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After a two-year absence, iHeartRadio’s Z100 Jingle Ball returned live to Madison Square Garden in New York City Friday night (Dec. 10) with a lineup that included Ed Sheeran, Lil Nas X, The Jonas Brothers, AJR, Saweetie, Bazzi, Dixie D’Amilio and Kane Brown.

While the re-emergence of the yearly fiesta feting the year’s biggest hits is a welcome return to holiday normalcy — or as iHeartRadio Chairman and CEO Bob Pittman describes it to Variety as “that snapshot of all the biggest songs as we go into Christmas” — the ghost of coronavirus lingered with the announcement that scheduled performer Doja Cat would not be appearing due to several members of her production team testing positive for COVID-19. Dua Lipa –still battling the laryngitis that caused her to pull out of last week’s show in Los Angeles — was unable to perform as well.

Despite the setbacks, the evening had plenty of highlights for the masked and vaxxed audience at the Garden, including a main stage promotion for Tai Verdes, who performed earlier at the All Access lounge pre-show but was granted a Cinderella moment that he more than embraced, jumping all over the stage for his hit, “AOK.” Hometown heroes The Jonas Brothers (Joe Jonas actually rode a Citi Bike to the show) and AJR turned in sets that were celebrated with thunderous applause from a crowd adorned in lit reindeer antlers, with Lil Nas X wrapping the night with hits “Industry Baby,” “Old Town Road,” “Montero (Call Me by Your Name), fashion flair and loads of confetti.

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK – DECEMBER 10: (L-R) Kevin Jonas, Joe Jonas, and Nick Jonas of The Jonas Brothers attend the iHeartRadio Z100 Jingle Ball 2021 on December 10, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for iHeartRadio ) iHeartRadio

Other highlights included Sheeran getting a video introduction by his holiday collaborator on “Merry Christmas” Elton John; Charli D’Amelio jumping on stage as a backup dancer during her sister’s performance of her Christmas song, “Naughty List”; the Jonas Brothers performing their 2019 track “Like It’s Christmas; AJR bringing virtual fireworks to their show closer, “Weak”; and “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon debuting his viral holiday hit, “It Was A… (Masked Christmas)” just before introducing a stunning Saweetie to perform hits “Icy Girl” and “Best Friend.”

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK – DECEMBER 10: Saweetie performs onstage during iHeartRadio Z100 Jingle Ball 2021 on December 10, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for iHeartRadio) iHeartRadio

“Real Housewives of New York City” star Bethenny Frankel and Nicky Hilton Rothschild gave Jingle Ball performer Tate McRae a big intro, telling the crowd, “She got her start as a dancer for one of the biggest pop stars on the planet — Justin Bieber — and now she’s in the spotlight.”

Backstage, the mood was just as festive as stars Martha Stewart, “Real Housewives of New Jersey” star Melissa Gorga, “The Bachelorette” star Tayshia Adams, Drew Barrymore, “Friends” icon David Schwimmer, Busy Philipps, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Laverne Cox, Chloe Bailey, up-and comers from the All Access pre-show and assorted Instagram influencers gathered together toasting the return of live music and merriment in Manhattan, with a few fake snowballs lobbed around for good measure with wishes for a brighter New Year.

Asked what she was looking forward to in 2022, Hilton spoke for everyone as she told Variety her hope is for things “to slowly return back to normal, and one day my kids won’t have to wear masks to school.”

Here are more moments from backstage:

Laverne Cox Celebrates Lil Nas X

Lil Nas X has a big fan in “Orange is the New Black” star Laverne Cox, who sang his praises to Variety. “I am obsessed with Lil Nas X,” she said. “He had this incredible, epic year. The videos, the controversy. I think he’s made trolling an art form. A few months ago I said — this is on my Instagram — ‘this is officially a Lil Nas X account until further notice.’ I am all in, and I think the music is fun and he is great and provocative. The ‘Montero (Call Me by Your Name)’ video, I don’t think we have had that kind of controversy since Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer.’ That’s what it felt like to me. I could be wrong. I’m old. There is something very zeitgeist-y about him that is really fantastic and provocative and that is what musicians have been doing for a really long time. He happens to be an openly gay black man in hip-hop, and that is truly revolutionary.”

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK – DECEMBER 10: Laverne Cox attends iHeartRadio Z100 Jingle Ball 2021 on December 10, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for iHeartRadio) iHeartRadio

Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Masked Christmas’ Has a Big Fan in President Joe Biden

“Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon may soon be rivaling Mariah Carey in the holiday hit parade with his new collaboration, “It Was A (Masked Christmas),” featuring Ariana Grande and Megan Thee Stallion. Said Fallon: “Two months ago, this song was nothing. We didn’t know. I just wrote it and I wanted to do something original. I love holiday songs, and I wanted to do something topical. So I was trying to think of all the things, anything that can make you smile, and everything we have been through in such a rough year. So, I was like, all of us learning zoom, how do we get the best reception in the house, you know?” He thought to reach out to Grande, but assumed she would be busy. Fallon was surprised when Grande got back to her a month later to not only record backing vocals, but to ask “Meg” — as in Thee Stallion — to rap about getting “boosters.” “And now the President is tweeting about it,” Fallon marveled. Asked about his favorite song — besides his — in 2021, Fallon confessed to being a Swiftie. “According to my Spotify Wrapped, it’s Taylor Swift. My girls used my Spotify too, so we play nothing but Taylor Swift all the time.”

