Chasing Banana: One Girl’s Quest To Find Britney Spears’ 2001 VMA Snake

CRYSTAL BELL, mtv.com
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It’s been nearly 15 years since Britney Spears sashayed across the VMAs stage with an albino burmese python casually draped around her shoulders. The moment — forever burned in my memory as the singular most important event to ever happen [to adolescent me] — became iconic, and in many ways, synonymous with the MTV Video Music Awards.

Ask any Millennial to name a favorite VMAs performance and chances are Spears’s snake dance tops the list. It was also a Big Fucking Deal™ for Banana, the seven-foot albino burmese python who graced the shoulders of greatness that September night at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House.

Since making its debut at the 2001 VMAs, Banana the snake has become a mythical figure in Spears’s legacy. It represents the pinnacle of Spears’s success. The snake even has its own Tumblr account. There’s a reason MTV recruited another albino burmese python to announce the pop star’s performance at the upcoming 2016 VMAs. But what do we really know about this so-called Banana?

Back in 2012, Spears reassured the internet that her famous VMAs partner was still alive and that “her” name was Banana. That was all we really knew about this legendary reptile — until now. In honor of the 15th anniversary of the pop star’s “I’m A Slave 4 U” vma, I decided to put my NYU Journalism degree to the test and find Banana. What I thought was going to be an easy Google search, however, took an unexpected turn, and I ended up learning more than I ever needed to know about albino burmese pythons — and surprisingly, Britney’s impact on their popularity.

My quest began with a simple search: “Albino Burmese Python Banana Britney Spears.” I immediately clicked on the seemingly helpful link, “Britney Spears’s Scandalous VMAs Snake: Where Is It Now?” But that article did not tell me where Banana was now; that article lied to me. However, it did inspire me to refine my search. Without a proper lead on Britney’s Banana, I started to search for all albino burmese pythons named Banana, determined to find my white whale — or in this case, my albino snake. The first Banana I found lived at the Wildlife WayStation in Sylmar, California. It was close enough to Los Angeles that I thought maybe Banana was a Hollywood snake.

I was wrong.

This Banana arrived at the Wildlife WayStation in 1998, three years before Britney’s fateful performance. Founder Martine Colette confirmed that her 100-pound, 11-foot albino burmese python wasn’t the snake I was looking for, but she did shed some light on what makes a snake like Banana so desirable in Hollywood.

“The color of the particular snake makes it stand out very vividly,” she said. “It’s also a new designer color. We call them designer snakes because they rarely come like this naturally. It’s all a matter of breeding. But snakes have always been popular. They elicit all kinds of feelings from people, from fear to repulsion to bravado. The average reaction is I can’t stand it. I’m terrified. But I can’t take my eyes off it.”

Colette pointed out that the concept of Spears’s performance wasn’t anything new. After all, belly dancers have been using snakes as props for centuries. And it’s not like the pop star was the first celebrity to accessorize with a snake. Richard Avedon’s 1981 print, Nastassja Kinski and the Serpent, is one of the most famous portraits of the 20th century. (Vanity Fair also paid homage to the striking image with cover star Jennifer Lawrence in February 2015.) However, the use of the albino variant of burmese python was relatively uncommon in pop culture at the time.

“Anytime somebody of Britney’s stature brings something to the forefront, they immediately start some sort of a culture — people are going to want one,” Colette. “One of the reasons why I don’t like that kind of a thing is that it makes people go out and get animals that they would not normally have gotten without knowing anything about those animals. That’s why we get as many of those snakes as we get [at our animal sanctuary].”

The next albino burmese python I came across on my quest was a big girl named Cleopatra. (To be fair, her name was not listed on the website.) Cleo lived at the RainForest Adventures Zoo in Sevierville, TN. Owner Bill Lucey then proceeded to snakesplain albino burmese pythons to me, and TBH, I appreciated it because I never even bothered to look up these reptiles on Wikipedia before cold-calling snake people in search of Banana.

