Forget the great rock and roll swindle, this was the massive pop shell game. In Nov. 1990, Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan, the dancers known around the globe as pop sensations Milli Vanilli, scored an ignoble record: they became the first artists to ever have their Grammy Award revoked by the Recording Academy after the organization said the liner notes to the group’s debut album falsely claimed “vocals: Fab and Rob.”
The meticulously coifed pair’s high-wire mime act was nearly two years in the making, but in a pre-Twitter age, their 12-month crash-and-burn felt more like a slow-motion car wreck than instant cancellation. After winning three American Music Awards in Jan. 1990, and the best new artist statue (over The Indigo Girls, Neneh Cherry, Soul II Soul and Tone Loc) at the Feb. 21, 1990, Grammy Awards, the whispers grew louder that something was rotten in Munich.
That’s where Svengali producer Frank Farian cooked up the idea to re-record a little known American hip-hop single by the Baltimore crew Numarx with a group of German and American session singers and musicians, who remained in the shadows while he boosted the dancing duo to global superstardom. Farian had pulled similar sonic seduction over Eurodance pop fans’ eyes more than a decade before with his band Boney M. — a mid-1970s co-ed disco funk group whose supposed lead “singer” was really an Aruban exotic dancer, who simply looked the part as he mouthed Farian’s vocals. In fact, Farian had recorded the first songs for MV’s debut album before he’d even cast the two faces with all the right moves who would front his latest Wizard of Oz-like creation.
After irresistible first single “Girl You Know It’s True” turned into a smash across Europe, Farian enlisted the young, fame-hungry hoofers to be the face of his group, no vocals necessary. (In a 2017 interview with VladTV, Morvan claimed Farian signed them to a contract, and after paying around $5,000 worth of their bills, told them they needed to either lip sync or pay him back immediately. “Let’s do this and let’s get out of there… but then it went crazy,” he said of what he described as a difficult choice.) “Girl” caught the ear of legendary music man and Arista Records boss Clive Davis, who licensed the album from BMG (while tweaking its title and adding a handful of new tracks for American ears), and soon it conquered America, selling a reported seven million copies worldwide and hitting No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Released in Europe on the LP All or Nothing in Nov. 1988, the undeniable strength of “Girl” was such that Arista didn’t hesitate to put on a full-court press, releasing the revamped version as Girl You Know It’s True in March 1989, complete with the fresh Diane Warren-penned soon-to-be No. 1 smash ballad “Blame It on the Rain.” The album already contained two other tracks that would both hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” and “Baby Don’t Forget My Number,” with no spotlight on who actually sang and rapped on the LP. The Girl album spent 78 weeks on the Billboard 200 albums chart — peaking at No. 1 for 8 weeks, making Milli Vanilli one of the year’s most dominant pop acts.
And the entire plan might’ve worked, if it wasn’t for a pesky tape that went rogue during a Club MTV performance at Lake Compounce amusement park in Bristol, Connecticut, on July 21, 1989. While many on the inside of their American label were beginning to think by then that Rob and Fab were just smoke and pre-taped vocals, the televised flub turned the growing whispers about lip syncing into a scream. During the now-infamous incident, the two briefly kept “singing” — then ran offstage — as the “Girl” backing track got stuck on repeat, raising questions that a year later would result in the reveal of the biggest lip syncing scandal in pop history. On Nov. 15, 1990, Farian admitted that Rob and Fab — by then megastars whose insistence on singing on their next album drew a hard “no” from the producer and Davis — were merely his puppets in an elaborate, incredibly lucrative pop ruse.
They were summarily dumped from Arista and their Grammy was yanked — marking the first time in Recording Academy history that an award was taken back — and a few days later, Farian blithely brushed off the controversy by telling the Washington Post, “One part was visual, one part recorded. Such projects are an art form in themselves, and the fans were happy with the music.” Rob and Fab found themselves without an American label as the album was purged from Arista’s archives, another humbling first to add to their list of dubious distinctions. Tragically, Pilatus died of a suspected overdose of alcohol and drugs in April 1998 at age 32 (or possibly 33 based on other reports at the time), and Girl You Know It’s True became the biggest-selling album to ever be taken out of print voluntarily.
In the end, Rob and Fab were simply pre-Internet avatars, shiny popbots who perfectly fit into the bicycle shorts and leather jackets, fronting a band they never really met, featuring singers who toiled in the studio anonymously while they reaped the lion’s share of the awards and accolades. All they had to show for it was the lavish rewards of pop stardom, an undeniably catchy album they had nothing to do with, and a feeling that they’d gotten swept up in a whirlwind they had no control over.
After Pilatus’ death, Morvan was left to wrestle with a music career that was missing the most important ingredient: the ability to sing like the studio musicians who made him a star. He soldiered on, serving as a pitchman for KFC’s cheeky “What’s real and what isn’t” campaign, and capably singing alongside one of the unheralded vocalists who made him rich (John Davis) as the zero-irony Face Meets Voice. (Another session veteran, Brad Howell, sang the male vocals on the Milli album alongside Davis). To this day, Morvan continues to release singles in Europe, recently scoring a dance chart hit in France with the song “Hold On.” A second MV album, The Moment of Truth, credited to The Real Milli Vanilli, was released in 1991 outside the U.S. to critical and commercial shrugs — with vocals from Davis, Howell, the sister duo who sang back-up on the original album (Linda and Jodie Rocco), Ray Horton and Gina Mohammed.
How did the ultimate pop con play out the way it did? For the 30th anniversary of Milli Vanilli’s Grammy win, Billboard spoke to the behind-the-scenes players responsible for the album’s recording and U.S. promotion, as well as an engineer and songwriter behind the music, one of the duo’s U.S. managers and a number of then-Arista Records staffers. You might know the broad sketches of the story, but you’ve never heard the fuller tale of what they knew when, and why they were certain that Farian’s house of cards was destined to come toppling down… around an album they’re all still proud to have worked on.
