- In 2004, a planned “costume reveal” went awry during the Super Bowl halftime show.
- Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s careers took different turns after the backlash to the event.
- See a timeline of their fallout, leading up to a recent Instagram comment from Timberlake’s manager.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
A planned “costume reveal” went awry when Timberlake accidentally removed a section of Jackson’s costume, and her right breast was shown on live TV to 100 million viewers.
Jackson’s career was changed for the worse after what was later known as “Nipplegate,” while Timberlake’s star only rose higher.
Keep reading for a full look at the lead-up to the night’s events, how everything went wrong, and what both Jackson and Timberlake have said publicly about the fiasco over the last two decades.
“Then, after the Sept. 11 attacks, a group of team owners and league officials visited New York City for NFL meetings and attended a U2 concert at Madison Square Garden,” EW reported.
Jackson was then bumped from the coveted performance spot.
The following year, in 2003, they still didn’t tap the singer. Instead, Shania Twain and No Doubt headlined the Super Bowl XXXVII halftime show.
The lead single, “Like I Love You,” was released in 2002. More singles, including “Rock Your Body,” were pushed out in 2003.
“With Janet set as a featured performer and more performers and surprise collaborations to follow, the stage has been to set to produce an event that the Super Bowl audience will remember for years to come,” MTV chief Van Toffler said in a statement.
The article mentions Jessica Simpson, P. Diddy, Nelly and Kid Rock as the announced guest performers for Jackson’s show.
“I don’t think the Super Bowl has ever seen a performance like this,” Duldulao said. “The dancing is great. She’s more stylized, she’s more feminine, she’s more a woman as she dances this time around. There are some shocking moments in there too.”
MTV has since added an editor’s note into the article: “At the time of this report, MTV thought that the ‘shock’ was going to be the as-yet-unannounced appearance of Justin Timberlake as part of Janet’s performance. Janet Jackson’s subsequent performance was not what had been rehearsed, discussed or agreed to with MTV.”
Jackson returned for a second song, “Rhythm Nation,” before Timberlake popped up and began singing his single “Rock Your Body.”
The stage had been populated with backup dancers throughout every performance up until that point, but during “Rock Your Body” it was just Timberlake and Jackson on stage. The song came to an end with Timberlake delivering the line “better have you naked by the end of this song.”
As he sang, Timberlake’s hand snaked around Jackson’s torso in a choreographed move while she stood still at his side.
On the word “song,” Timberlake pulled at the right side of Jackson’s corset-style top, and the entire cup of her costume and bra underneath came away. Her breast was exposed, revealing a piece of nipple jewelry she was wearing.
In the split second where the two singers were still onstage, you could see Janet look down in shock. As the stage went dark, Jackson reached to cover herself while Timberlake stood holding the ripped pieces of her costume and bra.
There were close to 100 million people watching the Super Bowl live that night.
“She said, ‘I don’t know, but I had a blanket for Janet to wrap her in and I put the blanket on her and she was crying,'” McCarthy-Miller told producers in the documentary.
Other than this secondhand account, there’s little known about anything Jackson said or did immediately following the incident aside from leaving the stadium to fly back home.
Timberlake, however, gave interviews after the halftime show. The “Malfunction” documentary features clips from his interview with Access Hollywood, where he smiles and calls the evening “fun” and says he “loves giving y’all something to talk about” when asked about the “steamy” performance with Jackson.
MTV said: “The tearing of Janet Jackson’s costume was unrehearsed, unplanned, completely unintentional and was inconsistent with assurances we had about the content of the performance. MTV regrets this incident occurred and we apologize to anyone who was offended by it.”
Jackson did not immediately release an official statement, though her representatives “told MTV News that she apologizes for the incident.”
This statement was distinct from Timberlake’s, which made the entire “wardrobe malfunction” seem unintentional.
But Jackson’s statement elucidated that there was some intended “costume reveal” that MTV had not been made aware of before the show.
But around 540,000 people complained about Jackson’s breast. The FCC took swift action.
“The FCC probe will encompass the entire halftime program — including the brief exposure of singer Janet Jackson’s breast and the sexualized dance routine precipitating it — to determine if it violates indecency standards set in law and enforced by the FCC,” the Washington Post reported at the time.
“I am outraged at what I saw during the halftime show of the Super Bowl,” the FCC chairman Michael Powell said in a statement. “Like millions of Americans, my family and I gathered around the television for a celebration. Instead, that celebration was tainted by a classless, crass and deplorable stunt. Our nation’s children, parents and citizens deserve better.”