Did you know these snakes aren’t actually albinos? According to Lucey, they’re hypomelanistic, which explains the yellow coloring — and the popularity of names like Banana. And when cared for properly, these snakes can be pretty docile, which may explain why Banana was so chill on the VMAs stage. It literally gave zero fucks. It also couldn’t technically hear the performance (these reptiles can only detect vibrations), which when you think about it, is really a damn shame.

The zoo received Cleo as a hatchling in 2002. She has since grown to be over 100 pounds and “12-feetish,” which I learned was relatively average for female burmese pythons. “There’s a thing called sexual dimorphism,” he explained. “The females are substantially larger as adults than the males.”

As for Spears’s performance, Lucey didn’t really have an opinion. While he acknowledged that some people in the reptile industry criticized the pop star for promoting the snake without educating the population on its needs, there were also those who thought Spears’s performance was important to the snake community. “It raised awareness for these animals, which people don’t typically think of as cute — but they’re terribly important animals in the ecosystem,” he said.

Somehow, I never imagined that Spears’s VMAs performance would be so polarizing among the albino burmese python industry, and yet, here we are.

I found another albino burmese python named Banana at a zoo in Missouri. Despite matching the name and gender, it became extremely apparent that this was not Britney’s Banana when I was informed that this particular snake was seized from a meth lab closure at a young age. I also came across a Banana in New York, but a representative from My Reptile Guys confirmed that she was not THE Banana.

Frustrated with my findings, I turned my attention to New York City animal rentals and Hollywood snake wranglers. Enter “Hollywood’s No. 1 Snake Wrangler,” Jules Sylvester. (He’s been doing this for 50 years, and according to People, he’s never been bitten.)

Sylvester had a few albino burmese pythons on hand, including one named Banana — and another named Steve — but before I even finished my question he informed me that his Banana was not Britney’s Banana. Although, his Banana did slither around Salma Hayek in From Dusk Till Dawn and star in Glee‘s Britney Spears tribute episode. “That was theoriginal Banana,” he said, adding that the Dusk snake is roughly 12-feet long and weighs 65-70 pounds now and it most recently hung on Kayley Cuoco’s shoulders during a Spears performance on Lip Sync Battle.

“I did a Britney Spears shoot with a gecko,” Sylvester said. “The one where she’s in a gold bikini and there’s a gecko on the mirror. That was in Los Angeles, before the albino burmese python.”

So Sylvester may not have been my key to finding Banana, but I did find Britney’s gecko from the “I’m A Slave 4 U” music video. (That gecko is dead now.) I also discovered that these albino burmese pythons are a bit “dumb in the head,” as Sylvester put it.

There also seemed to be some debate about Banana’s gender. Several of the herpetologists I spoke to, Sylvester included, suggested that, given its size, Banana looked like a male snake. An old VMAs rehearsal video I found on YouTube even seemed to corroborate this, as the handler clearly refers to the snake using male pronouns. Had Britney Spears been lying to me this entire time? If Banana wasn’t even a girl, how could I be so sure that his name was even Banana?

The morning after speaking with Sylvester, I received a call from Catherine Long at All Creatures Great & Small, an animal agency in New York. I barely had time to ask her a question before she told me, gently, that it was very unlikely that Britney’s Banana was still alive. Of course I knew that was always a possibility, seeing as these snakes have an average lifespan of 20-25 years, but I wasn’t ready to accept defeat.

Long referred to the albino burmese python as the “Monet of Snakes” because of their coloration and beauty. “As herpetologists learn more, and breed more, they have now all these different versions of colors and patterns that have become more prevalent.”

Spears’s impact on the designer snake industry is a real thing. Rob Carmichael, a herpetologist and curator for the Wildlife Discovery Center in Lake Forest, IL, has two albino burmese pythons — Daisy and Dorthy — and he told me that when visitors want to take photos with the snakes, he asks them, “Do you want a Britney Spears?”

Of the 2001 Spears performance, Long “I’ve watched that many times, and I see that she was obviously instructed how to hold it properly, and she’s not swinging it around. She’s holding it securely, and it looks like a safe situation.”

