My night at the VMAs…

Steve Schirra

A behind-the-scenes look at this year’s music fest

The MTV Moon Man stands outside “Hotel MTV” in Miami, Fla.

Credit: Steve Schirra

There was a lone chair lying in the middle of the road on our way to the airport. Surely this was a sign that good things were to come.

My friend Jason had won an all-expense-paid trip to the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards in Miami and was kind enough to let me tag along.

The old man next to us waiting to board the airplane was wearing a straw cowboy hat and clutching a box of Cheeze-Its. Clearly, none of these people were accompanying us to the awards ceremony.

We figured we’d be flying first class, since this was MTV and all.

Our seats weren’t Economy Plus, nor were they Economy Minus. If our plane tickets were for a rock show, we’d be in the nosebleeds. But we were on a free trip to Miami to see the VMAs, so we really had no room to complain.

Jason and I feasted on mini-pretzels and floated above the clouds, waiting to be ushered into Florida by Diddy himself.

We didn’t get Diddy, but our driver, Mike, was waiting for us at the airport. Along with two other contest winners, we were driven to our hotel. In the car, we told him we were from Ohio. He told us how much he loved Midwesterners and immediately cranked up the air conditioning to protect our frail bodies from the thuggish 80-degree weather.

He told us he would be up for over 72 hours straight driving people around Miami, and that the amount of money he made this weekend would pay his $1,800 monthly rent for the next two months. While Will Smith tipped him $200 for a ride to Miami Beach, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie left him with nothing but a wave and a smile. Ironically, the hotel where we were staying, the Doubletree Surfcomber, dubbed “Hotel MTV” for the weekend, was owned by the Hilton Family.

The hotel

A larger-than-life MTV moon man stood outside of our hotel. As our SUV pulled up to the entrance, dozens of people stormed the vehicle, hoping we were some sort of celebrities.

Once they realized I wasn’t Clay Aiken, the fans lost interest and we were sent to a credential trailer to have photo IDs made. The big, bold letters reading “under 21” emblazoned across the IDs’ surface were like scarlet letter A’s etched onto the breasts of our shirts. Even though these passes only allowed us to enter the hotel, we still felt important.

Everyone in Miami is pining for something to make them important. Everyone drives an expensive car, and everyone has designer sunglasses. It wasn’t uncommon to see people from the hotel wearing their credential proudly as they walked the city streets.

This was the old west of the modern world — only instead of tumbleweeds rolling down quiet dirt roads, you find yourself bombarded with flyers thrashing down the sidewalks. A man in a decked-out Pepsi truck dumped hundreds of sheets of glossy paper onto the streets, advertising a local club.

Our hotel room was very nice, indeed. MTV had spared no expense putting their logo on anything and everything they could think of. There were VMA soaps, shower curtains, magazines, do-not-disturb signs, chapsticks, chocolates, towels — everything.

The special show

Our second night at the hotel we were given tickets to a private concert for MTV2 and LIFEbeat that was taking place in the pool area of our hotel. There were, at most, 50 people by the stage, the VIPs retreating to the decks above. We were treated to a private show by Morningwood and The Bravery.

It was so private that the lead singer from Morningwood pointed out my friend Jason — known to her only as “collared shirt boy” — and made him sing along. As she passed me after her set, following a correspondent from Fox News, she stopped, pointed to me like we were old friends, smiled and winked. It was my first night in Miami, and already I was being hit on by mild celebrities.

After the show, I ran into some credential problems. A security guard, perhaps trying to break my spirit, told me I wasn’t allowed to re-enter the hotel where I was staying unless I waited in a ridiculously long line.

“Don’t you know who I am?” I wanted to scream. “My friend won a contest! A singer from a band just hit on me!”

But I didn’t. Instead we just walked around to the other entrance.

The day of the awards, we tried our best to hurry down the crowded sidewalks. A black SUV pulled up to our left and a posse of heavily-tattooed men dressed in all black walked out in front of us. We had an hour until the awards started, and this group of what I thought to be punk-rock-wanna-bes was slowing us down.

“At least Good Charlotte is walking in front of us,” I said angrily.

At that moment, one of the group’s members turned around, and I immediately recognized him as the lead singer of the said group. Of all people to be standing in front of me at the time, it had to be Good Charlotte.

We soon parted ways with our pop-punk counterparts and went into the hotel to get dressed for the awards.

The outfit

My friends off-handedly make fun of the way I dress, saying things like, “No, no, no, Steve. You look fine wearing navy blue with black. If you want to look like a bruise.”

Therefore, I didn’t trust myself to buy my own clothes to wear. A day before I departed, I tossed wads of $20s at my friend Katie and begged her to go out and buy me some clothes. Needless to say, I looked pretty sharp.

I imagined MTV News correspondent Suchin Pak stopping me on my way into the awards and asking me, “Steve Schirra, who are you wearing?”

“T.J. Maxx,” I’d tell her.

But there was no grand entrance for us contest winners. We were herded onto a bus and dropped off in front of a giant basketball stadium. Yes. The MTV Video Music Awards are held in a stadium, not a glamorous stage like it seems on TV. It was as though MTV had just told me that Santa Claus didn’t exist.

The seats

We went up two flights of stairs to the 300 level and found our seats. Once again, we were in the nosebleeds. The awards below us seemed less flashy than the fancy camera tricks would otherwise suggest.

The stadium has only two small “celebrity” sections, spanning 20 people wide at best. There are only a handful of celebrities in the audience at one time, and MTV does an excellent job of showing each and every one of them. Almost 99 percent of the audience is just regular people who either paid for their seats (it was rumored that they cost at least $900, even where we were sitting) won contests or free tickets, or people who work for MTV in some form or another.

There are seat fillers — regular, everyday people in fancy clothes who are constantly being rotated to give the illusion of a large celebrity section. This just isn’t the case.

Before the show started, the set looked like that of a deranged gameshow. The pit area is a large, dark void. Closer to show time, hundreds of people are brought in to fill the empty set and the entire thing starts to come to life.

The girls sitting next to us coaxed us out of our seats and we moved a conservative 25 rows down to the front row of our section. Our seats were better and we could actually make out the celebrities’ faces. I stared at the back of Paris Hilton’s head and thought about how she was an awful tipper. It was still a little disappointing — and then the awards started and Green Day took the stage. I literally got chills.

The big show

This was probably the best-produced concert I would ever see in my life. Millions of dollars went into this show’s planning and production. After a performer finished, hundreds of production assistants would rush out onto the stage and set up for the next performance.

During commercial breaks, the mood was much more relaxed than it was when the show was back live. There is just something about video cameras that makes people want to go crazy — and they did. The excitement from the pit was amazing.

There were so many small stages that I often found myself asking where exactly we were supposed to be looking to see whoever was presenting.

And finally, after Kelly Clarkson’s rain-filled finale, it was time to leave. We piled back onto the bus, most of us smiling, or screaming, “That was freaking awesome!”

Out the window I saw a guy wearing a shirt that read, “Friends don’t let friends live in Ohio,” and I knew it was time to go back home.

Back at the hotel, they had already started tearing down all of the decor. Our coordinator, Jocelyn, told us she would be flying back to New York the next day, and so would we.

On the flight home, there was a woman in front of us wearing nothing but a strategically placed blazer across her breasts. It was like we had brought a piece of Miami home with us.

Contact Forum Editor Steve Schirra at [email protected].