(Editor’s note: Billboard made several attempts to reach Morvan, whose representatives declined to make him available for this story, as well as Brad Howell, Clive Davis, John Davis (unrelated) and Frank Farian, who did not respond or declined requests for comment. Some of the quotes in this story have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
“I HAVE A NEW SONG, AND IT’S GONNA BE A HIT…”
In the beginning, there was the song. After producer Frank Farian heard Numarx’s 1987 single “Girl You Know It’s True” in a German disco, he set out to assemble a crack team of studio veterans to sing and perform a fresh hybrid version of the song. His spin on “Girl” mixed the hip-hop flavor of the original with a Eurodance vibe that gave it a new, mainstream-ready energy. Once it was done, Farian set out to follow his proven formula of finding beautiful faces to front his undeniable melodies.
Linda Rocco (original backup singer on “Girl You Know It’s True,” backing vocalist on both MV albums): I was working for Frank, and I was the No. 1 backing vocalist in the Frankfurt area. Jodie came to visit me and I said, “Why don’t you hang around long enough to sing with me?” It wasn’t for Frank… but while we were doing that, Frank asked if we had a minute to listen to this record by these kids.
Jodie Rocco (original backup singer on “Girl You Know It’s True,” backing vocalist on both MV albums): Frank had one of the first digital studios in Germany, a beautiful $10 million one outside of Frankfurt. I was living in Dusseldorf working as a European pop singer, and one day someone couldn’t make it. Frank heard both of us [singing] and said, “When you have a break, I want you to do something for me.”
Charles Shaw (rapper on “Girl You Know It’s True”): Before Milli Vanilli, my friend from the Army, Sydney Youngblood, and I had both been in Farian’s studio, doing some rapping on a remix maxi single for [Boney M.’s cover of 10cc’s] “Dreadlock Holiday”, which is how [Farian] knew my voice. Frank called me into the studio, and let me listen to the song… and said, “I have a new song and it’s gonna be a hit, maybe you can rap on it.”
Tobias Freund (engineer on debut MV album): I started working in the studio in 1983 and I worked on the Boney M. songs, Far Corporation and a Meat Loaf record [1986’s Blind Before I Stop]. Then we started with Milli Vanilli. I was just an engineer, so I didn’t have anything to do with the production or the final [look] of the band — but we had the music way before anything else. It came from two DJs who worked in a club in Frankfurt called Frankadelic who were friends of Frank, and they brought [Numarx’s] “Girl You Know It’s True” to him.
Shaw: When he [Farian] played the record for me, I already knew the song. He thought it was something new for me, but it wasn’t. I had been dancing to the Numarx version on the weekends in American clubs in Hamburg. Farian played it [“Girl”] and I said, “This song ain’t new.”
Linda Rocco: He wanted to redo that song, which was something he was always doing: putting together a singer and putting a picture on it and then throwing it up in the air and hoping that it sticks.
Shaw: Hell yes he knew it wasn’t new! He picked it up somewhere in Amsterdam, said it was new, and he was going to bring it out. He said, “If you know the song, can you rap it?” I went the next day and it didn’t take me but a half an hour.
Linda Rocco: It was just a drum track when we put our first vocals down. We were pretty much the first thing that was put down on that record. We had no idea what was going to be on it… and we ended up being the ones who sang the “ooh ooh ooooh” on the hook.
Jodie Rocco: He said, “I want you to go, ‘Ooh, ooh, ooooh, I love you.” I looked at my sister and I said, “I’m going to kill you!” I hated that kind of traditional oom-pah German Schlager music. We did it, and I thought it sounded different. We did it in three- or four-part harmonies, and Frank sang as well on the “girl you know it’s true” part. It was maybe 20 minutes… and I never heard from Frank again.
Shaw: He had everybody sing “girl you know it’s true,” then he mixed it up the way he wanted to. You can’t really hear the vocals or exactly who’s singing, because there are so many voices on the chorus.
Ken Levy (former senior vp of creative services, Arista Records): I’m sure the first time I heard [“Girl”] was at the weekly luncheon we had with Clive where he would go over the new records. A lot of records we had then came from things that were hits already overseas first — where they would establish themselves in a couple or territories and we would break it in the States.
Robert Wieger (former product manager, Arista Records): Milli Vanilli sent it to us and asked do we want to put it out. We heard “Girl You Know It’s True” and were like, “Hell yeah, we want to put it out!”
Richard Sweret (former A&R manager, Arista Records): Because it was coming from outside of the U.S., it was a different sensibility. It wasn’t purist, like MC Hammer and LL Cool J, which were around at that time. This was a different thing that mixed sensibilities, but it did appear on the Billboard rap chart and it was a top rap song at that time — but it also worked as a dance and pop song. It truly was a crossover like few others we had at that time.
Jens Gad (guitar, arrangements, co-writer of three songs on MV debut): My brother [Grammy-nominated songwriter/producer Toby Gad] and I sent a cassette when we were 17 and 18 with three of our best songs to Farian, and he called us right away to come to the studio and offers us a publishing and artist deal. And then “Girl You Know It’s True” hit the charts and he needed an album overnight.
We didn’t even speak proper English… we were just putting words together. It was such a surprise and no one thought it would hit like that in the States. They needed an album in a week, and songs that fit, and we were just there, so they took our songs. We thought we were on top of the world, and that our songs were the greatest.
Sweret: We didn’t have any experience working with [Farian] before… but in terms of the American market, you have to look at it from the European/German perspective, where typically in the 1950s, you would cover American songs, and maybe sing them in German and adopt the songs to a German market.
Levy: It’s a terrific pop song, catchy, and the whole feel of the record was a bit different from the usual pop songs of that time. I think we were all very energized by it — especially seeing what was happening in other countries where it was performing very well.
“THE GUYS FROM MUNICH, THEY’RE GORGEOUS!”
With a surefire hit on his hands, Farian scrambled to pull together enough songs to interest BMG’s partners at Arista Records in America. First, though, he found the two eager dancers that fit the part — even as the rest of the songs for Milli Vanilli’s album were recorded without Rob and Fab ever setting foot in the studio. The formula had worked for one of Farian’s previous pop contrivances, the 1970s disco pop group Boney M., a decade before. Only this time Farian’s pop monster blew up internationally and the two hired hoofers dove so deep into their roles that Farian quickly began to lose the tight grip on his secret. As Rob and Fab did press in the United States, questions arose about their thick accents and clearly vocal-less performances.
