She has a prized perch on one of TV’s hottest shows. She can help usher kids to stardom, or help ease their heartbreak, each week on “American Idol.” Heartbreak is something she knows about intimately. Her song and dance career was filled with high notes, until the music stopped. Now Paula Abdul speaks out for the first time about why she suddenly disappeared from the pop world and the ordeal that took years to overcome. NBC’s Ann Curry reports.
She's the sweetheart judge on “American Idol,” a runaway hit TV show that’s filled glossy magazines with endless “idol” tales.
Ann Curry: “This ‘American Idol’ craze is out of control.”
Paula Abdul: “It’s just crazy... I’ve been linked romantically with Simon Cowell, which was probably the funniest.”
Curry: “Are you liplocking with this guy or what? What’s going on?”
Abdul: “No liplocking. No he’s tried.”
Curry: “You know you’re famous when you’re parodied on the late night shows.”
Abdul: “I thought it was hysterical. But the funny thing is is I look at us — we’ve become cartoon characters of ourselves. And that is brilliant. There’s nothing funnier.”
Paula Abdul is having the time of her life, and taking all of us along with her. Once the princess of pop, she seemingly disappeared, until “American Idol” brought her back in the spotlight.
Curry: “What’s it like to be back in so much spotlight? Did you miss it?”
Abdul: “Oh boy. That’s kind of a loaded question for me.”
It’s loaded because Paula reveals for the first time the real reason she vanished from public life seven years ago.
We first knew her as a five-foot-two firecracker who exploded on the charts in 1989. Sassy, sexy, and in perpetual motion, she could sing, dance, and choreograph. Earning two two multi-platinum albums, six number one singles, a Grammy and two Emmys, Paula Abdul was a superstar.
Curry: “No one has seen anyone like you. I mean, let’s face it. Usually we know somebody being good at one thing. But you didn’t stop.”
Abdul: “No one ever expected anything ever. Paula Abdul just was a girl who always believed in herself against all odds, when no one else believed in me. I’ve always had to prove myself before people stepped in line...”
She was in overdrive beginning in high school. Head cheerleader, class president, flutist in the orchestra, and a member of the science team.
Curry: “What drove you so hard?”
Abdul: “I wish I knew the answer. I just don’t know how I couldn’t be that driven. I just am that way.”
Her American idol was Gene Kelley, singing in the rain, but at five-foot-two, she was always the short one, rejected at auditions.
Abdul: “I’d go home and I’d cry. And I’d say, one day people are going to notice my talent.”
In 1980 she made people notice. Becoming one of the famous LA Lakers cheerleaders, Paula finally broke the mold.
Abdul: “I was the short girl who didn’t— who wasn’t defined by the ‘t’ and the ‘a’ and the blonde hair and the legs up to here. I was the least likely candidate.”
By age 19, Paula became the squad’s head choreographer, her Laker girl moves impressing the Jackson family and by 1986 she was side by side with Janet Jackson — and had created Janet’s signature dance move, the snake. Paula was hot, she choreographed music videos, the “Tracy Ullman Show,” and movies like “Coming to America.” But true to Paula’s style, she was pushing for more.
Abdul: “Then, it was, do I dare tell anyone that I’m going to try to get a record deal? I mean, that makes sense. Laker girl turns famous choreographer, and now she’s going to try to get a record deal.”
She did it. In 1989 “Straight Up,” shot up, right to the top. By the early 90s, she was flying high as one of the pop world’s divas.
Curry: “When ‘Straight Up’ suddenly was a hot record... where did she come from, Paula Abdul? When that happened, what went through you, and how did you handle it?”
Abdul: “You know, my career, my Paula Abdul, the entertainer, was on a bullet train. But me, I was running to catch up, all the time. And it’s scary.”
Suddenly Paula couldn’t catch up, and by the mid 90s the train started veering off track. Her third album sold just a fraction of what her others had. She went through two heartbreaking divorces, and at the same time, found the courage to overcome bulimia, an eating disorder she had struggled with since she was 16.
Abdul: “Conquering that back in 1994, to me, was a crowning moment, more than having number one records.”
All her struggles might have been enough for anyone to fade from the spotlight, but for hard-driving Paula Abdul to disappear, it took something she has not spoken of publicly until now, a battle she was fighting, that she wasn’t sure she would win. As she was flying high, Paula Abdul was keeping a painful secret. But finally it caught up with her and forced her out of the spotlight.
Abdul: “I had three discs that were completely ruptured and worn out so I was bone on bone on bone. And it was causing me to have pressure paralysis.”
Curry: “What was paralyzed partially?”
Abdul: “I was losing all of the ability to even feel down my right side. It then started radiating through my lower back and through my right hips into my legs. And I kept it pretty darn quiet. And took a good six, six-and-a-half years. Went in and out of surgeries.”
It started she says with a cheerleading move in high school that went very wrong.
Abdul: “There was one time that I feel and I wasn’t caught properly and I had this really weird pain that went from the top of my head and it just trickled down all the way to my feet. From that moment on weird things would happen. Like I’d wake up and I couldn’t lift my head.”
But Paula was moving too fast to worry about it, dancing and choreographing moves everyone thought were impossible, ignoring pain. She did 30 shows on tour with a torn knee. Finally a plane crash in 1992, kept her in constant pain.
Curry: “What kind of pain were you in?”
Abdul: “It’s something that is so aggressive that it takes your breath away and makes your teeth start chattering because it’s so uncomfortable. They gave me pills that would put a 300 pound man out. And there were no answers. Sometimes medicine doesn’t work.”
For years she suffered, undergoing 10 spinal surgeries, having three metal plates put in her neck, and losing an inch in height. Her final surgery was scheduled just two months before she was to start an exciting new job. She began praying out loud.
Abdul: “Please let this work because I’m going to take the job called ‘American Idol.’ And I deserve to do this job. I have to do this job because there’s nobody else who can do it but me. And well it’s either going to work or it’s not.”
Today Paula says she feels reborn. She is completely pain free and is even dancing again. But she’s learned the hard way, a lesson about the value of not pushing so hard, that you forget to take care of yourself.
Abdul: “I’m not willing to go back and be unhealthy no matter what that means. I can’t.”
Finally Paula Abdul is going forward again, now nurturing the kind of new talent she once was. Today she gives “American Idol” finalists medallions she designs, offering the kind of encouragement she never had. One reads, “when you wish upon a star... you might just become one.” It’s her happy ending.
Abdul: “I count my blessings when I sit down in that seat and I wait for the contestants to get out there. I can’t wait to let them see my excitement. You only dream of roles like this. I’m living my role in life.”
Paula Abdul is busy with far more than “American Idol” these days. She’s created two new shows in the works, one focusing on dance, the other on cheerleading. She’ll be recording new songs for both of them.