Backstage at the iHeartRadio Music Festival With Maren Morris, Avril Lavigne, Lionel Richie, Morgan Wallen, Kim Petras and Sam Smith, More

The iHeartRadio Music Festival, after 12 years as a staple event in Las Vegas’ datebook, took over the T-Mobile Arena Friday and Saturday with the top stars of music and podcasting, radio and streaming, canvassing both the audience, onstage and backstage. Known for its surprise collaborative performances and world premieres, the iHeartRadio Festival crosses genres and formats. This year belonged to country stars, legacy acts and viral sensations.

Featuring performances from Black Eyed Peas, Lionel Richie, Morgan Wallen, Diplo, Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo, Pitbull, Sam Smith and the Black Keys, the action behind the scenes began to roll around 6 p.m. on night one, all leading into a 7:30 p.m. showtime.

To loosen up the nerves and spark the ultimate cross-marketing opportunity, Casa Dragones, the tequila brand co-founded by iHeart CEO Bob Pittman and Bertha González Nieves, gifted each artist performing at the event a custom-wrapped bottle of its newly launched fourth expression, Tequila Casa Dragones Reposado Mizunara.

Libations aside, those backstage knew it was almost curtain-time when a parade of bubbly dancers in blue-sequined mini-dresses rushed the stage to hit their marks for Pitbull, the evening’s opener. 

The Cuban-American rapper roused the crowd with more than half-dozen of his biggest hits, including 2022’s “Can’t Stop Us Now” with Zac Brown.

“Nobody would’ve ever thought we would have a record with Zac Brown,” Pitbull told the audience.

As the Miami hitmaker took the stage, on the sidelines, iHeartRadio Festival producers took a celebratory selfie with Mr. Worldwide as their background.

While action kicked into gear in the front of the house, backstage, Sam Smith and Kim Petras, who officially released their viral hit “Unholy” this week, shared a fashion moment while making their way through pre-show duties. The duo fawned over each other’s looks. “So slutty,” they said with a giggle, of their Vegas-appropriate sparkle outfits. 

During Smith’s set, they brought Petras onstage for the live debut of “Unholy,” Smith’s first single in two years. “It has been a crazy couple of days,” said Smith. “I released a song yesterday. I’ve been sitting on this song like a goose — it has been with me for a year.”

In August, Smith and Petras dance-teased the song on TikTok making it a viral sensation with over 29 million views and hundreds of thousands of users creating “Unholy” videos of their own. Petras, a German pop artist, topped viral musical charts with 2017’s  “I Don’t Want It At All.”

Petras says they’ve been talking about recording together for a few years and originally connected through a DM.

“I’m really proud and grateful that Sam asked me to collaborate with them on it,” Petras told Variety. “I had so much fun with an artist who actually writes, has an opinion and a vision. When they sent it to me I was immediately like ‘yes.’ It feels really fresh and new for Sam and for me, too. Together we made some magic and now we’re friends.”

Expect more appearances from Petras and Smith this year; and next year, an album from Petras.

Prior to introducing Smith, Lance Bass shared with Variety how proud he is to see LGBT artists at the forefront of the industry.

“Back in my day, you you couldn’t be [openly] gay and be in the music industry,” said Bass. “It was hard and no one really accepted you that much. The last 10 years, it has been incredible to see so many queer artists get their spotlight and they did it themselves.”

A few weeks ago, former sweethearts Bass and Danielle Fishel announced on her podcast “Pod Meets World” that their love story and prom date would be recounted in a new movie written by Lauren Lapkus and Mary Holland.

“I’ve now learned when I’m going to pitch my projects, I’m just going to announce it to the world because that thing sold very quickly after that came out,” he said. “We have an amazing studio that’s going to be hopefully making it if we can strike a good deal. I never thought that my prom night story would become such a fun movie.” 

The former NSYNC member, who was wearing a playful Balenciaga Pokemon sweater, noted that he was channeling that energy heading into his “dad’s weekend” in Vegas. “I’m excited, I haven’t been to a show in a very long time and I’m just going to relax,” he said. “My parents have my kids.” 

Also backstage, Bass slid effortlessly into a photo with rock legends Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo, who will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in November. Then the couple, married for 40 years, took the stage to perform their hits after an introduction from “One Tree Hill” and “Drama Queens” podcast hosts Sophia Bush, Hilarie Burton and Bethany Joy Lenz. Benatar and Giraldo’s set included the hits “Love Is a Battlefield” and even a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

Before Benatar and Giraldo performed, the Black Keys took their turn, with an introduction by Jennie Garth and Tori Spelling. The duos posed together on the red carpet as well. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney delivered a solid rock show beginning with “Howling for You” and closing with “Lonely Boy.”

