They had the dance moves, beautiful bodies and the braids — but the vocals? Not so much.
Milli Vanilli’s debut album, Girl You Know It’s True, turns 25 on March 7. Most people my age still have a slightly soft spot in their nostalgia hearts for the disgraced duo. We know all the words to “Blame It On the Rain” and can still recall Milli Vanilli’s signature, single-footed sideways move. This despite the lip-sync scandal that shook the music industry to its glossy, hypocritical core and the scapegoating/egotistical greed of faux-so-good frontmen Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan.
Almost as quickly as Milli Vanilli broke out in North America with the number one album on the Billboard charts, they were also over. Following the revelation that Pilatus and Morvan hadn’t sung a word on 1989’s Girl You Know It’s True, Milli Vanilli became synonymous with fake. To this day, Milli Vanilli is a simple but effective pop culture punchline, despite the tragedy that befell Pilatus and the bizarre, baffling circumstances surrounding what’s been labelled one of the greatest scandals in music history.
But the story’s not that simple. It’s a complex web of greed, privilege, compromised ethics, racism, entitlement, cultural differences, manipulation, naiveté, hilariously conflated egos and a rapidly changing music industry. Scroll down for everything you need to know about Milli Vanilli on this, the 25th anniversary of the album that built them up only to knock them down.
The rise and fall of Milli Vanilli
On March 7, 1989, a dance/pop/hip-hop album called Girl You Know It's True dropped and subsequently turned the music industry inside out. Now, 25 years later, the scandal continues to beg questions about integrity, hubris, art and the American way.
Before they were Milli Vanilli, Fabrice Morvan (left) and Rob Pilatus (right) were dancers and part-time models who met first in L.A. and then again in Munich, Germany.
According to a 1989 L.A. Times interview with Pilatus, the two bonded over the racism and isolation they experienced growing up in Paris (Morvan) and Munich (Pilatus).
Pilatus: "Michael Jackson was bigger than you could ever believe in Germany. He opened the doors for black culture over there. Then Prince came along. Rap and hip-hop became accepted. But Michael started it all. When I was 16 (about seven years ago), suddenly it was OK to be black in Germany. It was trendy. It was even fun. Before that being black was hard work."
The pair, who wanted to be singers, met German producer Frank Farian, who'd had major success years earlier establishing the band, Boney M.
In an interview with the LA Times, Farian (who'd also had a few modest disco hit songs) says that he was discouraged from covering black soul music, that German audiences wanted black music from America. But he forced his way into the landscape with Boney M, the disco group that was almost always depicted as five black singers.
In fact, it was Farian singing lead vocals on the first record. After the album was a hit, he hired models from the West Indies to front the touring band. Subsequent albums featured black military personnel living and working in Germany as musicians.
Though Boney M's eventual lead singer, Bobby Farrell, did sing and record vocals in the studio, he found his vocals replaced with Farian's in the final mixes. When Farian met Pilatus and Morvan, he signed the pair to a contract obligating him to record 10 songs with them a year. But their first Milli Vanilli single, "Girl You Know It's True," was recorded by studio musicians.
"Girl You Know It's True" started climbing the charts in Germany, despite the fact that singer Charles Shaw spoke out publicly, taking credit for the rap portion of the song. (Shaw was quickly silenced, though how he was silenced is up for dispute. Shaw told friends that Farian threatened him; Farian countered that he asked Shaw to stop speaking and settled with him for approximately $150,000.)
The lip-syncing accusations continued, but the full-length album was released in Europe in 1988, with the single "Girl You Know It's True" hitting the U.S. in January 1989. Arista released the titular album in February — Milli Vanilli were suddenly big in America and there was no going back.
Milli Vanilli's burst of fame resulted in four hit singles: "Girl You Know It's True," "Blame It On the Rain," "Baby, Don't Forget My Number" and "Girl I'm Gonna Miss You."
Later that year, at a concert in Connecticut, the public got its first proof of lip-syncing. During a performance for MTV, the tape repeated "Girl you know it's" over and over again. After a few minutes, Pilatus ran offstage.
That didn't stop the record from becoming a global sensation, allegedly grossing more than $50 million and earning the duo a Grammy Award for best new artist in February 1990, even as the lip-sync allegations continued.
As their fame continued to grow, Pilatus and Morvan grew weary of the deception and demanded that Farian let them sing live. He refused and outed them in November, 1990. "After they wouldn't follow instructions and wanted to sing — they couldn't — we stopped the faking."
The fallout was spectacular.
Arista Records claimed it didn't know about the deception, but the duo's former manager refuted that, saying the label required its employees to sign confidentiality agreements.
Fingers pointed at MTV for changing the landscape and focusing kids on spectacle over substance.
Pilatus and Morvan gave a press conference Nov. 20, 1990 for more than 100 journalists in L.A. to return their Grammy Awards (the first time the Grammy committee had ever rescinded an award). They proceeded to claim they'd "made a deal with the devil," and they sang and rapped for the room in order to prove that, although they hadn't sang on the record, they could, in fact, sing.
