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As Britney Spears’ 2001 VMA Performance Turns 20, Snake Handler Shares History

In the history of the MTV Video Music Awards, a few performances stand out as emblematic.

Lady Gaga was suspended from the ceiling covered in fake blood, Beyoncé dropped the microphone and revealed her baby bump and Madonna sailed in full Marie-Antoinette trail. But nothing can compare to Britney Spears with this snake.

Twenty years ago this week, the pop icon rocked the world with his sultry performance during a jungle-themed version of “I’m a Slave 4 U,” with a huge snake coiled around it. of his body. Every aspect of this performance is steeped in pop culture history, from her sparkling navel piercing to her fearlessness holding the python.

The Snake Manager who helped bring that iconic moment to life says that upon entering VMAs that night, he really had no idea who Britney Spears was, despite Spears being one of the pop stars. the most famous of the time.

Britney Spears on stage at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards.Scott Gries / Getty Images

“I barely knew who Britney Spears was,” Michael Hano said TODAY. “I don’t really know about pop culture and stuff at all. I mean, I worked with some of the most famous models or people in the world and didn’t know who they were until after.

Today, Hano is still working in the reptile and amphibian business, mainly providing owners with frozen rodents as food.

“I kind of heard about her because you were going to supermarkets back then, waiting in line and they had all these tabloid magazines,” he said. declared. “That was before the internet really existed, so I knew she was like a teenage pop star or something, but like I said, I wouldn’t have known any of her songs or whatever. whether it be.”

Hired for the event via an agent, Hano didn’t actually own the snake that performed with Spears on stage that night. Borrowed from one of his contacts, the snake has since often been labeled as an albino Burmese python with the name Banana – the two things Hano says are not true.

Spears and the Snake during a rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera House on September 6, 2001 in New York City. Dave Hogan / Getty Images

“It’s an amelanic Burmese python, not albino, because the albino lacks all the pigments and this guy lacks only black pigments, so it’s amelanic,” explained Hano, who was previously president of the New York Herpetological Society. “Totally albino would be all white.”

As for the snake’s name, he doesn’t remember it, but he knows it wasn’t Banana.

“People love to make things up,” he said.

“They were a very popular and common breed in the pet trade,” he said, adding that playing with a snake like this can be risky. “They’re getting too big for most people to keep them properly. So at this point they’re illegal in New York State without a license and downright illegal in New York as they should be. “

While not sure who she was, Hano said immediately after the VMAs that night he knew he was part of something special.

“Living in Manhattan, I got the job done and hopped on a train,” he said. “I had the snake in a cooler and when I returned to my building there were children hanging out on the front steps. They knew I was handling animals and stuff, they had nicknames for me, actually.

“I was going up the stairs and the kids were like, ‘Oh, you see what Britney Spears just did?’ I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, the snake? I just did that. I’m coming home now. I have the snake in this cooler right here. They didn’t believe me, so I took out the snake and the kids started taking pictures of him.

Dave Hogan / Getty Images

The next morning, while moving his car, Hano saw the front page of the newspaper, which had not only Spears on it, but the snake as well.

“All these people are sitting in their cars reading the paper and I see on the front page they have pictures of Britney Spears with that goddamn snake,” he said. “So I look, I was like, fucking shit, you know, it’s on the front pages of a couple of different major papers.” Wow. And then I guess for a few days there was a big buzz about it and then 9/11 hit a few days later. “

But what was Spears like, with the snake and who to work with?

“She was very good,” Hano says. “She was very focused and at first she was afraid of the snake, but you could see that she was able to focus and push herself in some way so that she could work with the thing and look comfortable. do it.”

He added that he needed to convince TV executives to give him some one-on-one time with Spears, so that she would feel more comfortable with him and the Snake.

“There was no music and you can see she was counting, you know, 2, 3, 4 or whatever, and practicing her dance steps on her own. I said,” Oh wow. Check it out. She is a really difficult worker. “

HANO

“After a few little missteps because these people on TV… sometimes they just don’t want to listen, so they realize they better listen to the guy with the snake,” he said. “I was finally able to be alone with her for a few minutes so that she would understand. At one point she said, “He’s not going to bite me, is he? And my answer is always, and my agent hates me for that, “Probably not.”

But he added to her, “You’re a fucking Britney Spears, you know, if that thing bites you, I think my career is over.”

Hano said this joke made her laugh and helped them become more comfortable with each other, ultimately making her more comfortable with the snake (her species can weigh up to 200 pounds and grow to 20 feet long). Hano said: “She realized that I was completely honest with her, this is the road I like to take with these celebrities.”

Looking now at Spears’ career, and more specifically her battle to break free from the controversial tutelage she has been under for 13 years, Hano says something has happened on set that he is not in. comfortable to reveal it completely, but hinted at problems she might have experienced.

Frank Micelotta Archives / Getty Images

“There was one thing that happened during the rehearsal, and it involves someone around him, but I don’t feel free to discuss it,” he said. “That could change at some point. It gave me a great insight into what exactly was going on then, and probably still what is behind a lot of things that are happening now, but I wish him the best. I think she’s probably someone who’s worked really hard since she was very young, and she’s been very successful.

Hano also shares a special anecdote that has shaped the way he’s viewed the pop diva over the past two decades.

“It was on stage at the Metropolitan Opera House and when I first showed up they made me sit in the audience area while the band rehearsed their choreography,” he said. “I sat there for quite a while until they were ready to bring the snake. All the dancers and Britney were rehearsing and even when the director said, ‘OK, take five’, and everyone was leaving the stage for a break, she continued to train. “

“There was no music and you can see she was counting, you know, 2, 3, 4 or whatever, and practicing her dance steps on her own. I said,” Oh wow. Check it out. She is a really difficult worker. Same thing with the snake. At first she was scared and uncomfortable with it, but she pushed herself with it and did really well, I have to say. “

CORRECTION (September 11, 2021, 9:34 a.m.ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the type of rodents Hano sells. He sells frozen rodents, not live ones.


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