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Abercrombie & Fitch Quarterly

Jul 1st, 2003


"Two steps forward, two steps back" does more than simply describe Paula Abdul's relationship with MC Skat Cat—it describes her own career wanderings as well.

She started out as a Laker girl and moved on to do choreography for everyone from Janet Jackson to INXS. Next she embarked on a hugely successful singing career of her own, securing her place in the pop pantheon. She then left the performance spotlight to help out new talent, which she is doing now as (by far the nicest) judge on Fox's smash hit American Idol.

Scott Woodward discerns the fiction from the natural fact.
 Everyone knows you started out as a Laker Girl. 

I thought being a Laker Girl would be great, because my dad would get free tickets for the games, and I could use it as my outlet for dance. I never in a million years thought that the Lakers would be the door that opened up to an amazing career. My first job as a Laker girl was choreographing a dance for the Jackson brothers, who were season-ticket holders. It was the Motown anniversary, Michael did his amazing moonwalk for the first time, and it marked the birth of Michael Jackson, solo artist. Then I did the tour with the whole family.

And that's where you met Janet Jackson—what was the first video you were in with her? 

I was in Janet's first video off of her Control album, "What Have You Done for Me Lately." I sat at the booth in the fountain shots, and I also danced in it. I was choreographing the videos, and then she asked me to be in them. For me, it was enough pressure being a choreographer. Working with Janet really led to the amazing transformation of my entire career as a choreographer. The record company talked to me and said I needed to work with her, get her in shape and develop a style for her. All the hard work paid off in spades for her and in spades for me as a choreographer. After that I went on to choreograph every touring act from George Michael to Duran Duran to Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross, INXS... There are so many I forget. And then I went on to do feature films.

You've had quite a relationship with MTV over the years—in fact, you were one of the headlining acts of the first Club MTV Tour. Back then, could you tell that Milli Vanilli was lip-syncing? 

Yup. It was the most horrific situation. We were all hanging out and just playing pool and listening to the music. All of a sudden we heard the tape stopping... what the heck just happened? We all found out at that very moment. It was one of the saddest and most surreal moments, because how that evening played out was the wildest thing. But from that moment, everyone was onto Milli Vanilli.

You've been behind the scenes for a while, and now with American Idol you're out in the public eye in a huge way again. How did that come about?

I got involved based on a song I wrote called "Spinning Around," which Kylie Minogue sang. I gave permission for mechanicals and royalty rights, 'cause kids were coming to do the song for U.K.'s Pop Idol (the basis for American Idol). I was already being groomed for U.S. American Idol, and they said, "Look, when we get down to the ten, why don't you come out and help create styles for them onstage." I said absolutely. And when they called three months later, it was massive—the queen was clearing her calendar to vote. They said more people voted for Pop Idol than they did for prime minister, which is very interesting.

Did you ever think it would become such an incredible phenomenon in the U.S.? 

You know what, I did! I said that in front of all the executives at Fox. I knew it was going to be huge, because I've run camps and competitions and scholarship programs for cheerleaders and dancers for 20 years. I know that for every kid that competes, families forgo going out to dinner and buying clothing. They save money to make sure that their kid can compete. And for every one kid that competes, there's between seven to 15 family members and friends that spend the money to pay for admission. Talent shows have been around forever, and I just knew that the twist to this was the Simon factor. But the ratings spiked and it was proven that the ratings kept getting higher and higher. When it got down to the final five, Americans really cared how these kids were gonna do. It was very heartfelt.

Is Simon's brutal honesty inappropriate at times? 

I think he is very important to the show. I think the uncanny chemistry between all three of us has worked in such a magical way. At the end of the day, I'll always say it ain't about us, it's about the kids and their talent and their ability to keep shining.

Are you surprised at the level of stardom that is bestowed on the kids... even the ones who are voted off? 

I'm not surprised at all, based on the numbers that watch the show, and in the sense that America has got their favorites and they're tuning in. In our generation, I don't ever recall a time where there's been appointment television where an entire family is watching... all demographics. Everyone tunes into Friends—that's been a cultural thing, we've lived with those characters. This is a different kind of thing. It's a pop culture phenomenon that I've never experienced. My own dad, I can't call him after the show's over 'cause he says, "I'm voting, I'll talk to you later!" and he'll hang up. It's that big. 

After being judged all your life by critics and people, is it strange to now be in the judging role? 

They bank on it being strange for me. I think that that is the perspective I'm bringing that is different from Randy and Simon, and still continues to be. I am a true artist that has had to rise above adversity, not pay attention to looking for outside validation and always strive to do the best that I can do. And that is why those kids connect with me, because Randy and Simon will never know what it's like to be at your most vulnerable, to have guts, and to strive to be the best. Simon Cowell doesn't play an instrument. He doesn't sing. He's never been in a group of any sort. He's an executive. Randy Jackson at least has been an accomplished musician, but I've been a solo artist where I am responsible for myself. I've won countless awards. I've won Emmys for my choreography and won nine MTV Awards and five American Music Awards and tons of stuff. I don't even remember experiences I've had sometimes, which is what I really try to hammer into these contestants. Life goes by so quickly, and while you're doing your career, you must stop and reflect on all that you have accomplished—document it, get pictures and keep a journal. Please do that, because it goes by quickly!

Paula Abdul photographed by Karl Simone.

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