Today, Paula Abdul is known for sharing her performing and music wisdom as a judge on shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance Australia. But the California native—who started out as a celebrated choreographer working with acts such as Janet Jackson and Duran Duran—is currently on tour celebrating her pop music debut, Forever Your Girl. Released in 1988, the album ended up being certified seven-times platinum and spawned four No. 1 hits: “Straight Up,” “Opposites Attract,” “Cold Hearted” and the title track.
As Abdul tells it, the tour features plenty of choreography, along with stories about her journey from choreographer to pop star. “It’s a pop concert, but there’s a lot of cool technology and theatrical stuff that goes along with it,” she says. “I use my songs as outlets for storytelling. I think everyone leaves knowing a little bit more about me. I feel like I get this close connection with the audience, and I love it.”
Las Vegas Weekly checked in with Abdul to talk about switching from dancing to music, recording Forever Your Girl and how she’s a “lever-puller” for so many other artists.
Going back to the beginning of your career, what made you catch the singing bug and want to evolve from doing choreography to doing music as a performer? I knew my calling at a very early age. I knew at 4 years old that I was going to be a performer, and it’s due to watching MGM musicals and my mentor, who was Gene Kelly. I molded my whole career after him, and that’s what I wanted to do.
I was born three months premature with a broken windpipe and collapsed lungs and hip dysplasia—none of which would make me a singer or a dancer. But I had this tenacious spirit. Once passion takes in and ignites, it changes you. And that changed me as a little girl. I knew that I’d have to work harder to achieve what I needed to be able to do what I’m doing.
I started behind the scenes. No other performer has had that career path. It wasn’t like I could call up someone famous and say, “Well, how was it for you?” I started behind the scenes working with legit superstars, ingénues and people who were about to take flight. It was really beneficial for me, because it taught me so much about the business and about producing shows. I feel like I got great training at a very young age.
I saw you on The Talk, and you mentioned that Billy Wilder was kind of mentoring you to direct. Did he give you any advice that you found valuable and later applied to music or your career? I’ve had such amazing advice from like legends—Billy Wilder, James L. Brooks, Gene Kelly, Shirley MacLaine. I’ve written down all of the anecdotes that they’ve given me that I’ve applied and that actually do work.
When my mom was working for Billy Wilder, when I was a young girl, I kept saying to her, “I want to meet Billy Wilder.” My mom was a tough-love mom—she said, “Honey, you’re a cheerleader” (laughs). And I said, “OK, well, one day, I’m going to be something more than a cheerleader.”
And when I started becoming a successful choreographer, he started questioning me, [asking how] I come up with ideas and what choices I make. And he said, “Don’t be afraid, as the artist, to speak to the director and let him know how you see this being shot.” He said, “What made you decide to do this?” and, “What made you decide to do that?” And I said, “Well, I knew this would look great if it was a medium head-to-toe shot, not a real wide one, and then I could go overhead.” And he goes, “See, you have a natural knack for understanding how the camera works.”
Looking back at Forever Your Girl, the songwriters are just amazing—the people they’ve worked with and the songs they came up with. What is the most gratifying thing about the way the album turned out for you? It was hard work and some luck and just being very, very tenacious. When I got signed to Virgin Records, [the label] was a studio apartment. There were two employees. They had signed Roy Orbison, who unfortunately passed away the year he was signed; Steve Winwood; Warren Zevon; Cutting Crew—and me. And with me, it was like, “Paula, we’ll create a dance label area for you.” They didn’t know what to do with me, because it was a very eclectic company.
I was very thrifty and would barter deals with acts that I was working on. I’d say, “I’ll choreograph a video for you for half my rate, and you guys write me a song,” or, “Write me a song, and I’ll choreograph for you.” I did it with a lot of people. Some of these writers got their first break on me.
The best story of all is my mom’s young assistant overhearing that [I had decided I’m] going to do an album. And my mom’s assistant [said], “Can my boyfriend submit a song to you? He’s an aspiring songwriter.” And he was really a kid in college.