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK – DECEMBER 10: Jimmy Fallon attends the iHeartRadio Z100 Jingle Ball 2021 on December 10, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for iHeartRadio ) iHeartRadio

Bethany Frankel and Daughter, Brynn, Enjoy a Mommy-Daughter Date Night

“Real Housewives” star Bethany Frankel walked the carpet with her “peanut” — 11-year old Bryn — who was excited to see her favorites for the evening: Dixie D’Amelio, Dua Lipa and Doja Cat. While she didn’t get to see two of those acts, Bryn was a delight on the carpet, charming reporters and taking in all the excitement with Mom, who proudly revealed it was her very first concert. Frankel had some news of her own to share: the reality star — who dove into the world of podcasting with iHeartRadio — is about to launch a second podcast in the new year. “It’s been a great experience,” she said. “This has been my favorite project and it keeps growing millions and millions of subscribers. I’m really lucky I get to do this. I never listened to a podcast my entire life, and I just jumped in and wanted to have a conversation and it’s been really well-received.”

Mckenna Grace Celebrates Streaming Milestone

At just 15-years old, Mckenna Grace–the youngest-ever Emmy Award nominee in a guest actor category for her performance of Mrs. Keyes in “The Handsmaid’s Tale” — took in a night of fun at the Jingle Ball celebrating her year-end accomplishments. Those include starring in “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” with Paul Rudd and the release of her new song, “Haunted House,” which just hit one million streams on Dec. 10. “There’s so much going on, and I’m really thankful  for everything coming back to some kind of normalcy,” said Grace. “And I’m really thankful to be here right now.” Grace, who has been working for ten years in such films as “I, Tonya,” “Captain Marvel” and “Gifted,” is new to the Jingle Ball scene. “I went to the one last week in California, and I was two hours late because of the traffic in Los Angeles,” she said. “I did see Ed Sheeran, so that was pretty cool. … I’ve never really been anywhere like this before, so it’s cool since it’s more of a music dominated thing. I’m so used to acting now since it’s been ten years of trying to work and establish myself and all these things, but now I’m so fresh and new to this music thing and I’m so excited and thankful to be here after my first single.”

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK – DECEMBER 10: Tai Verdes performs onstage during iHeartRadio Z100 Jingle Ball 2021 on December 10, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for iHeartRadio) iHeartRadio

AJR Celebrates Higher Learning — and TikTok Success

New York natives AJR –Jack, Ryan and Adam Met — had plenty to celebrate on the red carpet, including oldest brother Adam earning his PhD from the U.K.’s University of Birmingham the day before the Jingle Ball. “I just finished my PhD in human rights law,” said Adam. “I did it all from the back of the tour bus, because I like doing things at the same time.”  The band also skipped to “The Good Part” in 2021 when TikTok gave that song a second wind. “We knew it had the power to bring songs back that would definitely have never had a shot if it wasn’t for TikTok. We never really thought it would happen to us,” said Jack. The band also gave props to Jingle Ball performer Tai Verdes’ “AOK” as one of the best songs of 2022, along with “The Anxiety” by Willow Smith. As for the group’s wish list for 2022: an invite to perform at festivals. “I would like to be a part of them,” said Jack. “They haven’t asked us to be a part of them yet, but if they do, we would say yes.”

Mae Muller Lands on U.S. Soil for First Performace

Fresh off her performance of “Better Days” with Neiked and Polo G on NBC’s “The Voice,” Mae Muller’s Jingle Ball performance was just one of many career firsts. With the song hitting 400 million global streams this year — just this week the track was the most added song at pop radio — Muller says the time is now to launch a 2022 tour, and what better way to debut than at The Jingle Ball? “This was my first live performance in the United States, which is so amazing,” she said. Muller, who hails from the U.K., watched the Jingle Ball from afar, catching clips on Twitter. “I can’t believe I’m here,” she exclaimed. Asked about another British act that fared well debuting at the Jingle Ball — One Direction — Muller playfully wiped a tear from her eye. “I wish I was around for that,” she said. .”

Drew Barrymore Fangirls Tate McRae on the Red Carpet

Tate McRae, who began her career dancing for Justin Bieber and scored a huge hit of her own in 2020 with “You Broke Me First,” had a moment with Drew Barrymore, who grabbed her for a hug and lavished her with compliments about her music and performance. “I loved watching you tonight,” Barrymore said, insisted on posing for a photo and declaring the two as twins. The 18-year old Canadian — who recently moved to Los Angeles — revealed that her album is just about done. Said McRae: “It’s been stressful putting it together, but I am very happy it’s finished now. It’s basically documenting the last six months of my life, moving to L.A., turning 18, going through heartbreaks.” As for holiday plans, McRae is going home to visit family and sample some items on the new Tim Hortons/Justin Bieber menu collaboration, Timbiebs Timbits. “It’s a must,” she added.