Jodie Rocco: When the song came out a few months later there was no picture, just the name Milli Vanilli. Milli was the nickname of Ingrid, Frank’s girlfriend at the time, who was the office manager — and he used to rhyme it and call her “Milli Vanilli.” Once [“Girl”] became a huge hit and there were [still] no faces, Frank created the faces.
Shaw: Farian came back after the song hit the charts in England and said he had to have two faces for the project. I was already paid $12,000 for doing [“Girl”] and he said, “Keep your mouth shut and you can do the whole album.” I’m thinking, “That’s studio work for me.”
Freund: I’d never worked on a record like that [where the singers didn’t actually sing]. But I knew the Boney M. story, where two singers were real singers and Bobby [Farrell] was just a dancer. To be honest, I didn’t really care so much. I was happy to have this job and be surrounded by the most amazing gear. Frank’s studio was the best studio at that time in Germany. That’s why Stevie Wonder came to record “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”
Shaw: Rob and Fab weren’t in the studio, they didn’t exist at that time. Everybody came in after they started working on the album, that’s when he started putting the musicians in. He didn’t need them for “Girl You Know It’s True,” because that was just one rapping voice, and that was me.
Linda Rocco: There was no real plan… we were just recording stuff real fast, to get enough together for a four-song EP for the American market. Then Frank said Arista was involved and he was talking to Clive Davis. But we didn’t hear that much about it. We only got a sense of the excitement from what was going on in the office, where at some point it was humming. “America! America!”
Gad: We had 10 songs from the duo I had with my brother, and he took three and put them on the [All Or Nothing] album — “Can’t You Feel My Love,” [“Is It Love”] and “Boy in the Tree.” Ours were definitely the weirdest songs on the album. We tried to emulate Prince and be funky and crazy and do experimental, fun stuff.
We really stood out and were crazy and talented, but we didn’t think it made a lot of sense to have our songs on the album, since they had nothing to do with “Girl You Know It’s True” and that rap style. We were good musicians and it all had to be fast and funky, and Milli Vanilli was more in the pop-rap [vein].
Linda Rocco: When we got in the studio it was just me and my sister. The only other singer I brought in — Frank wanted me to choose a black singer — I chose Joan Faulkner. And we finished “Blame It On the Rain” and “It’s Your Thing,” but the majority of the songs, 85-90 percent, are me and my sister. We worked eight hours a day in the studio for 60 days to get that done.
Gans: [Frank] worked on the Milli Vanilli stuff all the time, he was obsessed with it. He was always in Studio 1 working on Milli Vanilli. He was always calling us in to work on tracks and arrangements… he could work on a track for three months, and just remix and remix and remix. And in the end, it’s a hit.
Frank really had a certain genius. He had a bulletproof feel for how it has to sound, and he worked on it forever and ever until it was completed. He can’t play any instrument and can’t play or tell you anything about a chord, but he has that feel.
Shaw: Frank didn’t tell me the plan to find two good-looking guys until after everything was recorded… after the song hit the charts in England.
Levy: We saw images of the two of them [Pilatus and Morvan], and we felt it was going to be great for us. We didn’t ever imagine it would sell eight million albums, though!
Jodie Rocco: I knew Rob for years — he danced in my shows and I knew him from the P1 nightclub in Munich, where I lived for 14 years. I saw Rob there and he said, “I’m a dancer and I’m trying to [be a singer],” but they were never singers, never singers.
Linda Rocco: I lived in Germany for a long time, so I knew how Frank had handled Boney M. In the beginning there was no plan, then one day he said, “This thing’s taking off and we’re gonna have to put a front on it. Here are some pictures and here are these two guys from Munich,” and two guys from somewhere else. Both had dreads, and I said, “The guys from Munich, they’re gorgeous!”
Levy: We knew that the focus was Rob and Fab, and everything we did from a visual point of view was to focus on them because they were two good-looking guys with a great pop song.
Freund: They [Rob & Fab] didn’t do any recording… they did some backing vocals, but they weren’t really usable. They spoke English, but Fabrice was more speaking French and Rob was German. It was Frank’s opinion that they weren’t good [enough] for him, but they fit perfectly to the music and the [look].
Gad: We never met Rob and Fab, there was no need for them to be in the studio. It was show business: Frank created the scenario where he put this and this and this together, and that was the show. It was completely normal.
Jodie Rocco: The boys [Rob and Fab] would come in and go down to the basement where the pool was and hang out for a couple hours… They’d make appearances, then go down to the basement, but they never sang a note or went into the studio.
Linda Rocco: I met Rob and Fab later on, but [Farian] tried to keep us apart. He was afraid someone would slip up and he didn’t want us to get too chummy.
Mitchell Cohen (former vp of A&R, Arista Records): The thing that gave me pause was that Clive wanted Richard [Sweret] to go to the studio in Germany, because these were our songs and he wanted it to be under our direction. And Frank was absolutely adamant that there wasn’t anyone from Arista in the studio.
Sweret: It wasn’t out of the question. Other producers would do their work and send it in. They just didn’t want anyone in the studio with them because it’s a creative professional distance a producer wants to have. I respected that and there was no reason to think that it was anything other than that.
Cohen: I wouldn’t say it raised a red flag in terms of how the vocals were being done, but it definitely raised a shroud of mystery as to whether they weren’t the only singers or if there were some shenanigans going on.
Freund: When the group took off, Frank told me once that I shouldn’t talk to anyone about that. The real singer [Howell] was living near me in Frankfurt, so I had to pick him up in the evening after the secretaries left the studio and we would go in at night so no one could see. It was a secret. We worked in the evening and closed the windows.
Jodie Rocco: The boys couldn’t go out in public and they had to hide their faces. We knew from the beginning that the wheels would come off, and I told Frank [that].
Wieger: I caught on pretty early, probably at the video shoot for “Blame It on the Rain.” They had trouble remembering the lines, which made me think maybe they hadn’t recorded the song. “What’s going on here?” It was something that was not talked about, to be honest, but definitely behind closed doors it was talked about.
