This weekend, Britney Spears is set to grace the Video Music Awards' stage for the first time in nine years. Many critics consider Spears the queen of the award show, thanks to several historic dance numbers she performed throughout the 1990s and 2000s. She danced with NSYNC in a classroom, stripped to "Oops!… I Did It Again," writhed with a snake while lip-synching "I'm a Slave 4 U," and sucked face with Madonna.
At her last VMA performance in 2007, Spears forgot to lip-synch parts of "Gimme More." MTV had billed the show as a Spears comeback after four years away from the music industry that included marrying a white rapper, two rehab stints, shaving her head, and many bad wigs. Spears sabotaged the performance. Critics considered her career dead, but the fiasco launched Spears's most critically-acclaimed album, Blackout. The album brought dubstep and other then alternative sounds to pop radio, leading Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield to call the record "the most influential album of the past five years."
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Spears rebounded, releasing several commercially successful albums and a Las Vegas residency show that made her one of the highest paid musicians of the past two years without releasing an album. But fans still obsess over her VMA performances of the past decade, wondering what happened behind the scenes. Backup dancer Aminah Abdul Jillil performed with Spears during three of her VMA showcases: her first VMA in 1999 with NSYNC, her "I'm a Slave 4 U" snake dance in 2001, and the 2007 "Gimme More" debacle. She has also worked with Janet Jackson and as Spears's background dancer on her 2001 Dream Within a Dream Tour, 2004 promo portion of the Onyx Hotel Tour, and the 2012 Femme Fatale Tour. Spears fans love Jillil. She spoke to Broadly about the behind the scenes of Spears's infamous VMA appearances.
Broadly: When did you first perform with Spears?
Aminah Abdul Jillil: It would be '99. My first job with her was her first VMA performance in '99. That was my first job with her and how I got that was the choreographer Wade Robson was her choreographer at the time, and my sister and I used to train in his dance class. When he was set to choreograph the VMAs for her, he called us and asked us if we wanted to do it. Oh my God, he called us at home, we were just—that was our first major job—and we were just so excited, so excited.
How did the 1999 VMAs differ from the 2001 and 2007 shows?The first two were both choreographed by Wade Robson. Each time, the stakes were up. The first time, of course, they made history with her classroom style performance and her choreography. The second time the stakes were up even further, where we're all painted like jungle animals. She had a snake, there were tigers in the cage—twice the number of dancers. Each time the level of production got even better.
The third one was a little different because I think she hadn't performed at the VMAs in a while. In 2007 they were using her performance as the headliner, so the stakes were really high. Because it was the first time it was in Vegas, her team consulted with a magician, Criss Angel. He'd even come into our rehearsals because they were planning to have some sort of magic trick reveal. It didn't end up working, but they put a lot into that performance because it was her first time back in a while. I would have to say out of all of them that was my favorite one.
Why was 2007 your favorite?
Just because of the performance. I enjoyed that performance most out of the three—not to say I didn't enjoy the others, but that one was my favorite because of the production.
Did she rehearse for "Gimme More?"
She rehearsed a lot with us. I remember for that one more so we rehearsed first. They got us underway first with all the choreography because we did rehearse a long time for the 2007 one. I believe it was like three weeks—three or four weeks. If I can remember, it was the first two weeks was just the dancers, and then once they got us set, they brought her in.
Was she supposed to wear what she wore? There had been so many rumors about why she wore underwear.
From my understanding—we're never involved in the wardrobe process—so what she wore on stage, I thought that was the outfit.
Did you have a lot of interaction with her in the earlier days?
The earlier days more so than the later days. Of course, on all occasions she's a part of the rehearsal process, but we did outside things, a lot of outside things. At the end of our first tour, the Dream Within a Dream, all of the girls—because there were four girl dancers and four boy dancers—we all got together, and she invited us to her house for a day of movies and lunch and that kind of thing. There were more personal interactions earlier on. Toward my second time around with her [on the Femme Fatale Tour], we did things like spa days, where she would rent out a spa for all of us to go enjoy the spa. She would come in—of course very sweet and she would interact with us in rehearsals—but it stopped there. There was not any personal things after.
What's it like working with Spears versus other pop stars you've worked with?
I would have to say she was my favorite because of everything that was involved. At the time, the caliber of artist that she was brought along great production, great costumes—you're treated well. So each time I worked with her it was always the best of jobs because you get the four-star treatment.
Why do you think her VMA performances have been so memorable?
Because she's had the best working with her, just topnotch production, choreographers. Each time she was always the best because of everything surrounding her, and she worked extremely hard, extremely hard for those performances.