In what became an instantly iconic moment of early 2000s pop culture, Britney Spears and Madonna share a passionate kiss at the MTV Video Music Awards on August 28, 2003.
MTV was hoping for a newsworthy performance when they invited Madonna to perform at that year's VMAs. The pop star headlined the very first VMAs in 1984, with a racy performance of her hit song "Like a Virgin," featuring her descending from a giant wedding cake in a white dress. For 2003, she planned an homage to her famous 1984 performance, with the added star-power of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Missy Elliot. The details of the performance were a secret until it was broadcast live on TV to 11 million households. During the dress rehearsal at Radio City Music Hall, Madonna even ordered everyone out of the theater so that no one would leak the details. Only a handful of MTV executives knew what Madonna had planned.
The performance began with Britney singing "Like a Virgin" in a reprise of Madonna's famous 1984 performance. Christina Aguilera joined in, and then Madonna herself appeared out of a wedding cake, dressed as a groom in a black top hat. Several minutes in, Madonna turned to kiss Britney and then Christina, her brides dressed in white. Although Madonna kissed Christina as well as Britney, the camera crew decided to cut away from the kiss with Christina to show the reactions from the audience in real time. The live reaction shots included the cast of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Eminem, Fifty Cent, Snoop Dog, Paris Hilton, Beyonce, Avril Levine, Kelly Osborne and especially Justin Timberlake. Timberlake, who went through a high-profile split from ex-girlfriend Spears the year before, reacted to the kiss with stony disapproval. After the kiss, Missy Elliot came on stage for a performance of her hit "Work It."
The kiss delighted some viewers and outraged others. It pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable on prime-time, live TV. MTV received hate mail from viewers who were disturbed by the performance—"from the older generation," according to MTV president Van Toffler. Toffler himself, however, was thrilled. About the kiss and the decision to cut to the live reaction shots, he said, "I think the beauty of the VMAs was the combustibility. You wanted to make it fun and semi-chaotic. That's what we did."