An NFL executive said the organization “applauded” the FCC investigation, saying the NFL and its fans “were embarrassed by the entire show.”
“As for MTV’s stance, Freston tells Reuters that Timberlake was informed of the stunt just moments before he took the stage with Jackson,” People magazine reported that day.
Jackson’s rep made it clear that Timberlake was only supposed to pull away the top layer of her costume.
E! News received a statement from Jackson’s representative that said, “Justin was supposed to pull away the rubber bustier to reveal a red lace bra. The garment collapsed and her breast was accidentally revealed.”
It’s worth noting that there was a second “tearaway costume” moment in the halftime show: During Nelly’s rendition of “Hot in Herre,” a group of backup dancers all pulled the top-layer of their costumes off, revealing shorter shorts and smaller shirts underneath.
“[He said] that right before the Super Bowl show he got a call from Jackson and her choreographer telling him they wanted him to rip her bra off,” the Washington Post’s article detailed. “In that interview, Timberlake, who had his sad face on, said that when he ripped Jackson’s bodice during that halftime performance, he was ‘shocked and appalled’ to discover a breast underneath.”
“I’m frustrated at the whole situation,” he said. “I’m frustrated that my character is being questioned and the fact of the matter is, you know, I’ve had a good year, a really good year, especially with my music.”
“People involved in the production of the Grammy program confirmed that Ms. Jackson would either step down herself or be asked to step down,” the New York Times had reported.
At the time, many journalists questioned why Timberlake, who was also scheduled to perform, did not have similar pressure put on him to bow out of the event.
“I know it’s been a rough week on everybody,” he said. “What occurred was unintentional, completely regrettable, and I apologize if you guys are offended.”
His apology was reportedly part of an agreement made with CBS as a condition for allowing him to still appear at the awards.
As EW reported: “CBS said it had ‘serious reservations’ about letting either performer appear at the Grammys, but ultimately deferred to the Recording Academy. Of the offer to attend if they agreed to an on-air apology, the statement said, ‘Ms. Jackson declined the invitation. Mr. Timberlake accepted.'”
“I didn’t want to be a part of something that’s not treating people in the right light,” Rolling Stone reported Dupri saying. “I feel like what’s going on with Janet is unfair.”
But “Damita Jo” was the first album Jackson had released that didn’t reach number one in the US since her 1984 album “Dream Street.”
“There are more important things to focus on in this world than my breast,” Jackson said after repeatedly asking Letterman to change the subject.
In interviews, Karim has said that Jackson and Timberlake’s Super Bowl incident was one of the reasons they realized having a central website for user-uploaded videos would be successful.
“Karim recalled the difficulty involved in finding and watching videos online of Jackson accidentally baring her breast during the Super Bowl show,” USA Today reported in a 2006 feature on Karim’s involvement with YouTube’s creation.
“Nipplegate,” as many people had begun calling the event, was one of the earliest examples of a “viral” video. People who had TiVo’d the Super Bowl were rewatching the exposure of Jackson’s breast so much that TiVo executives would later credit the incident with popularizing their company.
“You kind of have to have a sense of humor about all of this because like you said everybody takes this so seriously,” he said then. “Like, it’s not that serious. The Middle East is the situation. That’s serious.”
Later in the interview, he said his “mistake” regarding the halftime show had more to do with “the aftermath.”
“I’m a part of a community that considers themselves artists, and if there was something that I could have done in her defense that was more, that I could have realized, then I would have,” he said. “But the other half of me thought to myself like, ‘wow, we still haven’t found the weapons of mass destruction and everybody cares about this.”
“It’s an understatement to say that it was sort of unfair if you consider it 50-50, I probably got 10% of the blame,” he continued.
“And that says something about society,” Timberlake said. “I think that America’s harsher on women, and I think that America’s unfairly harsh on ethnic people.”
The first thing Jackson did was reiterate what her representative had said at the time, which was that Timberlake was meant to tear away the leather part of her costume but leave her red bra underneath intact.
Jackson also said they practiced the costume reveal ahead of time.
Winfrey brought up how Jackson apologized at the time in her initial statement, and asked if the singer regretted saying sorry.
Jackson said yes because “it was an accident.” The singer continued on, explaining that her management at the time believed the apology was necessary given her upcoming album.
Then Winfrey asked Jackson if she believed Timberlake had “left her hanging” afterwards.
“All the emphasis was put on me, not on Justin, and uh…,” Jackson said before laughing nervously. “We were friends. And not that we aren’t now — we haven’t spoken — but I consider him a friend.”
