THE PERILS OF PAULA

August 20, 2009 – 4:13 am

Nowadays, people - especially young people - remember Paula Abdul as the ditzy co-host of American Idol, the one who is the butt of all the jokes on those late night talk shows. But she wasn’t always like that. A talented dancer and singer, a Grammy and Emmy winner, Paula Abdul had gone through the grist mill (that included a highly publicised divorce, a dubious law suit and a eating disorder) to get to the top. Back in 1995 when Gerrie Lim interviewed the singer on her album Head Over Heels, she seemed to be completely in command. This article was published in BigO #114 (June 1995).

Forever your girl, she once declared she’d be, but Paula Abdul circa 1995, at age 31, is decidedly a girl no more. Once a sassy Laker Girl, once a much sought-after choreographer (for Janet Jackson, Duran Duran and even ZZ Top, to cite her impressive resume), she’d then had the world spellbound with record sales exceeding 17 million, encompassing in the United States alone two No. 1 albums, six No. 1 singles, a Grammy, two Emmys, three American Music Awards and five MTV Awards.

But the success of the first two albums (1988’s Forever Your Girl and 1991’s Spellbound) were as resoundingly followed by distress - a bizarre lawsuit (in which backup singer Yvette Marine charged that Abdul had not sung all her vocals on Forever Your Girl; the case went to trial, and Virgin Records and Abdul were acquitted), a much-publicised divorce from actor Emilio Estevez, in tandem with bouts of a eating disorder, all of which landed her in the magic kingdom of therapyland. And so, a three-year hiatus from recording resulted.

But, as effervescent as her perky onstage persona, Abdul bounced back. A new album, Head Over Heels, opens a new chapter for her, along with “an engagingly renewed attitude” (as her Virgin Records publicity bio doth brag) and a perhaps uncharacteristic new single, My Love Is For Real, a funky mix of Middle-Eastern grooves percolating with the vocals of Israeli chanteuse Ofra Haza.

The album nevertheless extends Abdul’s familiar terrain and should keep her at the zenith of dance-pop divadom. Or that was the assumption anyway, when I met with the petite singer herself on a bright spring morning, at a private suite in the posh Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills.

Abdul, in person, is far smaller yet far more winsome than her media images would suggest. Her music, however, is still probably the perfect confection for anyone wanting to (to plagiarise her own album title) fall head over heels. Or at least, shimmy up the dance floor. For all the usual good reasons, she should once again sell lots of records. Forever and ever, of course. Or what else is a dance diva for?

GERRIE LIM: In your new Virgin Records press bio, you mention having experienced a sense of creative and spiritual renewal in the making of this new album. I wonder if you could enlarge or expand upon what you meant by that.

PAULA ABDUL: I had to jump a lot of hurdles in the past few years. This has been the first time ever that I’ve had time off. The success of the first album ran a couple of years, and as I was still promoting Forever Your Girl I was working on the second album. And, as it works with promotion and marketing, you take a vacation and you go away for a while, so I did have time off.

The past two-and-a-half to three years for me have been filled with lots of ups and downs and emotional things in my life. Having worked through all that and finding how to have my own inner peace through it has allowed me to experience a whole different experience on the creative level.

How did you find your inner peace?

Through tons of talking. I learned how to prioritise things in my life. I worked with a great therapist who really encouraged me to talk about my feelings and it was a real rewarding experience, because there were things with my divorce and things with the eating disorder that came up. I didn’t want to start my album. I wanted to be at peace with myself and that’s why I took time off, to get it all cleared up.

Well, I honestly wasn’t going to bring up words like “divorce” and “eating disorder,” so the fact that you yourself bring them up seems to indicate that you’re quite unfazed by all that now. Particularly by the fact that it’s all quite publicly known.

It’s publicly known, and I’m not ashamed of it. I’m like millions of other women that have to deal with their size and shape, and especially being in this industry it perpetuates the idea that women are “supposed” to look a certain way. Well, that’s not true. You’re supposed to be the way that you are.

I just know that if I exercise reasonably, if I’m eating reasonably, and I’m constantly working on acceptance of my size and shape, then that’s who I am. And I don’t listen to what the media or the tabloids say. That was a big change for me, learning how to handle things differently.

But at the same time I’m sure you’re aware that a lot of people see you as a role model for young women. Do you ever feel self-conscious about that? Do you get insomnia knowing you’ve always got to look good?

Of course there are times when I feel the pressure of being a role model but, you know, that’s just a symptom of my success. Or rather, that’s just the benefit of my success - having a “positive” image. I get thousands and thousands of letters from other girls who suffer from the same self-esteem problems or have distorted images of themselves. I don’t want to be the poster girl for “Look, she recovered from an eating disorder!” (laughs)

But in a way it’s really incredible to be able to have letters that say “If you can go through what you went through and come out the other side, then I can. I can be not afraid to tell my family or my boyfriend or my husband,” that sort of thing. So, a lot of positive has come out of it.