Cohen: People are always very skeptical when we say, “How could we have known?” You take it on a certain amount of faith that producers and the people supplying you with music are not misrepresenting it. And them being in Germany it wasn’t like we could drop by and hang out.
Linda Rocco: We were all invited to dinner — not John and Brad — Jodie, Rob, Fab and Frank’s girlfriend [Ingrid], to go to [the restaurant] Kikkoman, and it looked like the Last Supper with us all sitting on one side of the table. We were celebrating finishing the album. “Girl” was already on the charts. I’d gone out with Rob several times in Frankfurt, but honestly I didn’t jive with them for another reason: They believed their own hype. They were slightly arrogant.
In fact, at that restaurant Rob had ordered a grape juice, and he was complaining, and the waitress started to cry. Jodie and I were former waitresses, and we couldn’t stand the way he was acting and treating that woman. So the two of us slid our chairs out, and everyone asked what we were doing. “I’m leaving,” I said. “I don’t need to take this. Frank pays me, YOU don’t pay me.” Rob said he was sorry and gave the waitress a $400 tip and we sat back down.
Todd Headlee [former MV day-to-day manager for Gallin Morey & Assoc.]: Back in 1989, it was all about the video and these guys had camera-pretty faces, with the hair and bodies and beautiful clothes, so the real voices were pushed to the curb. Nobody knew “Girl” would be No. 1 in 15 countries in five minutes — and it took everyone by surprise, and Rob and Fab got swept up in it.
Sweret: It’s just inexplicable when something reacts, and Milli Vanilli reacted. It went out there in a way no one anticipated. It was a rocket, and I don’t think Frank knew it was going to do that.
Shaw: Frank thought he could pull it off, because he did it with Boney M. for 25 years! He thought he was gonna pull it off, but he made a mistake and sent them to the States. When the s–t got hot in Germany, he rushed them out and sent them to America. And I said it in a TV interview, I’ll never forget it: “I give them two years and believe me it’s gonna hit the papers.” Once they hit America I knew it wasn’t gonna last.
“IT WAS LIKE SOMEONE DIED IN THE STUDIO”
Arista didn’t have Rob and Fab do the endless rounds of radio interviews, in-store visits and press that typical pop superstars did. Once the pair began performing in the States, some people at Arista, and on the outside, started wondering about their lip syncing. Even as they dazzled adoring audiences with their signature dance moves, Rob and Fab drew the wrong kind of attention with a performance on the Club MTV tour. Though several of the acts on the tour used lip syncing or singing over a vocal track, and Milli Vanilli had technical difficulties on several occasions, one particular show in Bristol went the 1989 equivalent of viral — complete with footage of Rob running off stage when the group’s vocal backing track got stuck during “Girl.” The glitch seemingly provided evidence that, at the very least, they were not singing live at their shows.
Freund: We didn’t know if [Milli Vanilli] was a one-hit wonder, but it kept on going… “Blame it on the Rain,” “Baby Don’t Forget My Number,” were huge as well.
Wieger: The first time I met them, I was like, “These guys are stars!” They were obviously green and they were surprised by the success, but they embraced it and very quickly learned to live the rock lifestyle — calling girls up on stage, pointing to girls in the audience and giving them backstage passes, all the antics.
Levy: They were good-looking guys and we had an image to work with, a song that immediately took off — it wasn’t a slow build — and they had the subsequent singles. They weren’t a one-hit wonder. Clive’s genius was picking the right songs in the right order. In those pre-Internet days if you had a record on the radio, if you had a video in rotation on MTV — and it was in heavy rotation — and stock in stores, you were in really good shape.
Wieger: They did an in-store appearance in L.A. That was a mob scene, the police had to do crowd control. There were hundreds of people as they were getting out of the limo, and they got mobbed, and they absolutely loved that.
Rick Bisceglia (former senior VP of promotion, Arista Records): They were great pop songs. I didn’t care at all about [whether they were singing], that wasn’t my responsibility. The pressure I got was to get them played. Once I saw the reaction I knew we had something.
Marty Diamond (former head of artist development, Arista Records): My first experience with them was in a Warehouse Records parking lot performance in L.A. and the two guys get up to perform on the back of a flatbed truck — and it’s obvious they’re not singing to track, they’re lip syncing. I said something to [their German rep], “I thought they were going to perform to track?” And he said, “Oh, we didn’t have the right tape.” I didn’t know the [rep] and he spoke German to them and good English to me, and what he said about the tape seemed plausible. So I didn’t think much beyond it.
Bisceglia: I vaguely remember hearing about them not singing, but it was just noise that didn’t get into my head. I didn’t care and I didn’t think about it. It didn’t matter because the songs were working.
Wieger: They had this device called an Emulator, and I remember a glitch with it once where it wasn’t working in Vegas at the Thomas & Mack Center and they had to sing live. It did not go well. People noticed they couldn’t sing, but they were screaming so loud — I don’t want to say it was like The Beatles — but they had that reaction from a lot of fans, screaming so loud you couldn’t hear the vocals on stage.
I remember there were some words Fab couldn’t pronounce. He had a pretty thick French/Guadalupan accent, so on “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” he couldn’t say “miss,” and he said “meeees.” It was kind of a disaster because they didn’t have the backing tracks to sing to. But at that point their egos were so big, because they were such big stars, that they were like, “We can sing, no problem.” They became believers in their own false story.
Headlee: I got a job with Sandy Gallin’s management company as an assistant to the manager assigned to Milli Vanilli, and my first job was to find them a house in Beverly Hills. I was given $20,000 to furnish it, which was a lot at that time. I had to do everything down to the toothbrushes, because they were moving to America to do the Club MTV tour with Paula Abdul, Tone Loc and Information Society.
Louis Messina (Club MTV tour promoter): The tour was my idea… I was watching Club MTV — I grew up in the American Bandstand era and I remember Dick Clark had his Cavalcade of Stars that he would take on the road — and I called and asked if they wanted to take Club MTV on the road and have [MTV personality] Downtown Julie Brown host it. Paula was hot as hot could be and so were Milli Vanilli, they were a monster at the time. They had never toured before, because they were these make-believe characters, but I didn’t know that [they weren’t singing at all] until everything about them came out.