“Just to let people know, that Justin has reached out, we haven’t spoken but he has reached out to speak with me,” Jackson said a bit later in the interview. “And like I said friendship is very important to me, and certain things you just don’t do to friends. In my own time I’ll give him a call.”
When Winfrey asked Jackson to clarify what “things” she was alluding to, the singer said that at the time of the debacle she had heard about “certains things that he had said,” and that she felt he had left her hanging “to a certain degree.”
Michael Powell, who was the FCC chairman in 2004, was the one who had issued a statement calling the performance a “classless, crass and deplorable stunt.”
“I personally thought that was really unfair,” Powell told ESPN when asked about Jackson’s treatment years later. “It all turned into being about her. In reality, if you slow the thing down, it’s Justin ripping off her breastplate.”
He also admitted to playing up his outrage for the purpose of the statement.
“I think we’ve been removed from this long enough for me to tell you that I had to put my best version of outrage on that I could put on,” Powell told ESPN while “shrugging his shoulders and rolling his eyes.”
—Ernest Owens (@MrErnestOwens) June 27, 2016
Journalist Ernest Owens outlined how he tweeted at Timberlake in 2016, accusing the singer of appropriating Black music and telling him to “apologize to Janet, too.”
Owens, a Black queer journalist, was retweeting Timberlake’s praise of the actor Jesse Williams’ 2016 BET Awards speech, in which Williams condemned police brutality as well as the entertainment industry’s “gentrification” of Black culture.
In a since-deleted tweet, a screenshot of which you can find in Owens’ retelling on the Daily Beast years later, Timberlake replied: “Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation. Bye.”
After Timberlake deleted his “bye” tweet, he said he felt misunderstood and that he “shouldn’t have responded anyway.”
“I stumbled through it, to be quite honest,” Timberlake said. “I had my wires crossed. It’s just something you have to look back on and be like: ‘Well OK, you can’t change what’s happened, but you can move forward and learn from it.'”
“And you and Janet took some time to do that after the fact, like you kind of resolved the situation and were able to make peace with the whole thing?” Lowe replied.
“Absolutely,” Timberlake said. “And I don’t know that a lot of people know that. I mean I don’t think it’s my job to do that because you value the relationship that you do have with people.”
Timberlake sang “Rock Your Body” once again, but this time he cut the song short before the “better have you naked by the end of this song” lyric.
“Hold on, stop!” he yelled in lieu of the lyrics that immediately preceded the “wardrobe malfunction” in 2004.
Then Timberlake let out a little “ahhh” with a smile before transitioning into the next song.
“Moonves ordered Viacom properties VH1 and MTV, and all Viacom-owned radio stations, to stop playing Jackson’s songs and music videos,” Ali wrote in the Huffington Post report. “The move had a huge impact on sales of her album ‘Damita Jo,’ which was released in March 2004, just a month after the Super Bowl.”
Following a huge public outcry after a New York Times documentary episode highlighted the abuses his ex-girlfriend Spears endured, Timberlake issued a new statement, addressing Jackson.
“I’ve seen the messages, tags, comments, and concerns, and I want to respond,” he said. “I am deeply sorry for the times in my life where my actions contributed to the problem, where I spoke out of turn, or did not speak for what was right.”
He continued: “I understand that I fell short in these moments and in many others and benefited from a system that condones misogyny and racism. I specifically want to apologize to Britney Spears and Janet Jackson both individually, because I care for and respect these women and I know I failed.”
The second page of the statement addressed how “the industry is flawed.”
“It sets men, especially white men, up for success,” he wrote. “It’s designed this way. As a man in a privileged position I have to be vocal about this.”
The statement continued still: “I have not been perfect in navigating all of this throughout my career. I know this apology is a first step and doesn’t absolve the past. I want to take accountability for my own missteps in all of this as well as be part of a world that uplifts and supports.”
Johnny Wright, the founder and CEO of Wright Entertainment Group (WEG) and Timberlake’s former music manager, reportedly commented on an Instagram post Jackson shared on March 28, 2021.
Jackson’s post said: “Always choose to heal, not to hurt. To forgive, not to despise. To persevere, not to quiet. To smile, not to frown. And to love, not to hate.”
“You should take this advice and apply it to your relationship with Justin,” Wright reportedly commented.
—Pop Crave (@PopCrave) April 6, 2021
A screenshot of the interaction was reposted on “Keep It” podcast host and TV writer Ira Madison III‘s Instagram stories. That screenshot then made its way to Twitter.
By April 6, the comment from Wright appeared to have been deleted.
A Page Six source said that “Justin was not aware of [Johnny’s] comment to her. Johnny did this all on his own.”