Paula Abdul: All the Right Moves

The artist choreographs her way to the top

Paula Abdul Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Omigod, nnnoooo!!!"
The tremendous, high-pitched squeal that fills the tastefully appointed Beverly Hills conference room comes from a petite, black-clad figure curled up on a company couch. It's Paula Abdul, the singer-dancer-choreographer who's spending a rare reclining moment watching a few video images of herself as a Los Angeles Lakers cheerleader sporting an early-Eighties haircut from hell.

Abdul has taken time out of her hyper-hectic schedule to stop by the Virgin Records offices to check out a rough cut of an upcoming piece of Paula product–a video compilation called Paula Abdul: Straight Up. Before she arrived in her black Jaguar at ten o'clock this morning, Abdul had already sat for a two-hour interview and taken an encouraging meeting with 20th Century Fox executives to discuss her acting career.

Later, she will attend a planning session for her second album, meet the press once again, rehearse a dance troupe for a charity function, check out the editing of one video and work well into the night on yet another. It's all in a day's work for this 27-year-old eager diva who has artfully choreographed an Eighties-style rise to the top–from Valley Girl to Laker Girl; from Janet Jackson's dance coach to her rival on the pop charts.

And Abdul's hard work has been paying off in a big way of late; She's already racked up a quadruple-platinum debut album (Forever Your Girl), three Number One singles ("Straight Up," "Forever Your Girl" and "Cold Hearted"), an armful of MTV video awards, an Emmy for her choreography on the Tracey Ullman Show, as well as a sponsorship deal with Reebok.

But as Abdul sits staring at her own image, she seems less concerned with the rise of Paula Abdul than with the falls of Paula Abdul. "Do you have any shots of me falling on my butt?" Abdul asks in a teeny voice that sounds professional and polite. "I fall all the time. Maybe we could put some of that stuff in."

Despite the fact that the directors are on a hectic schedule of their own to get the tape out on time, they seem agreeable to Abdul's request, if surprised by it. Abdul thanks the directors, asks to have a progress report in a few days and heads downstairs for her next meeting–to choose material for her second album.

Along the way, she distributes hugs and kisses to dozens of Virgin staff members, autographs a poster for an Australian outpost of the Hard Rock Cafe and ducks into a nearby office to make a counteroffer on the Hollywood house being sold by a well-known TV starlet. Abdul–who received her first big royalty check from Virgin only four days ago–saw the house the day before yesterday. By lunch time, it will be hers.

***

What makes Paula run? is she just a ruthless, dancing pop tart–a Sammy Glick in tap shoes?

Ask the people around her and they'll tell you that Abdul is not your average video vamp. To them, she's simply a sweet, talented showbiz kid whose all-work schedule leaves precious little time for play. You want dirt? The worst tiling people say about her is that yes, sometimes she belches loudly in the recording studio.

"I call her Paula Brown, because she's the hardest-working woman in showbiz," says pal Arsenio Hall, whom the tabloids have linked romantically to Abdul, making them King and Queen of the Pop-Culture Prom. "But Paula doesn't sweat like James."

Filmmaker James L. Brooks, executive producer of the Tracey Ullman Show, sees a similarity between Abdul and Holly Hunter's lovably work-obsessed character in his movie Broadcast News. "The thing you have to understand about Paula," he says, "is when she works, there's no histrionics about it. No personal drama about it No look at me about it. No fuck you about it. It's all just about this incredible girl loving to work."

Tracey Ullman herself has plenty of nice things to say about Abdul but admits there's one thing about her longtime choreographer that drives her crazy. "Paula works like a dog," Ullman says. "She makes herself into this huge pop star, and she still has no stress zits. None. She looks positively luminous. It makes me bloody sick."

Of course, Abdul has more than a nice complexion to show off these days. Despite her technical limitations in the singing department–"I'm no Aretha Franklin," she says–Abdul has managed, with the help of a vocal coach and savvy producers, to knock out a series of memorable Number One hits.

And though it took more than a year after its release to get there, the state-of-the-charts Forever Your Girl has also reached the top. The success of the album–which sold a remarkable 750,000 copies during one recent ten-day period–has moved Abdul from the ranks of soulful wannabes into the loftier heights occupied by Madonna and Janet Jackson.

Abdul's oddly wholesome sensuality, captured in a series of smartly conceived videos by the red-hot director David Fincher (Madonna's "Express Yourself"), has turned her into a feminine fixture on MTV. Though her previous touring experience consisted of a few dozen club dates singing to prerecorded backing tracks, she turned out to be the biggest draw on this past summer's otherwise troubled Club MTV Tour.