Wieger: That Club MTV tour was so big, because it gave us an opportunity to get them in front of fans without them having to do the traditional meet-and-greets, the morning zoo radio slots and afternoon visits to retail. It was soundcheck, show and then the next city.
Headlee: It was a lip sync tour — everyone was [singing to track] on it. It was a different time then, when videos were the important thing for selling music, and people went to concerts expecting the same dancing and sound from videos. And you can’t sing live and dance and have the same sound as on the record. Production became a big part of the concerts.
Downtown Julie Brown (former MTV VJ, Club MTV host): Everyone was singing to track on that tour. Was (Not Was) was live, because the whole band was studio singers anyway — but we were so used to being on Club MTV, where it wasn’t so much about who had the best voice, just as long as you could perform and give the audience exactly what they wanted. They wanted to see you perform and touch you. That was the fun of that whole clubby vibe. Milli Vanilli definitely brought that to them.
Eliot Sekuler (MV’s outside publicist): I was on the MTV tour already with Paula… where [a number of the acts] were just singing to a recording. [Milli Vanilli] had a fairly elaborate playback system for its time, a digital device that was unusual for them. And it failed. It got stuck while they were on stage.
Steve Leeds (former director of on-air talent/ special projects for MTV): One of my projects was the Club MTV tour and Milli Vanilli were up-and-coming at the time and seemed like a great fit. We were playing Summerfest in Milwaukee [at the beginning of the tour], and they had this elaborate stage that was like a pyramid. Each guy would walk up on the sides and meet up at the top and body slam into each other and start singing.
It was a hot, sticky day and there were 22,000 people, sold out, and Milli Vanilli had this big live band, and then there was a track. It starts [hums “dun-dun-dun-dun”] and then the two guys come jumping out, getting hands in the air, and they’re waiting for the vocal track to come in — and after seven times of it coming around, it was apparent that the vocal track wasn’t coming on. They ran offstage, punched [their tour manager] in the chest and locked themselves in their tour bus.
Brown: I remember that whole first show in Milwaukee everyone was so nervous anyway. So in my mind it wasn’t such a big thing, because the crowd was getting geared up. But the one in Connecticut went on for a while. I don’t remember Milwaukee being that dramatic. It wasn’t in the key bar in the [“Girl”] chorus — where even if you don’t know the words, you know the words to the chorus.
In Bristol it happened on the key chorus vocal. It crescendos, and they bump chests, and the show was getting going… and the crowd was singing along and you’re sitting there and going, “That doesn’t sound right… there’s no techno break here.” It was stuck, “Girl, girl, girl, girl…” And I didn’t know what was going to happen, if it was going to skip to the end of the song or what. I told the crowd we had technical difficulties, and then the show continued and everything went well.
Headlee: Julie Brown went backstage and coaxed them back out on stage and they ran out and the audience didn’t care. They couldn’t get enough of them.
Brown: Backstage it was hell-raising. Rob was so mad. I told him to get open the door, and I just had to talk to him, saying, “They’re here to see you perform and you’re doing such a great job — don’t let this stop you from giving fans what they want.”
We discussed it later and [Rob] was devastated. He couldn’t even laugh it off and say, “Oh that’s something that happens.” It was very serious for him and he was very embarrassed. He hated people laughing at him. He needed constant pats on the back to get him back into the groove.
Linda Rocco: I heard about the MTV thing, and it was like someone died in the studio… It was a solemn day in paradise when that happened. Everyone was walking around mumbling.
Levy: I don’t think a lot of us really knew until the whole [MTV] thing when the tape broke. They had a product manager who went out on the road with them and spent a lot of time with them and he was the one that reported about the thing. That was the first indication that they don’t sing.
Wieger: I remember hearing about the MTV show and the response in the company was, “Oh my God, what are we gonna do?” It was immediate damage control. “How do we address this? Do we ignore it?”
Freund: I was always wondering how it could happen that this loop [would get stuck on repeat]. It was really strange. I heard that someone said it happened on purpose… maybe like sabotage.
Shaw: When the track skipped on MTV… you wanna know what I thought about it? Every dog has his day. They didn’t want anything to do with me, it was already being said they weren’t singing. They just wanted to keep me away, but I kept fighting.
Headlee: I wasn’t there when it happened, but it all happened fast after that. Everybody on that tour knew it could have happened to any one of them. But it alerted the media to certain things, and that’s what put the big question mark out there about whether they were singing or not.
Leeds: I remember earlier on the tour calling [someone] at Arista and saying something like, “Something is weird here and it doesn’t seem like they’re singing.” He said, “Oh, no, no, no they’re singing.” And I was like, “Okay, I was just checking because it seemed bizarre…” I don’t think it mattered to the audience, [who] were totally into it. It was a hit song. That’s a great show, if you think about it. Everyone was dancing and having a great time. It was a party.
Wieger: The fact is, sales were going through the friggin’ roof, and it didn’t really have any effect because they were so big on radio, and at that point radio was everything. More than likely, the thought was just to let it pass and hope it doesn’t blow up any further.
Sekuler: Then they were on tour separately in the summer or 1990, and I flew back to see them at Jones Beach in Long Island. They did pretty well in terms of attendance — it was a big house — and they lip synced, and it came off without a hitch. The audience had a good time.
Brown: One thing about Milli Vanilli was they put on one heck of a show. They worked so hard, they were super, super fit and they did everything and more for the fans. They’d get to shows early and meet fans, and they really did work hard.
Wieger: They were generating so much income… At the time I thought, “Just keep doing your job, keep promoting them and keep all the pieces moving.” It was really on autopilot at that point, [release] a single to radio, retail goes through the roof, release another one… uptempo, uptempo, ballad.
Leeds: While back at my NY office during a break of the Club MTV tour, I received a letter from their management that thanked me and the MTV staff for the support and the family-like atmosphere. Years later it occurred to me that the guys probably had someone construct the letter as it was probably not something they would be able to articulate.
