If you watched the 2019 MTV EMA Awards yesterday, November 3, you probably noticed a theme. From Halsey and Rosalía to Ava Max and host Becky G, women dominated the award show’s performance stage. They also ruled the winners circle, with Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, and Halsey taking home the biggest awards of the night (best song/new act, music video, and pop, respectively).
While all of these exciting moments flashed on viewers’ screens, there is one detail audiences probably don’t know about the EMAs: just how many women were pulling the strings from backstage. At the top of the list is director Liz Clare, who helmed the entire show. The production team had Debbie Phillips back for her 14th year of producing the EMAs and Ceire Deery co-producing. The woman who helped secure all the pop stars strutting down the Seville stage is Bianca Acca, MTV’s director of talent and music.
At a time when a man has directed every Academy Awards show this decade and men pack the credits of shows like the Grammys and Emmys, the EMAs remind us there’s more than one way to pull off a massive live show. They're proof that we’re inching towards an era where women running the award show world may not be such a striking phenomenon soon.
“I would say in the UK it’s less unusual,” director Clare says over the phone to Refinery29, sitting alongside producers Phillips and Deery. Clare, who counts 2000 EMA director Julia Knowles among her inspirations, is considering whether her current woman-heavy team is all that surprising to her. It’s not. “I don’t know the situation in America,” Clare continues. “But I certainly work with a lot of women producing teams, executive producers.”
While all three women agree creating their special is particularly difficult — the EMAs make a show from scratch in a new city, and therefore in a new venue, every single year — it’s their relationships that make the entire production work. “With regards to myself, Ceire, and Liz, we have worked together on a few shows before,” Phillips, who started working on the EMAs back in 2003, says. “We understand how each other works. That definitely makes a big difference.”
“I've never worked on an award show with so many of the key players being in the same roles for so many years — and so many of them women,” Bianca Acca adds via email. Acca counts off more some veteran key players like Yvonne Ryan, who has managed the dressing room for all 26 EMAs, and digital production head Petra Schwimmbeck, who has been with the show for 20 years.
Polly Stevens, of MTV’s press department, is another one of those long-timers. Stevens joined the EMAs crew in 1996 at 22, and witnessed the Spice Girls and Madonna perform within her first few years on the job. After more than two decades on the team, Stevens shares Liz Clare’s pragmatic outlook on women leadership in the stressful arena of live TV.
“I almost think, it’s not about whether you’re a man or a woman to me. My mantra is always ‘Work hard, be kind.’ Work hard, be kind and then you can go far,” Stevens explains of her longevity. “If you’re empowered and people believe in you and you do your best, you can go far. I don’t necessarily feel [the show] has a different flavor because there are so many women at the helm of the show … We work together as a really united team. And that is magic.”
The team has a similar outlook on how so many women performers ended up on stage. Acca explains the lineup wasn’t born out of a gimmicky need to “have more women.” Instead, the EMAs simply recognized women are the people leading the music industry right now — you can’t talk about the Billboard Hot 100 without bringing up names like Ariana Grande, Camila Cabello, or Lizzo.
“Our show reflects the current musical landscape and that's shaped by so many amazing and talented women,” Acca says.
That influence brings some much-needed growth. Acca points out how women’s award show performances have been traditionally tied to what the artist would wear. But, when you think about Halsey’s EMA performance, the blazing horse comes to mind more than her costume.
“We've passed through that linear boundary of what a woman pop star should look like or dress like,” the talent director says. “Women have never been so empowered and particularly in music. Self-expression, in whatever personal manner that comes across in, is helping so many young girls feel freer to be themselves.”
When you think about Acca’s words, it’s impossible not to imagine what they mean for next year’s EMAs, wherever they will be and whichever women will be setting the stage on fire (either figuratively or literally). Thankfully, Polly Stevens has joked that the MTV team will start kicking around ideas for the 2020 shows today.
The next evolution of the EMAs has already begun.