What It’s Like Working Backstage at the VMAs

The MTV VMAs are known for their outrageous moments. Sometimes they’re planned, like the Madonna and Britney Spears kiss that Christina Aguilera never got over, and sometimes they aren’t, like Kanye’s “I’mma let your finish” moment that Taylor Swift will never get over. But some of the most telling moments of the show happen off-camera, where the online streams are off-limits and celebrities get real. The audience never sees them. Although the stories get told within a certain segment of the music industry, the average Joe doesn’t hear a peep about them. But I do.

I worked at MTV for nearly a decade, in the music and talent department.

If you’ve never been backstage at an awards show, here’s what you need to know: celebrities come with their own handlers. A publicist for the red carpet and another record label exec for the show itself, usually a video or TV person who has a relationship with the network on which the awards show is airing. And then there are managers and personal PR folks in tow, along with the glam squad, depending on the celebrity’s level of involvement in the show. Performers get a dressing room and bring everyone. Presenters, not so much. At MTV, members of the music and talent department are assigned to talent for the VMAS. It’s their job to be with them at all times, make sure they are where they need to be, and keep things flowing smoothly. How challenging that is, from year to year, depends on who you are assigned.

My first VMAs were way back in 2003, at Radio City Music Hall. I volunteered to be Kylie Minogue’s talent escort. This was circa “Can’t Get You Outta My Head.” She was nominated for a few awards and presenting one right at the top of the show. It was an easy assignment. But nothing can prepare you for the crash course that is being in the live TV show. My most mortifying moment, which would have been a real disaster if Kylie weren’t so easygoing, was putting her in the VIP green room for the first segment and coming back to find a washed-up former SNL cast member trying to creep on her. Celebrities: they’re douches too! Also, the VIP green room is never very VIP. It’s where the celebrities who requested a ticket to the show but aren’t in it or relevant to the audience go to gawk at each other (yes, I do mean you, Pauly Shore).

My favorite story is one about Jay Z. Jay likes to mess with people. He’s unpredictable. There’s a reason the same lady is assigned to him for every major MTV event: she’s the Jay Z whisperer. But one year he was there simply to introduce Beyoncé before a performance, so they put an assistant in charge of him — an assistant who was a totally green and fresh-faced farm-boy type. It was his first VMAs. About five minutes before he was to go on live TV, he told the kid he wasn’t going on until he had a Snickers bar. He said it with a real straight face, too. That sounds like it shouldn’t be a problem; there are craft services at these things, and you are supposed to have a runner. In reality, your runner is MIA most of the time (off gawking at celebs) and craft services will have everything except the special request someone makes. The kid was thinking to himself, “I’m fucked.” So he hauled ass from Radio City to the Duane Reade next door and back. Jay and his entourage were very entertained. What else could he do, call Jay’s bluff? Not gonna happen.

Dealing with the hilarious jokes of millionaires when you’re a talent escort is one thing, but being charged with keeping tabs on a band is quite another. In my opinion, that is one of the worst jobs you can have, because guys (and they’re always guys) in bands tend to wander off. The year the Polyphonic Spree were on the VMAs, the powers that be put one person in charge of the enormous ensemble. She had to keep track of all of them, all of the time. The reason she got that nightmare assignment was because she did such a great job the year before when she was given The Hives, who were the most unreasonable group. They had no manager (meaning they had no adult supervision), and when they didn’t like the direction they were given, they tended to either pretend not to understand English or, when given a certain look by their singer, scatter in five different directions. How do you keep an eye on five men walking in five directions, let alone convince them to come back to the stage to rehearse? By pulling a miracle out of your ass.

Most of the public didn’t catch on to Kanye’s diva behavior until that Taylor incident in 2009. But some people caught a whiff of it in 2007, when he was first nominated for some VMAs. When Kanye didn’t win that year, he started screaming after the show at my co-worker, who was his talent escort. It was a full-on temper tantrum in which Ye berated him in the hallway of a Las Vegas casino. His anger was quite misdirected: that guy was the one who had brought Kanye’s music to the department and sold us all on him when The College Dropout came out. (You can read more about the incident here.)

It is probably more glamorous to watch a show on TV than it is to be backstage, trying to predict the whims of a musician or herd them to their mark. I can guarantee one thing: your feet hurt a lot less from a night on the couch than from a night of walking someone around the VMAs. Enjoy your mean tweets and your sweatpants: your couch genuinely has the best, most hassle-free view of the show.