Ask anyone around during the late ’80s and early ’90s what they think of when they hear the name Milli Vanilli today, and one of two events will likely come to mind. There’s the 1989 concert where the pop duo’s hit song “Girl You Know It’s True” began skipping through the loudspeakers, alerting their massive live audience that they’d been lip-syncing the whole time.
Then there’s the press conference the duo gave in 1990, just months after winning the Grammy for Best New Artist, where members Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan confirmed widespread rumors at the time that they’d never sung on their records. And they complied with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ demand for them to return their Grammy.
The memory is a little hazy on the specific details around both the concert and the press conference — and, in fact, the two seemed to happen just a few days apart instead of, in looking back on it, over a year apart (which should have immediately raised questions then about who all helped cover this up and for how long).
But one recollection is crystal clear: Milli Vanilli was a joke. A fraud. Untalented opportunists that pulled the wool over all our eyes.
They were effectively canceled before that word was popularized. They were dismantled, dismissed and forgotten — by the media, fellow entertainers and fans alike. And despite a whole press conference about it, no one asked the real question: Who else was in on this?
That lack of interest in the truth, particularly damning to any good journalism, remains frustrating to Morvan today as he reflects on being in that press room in 1990. He and Pilatus, two young Black men from Europe, were pelted with a barrage of questions from people more interested in pinning the entire scheme on them and why they “betrayed” their fans than anything else.
“It was like the planet was the playground, and we were those two kids that people were bullying, bullying to death,” Morvan told me on a recent video call.
Both he and Pilatus had already been well aware of the fact that they’d become a routine punchline on sketch comedy and late night shows like “In Living Color,” “Late Night With David Letterman” and “The Arsenio Hall Show.” But the press conference presented an opportunity for the truth, their full story, to finally come out. That never happened.
“It was like nobody did their homework,” Morvan said. “It was targeted towards Rob and Fab, Rob and Fab, Rob and Fab, Rob and Fab. What about — Let’s not say his name. What about the big boss? What about the big boss?”
That’s still too often the case when celebrity fandom devolves into public scorn. Details, like the fact that German producer Frank Farian orchestrated the facade and that vocal coach Seth Riggs opened that press conference noting how common it was to lip-sync performances and recalling that the duo wanted to perform live at the Grammys and was told not to, don’t really matter.
The nuances in Pilatus and Morvan’s story are only now properly explored in the new Paramount+ documentary that examines their meteoric rise and epic downfall, aptly titled “Milli Vanilli” and directed by Luke Korem.
The film contextualizes their short-lived careers and name-drops all parties involved in the scam through eye-opening interviews with Morvan, musicians like Timbaland and Diane Warren, as well as other industry talent and cultural critics.
Ingrid Segieth, Farian’s co-producer, is also interviewed in the film, illuminating Farian’s plan.
It also raises a lot of still-relevant questions about the disturbing trend of deception in pop music — something famously concealed singer Martha Wash successfully fought against throughout the ’90s — and the often irrational relationship between fan and celebrity.
Were Morvan and Pilatus, age 24 and 26 at the time of their professional demise, participants in the ruse? Yes. Did they benefit in some ways from it? Most definitely. Were they complicit? Eh, the answer to that is a bit more complicated. And it involves exploring multiple issues throughout that time that contributed to it.
For one thing, and as is the case with many ’90s artists like TLC, Morvan and Pilatus signed a terrible contract. It’s just that theirs also included an agreement to never sing on the records and exclusively be the visual image of Milli Vanilli. In essence, they were there to lip-sync.
Morvan admitted to me that neither he nor Pilatus, 22 and 24 years old at the time, had an attorney look over the contract before signing it. He also said that the last two pages of the contract were presented to them first, prioritizing their signature over the actual terms.
As the film shows, Morvan and Pilatus came from modest socioeconomic backgrounds in 1960s and ’70s France and Germany, respectively, with a genuine love for dance, music and American celebrity. Morvan recalled to me how he was charmed as a child watching images of Quincy Jones and a BBC documentary that featured the Beatles in a glamorous recording studio.
The place where he and Pilatus signed their contract, where money was dangled in front of them looked just like that, Morvan said. They were instantly seduced. This was supposed to be their meal ticket. And for a very short while, it was.
“As a poor kid, the only thing you think about is, ‘OK, we’re gonna get some clothes, we’re gonna go eat,’” Morvan excitedly remembered. “’We’re gonna get, like, clothing. And then we’re gonna work on that hair. Then we’re gonna be like, bam, the girls are gonna love us.’”