The Black Eyed Peas, meanwhile, delivered an electrifying performance moving through their decades of hits from “Let’s Get It Started” to new track “Don’t You Worry” to “I Gotta A Feeling.”

Speaking to Variety, the Peas shared that “Don’t You Worry,” with Shakira, David Guetta and Farruko, reminded them of another collaboration they did a few years back that went very well.

Said “We toss songs around in text messages. David Guetta sent me the beat in 2008 to ‘I Got a Feeling.’ In 2022, he sent me the beat to ‘Don’t You Worry.’ And we went into the studio, chopped it up, sent it over to Shakira, and then Farruko dropped his verse. Remote work is awesome. Musicians started that shit.”

Following the Black Eyed Peas, Lionel Richie, who has a residency at the Encore Theater at Wynn Las Vegas, bounced through five chart-toppers, including “Dancing on the Ceiling” and “All Night Long,” while “Real Housewives” Meghan O’Toole King and Teddi Mellencamp and radio personality Bobby Bones (who recently announced his own one-night show at Encore Theater) and wife Caitlin Parker were seen dancing in the pit.

In an epic backstage moment, iHeartRadio Festival host Ryan Seacrest, Morgan Wallen and Richie chatted before a photo bombing by Black Eyed Peas. Richie hyped up the idea of leading a collaboration between the artists.

iHeartRadio Festival night one undoubtedly belonged to Wallen, whose “Dangerous: The Double Album” just established a new mark for the album by a single artist that has spent the most weeks in the Billboard 200 album chart’s Top 10: 86.

Before hitting the red carpet, Wallen asked his stylist to adjust his famous mullet, pushing the hair back behind his ears underneath his baseball cap.

Onstage Wallen played piano during “Sand in My Boots” and then took on his hits “Wasted On You” and “Whiskey Glasses” and more throughout his six-song set.

Diplo, coming straight from opening for Bad Bunny at Allegiant Stadium, grabbed a jumbo bag of popcorn in the hallway of T-Mobile Arena and brought it to the red carpet for his photo session. It was a big week for the DJ, who was awarded $1.2 million as a result of a violation of the restraining order agreement in his ongoing sexual harrassment case with a former fling.

To close out night one, Diplo and Wallen performed their collaboration “Heartless” for the first time.

Night two of the iHeartRadio Festival showcased pop-rock and hip-hop legacy acts, country chart toppers, a self-titled solo turn and a hot girl closer. On the bill, Avril Lavigne, Halsey, LL Cool J, Luke Combs, Marcus Mumford, Maren Morris, Megan Thee Stallion and Sean Diddy Combs represented five decades of hits.

The evening of unexpected collisions began when former high school classmates Luke Combs and Chase Rice spotted each other on the red carpet. Rice, who performed on the “daytime stage” and made his way backstage at T-Mobile during iHeartRadio Festival night two, shared that the camaraderie between country artists runs deep. Rice had dinner with Morgan Wallen the night before and also saw his set.

“He’s killing it right now,” Rice told Variety. “We did a handful of shows this summer together. And it’s just fun to see where he is in life. [Wallen] is happy and taking advantage of this moment.”

The good vibes extend across genres, something that happens organically at this event. “I didn’t think I’d ever share a stage with Avril Lavigne,” Rice said of the pop-punk artist who did a double shift between iHeartRadio daytime and nighttime events. “Different experiences like that makes this really special. You talk backstage. [Cheat Codes] is going to send me some songs, and we’ll see what we can do. I don’t know if it’ll work out. But there’s a lot of different things that could happen.”

Having just released the single “Key West & Colorado,” Rice revealed that next up for him is a real “dirty” track called “Way Down Yonder.” “It is the edge of the record. It’s real, it’s believable,” he said. “There are no tracks on the record, which is different for country music these days — believe it or not — because everybody’s doing tracks. None of that. There’s not even a click on it. The whole thing was based on the feel of the drummers — us playing off each other.”

Rice also amped for the song, “All Dogs Go to Hell, “which is an absolutely crazy title, I get it,” Rice confessed. “It’s a twist.”

EDM trio Cheat Codes, who also played the daytime stage, grabbed Luke Combs for a photo as he walked to the red carpet. Making major waves in the country world, they shared with Variety details about their country collaborations including Lady A, Jimmie Allen, Dolly Parton and Mackenzie Porter. They will even play Las Vegas’ Rodeo World in December all while maintaining their EDM residency at Zouk Nightclub at Resorts World.

