Paula Abdul shares her struggle, insight, and the headlong rush to be successful
By Tim Wassberg
Paula Abdul is a powerhouse. Even before achieving pop stardom in the late 80s and early 90s, she was doing choreography for one of the biggest names in the business, The Jacksons, while also being the lead choreographer and performer for the Laker Girls.
Beyond her pop success, she also helped spearhead the American Idol juggernaut which opened a whole new generation to the travails and path of stardom.
Today, Abdul is the latest superstar to headline a residency show in Las Vegas as she celebrated the official opening of Paula Abdul: Forever Your Girl on Thursday, Oct. 24 at Flamingo Las Vegas.
The dazzling production takes the audience on an intimate journey, as Abdul pulls the curtain back with never-before told stories from her humble beginnings as a performer and choreographer, to her meteoric rise in the entertainment industry. Throughout Paula’s 10 glitzy costume changes, Abdul thrills with spectacular visuals, choreography, humor and heartfelt showbiz anecdotes. Paula collaborated with Emmy Award-winners Nappytabs on the show which features a cast of 10 dancers. The 90-minute production also showcases some of her global hits including “Straight Up,” “Opposites Attract,” “Cold Hearted” and of course, “Forever Your Girl.”
Abdul spoke with Casino Player about her journey, the coincidences, the work ethic and the heart of who she is as she brings her new show to the Las Vegas Strip.
Casino Player: Tell us about the balance in performance between instinct and technique especially in dance?
Paula Abdul: Well, for me, since I’ve been doing this most of my life, I feel like I’m an inherent believer in that you can accomplish anything you put your mind to. With the exception of some things, which I’ll get to later. But my instincts are always to push the boundaries. It’s fine to be in your comfort zone, but I find it pretty exhilarating to step out of my comfort zone and try new things. But I really do rely on my instincts because I feel like that’s the breaking side of me that’s always right. It’s my gut feeling that I tend to go with. And I’m kind of like the girl that – because new things and new ideas start happening when I’m in rehearsals – I’m going, “Oh my God. That would be clever. We need to add this.” It’s kind of like a work-in-progress, always. Because I’m always thinking of different ways of presenting the performance where the audience can get a different feel and a different take. And I really aimed at this show to be something that people can come back to with repeat performances to see something or catch something a little different than they did the first time.
How do you truly know if something works?
Well, I’ve learned to trust the timing of things and to stop being in such a rush towards success.And the journey itself is the heart of your success, really. When we started, I was methodical in how I wanted this show to go. What the order was going to be. But with this Vegas residency, it’s all about staying in the present moment.
How did you know it was the right time for this type of show?
The show is designed to celebrate how dance has a way of filling the heart and bringing joy. It really works in the Flamingo showroom because it’s very intimate and I have a real connection with the audience because of that. Rehearsing in that room brought so many new ideas to try out. I think what makes it really fun for everyone is that it’s audience-interactive. I have the ability to show the audience that I’m pulling back the curtain so much. They’re in on this, [as far as] what it takes in the test rehearsals, and what it takes to put a show together of this element. There are lots of parts that I talk about myself. How about that? So, basically, autobiographical in the sense that I talk about how I became the performer that I am and things that I went through. The highs, the lows, getting up off your butt when you fall and starting all over again. And to not be afraid of that because [with] success, you start losing a little bit of that edge that you have when you first start out where you have reckless abandon. That’s such a beautiful feeling and you feel you have nothing to lose. And then when you become successful, it gets a little trickier.
In that way, is there a kind of psychology of dance especially in performance for you?
Well, you know, it’s funny. I remember hearing someone say once that dance is 20% physical and 80% mental. And I kind of agree. [But] I guess I will say it’s 50/50, but there is a mental aspect of it that is really important because dancers remember choreography. We listen to cues, and mind our spacing but also, we share genuine emotion in telling a story with movement. It’s weird because I feel like the psychology of movement, I don’t believe think that there’s any other art form where you have the spirit and psyche of a dancer. It doesn’t match anything else. It really doesn’t. It’s a thing that gets inside of your brain and every neuron of your body and it changes you for the rest of your life. It’s an emotional connection that you can’t even articulate. And I think that you can say it opens people’s minds too. But it is possible if you believe in it, it’s not just for the body, but it’s also what it can do in general.
