For five chaotic and exhilarating years, I was fortunate enough to work for MTV — a staple of music programming that is celebrating its 40th birthday this month.
The Australian version of the iconic music channel was where I got my first real start in the entertainment industry after I was hired as one of the hosts of the local version of Total Request Live (TRL).
Working for MTV Australia was a dream come true and represented such an exciting time in Australian music. I well remember introducing debut music videos from The Veronicas and Wolfmother, along with wicked new tracks from bands like Silverchair and Powderfinger. In fact, on the day my hosting gig with the station was made official, Ben Lee performed his then-new song ‘Catch My Disease’ — a song which feels hilariously out of line in today’s climate.
I vividly remember, as Lee sang the refrains of the pop track, my new co-host whispered in my ear: “Your whole life is about to change.” Man, was he on the money.
For the next three and a half years, I interviewed some of my favourite bands such as Stereophonics and Foo Fighters, travelled to some of the most random and wonderful places as the host of MTV Australia’s original travel show, got up at 5am to deliver MTV News bulletins and reported live from countless red carpets. The parties were epic, the schedule frenetic, and the mantra was simple: “We’re MTV, we can do whatever the f—k we want.”
In 2007, I took some time off and travelled from Sydney to New York as part of a six-week holiday around the US. Before I left, I asked the head of publicity at MTV Australia if she could perhaps arrange for me to sit in the audience at TRL which was famously filmed in Times Square. MTV US came back with a slightly different offer.
“Would Lyndsey mind co-hosting an episode of TRL?”, asked the US publicist. “We have been trying to find a new female host for over a year and it would just be great to have a fresh face on the show. It could work as a fun crossover promotion…if she doesn’t mind working on vacation.”
Of course I didn’t mind. I jumped at the chance and showed up at 1515 Broadway on the day of my taping a bundle of nerves but also incredibly excited. I had dreamed of living in New York since I was 11 years old and had felt immediately at home as soon as my plane landed at LaGuardia Airport so I was determined to make some good contacts in case I could make my dream come true.
That first episode went by in a flash, but I guess I did an okay job because soon after, I was sitting in an office, high above Times Square being asked if I would consider moving to New York full time and hosting the show.
Three months later, I was on a plane back to the greatest city on earth to start my new life.
MTV had, very kindly, sprung for a business class flight and I just remember feeling like such an imposter. For one thing, I kept randomly bursting into tears as I recalled my farewell with my mum, for another, I was almost certainly wearing a tatty band t-shirt. I had also recently gotten a rather large tattoo which I had to keep jumping up to rub lotion on as it healed. So…yeah, I definitely stuck out like a sore thumb.
Arriving at JFK, disoriented and still emotional, I was quietly mortified to see that MTV had sent a stretch limo to take me to my temporary accommodation at the W in Times Square. If I had been out of place on a business class Qantas flight, I was even more so getting out of a limo after 24 hours, no shower and a few too many Champagnes.
One of the first big things I had to prepare for when I started at MTV US was our annual New Year’s Eve party. I can safely say, as a very proud New Yorker of 12 years, that no one should ever bother going to Times Square on NYE. But if you’re going to do it, doing it with MTV is the way to go.
Mary J. Blige was the standout performance of the night, along with Gym Class Heroes and Flo Rida (with whom I shared a quick and very PG kiss at the stroke of midnight). As I watched the famous ball drop (it’s tiny and really not that exciting), it was hard to believe it was all happening.
My first major TRL interview was with Will Smith for him to promote I Am Legend. My producers prepped him thoroughly in his green room ahead of time before sending him backstage to hang with me before we went live on air.
“LYNDSEY FROM AUSTRALIA!” he hollered as he walked through the studio doors, scaring me half to death in the process. “How the heck are ya mate?”
The biggest movie star in the world was talking to me like I was one of his boys down at the local pub. It was insane.
We chatted for a while about Australia (he loves it) and life in general before heading onto the stage to talk about his movie. He could not have been a better guest to kick off my TRL NYC experience with.
What many people don’t know was that although TRL was on the air four afternoons a week, we were only live on Monday and Tuesday. We would film Wednesday’s episode on Monday before our live show and Thursday’s episode on Tuesday before going live at 4:30pm.
