One of the most memorable television moments in history happened in 2003 when Madonna and Britney Spears shared a kiss onstage during the opening ceremony of the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs). It was such an iconic moment that people still talk about it, even 20 years later. What everyone seems to forget, however, is that Christina Aguilera was there, too, and that she also shared a kiss with the Material Girl.
A planned moment on stage
For the 20th anniversary of the MTV Video Music Awards, the opening performance had to be memorable, and what better way to make it so than by bringing back the artist whose performance at the first-ever ceremony skyrocketed her to legendary status: Madonna.
The 2003 performance was a rendition of “Like a Virgin” and “Hollywood,” and she was accompanied by two of the biggest pop artists of the time, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. The latter two had a long-running feud, so the performance sparked interest before it even occurred.
“Really, I think everyone wanted Britney and Christina,” recalled Alex Colleti, producer for the 2003 MTV VMAs. However, their feud was set aside to make the performance perfect. “I thought it was great to see them both up there together,” Colleti continued. “I sensed no rivalry between them in that experience, and it wasn’t positioned in the performance that way.”
While their feud may have increased interest in the opening ceremony, it was the kiss that became the highlight of the show. Long before the trio hit the stage, choreographers had planned for Madonna to kiss both Spears and Aguilera. It was never intended to be a controversial moment, but that’s exactly what it became.
Panning to Justin Timberlake
Britney Spears was the first to smooch with Madonna. In the live broadcast, a decision occurred that made the audience unaware that Christina Aguilera also kissed the Material Girl. During the telecast, the show’s director, Beth McCarthy-Miller, made the game-time decision to cut away from Spears and Madonna kissing to see the reaction of the former’s ex-beau, Justin Timberlake. By doing so, she robbed Aguilera’s kiss of airtime.
It was certainly a good idea, as Timberlake gave the camera (and audiences) exactly what they wanted. He sat there, scowling.
“He probably was p****d 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 explained. “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.”
Coletti has no regrets about McCarthy-Miller’s decision, saying, “If I had to do it all over again, I’d tell Beth to take the same shot.”
Christina Aguilera’s response
While the choice to pan to Justin Timberlake benefitted ratings, it snubbed Christina Aguilera from being a part of the moment. Coletti explained, “The tricky thing was you couldn’t go from that reaction shot and get back to Christina in time.”
However, it was a different time, and Aguilera likely had no clue what had happened.
“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 said. “I can’t imagine that in between her first and second performances, someone told Christina that they’d missed her shot. She came off that stage feeling great about both performances — and then maybe the next day had some new thoughts.”
Aguilera’s manager at the time, Irving Azoff, was unimpressed with the snub and requested a re-edit for the ceremony’s re-runs that included her part of the kiss.
“In the edit, we did slide it a little bit. I think for repeats, there was probably a better version,” Coletti explained. “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.”
Aguilera herself was disappointed in the outcome, calling the decision to pan to Justin Timberlake “predictable” and “pathetic,” believing they were trying to push controversy around his and Britney Spears’ breakup. She also openly claimed that Spears lip-synced the performance, while she and Madonna sang live.
Unfortunately for Aguilera, history will remember this particular moment without her. “It was never about how Madonna kissed Britney and Christina. It was always known as the ‘Britney/Madonna kiss.'” Coletti said – and it’s likely to remain that way.