He recalled these items in such bullet-list speed that it took me right back to their old photos and music videos that are like watching brightly colored aerobics clips where the dreadlocked pair are dancing around. The girls did love them — like, really loved them. There was never any doubt in my mind then that they had conquered that American dream Morvan described to me.
But there is also a natural sense of naïveté in Morvan’s reflection of his younger self. Neither he nor Pilatus fully comprehended their contract and so much of what they assumed it entailed is also what they projected onto it from their own fantasy. Their idea of celebrity was attached to clothes, girls, money, Michael Jackson.
“It’s very limited thinking,” Morvan admitted.
But that guilelessness was like catnip to a music business that commonly preyed on those that were unaware, hungry — and oftentimes Black. Pilatus and Morvan weren’t just Black, though. They were Black and not American. “The European boys with no connection or protection were at the mercy of the beast,” Morvan added.
Particularly at a time when Black images and bodies were becoming more commercialized on-screen, amplified by the rise of BET and MTV as well as shows and movies like “Family Matters” and “House Party,” white figures like Farian found ways to cash in on it.
In fact, as the documentary highlights, Milli Vanilli was not even Farian’s first Black music act. He had previously produced Boney M., a disco-funk band in the ’70s. Not only did Farian handpick Pilatus and Morvan as the faces of his next act, Milli Vanilli, he also hired Black male singers to help provide the real vocals, robbing them of their value as well.
Kembrew McLeod, professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa and author of several books such as “Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage and Copyright Law,” understands this all too well.
“Part of Frank Farian’s marketing strategy going back to the 1970s with Boney M., was to, I think, exploit, in every sense of the term, the image of Black people,” McLeod told me on a separate video call.
Farian, who declined to be interviewed in the documentary, did the same thing with Milli Vanilli.
“Selling the image of these two particular Black bodies with the vocal stylings of the Black vocalists whose voices were not theirs,” McLeod continued, “speaks to the legacy of the way that Black performers have been marketed in America and also globally.”
The professor’s comments also point to C+C Music Factory and Black Box, groups that famously used the voice of Wash, a phenomenally gifted Black singer, in their music videos where slimmer models would mime over her vocals. Wash won her lawsuits against the acts. But the business had Milli Vanilli’s inexperience on its side.
To some degree, the fact that Morvan and Pilatus were young, photogenic, Black and not American was an advantage of which they had some understanding. They got the girls and the fame that they craved, but they were also acutely aware that they were puppets that were there just to look at and not to listen to.
“It was schizophrenic in a sense that when I hit the stage, we got that love and we were able to make people happy,” Morvan told me. “It was a dream/nightmare. So, objectified, yeah. But I fell into the trap. I stayed in the trap. It was my own fault.” It got to a point where, as he reveals in the film, he and Pilatus were starting to believe their own lie.
Both Morvan and Pilatus turned to drugs and alcohol as their coping mechanisms. “When you start to consume it, it’s like, ‘Wow, I feel good. I can forget,’” Morvan recalled. “It was a form of therapy, ’cause it was numbing everything. And then you’re able to deal with the weight of what we were carrying.”
With the help of therapy, Morvan was later able to overcome his addictions. Pilatus, however, died of an overdose in 1998. “I always say that Rob died of a broken heart, 100%,” Morvan said.
In the documentary, Morvan talks about walking around feeling as though every time someone near him would laugh or chuckle, it was at his expense. That’s how widespread the Milli Vanilli ridicule had become, which only intensified in the aftermath of the 1990 press conference.
Some of that came from Black media that would be particularly critical of how much the duo catered to white audiences, taking it as a slight to their Black fans when they blew up.
“I was considered a crossover act, so I was not Black,” Morvan told me. “And I’ve heard like, ‘Oh, you ain’t Black pop music.’”
To be fair, in Europe, as he explained to me, there were no genres like R&B and pop on the music charts. So, this idea that Milli Vanilli turned their backs on their BET audience when they landed on MTV was unfamiliar to him.
“That’s also a whole other chapter, many chapters, about how we came in and ‘Jet’ magazine was writing some kind of disrupting things for us as Black men,” Morvan continued. “Saying, ‘You love white women.’ It was like, hmm.”
Some of that could be attributed to the fact that most of the group’s love interests in their music videos, like myriad pop videos at the time, were white women. But another aspect goes back to the marketing — not just the way Milli Vanilli were branded but also how many “crossover” nonwhite pop stars have been as well.
