Sex Thrives at the VMAs, Even When Audiences Aren't Amused

Content warning: this post mentions sexual assault.

Madonna's first performance of "Like a Virgin" should have been her undoing. At least that's what she was told. The singer, then 26, debuted the single at the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards in 1984. Dan Aykroyd and Bette Midler hosted the show. Cyndi Lauper was the most-nominated artist, and Herbie Hancock took home the most awards. But no one remembers that. What do they remember? Madonna wriggling on the floor in a lace bustier and tulle skirt. Her belt read, "Boy Toy."

Since its inception nearly four decades ago, the VMAs have been the bad boy of award shows, a place where stars would party, feud, and sometimes find common ground. "It was very different than your father's music business," MTV cofounder John Sykes told Uproxx in 2015. "We saw an opening for a counterculture awards show that would not follow the rules of the traditional ceremonies people were used to seeing."

The show has also always been sexy. Several skin-baring outfits and performance stunts come to mind, but rarely are these displays lacking meaning: many have used sexuality at the show to reclaim power, make feminist statements, or assert independence.

It began that very first year, with Madonna and a lost stiletto. The performance started out with the pop icon slithering down a three-tiered cake, but as she neared the stage, her shoe slipped off. "So I thought, 'Well, I'll just pretend I meant to do this,' and I dove onto the floor and I rolled around," Madonna said on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" in 2012. "And as I reached for the shoe, the dress went up. And the underpants were showing. I didn't mean to."

Viewers at the time were sensationalized. Madonna's team was scrambling, and her manager, Freddy DeMann, claimed her career would be over. "I couldn't compute everything that had happened," Madonna said, "and since I didn't really have a career yet, I didn't feel like I had lost anything." That wasn't, of course, how things went. In fact, when "Like a Virgin" hit the Billboard Hot 100 a few months later, it would stay at No. 1 for six weeks.

Subsequent performers have attempted to re-create that must-see moment to varying degrees of success: Lil' Kim and purple pasties in 1999; Britney Spears and her python in 2001; Normani and Teyana Taylor in 2021. Even Madonna tried to outdo herself in 2003, with help from Spears and Christina Aguilera.

Stars' antics at the VMAs haven't, however, always been well received. MTV was especially under fire in 2004: less than a year prior, Madonna kissed Spears and Aguilera on stage in the award-show opener, and then came Janet Jackson's beleaguered wardrobe malfunction during the Super Bowl halftime show, which the network produced.

Conservative viewers had it with MTV. Complaints rolled in to the Federal Communications Commission. The American Family Association called for boycotts of MTV sponsors. "MTV is blatantly targeting our children with shows that constantly encourage a message of sexual promiscuity, dishonesty, drunkenness, rudeness, rebellion, and profane language," AFA chairman Don Wildmon said at the time.

MTV didn't shirk the backlash, which one might expect from a network that prides itself on subverting the status quo. Following its season of acute controversy, MTV reportedly nixed potentially sensitive segments, and labels pulled back on provocative music videos. "Laguna Beach" almost didn't happen after the school board started to have second thoughts. An MTV spokesperson acknowledged the criticism, telling Rolling Stone, "We have to pay attention to what's happening in the culture."

But where was the outrage when men performers asserted sexuality? Why weren't there news cycles devoted to Eminem grabbing at his crotch for the near entirety of his performance of "The Real Slim Shady" in 2000? And why did Miley Cyrus receive vitriol for twerking at the 2013 VMAs but not the (much-older) Robin Thicke for suggestively standing behind her? "Even people around me really judged me," Cyrus said years later in The New York Times. "People that I really loved and thought were my friends judged me for it."

Cyrus questioned the lack of criticism her coperformer received. "It was funny, because I got so much of the heat for it, but that's just being a woman. He acted like he didn't know that was going to happen. You were in rehearsals! You knew exactly what was going to happen." She also claimed it was Thicke who picked out her infamous outfit — a nude latex bra and underwear — because it matched the nudity in his (now-maligned) "Blurred Lines" music video. "He wanted me as naked as possible," Cyrus said.

Thicke just laughed it off. "The whole point was to excite and provoke and entertain," he told Star a few weeks after the award show. "I thought it was silly and funny. She was being humorous and naughty. But it wasn't sexually charged at all."