Diamond: As time goes on, it becomes very clear that they’re not singers and they speak very broken English… [but the album] was a smash, and didn’t sound like anything else on radio. It was a f–king smash.
Wieger: As it became evident that these guys were not singing, we backed off interviews and appearances. We decided to rely more on just the success of it because they were not their own best spokesperson.
Headlee: It definitely got the ball rolling on [speculation about] them not singing, but it was not the nail in the coffin. Them winning the Grammy was the final nail.
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE??”
In a pre-Internet era, the Club MTV Tour incident failed to stop Milli Vanilli’s momentum, as their fans continued to buy Rob and Fab’s debut album by the millions. In fact, in addition to multi-platinum success, the duo also scored a Grammy nomination for best new artist, thanks to an innocent query by a member of their management team. Ironically, it was their pinnacle of mainstream success — the Feb. 1990 win at the Grammys — which served as the block that began to topple Farian’s Jenga tower.
Linda Rocco: When they were nominated for a Grammy for the work we did, I was like, “Oh my God!” I was shocked.
Headlee: I am the reason they got nominated for a Grammy! I didn’t know anything and nobody thought they needed to tell me they didn’t sing — the less people who knew the better — and I was a genuine fan.
I naively asked [then-NARAS president Mike Greene] how someone got nominated, and he told me the record company or management put “please consider” on letterhead and that goes to the members. I’m in Europe running around and I get a call from Clive Davis, and he’s over-the-top livid, asking, “How the hell did Milli Vanilli get on the ballot!?” I was in so much trouble. Sandy [Gallin] was like, “Did you?” And I told him I called NARAS, and he said, “What have you done??” They said they’d never get nominated anyway.
Levy: Our approach to [promoting it] was the phenomenal success of the band and how big they had gotten and how each of their hits had achieved success on its own… “Blame It On The Rain,” “Girl You Know It’s True,” it was a given. Most artists these days up for best new artist have one or two hits, but by that time they had a couple. I felt good about it.
Headlee: [Rob and Fab] were thrilled about the Grammy nomination, but they knew people like [fellow nominees] Tone Loc, Neneh Cherry and the Indigo Girls would not be happy about it. It was bittersweet — they were excited about it, but they always felt guilty, and knew the rug could be pulled out from under them. And Frank waved that over their heads every five minutes.
Jodie Rocco: When I saw the Grammys and I wasn’t invited to go in 1990, I sat at home in Las Vegas — and three black girls mimed my voice and they collected the award that I should have been there to collect.
Headlee: When they were up for four American Music Awards, I thought it was so bizarre that they weren’t performing — they were one of the biggest nominees! So I had to fight to get them to present [at the Grammys], and I said, “This is crazy, you guys can’t do the Grammys without performing!” So I orchestrated for them to perform on the Grammys.
You would think I started WWIII! Everyone was like, “Are you kidding? They can’t lip sync on the Grammys!” They wanted Milli Vanilli on the show because they were one of the biggest stars of the year, and they made a concession to let them lip sync. [Rob and Fab] had to dance and run down the aisles and spring board onto the stage, and that’s the reason we said they had to lip sync — there was no way to pull it off without singing to track.
Sekuler: I was there with Paula [Abdul] at the Grammys that year and her manager, and she got beat out by them for best new artist [nomination] and her management team were outraged. A lot of people were very pissed off and bewildered by the success of those guys.
Levy: [Then-Tommy Boy Records President] Monica Lynch, who was a friend, turned around during the Grammy Awards after they announced they’d won best new artist, like, “Are you kidding me?” For the first time ever, you were kind of embarrassed that your artist won. It’s not like when Whitney [Houston] won [Grammys] and your chest was swelling with pride. When they won everyone knew they were a fake, the industry knew.
Headlee: They performed right before the award, and when they won they were backstage, so that’s where they came from. It was very nice of them to thank me at the AMAs — it was sweet, because of the hell I’d been through with them. But by the time they won the Grammy they were so bitter and disgusted and done with the powers that be. I don’t remember the speech, but it was very short and they didn’t thank anybody.
Jodie Rocco: My sister and I worked more than all of them put together, with these sweet five-part harmonies and everything! [Same with] John or Brad, you never saw them anywhere until after the scandal hit. They weren’t invited. Frank was afraid people were going to ask, “Hey, what do you do?”
Linda Rocco: I was thinking, “How can they stand there knowing what they know?” I was very scared and I felt sorry for them. I don’t believe they started out as arrogant bastards… the industry turned them into that. Everyone handles success in different ways.
Levy: We had a party for them on Grammy night in an airplane hangar in Santa Monica and they were just really out of control. To the point where Kenny G said to me, “Who are these guys?” To this day I think, “They knew they didn’t sing, so why were they so obnoxious?”
Sekuler: The thing that gets lost is that [lip syncing] was not a unique practice in the music business. My first PR gig was with Casablanca Records and we had the Village People, who didn’t sing on their first record. What was unique, and became problematic, was that these guys had tried to conceal it and went on tour and they weren’t singing on stage either. What was unique was the success they had, and the Grammy win, and that was their downfall. The business would be very unforgiving with them when they learned they had nothing to do with the records.
“I KNEW THE S–T WAS HITTING THE FAN”
With the writing clearly on the wall, and Rob and Fab eager to share their real story, Farian struck first by admitting to the dance-pop fabrication. That led the Recording Academy to pull MV’s Grammy a few days later, an unprecedented action that cemented their status as once-beloved strivers who fell victim to the oldest vice in the book: believing in their own hype.
Freund: The second album, as The Real Milli Vanilli, was the same constellation, the same singers as the first one.
Sekuler: By November they were preparing for the second album. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t keep the proofs, but they came into my office at [PR firm] Rogers & Cowan with the photos for the new album. They were posing for the cover in lederhosen! I really wish I’d kept those pictures, they would be worth a fortune! They were so clueless. They were trying to live up to some idea of rock stardom and they had no idea.