Resentment from Black fans has never been a concern from producers like Farian or record companies, and is too often understood as the price you pay for greater success. Milli Vanilli, perhaps unwittingly, got swept up into that.
“If you’re a Black artist and your image is being controlled by marketing departments that basically care very little and know very little about the broader cultural background from which you came,” McLeod said, “that creates some real dangers for misrepresentation.”
It also creates space for an artist to be manufactured, a descriptor that has historically been applied to pop music by its biggest and snarkiest critics that value, as McLeod pointed out, the use of an electric guitar over synthesizers or drum machines that were considered “fake.”
Milli Vanilli was just a byproduct of pop packaging that long predated them.
But with the growing popularity of hypervisual platforms like MTV and fluff media like Bop magazine, you’d think fans had already come to appreciate a prioritization of image versus talent or superficiality versus authenticity — if it came with a chiseled body and perceived harmonies.
That certainly wasn’t the case when it came to the truth about Milli Vanilli.
“The big question of the documentary as I went into it was: When did this begin to matter to people and why?” asked cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib, who is interviewed in “Milli Vanilli,” during our call together. “What part of the illusion, how deep did people buy into the illusion, and why did people buy into that illusion?”
Morvan and Pilatus were individually sued along with Clive Davis’ label Arista Records, by the fans, for consumer fraud. The backlash was so extreme that it appeared the two Black men were being used as an example, despite the fact that the issues were much bigger than them and industry-wide.
Record companies have long understood a pop star to be, in part, whatever the fans desire or need one to be at the time. For Milli Vanilli, that meant a complete separation of their identity.
“That’s a part of American pop machinery,” Abdurraqib said. “What you’re encountering is not a person. You’re encountering a polished product, which I think detaches one from their own humanity. It detaches fans from their humanity, which is how fandom can become so intense.”
It’s also part of our yearslong ritual of rapidly catapulting a figure into the spotlight — Milli Vanilli was only a beloved phenomenon for two years — only to gleefully watch them spiral downward. The way fandom often works is that when the invisible contract between celebrity and fan is breached, in this case a sense of trust, they want to see some kind of repercussions.
“We are a somewhat punishment-obsessed society,” Abdurraqib agreed and added that we have been for decades. “The more visible the person is, the more excitement there is with that. Milli Vanilli was a byproduct of that excitement and to take them down.”
The fact that Milli Vanilli was nominated for and won a coveted Grammy, a result of much hand-wringing behind the scenes as the many folks pulling the puppet strings knew it could be their death knell, compounded that.
“Because there were those who thought that, even in the midst of their popularity, the music wasn’t good,” Abdurraqib said. “Although I disagree. I think the issue wasn’t that they weren’t good pop songs, but they dominated the charts.”
That last part, Abdurraqib added, gave people a real desire to remove them from the pedestal that had been built.
But after everything went down so spectacularly for Morvan and Pilatus, and folks like Farian and Davis went quietly out of dodge, the duo were just left with themselves and had to pick up the pieces and try to move forward. Even after singing with their own voices on subsequent albums under new contracts and band names until 1993, they were already considered tainted.
The question of what happens next when someone has been scorned in this way is always a plaguing one, when you think about the fact that mouths still have to be fed and bills have to be paid. But, as Abdurraqib noted, that’s not anything the public considers, especially considering the rapidity of the pop culture cycle and the inhuman way Morvan and Pilatus were consumed.
They were yesterday’s news.
“The idea was we can aggressively erase Rob and Fab from our public consciousness and then be on to the next thing,” Abdurraqib explained. “But the reality is there’s a life that has to be lived after that erasure. There’s a life that has to be lived beyond the relentless desire to punish.”
For Morvan, that entailed taking a step back from Hollywood, raising his family and working on new music about which he’s passionate. But none of that has come easily. In fact, he moved to Spain in part to get away from the shame he felt years later.
Even now, he looks back on his enormous American celebrity with astonishment.
“You go up, you go up, you go up, we love you, we love you,” Morvan said. “Then at some point, I guess it’s your time, boom. Then you see how drastic and how dramatic and how mean people can be. It seems like they wanna hurt you, they wanna embarrass you, they wanna belittle you.”
There’s still a pain in his voice as he said all of this: “We were so easy to just destroy.”
“Milli Vanilli” streams on Paramount+ on Oct. 24.
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