It took a huge amount of energy to be “on” for that long every day, in front of a live audience and with the biggest personalities in the world — especially once you factor in blocking, dress rehearsals, script changes, hair and make-up, pre-show meetings, wardrobe fittings, outfit changes and promo tapings. But I loved every minute, even if it did mean having to sometimes take naps in my dressing room between shows.
Also, I couldn’t really complain seeing as MTV sent a shiny black town car to my apartment each morning to take me to the studio and then another to shuttle me home once we’d wrapped. Budgets were a little roomier then, you see.
When I started my job with MTV US, the channel was in the middle of a Kanye West boycott following his outburst about Britney Spears opening the 2007 VMA’s. He had made it widely known that he should have been the one to perform and he wasn’t wrong. Still, he’d slammed the channel enough that we refused to play any of his videos until later in 2008 when he released ‘Flashing Lights’.
It doesn’t seem like a big move (although it surely sounds like a petty one) but it was a powerful statement from MTV. Before Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and Twitch, TRL was the way to have your music video seen by fans, or to connect with them personally if you appeared on the show.
Another interesting element for me was that, following the fallout from the infamous “Nipplegate” Super Bowl halftime show with Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson (which was produced by the network), MTV was very concerned about the wrong thing being said on air so it was up to the producers to write all of the questions we asked our celebrity guests — very different from working in Australia where it was up to the host to come up with the interview.
One of the most exhilarating aspects of working in live TV is that things can change on a dime and you have to just roll with the punches. Instead of using a teleprompter, we had giant cue cards that were held up by one of the crew members and it was not uncommon to see them frantically crossing things out or adding things in depending on if the segment was running to time or not.
We also had earpieces through which the producers could talk to us from the control room if necessary and hand cards with bullet points on them, but sometimes we just had to go on instinct and ad-lib on the spot. It was thrilling.
Over the course of my time on TRL, I was lucky enough to interview people like Snoop Dogg, Janet Jackson, Cameron Diaz, Lady Gaga, Pink, Denzel Washington, Will Ferrell, Jason Bateman, Jessica Alba, Justin Timberlake, Paul Rudd, Fergie, Ice Cube, 50 Cent, Harrison Ford and Mariah Carey — and that doesn’t even scratch the surface.
One of my favourite interviews ever was with Will Arnett (I was and am obsessed with Arrested Development) who made me laugh so hard that we had to cut to a commercial break early so that my make-up artist could touch up the make-up I had cried off.
In a less wholesome story, I once returned from a vacation to be told that, while I was away, a celebrity (no names) had smoked heroin in my dressing room.
On another occasion, P Diddy made us re-shoot an entire 15-minute intro to a special we were filming because he was pissed the audience “hadn’t stood up and applauded when he walked onto the stage.”
As I said, it was often chaotic.
I was so fortunate to not only interview so many of my idols but to meet so many people through the show who are still some of my best friends to this day. That’s the thing about working for MTV, yes, you get to meet the most famous faces on the planet, but it is the people behind the scenes who are the heart and soul of the entire operation.
The dedication, talent, passion and skill the MTV crew brought to that studio was nothing short of inspiring and I learned so much just by being around them. They are truly the unsung heroes of that time in music and I wish that more people knew that.
Eventually, after 10 ground-breaking years, it was decided that TRL would be retired. The landscape of music was changing, the show cost over a million dollars per episode to make, and its necessity was declining as people turned to YouTube and early social media to get their celebrity fix.
The last episode was an emotional one — there were people in that studio who had been there since the show’s inception so they were bidding farewell to a decade of their lives.
As the final minutes of the final episode approached, my co-host Damien Fahey and I each took one side of the power cord which ran the main studio lights. We choked up as we said our goodbyes and reiterated what the show had meant, before Damien uttered the words: “For the last time, live from Times Square, this has been TRL“.
We each pulled the cord and plunged the studio into darkness. For a moment there was thick silence and then the sounds of crying started to softly fill the air.
It really was the end of an era — and one which I still can’t believe I got to be a part of.