Paula Abdul: Inside the Heart of a Pop Music Legend
On Oct. 3, 2018, Paula Abdul hit the road on her first North American tour since her wildly popular Under My Spell tour, which grossed $60 million in ticket sales—a mint by 1992 standards—yet yielded tragedy that nearly leveled the beloved performer’s dance career.
The world knows Abdul at the plucky, iconic dancer and pop-star-turned American Idol judge-turned legacy performer. What people may not know is that this Grammy-winning legend had to climb a mountain of physical and emotional adversity to dance again. The launch of her fall 2018 Straight Up Paula! tour was a miracle, and audiences that have since come out to see her have witnessed one of the greatest comeback stories in show business.
Because Abdul handles tough times privately, the following conversation (which took place prior to her tour) may shock you. It will also make you root for her, since Abdul’s imitable strength is in refusing to allow her story to end with tragedy. She insisted on a second act with her long-running stint on American Idol as the judge with “heart”—a foil to Simon Cowell’s stone-cold critiques—and the decision to join the judges’ panel introduced her to a new generation of fans. Her Straight Up Paula! tour is a triumphant third act where she’ll share not only her catalog of music and iconic choreography, but her surprisingly poignant life story.
Beyond her singing and dancing, Abdul’s million-dollar smile, huge heart and humble responses during international interviews captured the public’s attention, and affection. Beginning with her first number one hit, 1998’s Straight Up, Abdul was a Gen X darling of epic proportion: By matching meticulous dance choreography with pop music, she brought something new and engaging to the mix.
Paula Abdul’s warmth and accessible appeal made an entire generation smitten. As someone put it to me recently, “She could have been your best friend’s sister, your cute neighbor… the girl next door you just had to get to know.”
Allison Kugel: You’ve said that when it comes to your choreography, you would often dream up the dance steps in your mind and then run to the bathroom mirror and go through the steps that you’d already envisioned. I find that interesting, because that’s how I write: I either talk to myself or think out loud—whatever you want to call it—or I have these inspired thoughts that come into my awareness, so I’ll rush to the computer and type it all out. By the time I’m done, it’s nearly completely written, just like, I assume, that by the time you get to your mirror, the choreography is already done.
Paula Abdul: Exactly the same!
Allison Kugel: Do you feel that your choreography is being channeled through you…like it’s coming from some higher source? Because that’s how I often feel.
Paula Abdul: Yes, that completely makes sense to me, because sometimes I’ll even question myself, like, “Where did that idea come from?” It’s really strange, but sometimes I can be in this zone where it feels like auto-pilot, and I’m not even aware of it. It’s kind of cool.
Allison Kugel: I remember reading something your mom said years ago, about your being 4 or 5 and declaring that you were meant to be a dancer…something to that effect. When did you start taking dancing lessons?
Paula Abdul: I started taking dancing lessons at 7, but I was 4 years old when I walked up to the TV set and told my family, “I’m going to do that,” and it was while watching Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain.
Allison Kugel: Well, I remember your mom telling a story about a night when it was raining so hard outside that she couldn’t bring you to your dance class, and you were hysterically crying. The thought of missing a dance class was devastating. Did you feel from that very young age that dancing is what you were put on this earth to do?
Paula Abdul: I absolutely did feel that way. I knew what my calling was. It’s very interesting, because I find that with dance, for many young kids, it’s just like that. I hear from so many parents saying that their daughter…that’s all she does. She does her studies, but she takes six classes a week and can’t bear the thought of not being able to make it through a class. Dance can strike a chord in your heart unlike anything else. It gets into your soul and it changes people’s lives. It’s been [therapeutic] for me, and for most people who dance. I hear so many of the same stories.
Allison Kugel: Is there anything else you feel you are still here to accomplish or experience that you have yet to do?
Paula Abdul: I really want to do some more producing, both in television and film. I’d also like to do some more acting, something that is completely against type. I think it would be more challenging and fun, and it allows you to explore in a way where most people have no idea that a character like that can be within you.
Allison Kugel: Let’s talk about Straight Up Paula!. Are you going to make each song’s choreography and costumes reminiscent of the original music videos, or will you change it up to reflect present day?
Paula Abdul: It will be a little of both. I know that fans come to hear those songs, and they will, but I’m not doing a direct replication of those [music] videos. There is a nod to them, with a little bit of nostalgia. But for me, this is an opportunity to create my own vision of what I want to do in terms of interpreting the songs. I’m incorporating lots of technology and multimedia, and with some storytelling as well. I’m also going to cover some fun things, and some not so fun things, from my life in this show. It’s giving people a little bit more insight into who I am, and the career I’ve had.
Allison Kugel: Going back to what we were talking about before, about being in the zone…how do you know when you’re in that zone and your creativity is flowing versus when it feels forced?
