Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake’s halftime show mishap 20 years later

The “wardrobe malfunction” seen around the world continues to haunt the Super Bowl 20 years later.

During the 2004 Super Bowl, headliner Janet Jackson took the stage alongside surprise guest Justin Timberlake. 

During the halftime show, Timberlake famously ripped Jackson’s costume, revealing her right breast, which was bare except for a nipple ring. The legendary songstress immediately found herself blacklisted by CBS and MTV and barred from the Grammy telecast.

Sarah Ditum, the author of “Toxic: Women, Fame, and the Tabloid 2000s,” told Fox News Digital the circumstances behind the salacious stunt remain a mystery.


“Nipplegate” is being revisited 20 years later. (Kevin Winter)

“Nobody really knows what happened except that more was revealed than should have been revealed,” Ditum explained. “It’s either because the costume was constructed in such a way that more came away than what was meant to, or it’s because Justin Timberlake grabbed more than he was meant to because the lights went up at the wrong moment and there should have been darkness.

“One of those things happened, but no one has ever spoken about exactly what happened,” she shared. “Everyone has been really clear that something was planned, and it didn’t go as it should have. So it’s still a mystery.”

The “malfunction” happened at the very end of Jackson’s performance when Timberlake joined her onstage. It wasn’t until Timberlake sang his last line — “I’m gonna have you naked by the end of this song” — that he pulled back a piece of Jackson’s outfit and exposed one of her breasts on live television.

Book cover for Toxic

Sarah Ditum has written a new book, “Toxic: Women, Fame, and the Tabloid 2000s.” (Harry N. Abrams)

While Jackson was blasted by the press following the scandal, Timberlake walked away from the controversy seemingly unscathed. Some speculated that either Jackson or a member of her team planned the stunt.

The incident was referred to as “Nipplegate.”


“Janet Jackson was 37 at the time when this happened,” said Ditum. “Now we’re very used to female pop stars having long careers, but [at that time] you could only really look at someone like Madonna, who managed to get across the great 40s divide and continue her career. 

“And Janet Jackson at that point had very much built her image on her sex appeal. People were very resistant to the idea of a woman approaching 40 and still being sexy at that point. Again, that seems bizarre to us now … but, at the time, there was a lot of commentary about ‘It’s disgusting that she got her breast out … her 37-year-old breast out.'”

Jane Jackson looking at a stunned Justin Timberlake

Singers Janet Jackson and surprise guest Justin Timberlake perform during the halftime show at the Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers at Reliant Stadium Feb. 1, 2004, in Houston. (Frank Micelotta)

Ditum said that whether the move was intentional or not, Jackson was unfairly “spat out” by the press, and racism toward her was prominent.

“She was blacklisted from radio stations, and blacklisted from VH1 and MTV,” she noted. “She then found her work in Black American culture. So, she was doing Tyler Perry movies during her post-Nipplegate era. I think that’s significant. I think it shows how much it was about White America rejecting her.”

In the 2021 documentary, “Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson,” Salli Frattini, a senior vice president for MTV who worked on the planning for the halftime show, recalled the incident. In the doc, Frattini noted that Jackson “never said anything” to her team about the mishap and, instead, left shortly after the performance.

Justin Timberlake holding Janet Jackson on stage

At the end of the infamous performance, Justin Timberlake tore away a piece of Janet Jackson’s outfit.  (Frank Micelotta)

“Here we are trying to ask the person that this has happened to because this happened to her, and she was gone,” Frattini said. “Then we sought out Justin. We pulled him aside one to one. He was like, ‘That was never meant to happen.’ I was told you guys knew. He was very apologetic. He manned up.”

Another person interviewed for the docuseries claimed Jackson looked “distraught” immediately after the performance.

The film also touched on previous reports that Jackson’s stylist may have gone shopping at the last minute to change her wardrobe for the performance before the big day.


Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake dancing on stage

Janet Jackson was blacklisted following her Super Bowl performance. (Frank Micelotta)

The film did not end with any true answers from those at the center of the controversy, including Jackson, Timberlake and former CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves. Jackson’s stylist also did not participate.

