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As Britney Spears' 2001 VMAs performance turns 20, snake handler shares backstory

Twenty years ago this week, the pop icon shook the world with her performance of "I'm a Slave 4 U."
/ Source: TODAY

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

Lady Gaga hung from the ceiling covered in fake blood, Beyoncé dropped the microphone and revealed her baby bump and Madonna vogued in full Marie Antoinette drag. But nothing may compare to Britney Spears with that snake.

Twenty years ago this week, the pop icon shook the world with her sensual performance during a jungle-themed version of “I’m a Slave 4 U,” with a massive serpent wrapped around her body. Every aspect of that performance in embedded in pop culture history, from her glittering navel piercing to her fearlessness holding the python.

The snake handler who helped make that iconic moment come to life says that going into the VMAs that night, he really had no idea who Britney Spears was, despite Spears being one of the most famous pop stars at the time.

Britney Spears onstage performing at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards.Scott Gries / Getty Images

“I barely knew who Britney Spears was,” Michael Hano told TODAY. “I’m not really up on pop culture and stuff at all. I mean, I've worked with some of the most famous models or people in the world and I didn't know who the hell they were until afterwards.”

Today, Hano still works in the reptile and amphibian business, mostly supplying owners with frozen rodents as food.

“I had sort of heard of her because you go to supermarkets back in those days, and you're waiting in the checkout line and they have all those tabloid magazines,” he said. “This was before the internet really was around, so I knew that she was like a teen pop star or something, but like I said, I wouldn't have known any of her songs or anything.”

Hired for the event via an agent, Hano didn’t actually own the snake that performed with Spears onstage that night. Borrowed from a contact of his, the snake has often been labeled since as an albino Burmese python with the name of Banana — both things Hano says aren’t true.

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

“It's an amelanistic Burmese python, not albino, because albino is lacking all pigments and that type is lacking only the black pigments, so it's amelanistic,” Hano, who once sat as the president of the New York Herpetological Society, explained. “Totally albino would be the all white."

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

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

“They used to be very a popular and common breed in the pet trade,” he said, adding that performing with a snake like that can be risky. “They get too big for most people to keep appropriately. So at this point, they're illegal in New York state without a permit and flat out illegal in New York City as they should be."

Despite not knowing who she was, Hano said that immediately after the VMAs that night, he knew he had been part of something special.

“Living in Manhattan, I did the job and jumped on a train,” he said. “I had the snake in a cooler and when I got home to my building, there used to be kids that would hang out on the stoop. They knew that I handled animals and stuff, they used to have nicknames for me, in fact.”

“I was walking up the steps and the kids were like, ‘Oh, you see that thing that Britney Spears just did?’ I'm like, ‘Oh yeah, the snake? l just did that. I'm coming home now from it. I got the snake in this cooler right here.’ They didn't freakin' believe me so I took the snake out and the kids started taking pictures of it.”

Dave Hogan / Getty Images

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

“All these people are sitting in their cars, they're reading the newspaper and I see on the front page they got pictures of Britney Spears with the damn snake,” he said. “So like, I'm looking, I was saying, holy s---, you know, this is on the front page of a couple of different important newspapers. Wow. And then, I guess for a few days there was a big buzz about this and then 9/11 hit just a few days later.”

But how was Spears, with the snake and to work with?

“She was very good,” Hano says. “She was very focused and initially she was scared of the snake, but you could see that she was able to focus and kind of push yourself to be able to work with the thing and look comfortable doing it.”

He added that he had to convince the television executives to give him some one-on-one time with Spears, in order for her to become more comfortable with him and the snake.

"There was no music playing 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. Look at this. She is really a hard worker."

HANO

“After a couple of little missteps because these people in television ... sometimes they just don't want to listen, then they realize that they better listen to the guy with the snake,” he said. “I finally got to just be alone with her for a few minutes so she gets it. At one point, she said, ‘He’s not gonna bite me, right?’ And my answer is always, and my agent hates me for this, ‘Probably not.’”

But he added to her, “You're freakin' Britney Spears, you know, if this thing bites you, I think my career is over.”

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

Now looking over Spears' career, and most notably her battle to be free from the controversial conservatorship she has been under for 13 years, Hano says that something took place on set that he isn’t comfortable fully disclosing, but hinted at troubles she may have experienced.

Frank Micelotta Archive / Getty Images

“There was one thing that occurred during the rehearsal, and it involves somebody within her inner circle, but I don't feel like I'm at liberty to discuss it,” he said. “That could change at some point. It gave me a good insight into exactly what the hell's was going on then, and probably still what's behind a lot of the stuff going on now but I wish her the best. I think that she's probably somebody that's worked very hard since she was very young, and she’s had a lot of success.”

Hano also shares one special anecdote that shaped the way he saw the pop diva over the last two decades.

“This was onstage at the Metropolitan Opera House and when I first showed up, they had me sitting in the audience area while the group was rehearsing their choreography,” he said. “I was sitting there for quite a while until they were ready for the snake to be brought in. All the dancers and Britney were rehearsing and even when the director was like, ‘OK, take five,’ and everyone was walking off the stage to take a break, she kept practicing."

"There was no music playing 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. Look at this. She is really a hard 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 gotta say.”

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