And as film offers come pouring in to her agent at Creative Artists Agency, Abdul is that much closer to fulfilling her dream of becoming an old-fashioned, all-around entertainer.

The last major pop star of the 1980s, Abdul is following in the stylishly cut groove of Madonna, proving once again that nonstop dedication joined with an uncanny grasp of style and image can compensate for a lack of innate musical talent. And so it is that Abdul's success story serves as the decade's final, funky lesson in the endurance of the Protestant work ethic–as taught by a nice Jewish girl from the San Fernando Valley.

***

Boy George has canceled his meeting with Gemma Corfield today, but Virgin's director of A&R administration isn't grumbling. It leaves her more time for the task at hand: picking the tunes for the follow-up to Abdul's auspicious debut.

Forever Your Girl is the best-selling album in the three-year history of the American branch of the British record company, and today Corfield has gathered the star and her managers for a high-stakes game of smash or trash.

The walls of Corfield's sunny office are lined with hundreds of cassette tapes, the demos of countless songwriters, producers and artists, ranging from has-beens and will-bes to are-right-nows. On one wall hangs a bulletin board listing current Virgin projects with the words Hits of 1990 written like a talisman along the top.

Nestled between her two managers, Larry Tollin and Larry Frazin, is Abdul, for whom Corfield has been an important corporate cheerleader since she served as executive producer on Forever Your Girl. Virgin is a key word when it comes to Forever Your Girl. The album, which cost only $150,000 to make, was the first substantial A&R success for Corfield (who's married to Don Was of Was [Not Was]).

It was also the breakthrough project for the two producer-songwriters who provided Abdul with her biggest hits: Oliver Leiber–the son of Jerry Leiber, half of the legendary rock songwriting team Leiber and Stoller contributed "Forever Your Girl" and "The Way That You Love Me"; and Elliot Wolff came up with "Straight Up" and "Cold Hearted." Another key word for the company's Team Abdul is faith.

After all, chief among the untested talents on the album was Abdul herself. Though already at the top of her field as a choreographer by the time she was 22–her age when the Jacksons asked for her help on their "Torture" video–Abdul was hardly a proven vocalist. Still, Virgin's American chiefs, Jeff Ayeroff and Jordan Harris, were impressed enough with her to make her one of the first artists signed to the label in 1986. There were, naturally, cynics who scoffed at Ayeroff and Harris's collective hunch. But they had both seen Abdul at work on video sets and felt strongly there was reason to believe.

"There's a lot about Paula that smacks of traditional showbiz," says Ayeroff, "but this is not a story of some record-company types snapping up some pretty girl from the chorus line. Paula is a pretty girl, but she's also someone who was already the best at what she did. And she convinced us that she'd keep plugging away till she was the best at the next thing she did."

Now the time has come to do it all over again. Until Meryl Streep's departure canceled Oliver Stone's film version of Evita–which Abdul was set to choreograph–it looked as if Paula would have to record her second album hurriedly, before heading off to Spain for the movie. Now, much to the relief of Virgin and many around Abdul, there's time for discussions like this one to figure out how to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.

Unsurprisingly, songwriters who wouldn't have returned Corfield's calls last time around have changed their tunes. Everybody involved with Abdul is now deluged with surefire hits for the second album–by postmen, old classmates, people on the street, as well as any number of well-known hit-tune smiths. (Even Izzy Stradlin of Guns n' Roses has offered Abdul a song.)

This time around, Abdul–who contributed only the lyrics to one song on Forever Your Girl–is doing some writing of her own. She'll be working with both Leiber and Wolff, as well as with Billy Steinberg, half of the songwriting team Steinberg and Kelly, who've knocked out hits for Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and others. In addition, Leiber and Wolff have struck up a collaboration of their own, with some new tunes tailor-made for Paula.

Back at the meeting, Corfield explains that she'll be playing some demos from a variety of well-known and not-so-well-known writers. There's a Brill Building feeling about today's proceedings. We're not talking about Bruce or Bono or Sting climbing to the top of the mountain to meet their muses, think great thoughts and return with the themes for their next opus. Rather, it's a team of music-industry professionals hard at work searching for hits in the haystack.

The air conditioning isn't working, and neither are Corfield's initial offerings. First up is a cliché-ridden love ballad, followed by a pandering Just Say No anti-drug epic.

Abdul grimaces.

Tollin and Frazin–who, in addition to managing Abdul, run Platinum Music, a high-powered independent record-promotion company–ask Corfield to try again. Corfield turns up the sound on "Rush, Rush," an exquisite midtempo love song by a new writer whose identity Corfield wishes to keep under wraps.