Levy: I remember sitting down at a luncheon after the first album sold whatever it sold and Clive stepped out of the room — there was a phone in the kitchen — and he said something like, “I just got off the phone with Frank and the two of them want to sing on their new album.” He wasn’t laughing, he was basically just like, “That’s not gonna happen.” Obviously we never released their second album.
Freund: We had already produced the second album, and it was almost done and it was really good — something I really liked. And then suddenly I have no idea how it came that Frank announced that they didn’t sing. I’m not sure what the pressure there was for him to announce it just before the release of the second album, but suddenly it was official that they didn’t sing.
Jodie Rocco: I’m the one who went to the press about the lip syncing. I was in Vegas and I’d just come back from doing the second album and Frank gave Brad and John million mark bonuses, and we got platinum records and a couple thousand here and there, but nowhere near what the boys got. We were compensated because we were part of the group. There are three duets on that [second album] with my sister and I — we sang 80 percent of every single song. The boys were not on every song. Our voices are on 46 tracks.
Gad: Rob and Fab were talking, and the story was that Frank sent them a million dollars and they got ahead of themselves and they didn’t accept anymore that they were just the face. They were getting bigger egos, and Frank said it was getting out of control. He said, “I just need to make it public now” because he had no control over them anymore, they just took off on their own in America… He just couldn’t control them from Europe.
Linda Rocco: I suspected it was over when I heard Frank screaming a lot in the office. I knew the s–t was hitting the fan, that this whole fairytale was falling down, this house of cards. They were doing interviews and saying things like [in German accent], “We are bigger than the Beatles were at their time.” They were arrogant in these interviews, and people started to perceive that they had these thick accents. Frank said he told them not to do interviews, and they’d started to go rogue. So Frank said, “I’m going first.”
Sekuler: Frank broke it first in Germany, and the reason I was given was that the guys had given him an ultimatum that they wanted to play more of a creative role on the second record. And he balked and called their bluff.
Headlee: We had orchestrated it with USA Today and Chuck Philips [from The Los Angeles Times] to have the story come out — and if I had it to do over again I would have gotten Rob and Fabrice to come forward with the truth. But they were tied to a confidentiality agreement and they could lose millions if they did that.
I had brought in Edna Gundersen [from USA Today] and Chuck when Frank did his press conference and fired them. I didn’t know it was happening, because as soon as Frank got wind of what I was up to he called that press conference and fired them before the stories came out.
Sekuler: Clive Davis called me in the middle of all that — I had never spoken to him — and when my assistant yelled “Clive Davis on line three!” I was like, “Whoo, this is going to be very intense.” I remember Clive was just furious that the whole story was coming out.
Diamond: In fairness and respect to Clive Davis, I don’t think he knew in the beginning… I think he was unknowing until the s–t hit the fan.
Jodie Rocco: We were never allowed to be seen with the boys, so I invited myself to the press conference when they gave back the Grammy. I crashed it and I was on stage with the boys when they gave it back.
Sekuler: [Rob and Fab] wanted to do a press conference, and to my great regret I set that up. And it was really the wrong thing to do, because there was nothing to be gained from my client’s perspective. They were still my clients, and for them to be out there doing some mea culpa, with the paparazzi descending like a lynch mob, all the cameramen yelling for them to sing… There was no way to win, but it brought some closure, and they offered to return the Grammy.
Gad: When they took the Grammy away it was dramatic, but more like a fun, showbiz thing. Nobody was crying. Frank was just proud that Germans were having so much success and having any role in America. Even giving the Grammy back made him proud, because there was so much attention and it was just a total surprise that this was happening.
Sekuler: So Mike Greene from the Recording Academy said, “They can’t quit, we fire them” — and they took the Grammy away from them. And it turned into a pissing contest between the Recording Academy and these two European singers.
Jodie Rocco: I was surprised at the human reaction. Because for years people have been doing this… it’s pretty common, especially in Europe. It was common to put good looking people out front who probably can’t even speak the language.
Gad: From an American point of view where everything is authentic and real, it might sound weird, but from our point of view we were in show business — we didn’t know anything else. I knew Milli Vanilli’s face was the two guys, but we didn’t even question if it was weird. It was all Frank did — and if you were from Germany you knew Boney M., which was basically the same thing eight years before. Everyone knew Frank was doing that. In America there is so much talent you don’t need to just put a face on it, but Germany was a different story.
Shaw: If [Frank had] kept them in Germany, they wouldn’t have been attacked that way. He just didn’t keep them secure… he sent them over there. They had money, luxury, got the drugs and women they wanted. These were two young guys you put into something they never had: fame. They felt like they were gods.
Linda Rocco: They lived like God in France for two years, they had a beautiful mansion next to Michael Jackson in the Encino hills, they had two Ferraris, a limo service at their beck and call. They went shopping in Las Vegas and both brought Rolex watches with diamond bezels. Life was good, and when life wasn’t good, they were victims.
Levy: I remember watching the press conference after they left Arista and all that stuff came out and they said they were victims of a bad industry. But in fact they were lousy guys. To this day people ask me who the worst artist I ever worked with is and I say they were, by far, the worst. They were just not the least bit appreciative of what we were working hard to do to break them in the United States.
Shaw: I felt sorry for [Pilatus] because he was really in a dream. He really thought he was the singer. He not only bought into it, it hit his mind. They showed him star life. It’s like, “Nobody can touch me.”
Linda Rocco: They were blinded by happiness. I don’t think they were deceitful. I don’t believe in the badness of anyone in this whole story. Nobody started off trying to deceive anybody, but they all got sucked up in it. They thought they were really Milli Vanilli. Take a step back and look at what you’re saying. Give a little credit where it’s due, and maybe things might be different.
“IT WAS SOMETHING SPECIAL”
Thirty years on, MV’s story is an asterisk in the annals of pop. Ironically done in by their desire to actually sing on their second LP, Rob and Fab’s work lives on through the songs, finely crafted dance gems created by Farian’s team of crack session pros. Pilatus never got a chance to redeem himself after he was found dead of a suspected accidental alcohol and drug overdose in Frankfurt in April 1998, just as he and Morvan were preparing to leave for a promo tour for their unreleased Back and in Attack album. We’ll never know if Rob and Fab could have ever recreated that magic using their own voices, but almost all agree that what Farian and the original performers and players created was special.