But who educated the pop star on how to handle a snake of that size? It was the mystery man in the YouTube video I found. That was the exact moment I realized the key to this entire mystery was him. He would lead me to Banana.

The benefit of working at a place like MTV News is all of the throwback footage we have stored away in our vault. So when I asked for all of the backstage footage from the 2001 VMAs, MTV provided me with one 58-minute video. There, at the 48:50 mark was my answer: Spears’s credentials list. And I could not decipher a goddamn thing.

Amaro? Amoro? Amos? Who was that snake trainer?! My Google searches yielded nary a decent result. Then, like a sign from Godney herself, I heard someone in the video say, “The snake is over there in the cooler by Mike, the trainer.” MICHAEL. HIS NAME IS MICHAEL. And there was THE Banana — in a bag in a Thermos cooler just chilling next to Michael in a seat at the Metropolitan Opera House. He introduces himself as Mike Hano.

“They asked me to bring the snake today that’s going to be used in Britney Spears’s act,” he tells the camera guy. When asked how long the snake was, Hano says “about seven-feet long.” And the reason Banana was being stored in a cooler? It makes them easier to transport. “I took the train down with it,” Hano explains.

Oh. My. God.

The next step was finding Hano, and admittedly, it wasn’t too difficult. I searched for “Michael Hano Snake New York City,” and found an email for a Michael Hano on a Reptile Expo vendors list. I also found a Michael Hano on Facebook, and when I saw a boa constrictor wrapped around his neck in his profile photo, I knew I had found my guy.

When I eventually told Hano about my quest to find Banana, he paused:

Hano: “Who told you that [name]?”

Me: “Britney once tweeted that the snake’s name was Banana. Is it not Banana?”

Hano: “No.”

Me: “Oh my god.”

Hano: “They might have given it a name just for their own use while they were doing the job, but this is the first I’ve heard of it.”

Me: “So what was the snake’s name?”

Hano: “Who said a snake has a name?”

Me: “Well, what did you tell Britney when she asked?

Hano: “Sometimes, when I come to these jobs, if people ask me if the animal has a name, usually it doesn’t have a name, so they just make up a name. And then for the rest of the job, they refer to it using that name… I don’t recall the name Banana.”

OK, so the famous albino burmese python on Spears’s shoulders was not actually named Banana at the time of the performance, but Hano did confirm that the female snake is still alive and living with a friend. “It’s a lot bigger now,” he said, estimating it was 20-25 pounds in 2001, and is roughly 100 pounds and around 14 feet today. “It was young then. Burmese pythons that size are not even sexually mature yet. They can reach that size in their first year of life, so it was nowhere near full-grown at that time.”

Hano booked the 2001 VMAs through an agency he had been working with for years. As for the snake, she actually belonged to a different owner at the time. Although Hano had of course heard of Spears before meeting her in rehearsals, he had never really listened to any of her music.

That being said, Hano was immediately impressed with Spears’s work ethic. “She seemed like she was a really hard worker and very determined,” he said. “She was scared of snakes, and this thing was right around her neck, and she had to dance with it on live television in front of millions of people. I remember when I got there, there was a whole bunch of people on the stage, and they’re all rehearsing and even when the director told them to take five, she kept practicing her steps.

“She was afraid of the snake, but she forced herself to handle it, and she did a really great job.”

Still, Hano said he’s surprised by the snake’s lasting legacy in pop culture. “There was also a tiger — an adult tiger — in that performance, and that was the big deal, even though it wasn’t featured as much in the show. Britney didn’t have to handle that thing like she did the snake, but in some ways, that was really a bigger deal for me.” (Doc Antle, the tiger handler for Spears’s VMA performance, informed me that, sadly, the rare golden tabby tiger that starred alongside the snake has since died.)

For the rest of us, however, we were transfixed by the snake. Brit’s VMAs performance of “I’m A Slave 4 U” was exhilarating, provocative, and fearless — all the things that make the VMAs truly an event. And it was all thanks to an albino burmese python formerly known as Banana.