"I love this song," says Abdul during the song's haunting violin break. "Beautiful," says Frazin. "This is great!" says Tollin. "It's so…so Paula."

***

It's 7:30 a.m. in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel–the home of the West Coast power breakfast–and at one table an attractive young woman dressed all in black sits with three male associates talking aggressively about mergers, buyouts and stock options. Nearby, also dressed in black, is Paula Abdul, wearing a more demure version of the sheer black ensemble she sported in the video for "Cold Hearted" and the same black German marine cap. But despite the high-finance buzz all around her, Abdul is reminiscing about the days before she became a big business.

"I used to come here sometimes when I was a little girl with my family for brunch on Sundays," she says wistfully.

Abdul, the second daughter of Harry and Lorraine Abdul, was born on June 19th, 1962. She grew up in a sprawling middle-class development known as the Condos in North Hollywood, California. "It was a cool place," she says, "sort of like a commune or a kibbutz." Lorraine–a petite woman of French Canadian Jewish origin whose Donna Reed-like dresses couldn't hide a figure that was the envy of the other Condo mothers–worked at the film studios, serving for years as the assistant to director Billy Wilder. Harry–a short, dark, handsome man of Syrian and Brazilian extraction–bought and sold livestock for a living.

Her parents split up when Abdul was seven, leaving her to tag along with her mother and her sister, Wendy, who is seven years older. It was from Wendy (whose family Paula's been living with since her apartment was listed on the celebrity bus tour) that Paula received her earliest musical education. "Most of the kids around were into Shaun Cassidy, the DeFranco Family," Paula says. "But I also heard all the music Wendy and her hippie friends listened to–Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Carole King and Iron Butterfly."

By the time her parents split, the pint-size Valley Girl was already a schoolyard choreographer. She remembers an early routine she worked out to the Archies' "Sugar Sugar." And considering the way her career is going, bootleg tapes may soon be circulating of the prepubescent Paula belting out "Somewhere," from West Side Story, or numbers from Oklahoma! and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. (Abdul maniacs can catch the aspiring actress in Junior High School, a student film that has resurfaced on cable television.)

Abdul still breaks into the occasional giggle as she recounts her visits to the studio commissary, where she spotted stars like Debbie Reynolds and then Sweathog John Travolta. Then there was the time Tattoo from Fantasy Island put the moves on her and her pals.

"What's funny," she says, "is going back to the studios for meetings. Some of the same guards are there, and they still remember me as Lorraine's daughter." And yes, Abdul was a popular cheerleader in high school. At Van Nuys High–whose alumni include Marilyn Monroe and Robert Redford–Abdul worked just as relentlessly as she does now: head cheerleader, senior-class president, flutist in the school orchestra and a member of the science team who still vividly recollects dissecting "lots of fetal pigs."

But the overachiever was also something of an undercover rebel. "When everyone was using pompons, I broke with tradition," she says. "I would take boom-boxes and put them up to the microphone and just forget about the band that was playing really dorky music."

Life at Van Nuys High, however, was not just one long pep rally for Abdul. Her racially vague looks–which she admits have subsequently worked to her professional advantage–caused her to get caught in the cross-fire of racial tension at school. "I have the sort of complexion that gives people trouble categorizing me," she says. "It's been weird breaking into the music business and seeing the importance that's placed on what the hell I am. To me it feels like a carryover from the stupid stuff I went through in school." (She does, however, laugh loudly when informed that the Village Voice has identified her as "funky Jew Paula Abdul.")

In her first year of college at Cal State-Northridge, Abdul was studying radio and television with hopes of a career in sportscasting. "I wanted to be the next Jayne Kennedy," she says. And so it came to pass that in 1981–with hopes of getting a few of the Los Angeles Lakers to do interviews with her–that Abdul tried out to be a Laker Girl.

It's a day that Abdul says she'll never forget. "See, growing up, my dreams of being a professional dancer seemed shot to hell because of my height," she says. (Abdul says she's five-foot-two, which may be overly generous.) "So I get down to the tryout, and there were hundreds of tall, beautiful girls there, and I say to myself, 'I'm not going to do this.'" She smiles recalling her one-minute routine. "It was like that big moment at the end of Flashdance," she says, "when Jennifer Beals struts her stuff."

Abdul made the cut and went pro, although as a cheerleader she started at fifty dollars a game. Halfway through her first season–while carrying 15 college credits–she became the head Laker Girl, hanging up her pompons to design the cheerleaders' routines.

Despite the way many people perceive cheerleading, Abdul insists that she did some of her most creative choreography during her tenure with the Girls. And indeed the Laker Girls soon became local media superstars with their own drawing power, though many male followers may have been impressed by more than the Girls' jumps and splits.