Do you feel like there’s been too much responsibility imposed on you as not only a public figure but also a successful recording artist, as a “celebrity”?

I think that, if anything, I put my own pressures on myself. I don’t feel an extreme amount of pressure living up to being whatever anyone calls me. If I’m a positive role model, that’s only because I am who I am. I don’t try to categorise myself, like “I want to be this way.”

I try to do the right thing, I try to be a decent person and I know that I am. That’s just how I am. If it helps other people and people can identify with me, then that’s just a benefit. But I don’t really feel that pressure. (laughs) It’s usually self-inflicted.

How has the impact of your divorce shaped your creativity?

Well, I’m sure with my new album people will read into it lyrically. And that’s great. There are certain songs that definitely have overtones of what went on in my life personally, but there are other songs that I just felt like singing about or writing about with my producers. I started recording the album while all this was going on in my life, and creatively I started feeling real shut down.

I felt like I needed to get away emotionally, for myself, and just really take care of me. So that I can be creative again. So that I can abandon my fears that I have, and just let it be a positive experience. So that by really stretching within, I learnt how to be acceptable to me. I learnt how to make some sense out of it. And only when I could take care of myself was I really ready to attack the album.

Some amazing things happened with making this album. Spurts of creativity and energy - the energy that went into making the album. On the album, I used nine different producers and songwriters. It can get really out of hand and you can have a real disjointed album.

The key was putting in a thread so that it all becomes cohesive, and that was the biggest challenge. And I’m very excited about it. I feel like I made a very uplifting, fun, and more sophisticated album.

The first single, My Love Is For Real, has a real Middle-Eastern texture to it, with Ofra Haza also singing on it. And I know that you’re half-Syrian (Abdul’s father is Brazilian-Syrian, her mother French-Canadian). Do you think your ancestry might have subconsciously influenced you there?

I’ve always wanted to incorporate different sounds, like worldbeat sounds. I’m so intrigued by Middle-Eastern culture and it was very much of a (laughs) choreographed move to incorporate folk and hip-hop with these overtones, the Middle-Eastern things, and using the sitars. I’m going to Morocco to shoot the video. I’m so excited. I’m leaving in 11 days! I’ve never been and I hear it’s beautiful.

Is Ofra Haza going to be in it, and how did you get her to sing on it?

Yes. I just thought it would be an incredible idea. I’ve been a fan of hers for some time. Her voice is such an instrument in itself, and I thought it would be incredible to mix her overtones with the music. My producer sent her the music and she fell in love with it, and in three days we had her on a plane from Tel Aviv to LA!

How do you feel now about the lawsuit against you, the whole Yvette Marine business? Is it still fresh in your mind?

Well, it’s not real fresh in my mind because the lawsuit was two years ago. Virgin Records and myself won it hands down, but if I were to say that it was no big deal I’d be lying. It was a big deal. To have your integrity and your creativity questioned, and to have that cloud over your head, it was really an unfair thing to do.

It was a cheap shot because they tried to parlay it as a “Milli Vanilli” scandal because I was on the same tour as them - with Was (Not Was) and Milli Vanilli - and so they thought they could use me as a target. What really bothered me was I don’t know this girl. I had only met her once in passing, just an introduction.

And I worked my butt off on the album, I had five No. 1 records out already, I had already sold about eight or nine million albums, and out of the five No. 1 singles that were released, there was no Yvette Marine on the background vocal.

It wasn’t until at the last minute when I had wanted to do an animation/live action dance video that they thought Opposites Attract would be the perfect outlet and when that was done as the very last single, it made my album sell a couple million more. And that was the only time that she appeared, as a background singer, among me as my own background singer and the scat-cat voices.

And it was very difficult because it was very cleverly done. It came out in the tabloids two weeks before Rush Rush was to be released from my new album Spellbound. And I felt like, “My God!”

(laughs) Like someone had choreographed this against you!

At first, you know, you kind of laugh, just because it’s such baloney. But then, how the media picked up on that one tabloid! And all of a sudden, it’s like a huge thing. And then my record company and myself were dealt with something to handle, and I said to Virgin Records: “You cannot settle this. You cannot pay someone to go away. Because it’s my integrity. I didn’t do anything wrong. And if they want to fight this, then I’m asking you as my record company to stand behind me.”

And they did, Thank God they did, and it was all worth it. It went on for months. And when people wonder what I’ve done for the past three years - believe it or not, this trial thing took two years. It was a constant thing of “Is it going to court?’ and “Is it not going to court?” I had never been in a courthouse before, so it was a big deal for me.

These people (Marine and her attorneys) never thought it would ever go to court, I don’t think. The jury deliberated for 10 mins, and it came out unanimously. She didn’t get one penny. We were so happy. I knew in my heart that we had to fight this because it would set a bad precedent for the recording industry if she had won. It was a great feeling.

