A History of VMA Hosts: Why Keke Palmer Taking the Reins Is Such an Important Moment

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Keke Palmer at the "Hustlers" premiere during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

When Keke Palmer takes the stage at Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards, she'll be making history in more ways than one. 

The multi-talented performer will be the first woman of color to host the show since "Downtown" Julie Brown and her fellow MTV VJs emceed the awards in 1986 and 1987 -- years before Palmer was even born -- and the first ever to take on solo hosting duties.

Since its introduction back in 1984, the VMAs have featured a host for 28 of their 35 shows, going host-less in 2004, 2007, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2018. And the list of stars who have led the event is truly an eclectic mix of celebrity talents and star power. The first show in 1984 featured Dan Aykroyd and Bette Midler -- who, while major stars, didn't quite fit the VMAs vibe and got upstaged in the history books by Madonna's iconic "Like a Virgin" performance. 

After Aykroyd and Midler, MTV snagged the red-hot Eddie Murphy, fresh off Beverly Hills Cop and his debut musical album, for 1985's show, before turning things over to their mega-popular VJs -- including Brown, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, Martha Quinn, Dweezil Zappa, Carolyne Heldman and Kevin Seal -- in '86 and '87.

While always entertaining, those shows lacked some of the star power needed to go toe-to-toe with music's biggest names -- and so the network found their groove with a late-night legend, putting Arsenio Hall at the VMAs helm from 1988-91. In fact, Black male comedians have turned in some of the awards show's most celebrated hosting performances. Following Murphy and Hall, Chris Rock took the reins in 1997, 1999 and 2003, Marlon and Shawn Wayans hosted in 2000, Jamie Foxx emceed in 2001 and Kevin Hart led the show in 2012.

vma hosts arsenio chris rock shawn wayans marlon wayans jamie foxx
Getty Images/MTV

The first woman to host solo was Roseanne Barr in 1994, and it wasn't until 2010, when Chelsea Handler hosted, that the show was turned over to a female host once more. In 2015 and 2017, the VMAs went a different route, recruiting female pop superstars Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry, respectively, to try their hands at hosting -- with mixed results. 

Throughout the years, the VMAs stage has featured a mix of music's biggest stars, the moment's funniest comedians and epically entertaining personalities. And while the show tends to be more diverse than mainstream awards like the Oscars and GRAMMYs, women of color have been severely underrepresented on the hosting side -- particularly given how many of the awards themselves have gone to artists like Beyoncé, Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna, Cardi B and more female BIPOC. 

Thankfully for this year's VMAs, Palmer is all of the above. She's got the acting cred and music chops to bring legitimacy to the awards, her viral videos and TikTok performances prove she's got the creative energy to be the one-woman show the ceremony needs, and her ongoing activism will allow her to speak authentically to the moment at hand.

Palmer told ET's Rachel Smith that she's put a lot of thought into crafting a show for this particularly fraught moment in history -- amid a global pandemic and nationwide protests over racial injustice -- noting that she's hoping to help viewers "escape, but also [come] together."

"I think that's the big theme of the night when we think about it. Our whole mind has been going to, 'We're healing each other.' We're dealing with a lot, there's been a lot going on, so this is a time where we're coming together and we're letting the music bring us together."

As for how she'll handle the high-energy task of hosting from behind a computer screen, Palmer wasn't worried, teasing that she'll be "running all through the boroughs" of New York City to give fans "one night of fun."

"I'm so excited," she continued. "You're gonna get all Keke… We're getting as creative as we can, trying to make sure we can incorporate our awesome audience that the MTV VMAs usually always has, but within a way that's safe for everyone. Expect a cool surprise there. Then throughout [the show] we're figuring out all different ways that we can keep the excitement and the surprises going."

The 2020 MTV Video Music Awards air live Sunday, Aug. 30, at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on MTV. 

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