Jodie Rocco: The reaction was more violent than I could have expected… bulldozers crushing the CDs.
Sekuler: People had their knives and forks out. Arsenio Hall and In Living Color were making fun of them mercilessly at the time, and there was a lot of negative reaction to them — because they acted with a sense of entitlement that was certainly not deserved.
Wieger: There was a class-action suit, but very few people asked for refunds. I had to deal with my hard drive being seized so they could check all my emails, and the BMG lawyers and I had to give a deposition. I remember the experience of sitting at a table with two lawyers on either side of me and the opposing lawyers on the other side asking, “Who knew, when did we know, how did we know?”
Diamond: When we offered the giveback [after the first of several class-action lawsuits] there were maybe 50 people who asked for their money back, some arbitrarily low number.
Cohen: I found the [lawsuit] ridiculous. Because if you heard two or three songs on the radio and liked it enough to buy it — and you take it home and it sounded exactly like it did on the radio, and then you find out the people whose picture is on the cover are not singing — [would] you want to send the record back?
Headlee: My joke was that President Bush was so upset about Milli Vanilli lip syncing that he bombed Baghdad… the Iraq War started the week Frank had his press conference. I got home that day and I’d gone to play tennis with my brother and fell off my bike and broke my arm, and all these news crews were parked outside my house in Venice Beach. I sat in my living room and did interviews with a cast on my arm and it was the lead story on every channel for four or five days — and then we bombed Baghdad and everyone moved on to that.
Sekuler: I spent the next year trying to conceal my involvement from my other clients. The last thing I needed was Quincy Jones knowing I worked on this.
Headlee: They believed, and I still believe, that if it would have been handled correctly — I wish I could have called my own press conference and done it our own way, and forced Frank to fire them, but he wanted to get out in front of it — it would have been different. But it didn’t come off that way because Sandy and Frank painted Rob and Fab as villains.
If we had just let the dust settle, found a major producer who could have used their voices while still doing the computer stuff everyone does… Milli Vanilli wasn’t about having great voices. It was about a sound, having great music, their characters.
Linda Rocco: The songs hold up today — even in the way they were recorded on CD then sounds better than most songs today.
Diamond: They are kick-ass pop songs. And that’s all they are, pop songs. It’s like a-ha, that holds up 30 years later.
Freund: I have friends who grew up with the songs and they all say, “This is amazing music.” This was a new step into new, something danceable, Eurodance combined with hip-hop and they really love it. They grew up with the music. Most of my friends didn’t care so much about who was singing and the look of the band, they cared about the music. The music had an impact on the dancefloor. It was something special. People don’t care so much about the scandal.
Gans: It still sounds good today, because it’s very spare and the drums still have that punch. Frank had that pure, intuitive feeling, and you can listen to all the singles and they don’t feel dated.
Levy: When CDs were still a vital part of selling, I thought we should re-release it. I knew Clive would never do it. Even after Arista ended, I kind of wanted to write to BMG and say, “You should re-release this because it’s a good record!”
Shaw: I’ve run into people who’ve told me, “Because of your voice I have a son, I have a daughter,” because they listen to “Girl You Know It’s True.” “Because of your voice I got married, I’m still married to that lady today, that was our wedding song.” It shows you that the song had a big meaning at that time… The best part about it? I’m still here and I’m still playing the song.
Freund: What if it happened today? Would people be as upset? I don’t think so. What was funny was this was the initial [reaction] was every boy or girl group started to sing a cappella on every talk show to prove they could sing after that… Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC.
Diamond: If Milli Vanilli exited today because of the internet you couldn’t hide it. Every kid on Reddit would have been on it. That parking lot thing would have been filmed and posted.
Levy: These days nobody cares about that stuff. I could point to 25 artists who you would question if they’re singing or not but it doesn’t matter because the songs are great! I guarantee if Sony put it out on vinyl it would be a monster. No doubt about it. People hear those songs now and they don’t really know the history of the band and even if they do they don’t care. It’s really good pop music.
Gad: I got an award, maybe a gold album in Germany [for Milli Vanilli] and it’s always such a laugh to have this album up there with my other plaques. I’ve had people in the studio come in and look at it — and this one guy from Texas came in who was working on a presidential campaign, and he asked if I would sell the plaque to him. People always ask me, “Is that really what I think it is?”
Shaw: [Farian] was a snake, he wasn’t stupid, he knew what he was doing. The only thing I fight for today is everybody got a gold record, everybody got a platinum record, everybody got an award, a trophy, where’s mine? Where’s mine? Why don’t I deserve what my voice helped everybody else out there get rich with? That’s what I’m fighting for: a gold record, a platinum record. I want what my voice helped him get much richer with.
Sweret: It’s not out there, no longer in circulation as the music from that time might be. With the distance, if it does make a resurgence — as it probably, inevitably will — a whole new generation of people will enjoy it. Underneath it all, Frank Farian is a genius at doing pop music. You still hear Boney M.’s music in Europe and around the world. I think Milli Vanilli in future will have that same revival, it’s inevitable.
Linda Rocco: People ask me all the time to perform on a ‘90s show, but Milli Vanilli has never performed as the actual group — John, Brad, Linda and me. When I look at the songs now [though] they absolutely hold up. [Frank] had all these young guys who had certain sounds that he was using and they were way ahead of their times. To this day, in my opinion, I can hear any of those songs and think they’re great.
Brown: We’re still talking about it right? If I go out now and I put a Milli Vanilli record on in one of my ’80s or ’90s nights I’m sure to get people up singing and dancing to it.
Sekuler: It was a weird footnote in music history and it’s interesting for me to have played some role. I’m not embarrassed or proud of it. “Well, that happened.”
Headlee: They could have made a comeback if they had taken their time. My vision for the end of the movie [treatment] I wrote about it [Blame it on the Rain] was Fabrice comes back with a hit single, “Only the Truth (Shall Set You Free).” And he’s singing that song and he rises above it all, and has his moment.