THE FAMOUS DANCER’S legs are hidden by the kind of white trouser suit favoured by the molls of Italian mobsters, but the tiny figure with the doe eyes who has just entered this luxuriously appointed Hollywood hotel room could only be Paula Abdul…or Prince.
Despite the fact that her second LP, Spellbound, has just topped the American album charts in only its second week of release and that its first single, ‘Rush Rush’, will top the Hot 100 a week later, Ms Abdul seems oddly hesitant. Maybe it’s those all-singing, all-dancing, non-stop videos, but somehow you expect Paula Abdul to burst through the door with an acrobatic leap before executing a groin-straining combination of splits, pirouettes and high kicks – all the while maintaining a teasing smirk behind a flounce of brown hair. Instead, Paula is dabbing distractedly at the leg of her trousers while muttering something about an accident with a drink. When she tries to sit down, she promptly collides with a table. Pop’s reigning dancing queen is a klutz – it’s official.
Soon she is explaining how she is always banging into things. She doesn’t mention the time she reportedly fell down a manhole on her way to school or how, at the age of eight, she crashed into a display of soup cans while “dancing” at her local grocery store. Instead, in a high, fragile voice, Paula relives her most embarrassing moment – a tumble at last year’s American Music Awards. Dressed to the nines in evening dress and a wealth of necklaces, Paula left the stage after accepting one of her two awards and tripped up on her way back to her seat. Fortunately, she managed to avoid spearing herself with her trophy but she still blushes at the thought of that star-studded audience and the sight of her managers with their heads in their hands.
Yet it is precisely Paula Abdul’s ability to combine her explosive dance moves and cheeky good looks with a goofy, “aw shucks” accessibility that has made her a worldwide pop phenomenon. With Madonna and Whitney Houston working the adult market and Debbie Gibson losing her stride, American pop radio was crying out for someone like Paula Abdul when her debut album, Forever Your Girl, was released in June, 1988. Like Madonna before her, Abdul’s first singles broke through black radio and the dance clubs before crossing over to pop radio and MTV, thus ensuring total media saturation.
Call her a “video artist” and she will point out quite forcibly that all her records have entered the American Top 10 before a video has been released to MTV. Yet it is the videos that have turned Abdul into a song-and-dance act to rival her old dancing pupil Janet Jackson and made her a multi-platinum star. Video might have been made for Paula, who has been training for her current success ever since she started taking dancing lessons at seven.
Born in LA in 1963 of a Brazilian-Syrian father and French-Canadian, Jewish mother, Paula’s racial mixture has ultimately stood her in good stead. “At Junior High in Van Nuys, the Hispanics thought I was part black and the blacks thought I was part Hispanic, so at times I was caught in the middle, trying to have my own identity. But it’s crossed barriers for me and made me accepted by a lot of different cultures.”
Growing up on the fringes of Hollywood, where her mother eventually worked as personal assistant to Billy Wilder, Abdul quickly decided that she wanted nothing more than to entertain. “As a kid, if MGM musicals like Seven Brides For Seven Brothers or West Side Story were on, I would just sit glued to the TV, fantasising that it was me on screen. To me, those were the good old days. There was so much passion and silly romance in those films, they really eased the depression of everyday life and I wanted to be growing up and doing that. In high school I knew I wanted to be an entertainer but I thought my calling was going to be on Broadway. I wanted to be a hoofer, a song and dance woman.”
The Young Paula may have dreamed of singing in the rain with Gene Kelly but her dancing education began with seven years of ballet lessons. Eventually she also began to study jazz, tap and modern dance while appearing in all the school musicals. Even at seven, she was a dab hand at choreography, organising all the school shows and literally dreaming most of her dance sequences, a talent that has since escaped her. As a teenager, she travelled round Northern California in the summer vacation with Kids Of America, a singing, dancing troupe. In 1978, she even had a small part in a movie, Junior High School, which has recently come back to haunt her. At 14, Paula had a rather prominent nose.
Van Nuys High School had a rough reputation with its potentially explosive combination of local Hispanics and bussed-in blacks but Abdul loved it, making class president and cheerleader. “I was the good guy but I wasn’t a goodie-goodie,” she recalls with a fond sigh. “Those were my most memorable days.”
When Abdul left High School, she turned down a scholarship to Juillard in order to pursue more commercial dance and went to college. Yet already Abdul had accepted that she would probably never make it as a professional dancer. “I knew I had the chops but I didn’t have the looks. You had to be just so skinny and tall. I knew going in to most auditions I probably wouldn’t make it but I just kept going. Often I wouldn’t get to show my stuff because of my shape and size. I’m a perfect example of someone who doesn’t have that perfect look. I do the best that I can with what I have.”
While at college at Northridge in California, Paula went along to try out as a cheerleader for Los Angeles’s basketball team, the Lakers. Confronted with 700 other, more conventionally shapely – “5′ 7″ with killer bodies” – contenders, Paula stared at her own number in the 390s and contemplated bottling out. Instead she delivered a virtuoso display with a dance style that still happily combines classical, Broadway and street steps into something fresh. One of 12 girls selected that day, the 17-year-old Paula was soon choreographing the Lakers’ cheerleading team. “I changed the whole face of cheerleading,” she says now. “Up to then, cheerleading was shaking pom-poms, rah-rah-rah and beautiful girls just jumping up and down. I got rid of the pompoms and that stereotypical tits-and-ass approach. I wanted the crowd to see serious dancing.”
