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What does it take to get the normally happy-go-lucky Nelly all worked up?

“I’m slipping out!” the rap star shrieked, as he dangled 20 feet above the stage at Madison Square Garden on Friday afternoon. His Grammy rehearsal for “Hot in Herre” wasn’t going quite as smoothly as planned. The harness he was strapped into wouldn’t behave — he yelped and cursed the first time they hoisted him up when it pinched him in the wrong place. Then, his dancers, who were supposed to unleash him from it once he descended, couldn’t unhook it.

This story first appeared in the February 25, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Then came his duet, “Dilemma” with Kelly Rowland. Sick with the flu, she watched from the sidelines, surrounded by her bodyguards, as a stand-in, wearing a matching newsboy cap, shimmied alongside the rapper, who sang both parts off-key, much to the amusement of his entourage. He even cracked himself up. When the back-up dancers wiggled too close, Nelly laughed so hard he couldn’t rap. Singing Rowland’s part — “Nelly, I love you” — almost sent him into hysterics. After two hours, Nelly finally dragged a feverish Rowland on stage, and she lip-synched and danced her way through the performance in a pair of stiletto boots.

Post-Grammy practice, most of the artists, including John Mayer and the Dixie Chicks, hit the Distinctive Assets Grammy lounge, where they picked up freebies like the new Nintendo Gameboy or in Ashanti’s case, a manicure. But while the $20,000 gift bag for the show’s participants packed everything from Crest White Strips to an iPod, there was no antidote for Rowland’s symptoms — or a cure for Nelly’s giggles.

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