My mom brought home a cassette, hysterically laughing. She goes, “Oh my God, I don’t know what to do with this. I have this eight-track demo that is horrible. I don’t know what I’m going to tell my assistant, ’cause it’s her boyfriend.” My mom threw it in the trash. I dug it out of the trash and said, “There’s something here though, Mom. There’s something quirky, weird.” And it sounded like someone was plunking on their computer, singing notes that, like, don’t exist—like, terrible, terrible. But I believed in it.
I didn’t have time to demo it, and I had to present it to the label heads at Virgin, and they were like, “Oh God.” And they said, “All right, Paula. We’ll give ’em like $2,500. Produce the whole thing.” I produced it in a shower in a studio apartment—and that song was “Straight Up.”
Were there any other bits of serendipity that stand out to you? When I was quietly getting ready to sign my [record] deal, I was rehearsing, choreographing a comedy video for Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks in this dance studio area. In the building, there was a recording studio, and this R&B group were walking by and they saw us dancing, and they came in and asked for Dan and Tom’s autograph. And they asked me for mine—which was so funny; I was just the choreographer. They said, “Hey, you know, maybe one day if we become really big, you’ll be able to choreograph for us. Come check us out when you’re done with rehearsal.”
When I was done with rehearsal with Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks, I went back and I met these guys. And they said, “We’re a group called The Deele.” They had a song out called “Two Occasions” on the R&B charts. I just threw it out there, “Well, look, I’m going to be signed by Virgin Records. Nobody knows. Maybe I can choreograph something for you, and you guys can write me a song.” That was that. And then two days later I’m rehearsing with Dan and Tom again, and two guys came up to me and said, “Look, we’re going to break off of the group and start producing and writing. My name is Antonio ‘L.A.’ Reid—and my name’s Kenny ‘Babyface’ Edmonds.” I got them their first publishing deal—I took them to the little studio apartment, and I got their first music publishing deal.
You said earlier that you’ve had so many people give you good advice. What does it mean to you that you were able to do that for so many other artist, too? It’s an amazing feeling. People call me the lever puller for them, and I love it, because I love being on the flip side, mentoring, being able to mentor on a show like American Idol. It’s so extremely gratifying to see talent that you know and believe in, and see them become super-duper stars. I guess it’s the lyric in my song, “Rush, Rush”: “You give love/You get love.” I think that’s the way the universe works.
Tell me about the choreography for the tour you’re doing now. I’m proud of it. It’s intimate, it’s fun and it’s big, lavish numbers as well. I know fans want to hear the songs. And I do give a nod to re-creating the choreographed numbers that I did in my videos, but then I have a new feel put on top of them, so people get a taste of the old and new as well.
Twenty-eight years later, I have to have serious conversations with my body, to remind it: “Don’t let me down. I’m going to stretch you really well, but we gotta do a show tonight” (laughs). I’m dancing a lot, and it feels good. For the longest time I wasn’t able to move. People wondered why I disappeared—and I mean, I went through 15 cervical spinal surgeries at the height of my music career, and then came back seven years later on American Idol. During that time, I was getting surgery after surgery. So for me to be able to do this—I’m just really grateful that I get to.
Do you have any Las Vegas memories of things you’ve done there, or anything that stands out to you? [In the mid-’00s] I was being wooed by Hilton Hotels to do a show there, and when they showed me the theater—the old Elvis Presley theater—I was like, “You can’t touch this. This is just so special and magical.” I said, “I’m not the right artist for this, but I have someone who is.” And they said, “Who?” And I said, “Barry Manilow.” And they said, “Oh, come on.” I said, “What are you doing? Because he’s mentoring on American Idol this week. You have to see him being him.” And I took Ken Ciancimino, who was the head of Hilton then, and flew out to the show. He was smitten by how Barry worked with the kids. And I was the integral part that helped Barry get his long residency that he had. [Editor’s note: Abdul was referring to Manilow’s first Vegas residency, Manilow: Music and Passion, which began its years-long run in 2005.]
PAULA ABDUL November 10, 8 p.m., $54-$94. Red Rock Ballroom, 702-797-7777.