The inside scoop on the infamous 2009 VMAs moment.
The narrative started with Kanye showing up to the red carpet in his leather shirt, gripping and swigging a bottle of Hennessy. Looking back on these images now and knowing they captured a foreboding moment, they take on an ominous tone. Multiple witnesses who spoke to Billboard remembered being incredibly concerned once they saw Kanye in this uncharacteristic state. Noting his visible instability, they started imagining all the ways this could end badly and conspiring to ensure nothing triggered him. When the former vice president of talent relations approached him and asked if he was alright, Kanye responded, “I’m here living my best life.”
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Another account recalled Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy exclaiming that Kanye was “so drunk” and deliberating whether it was fair game to call him out for it on stage. It was decided that doing so would potentially be what set off the volcano that everyone sensed was waiting to erupt.
It was also revealed in the oral history that Kanye was originally supposed to be seated about eight rows back from the stage, but when the show organizers noticed they did not have enough men in the front rows, they moved him up at the last moment.
Several accounts are given of the chaos that took place in the truck of all the show runners when Kanye stormed the stage. There was much panic and uncertainty about what was the best way to react. “A number of people were really nervous and wanted to get him off the stage, but how do you do that? I wasn’t going to send a bunch of people to rugby-tackle him.” Kanye ended up being asked to leave the building, to which he supposedly responded disputatiously.
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Former senior correspondent of MTV News explained the tension and anger in the room following the incident, especially emanating from P!nk. “During the commercial break, he went back down to his seat and P!nk walked up to him and got in his face. I wasn’t close enough to hear the conversation, but she was pointing in his face and nodding her head back and forth, and giving him her two cents about how fucked up this was and then stormed off. Then he was sitting there next to Amber Rose with his arm around her, and you could feel everyone in Radio City glaring at his back.”
The former president of Viacom Media Networks, Van Toffler, recalled finding Beyoncé crying next to her father backstage and saying “I didn’t know this was going to happen, I feel so bad for her.” The show’s organizers knew who was going to win all the awards that year – even though they specified that this is not usually the case – so Toffler chose to comfort Beyoncé by giving her a hint that she would be on stage later in the show (to receive her Video of the Year award) and would have the opportunity to provide Swift with a moment of redemption. “Beyoncé agreed to do a wonderfully gracious thing. So the Shakespearean arc played out over the course of the evening.”
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