“Like a British Invasion, we’re like the Nashville invasion,” cracked Kevi. “We just took over the city.”

“We’ve always loved country music,” added Trevor Dahl. “We worked on a song with Little Big Town and Lee Brice and that one turned into 13 songs. We weren’t forcing it at all.”

“I think our fans know that we do a little bit of everything,” said Matthew Russell. “We make music that you can listen to at the gym, you can listen to at the grocery store you can listen to at home. We want to make music for all different purposes in your life. We don’t really care about the genre, that’s secondary for us.”

Onstage, Lavigne celebrated 20 years since her debut album with a hit from then, “Girlfriend,” and a hit from now, “Bite Me,” from 2022’s “Love Sux,” on Travis Barker’s label DTA Records. She grabbed her guitar on “My Happy Ending” and went slow on “I’m With You,” closing with the ever-rocking “Sk8er Boi.”

Having just released his debut solo album “Self-Titled” on September 16, Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons fame started his five-song set with “Prior Warning” and then led into the collaboration with Clairo called “Dangerous Game.” Taking the crowd deeper into the new work, “Better Off High,” “Grace” and “Better Angels” rounded out the effort.

Luke Combs built a setlist that spanned his career “Hurricane,” “When It Rains It Pours” and “Lovin’ on You” among others. However, he started with a new track, “Kind of Love We Make,” from his long-awaited new album “Growin’ Up.” During his finale, he tossed a Solo cup into the audience while singing “Beer Never Broke My Heart.”

Maren Morris, who walked the red carpet and performed “I Can’t Love You Anymore” with husband Ryan Hurd, told Variety that these moments when their careers collide are very special.

Said Morris: “We met writing songs — Ryan and I — our music is so intertwined with our personal life. Now we’re both busy and we’re on separate tours so it’s very rare that we get days like this. We’re on the same day of a festival.” Hurd also performed a solo set on the daytime stage. “We have a few more weekends of my tour and then we have a vacation planned because he and I need to go away somewhere without and have husband and wife time to reconnect.”

Morris says that it all plays into teamwork. “I definitely want to start writing again. We’re staying busy when we can and then taking  time off and decompressing when we can as well. I feel like that’s the only way good songs come out — if you give yourself time to live some life.”

Of the lineup, she shared there was one performer topping her list: Meghan Thee Stallion. “I’m a Texas girl. So Meg, I’ve never seen her perform.”

Ryan Seacrest brought Las Vegas headliner Criss Angel on stage to introduce Diddy. Angel’s new show, “Magic With the Stars,” debuts Oct. 22 on the CW. The music mogul proceeded to do the Diddy dance cycling through his biggest hits of Bad Boy classics — from “Juicy” and “Mo Money More Problems” to “Bad Boy 4 Life” and “All About the Benjamins.” The big moment in his set was when son King Combs, 24, joined him for “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” based on the Bad Boy hit, “Crush on You,” with Lil’ Kim and Lil’ Cease. 

Leslie Jones, comedian and host of podcast “The Fckry With Leslie Jones and Lenny Marcus,” popped into the audience to watch Diddy. 

Rushing to make the pre-show rounds, Halsey made a brief appearance on the red carpet, calling for their stylist to fix the sheer black look. “This dress is really complicated and I’m trying to give you some sheer,” Halsey said to the photographers. Onstage, she brought the incredibly powerful presence for which she is known to “Nightmare,” “So Good,” “Bad at Love” and “Without Me,” and more. 

Backstage, LL Cool J made the rounds of photo opps before his set. Posting up in front of the stage door, it began to raise mid-snap, without skipping a beat, LL swaggered away saying, “We had a moment and the flood gates opened.” In the most thunderous performance of the night with DJ Z Trip, he blasted through his greatest hits from “Rock the Bells” to “Mama Said Knock You Out” and “I Need Love” to “Jingalin.” Boasting a career that launched in 1985, Uncle L may now officially be a godfather of hip-hop.

Toting her new album, “Traumazine,” and the final act of the festival, Megan Thee Stallion conquered the stage in a metallic bodysuit, an homage to the Silver State. Performing “Ungrateful” featuring Key Glock, “Her” and “Plan B,” she also bounced back to previous favorites such as  “WAP,” “Body,” “Thot Sh*t” and “Freak Nasty.” 

iHeartRadio Music Festival will air on CW during a two-night television special on Oct. 7-8 from 8-10 p.m.

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