In early 2001, newly appointed A&M Records president Ron Fair was summoned to a meeting with Baz Luhrmann. Fair had produced several hit soundtracks, including Pretty Woman and Reality Bites, and Luhrmann was riding high after the crossover success of 1996’s Romeo + Juliet. Preparing for the release of Moulin Rouge!, the director wanted to commission a cover of Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade” that would unite a handful of A-list pop divas and lend the movie a smash single. Fair’s boss, Jimmy Iovine, tasked him with bringing it to life.
“It had plutonium magic dust from the second the record started,” Fair says 20 years later.
Luhrmann enlisted Missy Elliott, mere weeks away from releasing “Get Ur Freak On,” to produce the track. “When I hung up, I was like, ‘Oh snap, what did I just OK?’ ” Elliott tells Rolling Stone. “And I thought about it because that record is so iconic, and so the pressure kicked in.” She recruited assistance from her pal Rockwilder, best known as a producer for Redman, Jay-Z, and Janet Jackson.
Mya, who was signed to Iovine’s Interscope label, was the first singer to come aboard, according to Fair, who then drafted his prized mentee Christina Aguilera. Before he knew it, Lil’ Kim and relative newcomer Pink rounded out the lineup, creating the most exciting multicultural partnership since Aerosmith and Run D.M.C. joined forces for “Walk This Way.”
By today’s norms, the ideas behind “Lady Marmalade’ seem quaint. Soundtracks are rarely commercial goldmines anymore, and all-star collaborations have become de rigueur in the streaming age. Just look at “Don’t Call Me Angel,” the 2019 Charlie’s Angels alliance that struggled to blend the disparate styles of Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, and Lana Del Rey. “Marmalade” debuted in April 2001 and hit Number One that June, where it remained for five consecutive weeks during Moulin Rouge!’s theatrical run. It would go on to win Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards and the Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals. “I knew it was going to be big, but I didn’t know it was going to be that explosive,” Elliott admits.
The goal was to create a cohesive package — the song, a video, live performances — that channeled the film’s ruby-red cabaret setting. Elliott and Rockwilder gave Labelle’s disco classic a contemporary spin, amplifying the bass, adding a hip-hop inflection and tweaking the lyrics from “He met Marmalade down in old New Orleans” to “He met Marmalade down in old Moulin Rouge.” By the time the women converged in the studio, they knew which verse was whose. Nonetheless, each recorded the entire track individually so that Fair could isolate the singers’ ad-libs to build a perfect anthem.
“At that point in my career, I had collaborated with so many hard-core rappers that were male that this seemed like an immediate ‘yes’ for me because it was so different,” Mya explains. “[With men] you’re kind of like the little sister and everyone’s on the lookout, so you don’t really have the platform to be totally free. When I got with the girls, it was like a playground. If I was with guys and delivering the message ‘would you sleep with me’ in French, I would have a bit of a reserve.”
It was also the height of pop rivalries and celebrity gossip. Industry clashes made for top-notch marketing. “There was probably more tension between Christina and Pink than the rest of the group,” says Tina Landon, who choreographed the video. Indeed, rumors of a feud persisted for years, with Pink claiming that Aguilera once tried to hit her in a nightclub. (Aguilera denied it, saying, “I wouldn’t swing on her. She can beat my ass.”) On a 2009 episode of VH1’s Behind the Music, Pink placed some of the blame on Fair’s approach in the studio. “He didn’t say hi to any of us and said, ‘What’s the high part? What’s the most singing part? Christina’s going to take that part,’ ” she explained. “And I stood up and I said, ‘Hi, how are you? So nice of you to introduce yourself. I’m Pink. She will not be taking that part. I think that’s what the fucking meeting’s about.’ ” Of course, Aguilera did take that part.
In 2019, Lil’ Kim also recalled “a little tension” on the set of the video, largely because the four singers still didn’t really know one another. Director Paul Hunter requested they watch each other’s solo takes, which might have contributed to a sense of competition. (“[Pink] was heckling me in the audience,” Aguilera said on an episode of Watch What Happens Live. “That’s what she did back then. She’s a different person now.”) Fair, who said he’d met Pink at a party prior to the studio session, insists he showed no favoritism toward Aguilera, a certifiable superstar when the song debuted. “I knew Pink and love her very much and apologize if, 20 years later, she felt my approach was rude,” Fair says. (Pink declined to comment for this story.)