The unfortunate reality is that as fun and flirty as the VMAs are, there is a dark side. One of the most memorable outfits to appear at the award show consisted of a black thong and sheer dress worn by Rose McGowan in 1998. It was viewed as a provocative, boundary-pushing stunt, but it was actually a form of protest against Harvey Weinstein, who had allegedly assaulted her the year prior.

"That was my first public appearance after being sexually assaulted. I was like, 'Is this what you want?'" McGowan said on "The Dr. Oz Show" in 2018. "I've never worn something like that before or since. That was a political statement. Of course, there was no Twitter at the time or Instagram, no way to speak for yourself."

(It's worth noting McGowan attended the VMAs that year with her boyfriend at the time, Marilyn Manson, who now faces allegations of abuse and sexual assault. "I am profoundly sad today and disgusted," McGowan said in an Instagram video following the Manson allegations. "When he was with me, he was not like that, but that has no bearing on whether he was like that with others before or after." In her caption, McGowan wrote, "When I say Hollywood is a cult, I mean the Entertainment industry including the music industry is a cult. Cult's [sic] protect the rot at the top.")

There's no denying the VMAs, along with award shows in general, has lost some of its spectacle in recent years. Viral moments are harder for attendees to achieve, and the pandemic certainly didn't help, with the 2020 award show done completely virtually. Even then, viewership was higher that year than in 2021, which saw the number of those who tuned in dip below one million for the first time ever. (In contrast, the 2011 VMAs, which had the highest viewership, brought in over 12 million viewers.)

The show is, however, seeing growth in social engagement and cross-platform viewership, in line with changing media habits. And sex appeal is still thriving. At least year's show, Megan Fox solidified her return to the spotlight with a new addition to the naked-dress canon. Later on in the evening, Normani gave Taylor a gravity-defying lap dance in a tribute to Jackson. So the show isn't getting any tamer, but viewers may be growing desensitized.

Ahead of the 2022 MTV VMAs on Aug. 28, look back at some of the show's sexiest moments to date.

01
Madonna's "Like a Virgin" Performance at the 1984 MTV VMAs
Getty | New York Daily News Archive

Madonna's "Like a Virgin" Performance at the 1984 MTV VMAs

Madonna kicked off the very first MTV Video Music Awards in 1984 with a provocative performance of "Like a Virgin," which began with her emerging from a cake and ended with her thrashing on the floor in an indiscernible pile of white tulle. The moment would solidify Madonna's sex-symbol status and set the tone for future award shows.

02
Prince's Butt-Baring Pants at the 1991 MTV VMAs
Getty | Frank Micelotta Archive

Prince's Butt-Baring Pants at the 1991 MTV VMAs

Always the irreverent dresser, Prince performed "Gett Off" at the 1991 VMAs wearing a yellow suit with a cutout at each butt cheek. As it turns out, however, the outfit was an illusion: fabric dyer Marliss Jensen, who often worked with Prince and dyed this particular outfit, told Pioneer Press in 2017 the butt panel was actually just flesh-colored fabric. "That yellow suit — his 'butt suit' — did not show his butt," she said. "That was fabric."

03
Rose McGowan's Naked Dress at the 1998 MTV VMAs
Getty | Jeff Kravitz

Rose McGowan's Naked Dress at the 1998 MTV VMAs

McGowan's mesh dress, designed by Maja Hanson, at the 1998 VMAs was used as a symbol — a reclamation of power after being sexually assaulted. "Most of the women that are dressed like that on the red carpet, it's a calculated, sexy move to turn people on," McGowan told Yahoo Entertainment in 2020. "Mine was like, 'I'm gonna f*ck with your brain. I'm going to blow your brain up.'"

Iterations of this dress have since appeared on many red carpets, and Amber Rose paid homage by wearing a silver version of the dress to the VMAs in 2014. Rose thanked McGowan in a subsequent tweet, calling her a "fabulous trendsetter" and "truly my inspiration tonight."

04
Lil' Kim's Purple Pastie at the 1999 MTV VMAs
Getty | Scott Gries

Lil' Kim's Purple Pastie at the 1999 MTV VMAs

Another memorable VMAs fashion moment comes from Kim, who attended the 1999 show wearing a purple one-sleeved jumpsuit exposing one breast, which had on it a seashell pastie. "I wanted to make something really ornate and feminine and pretty, to offset the fact that she had one breast out," Kim's stylist, Misa Hylton, previously told POPSUGAR. She also revealed Missy Elliott had inspired the idea and encouraged Kim to make a bold statement.