I think the most difficult part of it was seeing how the media was building up the negative aspects of it, like, “This is nothing compared to ‘Is it live or is it Memorex?’!!” They were so into creating the scandal that when I won, it was “Oh well, she won. Oh well, Virgin won.” The verdict was out on a Thursday, I believe, and I was buried in the Saturday (Los Angeles Times) Calendar section, like on Page 15. (laughs) I got a really clear understanding of how the media works!

Didn’t she want to sue you personally or something after that? I heard she was going to file an appeal or something.

No, it was completely dropped. (Author’s note: Abdul, however, is incorrect; Marine did appeal but the appeal was finally rejected by the US District Court the week of April 10, 1995, just a few days after this very interview!)

What is the current status of your separation? Are you and Emilio still talking?

We’re great friends, we really are. We talk three times a week.

What about the actual process of recovery from the divorce?

It was difficult. Coming from a divorced family - my parents were divorced when I was seven years old - the last thing I ever saw myself doing was following that. If anything, I saw myself as marrying one time and having a family.

The divorce was a very difficult decision for me. Not an easy one, certainly not a comfortable one, and even more difficult because Emilio is a good guy and we get along great as friends. But the responsibility of being married and being willing to sacrifice and come to happy mediums, that wasn’t something that I guess he was ready for.

The most important thing was - and I don’t damn him for it, I don’t hate him or anything for it - was that he decided after we married that he didn’t want to have children. He already had two of his own. But that’s a big thing for me. I want to have children of my own.

So basically it wasn’t anything like anger or fights or anything like that but more like life issues that are really big. And to see that there was no give-and-take on that area, I had to come to a decision of “What do I do now? I really like this guy. He’s my best friend!” We just weren’t cut out to be married and that was hard.

How is your personal life these days?

(Smiles) I date a little bit. Not much. It’s been especially difficult in the past four or five months, just getting the finishing touches on the new album. I just dove so much into that aspect that (laughs) my personal life hasn’t been at the forefront of my life. Thank God, I still have my great friends to hang out and do stuff with.

You’ve always been known to be a busy person. How do you strike a balance between your personal and your professional life?

Well, interestingly enough, having had time off I’ve realised just how important it is to really strike a balance. I know from my own past history that I dive into my work and I don’t come up for air until I’m ready to just collapse. I’ve done it, and every time I swear I’m not going to do it again. And here I am, embarking on the release of a new album, which I feel is my best work yet and I’m so excited about it. The response has been great, but this is the most important part, this is where it gets like, “Now I have to structure it. Now, before it’s too late.”

I sat down with my manager and my record company people and I said, “I’m willing to work my butt off, I’m willing to travel wherever I have to go, because I want to and I believe in this project. But there’s going to be holidays built in there, where I do whatever I want to do, whether it be massage or facials or going sightseeing.”

I need to build in those days. I used to work for whole weeks straight before, all of a sudden, I’d get one. (laughs) I really think that they get it this time. It’s just something that I’m going to have to constantly remind the people around me. I’m going to make sure of it, because recovery for me is a long process. Recovery from divorce, recovery from the eating disorder, it’s an ongoing thing.

Why is the new album called Head Over Heels?

For different reasons. Head Over Heels has so many different meanings to it - my feet are planted on the ground; my head is screwed on straight; I know who I am; I know what direction I want to be going in. Also, this album is very rhythmic-oriented. You have flavours of ’40s Cab Calloway, you have the hip-hop with the Middle Eastern. I’m always thinking of my music in terms of what I’m going to do with it visually. It’s very movement-oriented, so Head Over Heels can be dance-oriented as well. And it’s also a positive statement.

You’ve made many statements in the past about how you’ve always admired entertainers like Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, because they were all-round entertainers. Do you think that you yourself have reached that pinnacle of professionalism that you aspire to? How successful do you feel at this point?

Well, those were my idols growing up. Am I in that category? (laughs) Oh my God, I’m not worthy! I look up to them still, to this day, and there’s nobody quite like them. I just think that I keep growing, keep working hard, and I think that I’m definitely well on my way. I definitely have made my own niche in the music business. I have my own little space that I fit into, that says that I am an all-round entertainer. That’s what I always wanted to be.

Are there days when you wake up and wonder if all this is real? That you’ve got your own music career now and you’re no longer just a choreographer or just a Laker Girl?

Oh, I absolutely feel that on a daily basis. I go, “My God, thank you.” It’s so incredible, because I’m living my dream. I feel so fortunate, and I never take anything for granted. Now, I want to act and I want to direct. I’ll always keep dancing, because that’s always been a part of my life. I want to open up scholarship programmes for kids and young adults who are underprivileged or that just don’t have the funds, I want to set up a foundation for them. There are a lot of things that I still am striving for.

Here’s one for our local readers. Do you remember playing in South-east Asia?

Oh God, yes, I loved it. I loved $ingapore. It was one of my favorite places. I was actually having lunch with some of my dancers yesterday and we were talking about $ingapore. Everyone unanimously agreed that that was their favorite place. Because it was friendly, and the audiences were so incredible. And the beauty of it. It just was a beautiful experience and a lot of fun.

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