’s going to be the height of the show right there.
PS: Were any performers concerned about outdoing the kiss?
AC: I don’t think any of the other performers saw Madonna’s performance until it happened. Everyone had something up their sleeves. Everyone did a great job.
Without seeing an audience react to that kiss, it was just a piece of choreography. Remember, Madonna rolled around on the floor the first time she did this. It was no more outrageous than that. In fact, I think it was tamer.
PS: It is still pretty provocative, that original “Like a Virgin” performance.
AC: That performance set the tone for years of VMA performances being able to be out there and creative and push boundaries. I think this was a celebration of that moment.
“It was a good day for MTV.”
PS: What can you recall about the reaction and coverage in the days that followed?
AC: I don’t remember any negative press. I produced the Super Bowl halftime show with Janet, so if I compare and contrast those experiences . . . There was no backlash, there was no negativity. We were all feeling pretty great about it, as far as I know.
I do think with Christina, it got back to us that she maybe felt a little bad. We felt bad for that. We never want an artist to leave the show not feeling awesome about it, but she also had her other performance that I think she did really well on. I’m hoping overall it was a great experience for her, but that might have been the one thing that got back to me was, “Yeah, Christina’s a little bummed.”
We never got called into anyone’s office. We never got called into the principal’s office. No one got in trouble. It was a good day for MTV, overall.
PS: If the kiss happened now, in 2023, how do you think it would land?
AC: It’s harder to shock people. I don’t think it would be a thing at all, quite honestly.
PS: I watch and cover practically every award show, and I do still look forward to them, but it does seem like they have lost some excitement. Why do you think that is?
AC: Access to stars has changed. Back in those days, sometimes an award show was the only time you got to hear a celebrity speak out of character, especially if it’s an actor or an actress. Award show podium moments were one of the few places where you would get to hear them in their natural voice. (And spoiler alert: someone wrote that copy for them, so it wasn’t even their natural voice.) Once reality programming and the internet became ubiquitous, we knew everything about these celebrities.
Other than what they’re wearing, there’s not much that’s going to surprise us or make their moment at the podium, unless it’s a really creative pairing or they’re giving an award that has meaning to them.
It makes award shows harder because we now spend much more time in our celebrities’ real life than we did back then. Back then, award shows were an occasion to see your favorite star out of character. Now you can do that on 10 different platforms.
PS: Do you miss working on the VMAs?
AC: Oh man, I miss the group of people I got to work with, both at MTV and the talent. Those artists were people we knew because of our headquarters and “TRL.” Chris Rock was in the building all the time. We all knew each other. We would be like, “I have a VMA idea. Let me run down to ‘TRL’ today because Justin’s on the show. Let me just run something by.” There were those kind of things that could just happen. We were in business with these artists throughout the whole year.
It was such a great creative shorthand and trust with people. I don’t know where that exists now.
PS: I miss “TRL.”
AC: You always knew what time it was because when 3 o’clock when they raised the curtain, I would hear a roar. I was up on the 24th floor but I knew it was 3 o’clock.
PS: Were you at all tuned in to the #FreeBritney movement?
AC: Britney was someone I didn’t have a lot of conversations with, but the one moment I will always remember was standing next to her behind the curtain at Radio City. Someone put a huge python on her shoulder, and I saw her fear at rehearsal [for the 2001 VMAs]. I said, “Are you OK? Are you sure you want to do this?” And she said, “Yeah, I can do this.” And I was like, “Damn.”
I was so impressed with her professionalism, and when I look at the Madonna moment – her vocals, her dancing – she’s an artist in control of herself.
In that moment in 2003, I wasn’t aware of any issues. Obviously later on, seeing the documentaries and feeling horrible for how she was treated. I’m just happy that she’s on the other side of that now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.