Paula Abdul Cover Story
"When you have talent, no one can take that from you," Paula Abdul.
The Perpetual Cheerleader
Paula Abdul is a born-and-raised Valley girl who’s almost always smiling, dancing, singing, openly reveling in others’ talents and generously encouraging their dreams. But in response to her peppy, bubbly nature, what does she get? Vicious accusations of alcohol and illegal drug abuse.
Dawn Ritchie spoke with Abdul to get her own words about the allegations hurled against her, how she’s coped with health concerns, what she really thinks about Simon – and how she fights on, for herself and others, in the face of naysayers and considerable challenges.
In the age of widespread schadenfreude – when so many take delight in the misfortunes of others – Paula Abdul is that rare individual who wants only the best for everyone. Eternally optimistic, she unabashedly refers to herself as “the gift that I am” and treats others within her zone of influence with equal veneration. Which is exactly why the adoring screams from American Idol fans grow loudest when it’s Abdul’s limo pulling up to the audition hall.
In particular, Abdul is renowned for her munificent support of any aspiring performer who dares test the spotlight: “We’re oftentimes at the mercy of the suits who don’t know what it’s like to be an artist,” she said. “I’m the queen of the newcomers.”
The smash-hit show she works on, then, is right up her alley. “American Idol fuels the foundation of what I am all about – and that’s empathy, compassion, keeping dreams alive and believing in yourself,” she said.
Joined on the judging panel by straight-talking music producer Randy Jackson and hard-bitten A&R executive Simon Cowell, Abdul inevitably takes the high road in her contestant evaluations. Cowell’s withering critiques may grab headlines, but Abdul’s warm words of encouragement engender lifelong fan devotion.
Abdul’s unusual fan base bridges the gap between shrieking tween girls and graying-at-the-temple sports buffs. The latter group first encountered Abdul on the courts of Lakers games where she determinedly burst onto the scene to break the mold of the traditional blonde, leggy Laker girl.
“I’m vertically challenged,” laughed Abdul, who stands just an inch above five feet. “But that didn’t stop me.” The petite dynamo quickly rose to the coveted position of head cheerleader. “I just knew that I knew how to choreograph and make magic happen,” she said. And with that unbridled belief in herself, it was bye-bye pompoms and hello hot, sexy choreography that would forever change the face of cheerleading – and soon, the career of Janet Jackson, who hired her for her fresh, new dance moves.
A LIFE OF TRIUMPHS
Abdul has risen to the top of virtually every field she has tackled. From senior class president at Van Nuys High School to choreographer of the breakout 62nd Academy Awards show (the one that rocketed Billy Crystal’s hosting career to star status), to Grammy-winning performing artist with a stunning 30 million records sold. Along the way, she’s also managed to grab two Emmys and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “You have to will yourself into the entertainment industry,” she said. “I’m a warrior.”
Abdul’s fighting spirit began the very day she was born. Paula Julie Abdul arrived on the scene as a dangerously at-risk preemie: “I was only three pounds and born with a broken windpipe and problematic lungs. I used to faint every time I woke up.” No one at the hospital expected the tiny girl to survive. But she proved them wrong, of course, and has gone on to surmount every hard knock since.
Like many dancers, Abdul was plagued by injuries; a rough plane landing exacerbated them. For years, she kept quiet about the chronic pain from an injury that resulted in 14 surgeries, three metal plates in her neck and temporarily damaged vocal chords. When others quickly counted her out, Abdul remained her own personal cheerleader. While battling her way back to health, she kept busy writing music and putting together demos.
One of the songs she worked on with Kara Dio Guardi, songwriter extraordinaire, became a number-one hit for Australian pop star Kylie Minogue. When auditioners for the U.K. version of Idol kept singing that “Spinning Around” dance anthem, Abdul became a contender for the American version of the show.
“I’m a winner,” Abdul said, “And I always need to remember that. But you’re never, ever done proving yourself.”
FACING THE FIRE
During an era with celebrity muckraking at full tilt, almost every showbiz personality must weather a few bumps along the way. And this past year was Abdul’s turn. Stories about her allegedly unpredictable behavior raged across gossip magazines intimating yet another celebrity drug problem.