Paula Abdul: For me, there is such a difference when there is a flow. Eight or nine hours can go by, and I can’t even believe it. And then there are times when it seems like the day will never end. I’ve learned that when the latter is happening, I have to do an abrupt about-face and change the environment…step outside; do some other activity to wipe the slate clean. When you’re hitting a wall, it’s stagnant energy. It’s not creative, and it’s not conducive to a rehearsal hall or anything else I’m trying to accomplish. For me, muscle memory is now a tricky thing….Things that were natural in my body, from so many years of injuries, I need to re-address certain dance moves and change [them] to what feels better for me now.
Allison Kugel: When you were talking about time flying (or crawling) by…if you’re in the zone, you lose track of time and nine hours feels like nine minutes.
Paula Abdul: It’s the best feeling, I’m sure you know! I can’t stand the latter, when time crawls. It’s the worst. You want to just cancel the day and start fresh the next day.
Allison Kugel: I always say that if you are in a creative field, it’s an odd thing, because you can’t just clock in and clock out. You have to be in a certain creative flow or nothing much is going to happen. Sometimes the best thing you can do when you feel that way is to not work.
Paula Abdul: It’s true, because it’s more of a wasted day, and it’s miserable. (Laughs)
Allison Kugel: I ask this question of everyone, because I learn so much about people through this question… when you pray, who or what do you pray to?
Paula Abdul: I believe in God, and I do pray to God. But I am also spiritual in the sense that I know I have angels around me, and I know to pay attention to the signs I get from the universe. I used to not pay attention to the signs that were right in front of me. I feel that I finally get it. I do pay attention now, as I’ve gotten older, to those signs the universe gives me.
Allison Kugel: Do you see yourself as a pioneer who put dance at the forefront of the pop music industry?
Paula Abdul: I definitely do. I feel that’s one of my biggest contributions. That’s what people herald me as doing, and it’s nice to know that. It’s nice to know that you can create and spark those kinds of dance crazes, but also that they can stand the test of time. A lot of dancers will say, “You’re American Music Awards dance opening numbers are ‘almanac.’” (Laughs) And artists that will say, “Man, I watched and learned everything that you ever did.” It’s wonderful to hear that.
Allison Kugel: You came into the business as a dancer and as a choreographer, and then you ventured into recording music. At that time, although you were commercially successful, you had your share of critics. A lot of other artists at the time said, “She’s really a dancer trying to be a singer. She’s off-key, she should stick to choreography….” How did you handle that kind of criticism then, and how do you handle it now?
Paula Abdul: I feel like being in this business for over 30 years, you learn how to handle constructive criticism and just plain-old simple criticism. What I have learned is that, although I can’t just say what the formula is for success—because success is different for everyone—I do know that a recipe for failure is trying to please everyone. You never will. For me, I’m an entertainer that happened to resonate with millions of people. I’m grateful for that. I’ve never claimed to be the best at anything. I’m a constant, perpetual student, and I love learning. I love improving upon weaknesses and nurturing the strengths, and being able to draw upon inspiration from others.
Allison Kugel: Why do you think you resonated the way you did with those of us who were coming of age in the late 80s through mid-90s?
Paula Abdul: I think the through-line of most of my success is my heart, and I think that it connects with other people’s hearts…especially women. I have this profound love affair with women. I’ve never been a threat to women. I have been very inclusive, and always thought the most beautiful thing you can do is to recognize beauty in someone else and celebrate that. Because I was always an accessible type of artist, people felt that they knew me, and they do know me.
Allison Kugel: Do you have a 10-year dream?
Paula Abdul: I feel extremely grateful that I’m able to do this. I was sidelined for many, many years, because the last time I was on tour I was in a terrible accident in a seven-seater jet. One of the engines blew up and the right wing caught on fire, and we plummeted.
Allison Kugel: I don’t think many people are aware that you went through that ordeal.
Paula Abdul: I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt. I was getting ready to put my seatbelt on, but I never made it and I hit my head on the [ceiling] of the plane. It caused me to have paralysis on my right side, and I endured 15 cervical spinal surgeries. I went through all of that, mostly, privately. Back then, we didn’t have tabloids like we do now. We didn’t have the extent of paparazzi or the [Internet], so you were able to contain some information. I was so afraid of being counted out and looked at as damaged goods. The problem was that, at the time, I was. I ended up having to take almost 7 years off to have all these different neurosurgeons operating on me. So, the fact that at this stage of my life I’m able to do this is the biggest gift, ever! I am living, in many ways, my dream. But I also would love to branch out into other areas. And I get as much joy behind the scenes as I do from being out in front.
Allison Kugel: What do you hope audiences will experience when they see you on the Straight Up Paula! tour?
Paula Abdul: I hope during the show they feel a celebration of fond memories of their time growing up with me. I also hope people get a chance to know me further, and get a better sense of who I am…with my whimsical ways and my sense of humor. It’s going to be a nod to everything that has inspired me since I was young, and celebrate my career, with the ups and the downs, and everything in between. I hope everyone leaves with a smile on their face.
–By Allison Kugel
Photo Credits: Studio 10 Australia
For dates and tickets to Paula Abdul’s North American Tour, Straight Up Paula!, visit https://tour.paulaabdul.com/. Tickets also available through Ticketmaster.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.