Where do you find the flash point was in knowing what you wanted to accomplish?
I’ve learned a lot about trusting the timing of things and not being in such a rush. It’s a tactic to get it right. How to stay present in the moment. I don’t take it too seriously now because when I first was starting out, I certainly didn’t allow myself to have a lot of fun and relax. I was so determined and so wanted everything to be as perfect as could be. That’s probably as much a part of my DNA right now as this. I just look at everything as an incredible opportunity and I don’t want to stop the momentum. I know that everything I’m doing is always an opportunity that I may never have again. But it’s like this one comes with experience.
Everyone is product of their journey and where they come from. One of your first gigs was choreographing The Jacksons Victory Tour.
Absolutely. I mean, when you think about it, who would have ever thought? This is the truth. It’s a crazy story. I was seven years old and my sister is seven years older than I am. I went to Grant High School in the San Fernando Valley. She was dating this guy named Mark Sanders, who lived across the pool from our condominium and he was like a genius drummer at Grant High School. Now, it just so happens that the band teacher got a call from a music director for The Jacksons. Their drummer fell ill and they needed somebody to replace the drummer and learn an entire set overnight. And it just so happened that the band teacher said, “Well, this guy’s 17. He’s awesome. I don’t know. And is it okay that he’s white? Not black?” And it’s like, we knew the drummer. It’s even crazy for me to say now. Honest to God, my mom packed up the station wagon. We drove to Las Vegas to the MGM. My first time in Las Vegas and my very first concert was The Jackson 5.And I’m telling you right now, 10 years later when I’m 17 and a half, I was a Laker Girl and was asked, “Who’s the girl that choreographs the Laker Girls?” And I was brought in to work on the Jacksons huge new tour with Michael, the Victory tour. And that was my first humongous job.
So, talk about intimidation. And the full cycle. Seven years old and then 10 and a half years later, I’m working with these megastars. And I was still a Laker Girl and I wouldn’t give up my job. I stayed a Laker Girl and the head choreographer all the way through my second single on my first album. That’s the crazy thing because I thought, “Well God, if it doesn’t work out, I don’t want to lose my day job as a choreographer.” That experience of being a Laker Girl really was a door that unlocked everything for me. And I never physically was a cheerleading type. I don’t have long legs. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not that tall. I’m not blond and blue-eyed. I didn’t have the body type, but I was a determined girl that did believe in myself. And if given a chance, I was going to make it the most successful opportunity ever. And it was really becoming a choreographer and then working with major stars including for style [in movies].
It’s not always about just creating dance steps. When I was 19, Oliver Stone hired me to choreograph The Doors movie. It was one of the first movies I choreographed. I remember I [choreographed] Can’t Buy Me Love right out of high school. And then I did Coming to America. That was an incredible experience. But Oliver asked me to do The Doors, which I’m going, “Wait a minute. Like The Doors, The Doors? What am I going to choreograph?” But I learned so much – I was a sponge working with iconic genius directors.
Oliver Stone’s a historian. He gave me tapes and tapes of Jim Morrison’s movement and his staggering moves and his drunk and stoned-out moves. And he was like, “Paula, you’ve got to recreate this with Val Kilmer. You got to work hard and I want it to be exactly like that.” And that was a whole different journey for me because it’s not your traditional “Oh God, I get to put dance steps on somebody. It’s really studying the spirit and psyche of that performer.” I had so many incredible opportunities like that.