Abdul flatly denies the charge: “I have never fallen victim to peer pressure in the area of the drug culture. I have never been drunk in my life and I don’t do recreational drugs,” she said firmly. “I have been a workaholic. But a workaholic to me is getting a kick out of getting paid for something I actually love to do.”
While she places part of the blame on her grueling schedule and its accompanying exhaustion, she also attributes some of it to “that knucklehead to the left of me.” That would be American Idol co-host Simon Cowell, who secretly taunts her while the pair are on the air by whispering bizarre non sequiturs in her ear that throw her off her game.
Cowell had brushed off the accusations until one of his remarks was finally caught on the microphone. That deliberate type of professional sabotage goes against the grain of the way Abdul likes to operate, but she also acknowledges that “conflict is part of the chemistry on a show. It provides success in ratings” and that “it’s a dynamic that Simon has worked hard to keep alive.”
It’s only when the gossip rags “dig for dirt and are drumming it up even when it isn’t there” that Abdul becomes genuinely concerned – a song sung by many celebrities who’ve been subject to the poison pen.
“That has been the most icky part of my life, because now my reputation, which was awesome, has been totally damaged and nothing’s true,” she said. “The power of creative editing can ruin people’s lives.”
Mere discussion of the issue of getting negative press sends Abdul’s normally composed, articulate way of speaking into a state of tongue-tied agitation. “I get nervous,” she said, “It affects business and endorsements.” Indeed, Abdul has lost at least one lucrative deal as a result of the rumors. “But,” she added, “when you have talent, no one can take that from you. They can throw you to the curb, under the bus, down the drain, but you will always come back.”
When she faces that kind of harsh treatment, Abdul silences the inner torment by going to a place of gratitude. “Keeping a journal of your life is so important because when you’re busy running and running to catch up to the bullet train of whatever success you have in life, you forget how magical things have been and how they often came off of a low moment. Then there’s a breakthrough and the sun shines and the rainbows come. And then the rain comes again, but as I read back, I see that unbelievable things can happen when you tolerate and are able to hold it together during the toughest times. It gives you the strength of character to be that light and shining star that you have to be.”
In addition to keeping a written chronicle of her life, Abdul also stays positive by reviewing DVDs of past triumphs and watching “the amazing artists I’ve worked with” to remind herself all of she’s accomplished.
She also turns to close friends. “As a creative person, you need to have solid friends who only love you for being there as a friend. They don’t want anything from you. And they don’t need anything from you,” she said. “You have to build a team around you that will be there from the beginning, through the storms, through the highest of highs back down to the bottom of the lows. And that’s the most important thing that people need to survive in this business.”
Other entertainers would do well to take Abdul’s advice, since she has proven to be one of the industry’s toughest survivors, with comeback after creative comeback over the decades. Her latest, a return to her singing and dancing roots, is a hot new single produced by Randy Jackson, “Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow.”
As for what her future holds, it’ll likely involve more TV, as a bevy of studios vying for new series deals are constantly wooing her.
Whatever she chooses to do next, it’s clear that her fiery-as-ever ambition is poised for the next chapter: “This is an amazing and unique time in my life. I’ve only scratched the very tip-top of the surface.”
PAULA’S FAVORITE VALLEY HOTSPOTS
(13301 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks)
“For Mexican food. It’s amazing.”
(13817 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks)
“I love their Chinese chicken salad.”
THE ARCLIGHT THEATER AT THE SHERMAN OAKS GALLERIA
“I grew up in the Valley, and I have such fond memories of the Galleria and the whole Valley girl Moon Zappa thing. It was an appointment, the teenage gathering at the Galleria mall. So I love going to the movies there now as an adult because it always brings back fond memories.”
“I love walking up and down in Studio City. Art’s Deli and everything. It’s become this little fashionista place with cool boutiques and all these hidden jewels and gems right on Ventura Boulevard. And on Moorpark, these little artsy cafes and coffeehouses.”
Dawn Ritchie is an author and television writer/producer who lives in the San Fernando Valley.