“We definitely bonded in silence, just being women and being in a very civil space and out of our comfort zone in the same token,” Mya says. “Because we were all individual artists with projects out or on tour, it’s not like we had too much time on our hands between anything to bond separately. So that was our only time — in rehearsals, at performances, awards shows, maybe a lunch break where we got a little bit more personal and weren’t in work mode.”
For the video, Landon, who had choreographed Aguilera’s “What a Girl Wants” and Mya’s “Case of the Ex,” assigned each singer a prop that defined her character. Pink, sporting a top hat and fuchsia curls, got a chair, which Landon had to assure her would look different than what Britney Spears had recently done for “Stronger.” Lil’ Kim got cash and a chaise lounge where attendants delivered the wine and diamonds she rapped about. Mya got a whip, which she felt nervous wielding in front of her mother, who was on hand. And a skeptical Aguilera got long satin gloves that she would rip off as the song crescendoed. “I said, ‘Trust me, we’re going to make it cool,’ ” Landon explains. “Once we did it, then she loved it. She realized, ‘This is badass too.’ ”
“It wasn’t just like one thing was over-the-top; it was makeup over-the-top, feathers — it was like throwing toppings on a cake,” Aguilera told W magazine in 2018. With Elliott acting as emcee, the video was a vampy, MTV-ready tour de force.
And yet when Iovine’s promotional guru Brenda Romano delivered “Marmalade” to New York’s Z100, one of the biggest radio stations in the country, she was turned away. “Brenda called me and said, ‘Yeah, you’re not going to like this, but Z100 said no because they don’t want to play a cover song,’ ” Fair says. That same day, Romano took the track to Hot 97, a hip-hop station, and the programmers added it to the rotation immediately. “They played it and the phones lit up like in the movies,” Fair says, with Romano corroborating his account. “I’m weeping at that point, and then she called back that day and said, ‘Z100 changed their minds. They heard it on the air on Hot 97 down the street and they’re adding the record into heavy [rotation].’ And then the thing went crazy.”
Critics’ reviews were mixed, with Entertainment Weekly calling it “cluttered,” the Washington Post calling it “gaudy” and Rolling Stone calling it “god-awful.” Audiences rightfully disagreed. The ladies would perform “Lady Marmalade” together twice — first with a video introduction from Moulin Rouge! star Nicole Kidman at the MTV Movie Awards, and later with Patti LaBelle herself at the 2002 Grammys. Both performances borrowed the video’s choreography and aesthetics.
LaBelle, who arrived to rehearsal carrying a clutch containing only hot sauce and a compact, was the diva among divas. “They all honored me like the OG,” LaBelle tells Rolling Stone. “They were happy to be with Patti LaBelle, and I was so happy to be with those babies. I said, ‘Well, this is a great match.’ As we were doing the song, it was my turn to come down the stairs. I have on this red chiffon gown, and the gown got caught in the banister of the stairwell during the live performance. I think Pink, or one of the girls, graciously grabbed it and tried to make it a part of the act.”
Nowadays, when LaBelle does “Marmalade,” she uses the cover’s amended lyrics — proof that its impact extends even to the singer whose group made it famous back in 1974.
“I remember Jimmy Iovine put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘If you don’t fucking make another track again, this one right here is going to be one of your great, great accomplishments in the game,” Rockwilder says.
If there were a new “Lady Marmalade” today, Mya says she’d want a drag-queen edition featuring the likes of RuPaul and Amanda Lepore; LaBelle suggested Jazmine Sullivan, Halsey, Fantasia, and Jennifer Hudson. “It would be new divas killing it,” she says. Elliott, on the other hand, believes the effort is so singular that it can’t be recaptured.
“When you’re living in a new era, you look back and you be like, ‘Wow, I didn’t even really get a chance to truly appreciate those moments because I was just living in them,’ ” Elliott says. “I thought it was amazing then, but now I’m looking at it even more because we don’t do stuff like that a lot. It’s like, wow, we were really in the studio — different personalities, different singing voices and doing different things and able to pull together something that was incredible.”