Voice coach Seth Riggs was on hand to attest to their capabilities, stating "They can sing up to Pavarotti's high C. Not as well as Pavarotti, but they did do it."
Even as the lawsuits from disgruntled fans poured in, and the real singers were revealed (who would go onto form The Real Milli Vanilli), Pilatus and Morvan still thought the music industry would welcome them back with open arms, based on the heady success of Milli Vanilli. They were wrong.
But only Pilatus and Morvan seemed to suffer any real consequences from the scandal.
Arista's vice president of operations, scoffed at the L.A. Times' notion that the label should be embarrassed by the situation, stating, "Seven million albums? Embarrassing? I don't mean the end justifies the means. But we sold 7 million albums."
Farian didn't see the big deal either, stating, "What was the betrayal? Did anyone in America believe that the Village People or the Monkees really sang themselves? The Archies? Please. Everyone's been doing it for 25 years. Madonna, Janet Jackson — these perfect dance shows are expected now. So the best way to go onstage is with tapes. But you have to say what you're doing. I know this."
Farian also expressed marvel at the vitriol directed towards him. "The press in America is exactly like the kids. Here in Europe everyone is more cool. They write about it, but not like I'm Saddam Hussein. Read the American press and you'd think I'm more important than Saddam."
"We were so naive," Pilatus told the L.A. Times in August, 1991. "We figured because we had sold so many albums as Milli Vanilli that all the record companies would be dying to sign us. After the scandal broke, we were sure that all these million-dollar offers would come pouring in. So we just went about our lives and waited."
Needless to say, the comeback was, well, weird.
Pilatus and Morvan appeared in a commercial for Carefree Gum which spoofed their lip-syncing.
They were also featured in an episode of the Super Mario Bros cartoon where they were captured and turned into accountants.
They even signed with a PR firm representing Arnold Schwarzenegger with the hopes of finding careers in acting, telling the L.A. Times, "We think we have the potential to become actors. After all, we got a lot of practice while we were in Milli Vanilli. But the most important thing to us now is the new album."
But between their 1991 comeback attempt and delivering their new album, Pilatus experienced numerous personal difficulties that ended up playing out in public.
On Nov. 30, 1991, Pilatus attempted suicide at a Sunset Strip hotel, calling an L.A. Times operator who alerted police. The police successfully talked Pilatus off of his ninth-story balcony and he was held for observation.
Almost immediately, Pilatus said, the jokes began, with speculation that it was all a publicity stunt. He went to rehab, and got back to work on the new project, Rob & Fab.
That new album, self-titled Rob & Fab, wouldn't be released until 1993 and sold just 2,000 copies in the US. The single, "We Can Get It On," isn't extraordinarily different than their Milli Vanilli material, but listeners had moved on.
Eventually Pilatus and Morvan stopped speaking and Pilatus continued to struggle with substance abuse and problems with the law. He served time in jail and was regularly in and out of rehab.
In a 1997 interview with People, Morvan stated, "We have no relationship at this point. I got sober. I am going my own way now."
Sadly, Pilatus died the following year from an accidental overdose, April 2, 1998.
According to Frank Farian, Pilatus' death came on the eve of what was to be Milli Vanilli's big comeback. Pilatus and Morvan had allegedly reunited, not just with each other but also with Farian, who was going to finally deliver on his promise to let them sing. They were supposedly in the process of making new music as Milli Vanilli when Pilatus died, though Morvan refuted the reunion rumour just months earlier, saying, "I sold myself to the devil, and the devil is coming back again. For all the money in the world, I would never subject myself to that life." .
Pilatus's tragic ending didn't put an end to Milli Vanilli as an easy punchline for jokes, though Morvan had harsh words for the group's haters.
In a statement following Pilatus's death, Morvan said, "Milli Vanilli was not a disgrace. The only disgrace is how Rob died, all alone....Where were the ones that pushed us to the top, who made the millions?"
Farian has continued to have a successful career, working with artists such as Meat Loaf, Eruption, No Mercy and a variety of Eurodance groups, plus royalties from his other projects.
"There will be a movie. When it's done, you'll see the true story. Kathleen Kennedy is involved and there's more people coming to the table. When we're happy with everything, it'll go. I'm a consultant on it. The problem is, in 2.5 hours, how much can you put in there? That's the challenge. Everything you want to put ... it's not just the story on Rob and Fab, but society and generations. Desert Storm was happening. It's a picture in time you're taking, not just Rob and Fab. "
For Pilatus's part, before his addictions consumed him, Pilatus was hopeful. He genuinely seemed to believe that a comeback was possible, that he could start over and live the American Dream.
"A lot of people think of us as losers. But we have always seen ourselves as winners. Not just marionettes. Real entertainers."
Follow Andrea Warner on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner
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