This serious dancing also included plenty of the wholesome eroticism for which Abdul videos are now renowned. “The Laker girls were known to be sexy even though a lot of them didn’t conform to ‘the look’. I like sexuality to sneak up on you. I don’t think you have to be blatant or force it.”
The LA Lakers have probably the most star-studded following in the world. At 19, Abdul was spotted by The Jacksons who asked her to choreograph their ‘Torture’ video and then the Victory tour. Soon after, the President of A&M approached her to work with Janet Jackson, who was then working on the Control album and preparing to break out of her shell.
“Janet wasn’t a trained dancer so we spent almost a year slowly building her a style. She loved what I’d done with the Laker girls and a lot of those moves fitted her music. Working with Janet was my green card into the commercial world of choreography. Once her videos came out, I didn’t have a day off for the next two years.”
Despite these protestations of affection and professional respect for Janet, rumours persist that a fierce rivalry has sprung up between the two women since Paula went solo. When Virgin recently signed Janet Jackson to a much-trumpeted worldwide deal, Hollywood gossip had Paula gnashing her teeth, locked up in her bedroom for three days and then using this ‘betrayal’ to clinch her own Captive label deal with Virgin.
The Control videos launched Abdul on a non-stop round of choreography. Her clients included George Michael, Michael Hutchence, The Tracey Ullman Show, the last Luther Vandross tour and set pieces for films like Coming To America and Dragnet. Eventually the sheer volume of work exhausted her and temporarily drained her enthusiasm for dance. “When I feel good, I feel freer than you can imagine, like skiers on a slope. When it’s bad, it’s hell and I feel trapped. Then I just have to do other things. Most of my best work is done at seven in the morning or at 10 at night, alone in my studio at home with a video camera.”
Work has never frightened Paula Abdul. At the end of her two-year stint of choreography, she decided it was time to strike out on her own as a performer. No matter that she had only ever sung in the movie Junior High School, she set about working with a voice coach and eventually cut a demo.
Meanwhile, two of Abdul’s old pals, Jeff Ayeroff of Warners and Jordan Harris of A&M, launched Virgin America. The two men had both worked with Paula on video projects and both knew of her singing ambitions. Abdul and Steve Winwood were the first two signings to the new American label. Despite a lot of industry suspicion of what Abdul calls “the old-style Hollywood artist, the multi-talented performer”, her career took off like a rocket in the US. Forever Your Girl established Abdul as the latest model of the American girl next door, now multi-racial but still clean, cosy and non-threatening. The combination of breathy, high-pitched vocals and dance beats were perfectly pitched for the “Power” format of American radio shaped by Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince. Abdul’s appeal was sealed with the ‘Opposites Attract’ video in which, hot on the heels of Roger Rabbit, she danced with a rapping cartoon cat, MC Skat Kat. Using a canny mixture of hot producer/writer teams like LA and Babyface, Forever Your Girl produced no less than four American Number 1s, multi-platinum sales and a slew of prestigious awards and accolades. Even Time magazine took notice, describing her as “a kind of Doris Day For The ’90s”.
But a cloud has been hanging over Paula Abdul’s brilliant pop career almost since its inception. The recording of Forever Your Girl and its immediate success put immense strain on her weak and untutored voice. In the summer of 1989, Abdul joined Milli Vanilli and Tone-Loc on the 33-city Club MTV tour. Quite what Milli Vanilli were doing every night remains a mystery that even Paula won’t divulge, but she herself was putting her voice under great strain. In January, 1990, with her album at Number 1, Abdul’s voice virtually broke down. Vocal coach Catona has been working on it ever since and claims she now has an instrument that will happily survive her forthcoming world tour.
Yet Abdul’s personal struggles with her voice continue to arouse strong media suspicion of her rapid transformation from choreographer to singer. The Milli Vanilli scandal and recent bills demanding that artists declare if they are using backing tapes live has led to a press-led backlash against the new breed of what Billboard calls “the superimage artists”. Recently, backing singer Yvette Marine, who sang on three tracks of Forever Your Girl, has sued Virgin Records, claiming that she wasn’t properly paid for providing parts of the lead vocals used on the LP. Marine’s suit against Virgin was filed two weeks before the release of Spellbound. Its claims so enraged Abdul that she called a press conference to publicly insist that all the lead vocals on the album were hers and hers alone.
Today Paula simply shrugs off Marine’s claim and the accompanying press snipes by pointing out that “Success makes you a target”. She has already grown accustomed to the kind of tabloid tales which have had her nearly paralysed in a car crash and moving house because of ghosts. Like Cher, Paula Abdul is all showbiz determination; such struggles will only harden her resolve. Inevitably, movies will soon follow and she already has development deals with Disney and 20th Century Fox. Whether she can act like Cher is another matter but then she could barely sing when she started her pop career and that hasn’t harmed her much.
“Society snubs actors who’re trying to get record deals and it’s the same with dancers,” she argues level-headedly. “There was definite scepticism when I started, but when people tell me I can’t do something, the more determined I get. Even as little girl, if I made up my mind to do something, I was tough to deal with.”
Paula Abdul: you can almost smell the greasepaint.
© Mark Cooper, Q, August 1991