What's also remembered about the evening is the moment when Kim joined Diana Ross and Mary J. Blige on stage to present the award for best hip-hop video. It was then that Ross famously jiggled Kim's breast. Kim later referred to it as a "motherly tap" in an interview with Carson Daly.

05
Britney Spears's Performances at the 2000 and 2001 MTV VMAs
Getty | Scott Gries

Britney Spears's Performances at the 2000 and 2001 MTV VMAs

Spears ushered in a new millennium of music at the VMAs. In 2000, Spears offered a slowed-down cover of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" before stripping off her sparkly pinstripe suit to perform "Oops! . . . I Did It Again" in nude, crystal-adorned separates. The performance was a turning point and a departure from the girl-next-door persona put forth with her debut album. Spears would return the following year with even more star power, performing "I'm a Slave 4 U" with an albino python draped on her shoulders.

07
Beyoncé and JAY-Z's "Crazy in Love" Performance at the 2003 MTV VMAs
Getty | Kevin Kane

Beyoncé and JAY-Z's "Crazy in Love" Performance at the 2003 MTV VMAs

Beyoncé ushered in her solo career at the 2003 VMAs, where she delivered a seductive performance of "Baby Boy," which then transitioned into "Crazy in Love," featuring JAY-Z. The two had begun dating in 2000 but would keep their relationship fairly private for many years before making their official red carpet debut at the 2004 VMAs. Beyoncé and JAY-Z got married in 2008 and now share three children. Even in this early performance, their chemistry was clear.

08
Madonna Kisses Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the 2003 MTV VMAs
Getty | Kevin Kane

Madonna Kisses Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the 2003 MTV VMAs

It all came full circle at the 2003 VMAs. On the heels of her "American Life" album, Madonna tapped Spears and Aguilera to open the show with a re-creation of the 1984 "Like a Virgin" performance that started it all. Madonna then appeared at the top of a cake once again, this time dressed as a groom, and joined her two pop-star brides. The trio tangoed to "Hollywood" before Madonna planted one on Spears and Aguilera, visibly surprising many stars in attendance, including Spears's ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake.

Because of the cut to Timberlake, however, it's often forgotten that Aguilera partook in the performance. Aguilera referred to it as a "cheap shot" in a 2018 interview with Andy Cohen. "I definitely saw the newspaper the next day, and I was like, 'Oh, well. I guess I got left out of that,'" she said. "Everything happened so quickly back then, and everything was in a whirlwind."

09
Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" Performance at the 2013 MTV VMAs
Getty | Theo Wargo

Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" Performance at the 2013 MTV VMAs

Cyrus wanted to mark a new chapter at the 2013 VMAs. She had shed her Disney Channel persona, and the single she performed at the show, "We Can't Stop," catered to listeners who had also grown up with her and were now clutching red cups. After performing the party anthem, Cyrus joined Thicke in performing his song "Blurred Lines."

They teased each other. She twerked. Viewers cringed. And though Cyrus says she received the brunt of the backlash, it would be Thicke who would later recede into infamy following a messy divorce and revelations about his treatment of Ratajkowski on the set of the "Blurred Lines" music video.

10
Normani's Janet Jackson Homage at the 2021 MTV VMAs
Getty | Michael Loccisano

Normani's Janet Jackson Homage at the 2021 MTV VMAs

Normani had to come up with something sexy for her debut performance of "Wild Side," which took place during the 2021 VMAs. After coasting through complicated choreography, the singer, dressed in silver, gave a lap dance to surprise guest Taylor, who was strapped to a board. The moment was an homage to Jackson, who did the same routine when she performed "Would You Mind" during her "All For You" Tour in 2001.

11
Megan Fox's Naked Dress at the 2021 MTV VMAs
Getty | Kevin Mazur/MTV VMAs 2021

Megan Fox's Naked Dress at the 2021 MTV VMAs

Fox somehow offered a new take on the naked dress at the 2021 VMAs. After a string of striking red carpet appearances with her now-fiancé, Machine Gun Kelly, the actor attended the show wearing a sheer Mugler dress. With her wet hair and the dress's crystal illusion, Fox looked like a mermaid arriving onto the red carpet straight from the ocean. The idea was apparently Kelly's: "He was like, 'You're gonna be naked tonight,'" Fox told Entertainment Tonight. "I was like, 'Whatever you say, daddy!'"