Working for James L. Brooks in my early 20s, on a new show that FOX had when they only had Cops, Married With Children and 21 Jump Street. It was called The Tracey Ullman Show. That opened up a whole new style for me… to work with physical comedy. It was so fun because it was different. I got jobs that allowed me to make different styles and step out of my comfort zone and really find what I was all about and what I could do. It starts with an incredible director that demands that kind of intricacy. I found out more about me and what I was capable of. I mean, those were the hardest jobs to me. It’s easy to create a dance routine and the style.
But then you have to turn that perception on yourself when you are designing something for your own performance.
Yeah. I have to break that down to myself. I remember when I worked with Michael Jackson. That was something, because Michael was beyond genius. I mean it was so intriguing and I learned so much working with him – he worked so hard. He’s the person that would show up an hour before the call for rehearsal and start going through stuff. And he was also the one after rehearsal that stayed another hour or two and still practiced. It was so interesting to see him say “No. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t good.” I felt… incredulous. “You’re not good?!” If anyone was trained to achieve. What I learned with him is that “It’s OK. We’re going to start over. You’re going to do it from the beginning to end. And if you mess up, I know we can start again from the beginning.” And it got to a point where we drilled [the dances] so many times that all of his movements were organic. His own movement was so inside of him. It freed him up on every one of his performances to be something more.
It was so inside of him and he knew that [was something] he could always fall back on. But it gave him this exhilarating feeling that he was always making a new performance, because he was that kind of workhorse. He knew in order to succeed the work has to be put in.
Had you found that in you?
I still haven’t found it. I’m trying to be comfortable in the most uncomfortable aspects. There’s so much that goes on with this show.[It is] just like my brain is on overload and again repetition for me is going to be the key. There are never enough days to get it all together. We’re trying new things for the show for next week. There are a lot of little road bumps that we’re running into and it’s like “Oh, my God. Are we going to get this right before we go out there?” And “Oh, my God Paula, where’s your brain?” I’m like all over the place, but I accept that. I know this all too well. It’s the same freaking psychology that I always go through leading up to performances. And then I have to go to the bathroom all the time. And it doesn’t matter how many times I go to the bathroom right before I step on stage I have to go to the bathroom again. It’s all this nervous energy and you know what? There’s no perfection. And some of my best most natural feeling and comfort comes in just like “Damn it! Let go! So what if you screw up? No one’s going to really notice because you’re pretty darn good at covering it up!” But it’s the workhorse mentality. There’s a lot going on, like new costumes. And we’re still in rehearsal mode where we’re finding out what’s working and what’s not working. All I know is that no matter what – if I’m wrong, if I’m authentic, if I give of myself and let others be invited in then you know what? People are guaranteed to have a great time. It’s a beautiful show. I’m proud of it. I really am.
Are there certain elements you really love about what the show is?
Well, there’s a lot of mixed media. There’s technology married with off- the-screen content, objects you don’t normally see. When we first started doing the show, a lot of things happened. Some of our props didn’t arrive. We didn’t have all of our costumes. And it was at the point where we were going to postpone our soft opening in August. And I thought, “You know what? I don’t want to let people down. I don’t want to let Caesars down. I don’t want to let people down that bought tickets.” And you know what? We still can put a hell of a show on whether we have costumes or not. And that obstacle turned out to be something that was magical that the audience – that’s the thing they loved the most. It was the rawness. So, we learned to incorporate that into what we’re doing now even though we now have costumes, and we have our props. But there’s that element of being present and figuring out magical moments that come from what we consider a major detriment or a mistake. It’s just funny how that – like my sister said, “Don’t tell me you’ve got costumes now?! It was so great — it was so great when you were just in your warmers!” And I’m going, “Yeah, but we spent a lot of money on costumes!”
It seems you put a lot of heart into this.
My whole feeling, and I believe this to the depth of my soul, is that heart wins out 100% of the time. You can be an incredible vocalist and hit runs and notes. You can be the most incredible dancer with the most incredible pirouette and leg extensions, but if that heart doesn’t come up and punch people in the face and pierce their body, it’s just another dancer, singer, performer. But what makes people really, really, appreciative is that feeling you get when something touches your heart.