“Janet later said in her … documentary that it was really hard and upsetting,” said Ditum. “I think it was very cruel because she was at the top of her game. Then this happened, and it meant that everything she did was perceived as a failure afterward, even though she was not a failure. 

“I think her next album went to No. 2 rather than No. 1, but it was still deemed not good enough. And it eventually led to her breaking her relationship with her record label and being out in the cold for a long time in a way that’s really unreasonable given the caliber of her music and the cultural importance of her as an artist.

“It left her in a pretty horrible position,” Ditum continued. “I think if you look at the way she talks about it, you can tell she’s pretty sore about it, reasonably enough.”

A collection of Janet Jackson CDs at a store

Janet Jackson attempted to keep a low profile after Justin Timberlake famously called the incident a “wardrobe malfunction.” (Stan Honda/AFP)

Jackson, 57, and Timberlake, 43, didn’t immediately respond to Fox News Digital’s request for comment.

Following “Nipplegate,” the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), received more than half a million complaints, prompting an investigation to determine if the show violated its indecency standards.


Viacom’s 200 owned and affiliated stations were threatened with a penalty of up to $27,500 if indecency violations were found, plus penalties against CBS, Jackson and Timberlake, The Washington Post reported. According to the outlet, the FCC fined CBS $550,000 for “airing the wardrobe malfunction.” 

However, it was later voided by a U.S. Court of Appeals.

A screen shot of YouTube

YouTube was partially inspired by “Nipplegate.” (Jeff J Mitchell)

“There was an authentic outrage,” said Ditum. “Decency became a crusade, and Janet stepped straight into a fight that was looking for an object to blame.”

The incident forever impacted pop culture history. The term “wardrobe malfunction” was believed to have been first used by Timberlake in 2004. And with no online platform catering to “viral videos,” Chad Hurley, Steven Cehn and Jawed Karim came up with the idea for YouTube. The online video-sharing platform launched in 2005.

The creators later revealed that they were partially inspired by the Super Bowl incident, People magazine reported.

Justin Timberlake performing on stage

Justin Timberlake performs on stage during the Pepsi Super Bowl LII Halftime Show at U.S. Bank Stadium Feb. 4, 2018, in Minneapolis.  (Focus on Sport)

“I think because the public was originally so swept along with what happened — it was a genuinely shocking thing to happen — that it was so important technologically as well,” Ditum explained. “It was the first time that something like this happened. And it was possible to replay it over and over again because you had TiVo, an early TV recording technology. You also had access to the internet where you could, with some difficulty, share video files. So, it could go viral in a way that it couldn’t have gone before.

“That influenced not just pop culture, but the development of technology,” Ditum shared. “So, the guys who founded YouTube have said that Nipplegate and the difficulty of locating videos of Nipplegate was one of their inspirations for developing a centralized video-sharing website, which is kind of amazing when you think about it.

“The interest in this woman’s moment of humiliation could be so strong that it could drive technological innovation in that way.”


A photo of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake penned an apology to both Janet Jackson and Britney Spears following the release of “Framing Britney Spears.” (Kevin Mazur/WireImage/Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartMedia)

Timberlake returned to the Super Bowl in 2018 as the headlining act, where he referred to the 2004 incident. According to People magazine, before delivering the infamous lyric, “Bet I’ll have you naked by the end of this song,” Timberlake said, “Hold on, stop!” and the music switched to a different song.

In 2021, he penned his first apology to Jackson following the release of the documentary “Framing Britney Spears,” People magazine reported.

“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,” he wrote on Instagram.

In the 2022 A&E documentary “Janet,” Jackson said she and Timberlake “are friends” and “have moved on.”

Janet Jackson performing on stage

Janet Jackson performs onstage at ONE MusicFest at Piedmont Park Oct. 28, 2023, in Atlanta. (Paras Griffin/Getty Images for ONE Musicfest)

“Honestly, this whole thing was blown way out of proportion. And, of course, it was an accident that should not have happened, but everyone is looking for someone to blame and that’s got to stop,” she said.

“Justin and I are very good friends, and we will always be very good friends. We spoke just a few days ago. He and I have moved on, and it’s time for everyone else to do the same.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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