Arsenio Hall–who first spotted Abdul during her cheerleading days–says that gawkers pretended to be checking out Jack Nicholson, who always sits on the floor at the L.A. Forum. "I'm more prone to admit it now, but back then I would tell my date, 'Baby, I was just looking at Jack,'" says Hall. According to Abdul, Nicholson did some leering of his own. "He'd be standing there a few feet away checking us out with his binoculars," she says. "I think he did it just to mess with us."

Naturally, a few of the players also wanted to mess with the Girls, which explains why they were less than local heroes with the Laker Wives. Still, Abdul recalls only two Laker-Laker Girl romances during her tenure, and she was not a player in either one. Life as a Girl did offer its share of frustrations for Abdul: low pay, a difficult workload and a Laker administration that failed to capitalize on the many opportunities–including film and TV deals–that came the cheerleaders' way.

In 1984, opportunity came knocking in the form of the Jacksons, who were also season-ticket holders at the Forum. Packing her schoolbooks so that she could study for upcoming finals, Abdul flew off to New York to work on her first video. It was not long after that gig–"I kind of BS'd my way through it," she says–that Abdul was approached by a music-biz figure named John McClain. Recalls Abdul: "He said, 'I love what you do with the Laker Girls. We have an artist who has a couple albums. You may or may not have heard of her. She's midway through her third album, and her name is Janet Jackson.' I just laughed and thought, 'Yes, I think I know her brothers.'"

Choosing from the catalog of street moves that she threw into her Laker Girls routines, Abdul gave Jackson the sassy dance style that mirrored the thematic core of the Control album. Abdul and Jackson–who spent more than a year working closely together on videos–grew very close, "like sisters," Abdul says. But when McClain asked that she work solely for Jackson's label, A&M, Abdul turned him down, choosing instead to pursue her career as a choreographing gun for hire.

Since then there have been suggestions that something of a sibling rivalry has developed between the two. Abdul says it's true that she and Jackson don't talk much anymore, but she blames "some of the people around her who love to start controversy." (Hoping to improve relations between the two camps, Abdul recently sent Jackson congratulatory flowers on the success of the new Rhythm Nation album.)

Soon, Abdul was in demand as the hot dance guru, and she found herself working with everyone from ZZ Top to Dolly Parton, Debbie Gibson to Warren Zevon. Her childhood idol, Gene Kelly, told her that he'd flipped for her work with Jackson.

And the late choreographer and director Bob Fosse–whose All That Jazz inspired the "Cold Hearted" video–paid her the ultimate compliment. "He told People magazine, 'She reminds me of when I was starting out,'" Abdul says proudly. "He said something about how I turn left when everyone thinks I'm going to turn right. That's exactly how I try to work."

But for all the praise and her upwardly mobile lifestyle, Abdul found herself feeling unsatisfied. Abdul says that during a ZZ Top video shoot she approached Jeff Ayeroff–who was then at Warner Bros.–and told him she wanted to make records.

Though her musical resume consisted of a single demo that she had cut with two other Laker Girls, Ayeroff and Jordan Harris were impressed enough to send her to make an eight-track audition tape. Even after she was signed, Abdul kept her singing career a secret, so that the release of her record came as a surprise to many of the people who've known her over the years.

"I'll never forget pulling up to Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard with my sister," she says, "and seeing Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar–who contrary to popular rumor is neither her husband nor her brother] walking around the store staring at the giant picture of me on the album cover. We walked in, and Kareem's standing there holding up my CD with his mouth wide-open."

Before the album was completed, Virgin included "Knocked Out"–produced by soul hitmakers L.A. and Babyface–on a label sampler. When San Francisco's KMEL jumped on the song, Virgin quickly moved up the release date of Forever Your Girl to June 1988. Abdul hit the road for a series of unglamorous engagements, including one before less than a dozen marines at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

"Knocked Out" became a hit on black radio, and "The Way That You Love Me" was following suit when out of nowhere, stations around the country started playing "Straight Up," a tough, catchy number that had been Abdul's own first choice for a single. Tense marketing strategy sessions followed: Should Virgin keep pushing "The Way That You Love Me" or swallow the expense and go full steam on "Straight Up"? The risk was real; if the company couldn't deliver the second single, the whole album might be lost.

The company opted for "Straight Up," and according to Phil Quartararo, Virgin's head of promotion and marketing, "that was the moment." "Straight Up" became a smash, and the second wind the record got from the video blew it to the top of the pops. 

From there the hits just kept on coming: "Forever Your Girl," with a video that features kids aping MTV clichés, made Abdul an elementary-school heartthrob; "Cold Hearted" then turned up the heat for older admirers. Most recently, "The Way That You Love Me" finally popped, its chart success supported by an elegant video showing Abdul as an un-material girl–make that un-material woman.

Ironically, Abdul's videos, which have cost up to $250,000 apiece, have come too late to break the singles, disproving the perception that Abdul is a recording artist made by MTV. But Fincher's expertly crafted visual bites have played a crucial role in taking her to the next level–making her a star. "The waxing and waning of what you see visually on Paula is part of an effort to not let anybody pin her down," says Ayeroff. "Every time someone wants to say, 'Cute,' get sexy; every time somebody says, 'Sexpot,' get cute." In other words, if they think you're going to turn right, turn left.

Sitting at breakfast, talking about her recent good fortune, Abdul gets caught up in the emotional swirl of her extraordinary year.

"I'm sorry," she says, blotting her dark, teary eyes with a pink napkin. "I'm just very, very happy."

***

The sign outside Stage 8 at Ren Mar studios says, Closed set, but inside it's an open house. After four hours in makeup, Abdul stands in front of a faux city backdrop that will appear in the "Opposites Attract" video. The Roger Rabbit-like clip will pair the often animated Abdul with a cartoon costar, a feline street creature named M.C. Skat Cat. For the next two days, Abdul congenially receives an ever-changing crew of callers.

Both Harry and Lorraine are present, beaming with parental pride and talking hits and charts like veteran Billboard reporters. Harry, ever the astute businessman, even approached Virgin early on about letting him buy a piece of the action on Paula's career. Her sister, Wendy, is here with her own two boys–the youngest only a few weeks old. "The baby likes to be held straight up," Lorraine says at one point.

Jeff Ayeroff stops by with his wife, as do many other Virgin staffers. Boy George and heavy-metal guitarist Steve Stevens drop in, separately, to pay their respects. Abdul and her managers huddle about the merits of a possible role for her in a film to be directed by Leonard Nimoy. Dean Barlow–Abdul's childhood tap teacher, who's here to coach her on some moves for the video–takes the time to remark that Abdul was his most dedicated student and that now little girls want to know exactly where she stood in his studio, so they can stand there, too.

And then, of course, there's Arsenio Hall. If you believe the National Enquirer, Hall is currently "in a red-hot romance with singing sensation Paula Abdul–after finally deciding to ignore pal Eddie Murphy's advice that he play the field with a string of lovely ladies."

And truth be told, there is no string of lovely ladies with Hall as he pulls into the studio lot in his black Mustang. Instead, he's come to see Paula, and to talk about Paula–something he can do quite happily for hours on end.

By now Hall and Abdul should be wise to the ways of tabloids–which have also reported that Abdul broke Michael Jackson's heart by leaving him for Prince and that Arsenio tried to father a baby with the Newhart show's Mary Frann. But Hall says the gossip still irks him. "The other day there was a story saying that my presence in Paula's life is destroying her," he says, shaking his head. "That because of me, other guys stay away from her, and she spends her days riding her bike with her sister and going to movies alone."

It could be argued that such rumors signal that Abdul and Hall have truly made it to the top, and Hall can see something of an upside to all the attention. "The funny thing is I get the definite sense that people want us to be together," he says. "I get a lot of old white ladies going up to me saying, 'I don't know if there's anything going on with you and that young lady, but I think you're perfect for each other.'"

And is there anything going on with him and that young lady? Abdul's answer is that though she's looking forward to getting married and starting a family, she simply has no space in her schedule for much of a love life right now. "If we had more time," she says, "maybe it would work out between us." For the time being, though, she says that "Arsenio is the man I'm closest with and someone who I can talk to about everything I'm going through because he's going through it, too."

As for Hall, he sits in the sun outside Stage 8, amiably skirting the big question. He'll chat forever about rekindling their friendship on the set of Coming to America, about her legs, about the green leather outfit she was wearing the day they met, about "Pauletta," Paula's mysterious evil twin that only he knows. He'll explain passionately that she is the ideal combination of innocence and seductiveness–"Punky Brewster with sex appeal."

But when asked point-blank if he's romantically involved with her, he stops short. "We're good friends," he says. "And being a good friend means a lot of things to me. I'm her brother when someone's bugging her. I'm her buddy when she needs to go to a movie. When she's sad and sheds a few tears, I'm a shoulder. I put my arms around her and comfort her. I talk with her forever on the phone when she calls in the middle of the night. I'm everything a good friend needs to be. We're close. Very close."

That question sort of answered, Arsenio heads back inside to take part in America's latest national pastime–watching Paula Abdul work.