Paula Abdul: Inside the Heart of a Pop Music Legend
On October 3rd, Paula Abdul hit the road on her North American tour; a tour that’s been more than twenty-five years in the making, since her 1992 Under My Spell tour which grossed $60 million in ticket sales (a mint by 1992 standards), yet also yielded some tragedy that almost sidelined the beloved performer forever. The world knows Paula at the plucky, iconic dancer and popstar turned American Idol judge, turned legacy performer. What people may not know is that this Grammy-winning legend had to climb a mountain of adversity, both physical and emotional, to dance again.
For Abdul, this 2018 Straight Up Paula! tour is a miracle in the making. When audiences come out to see her this fall, they will bear witness to one of the greatest comeback stories in show business history. Because of Abdul’s preference for handling tough times privately, our conversation may shock you, and it will also make you root for her. Abdul’s imitable strength is in her refusal 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, to Simon Cowell’s stone-cold blunt criticisms of aspiring vocalists. The show 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 singing and dancing, it was Abdul’s million-dollar smile, huge heart and humble responses during interviews that captured the publics’ affections and helped to define an entire generation. Beginning with her first #1 hit, Straight Up, in 1988, Paula Abdul was a Gen X darling of epic proportions. She brought something new and engaging to the mix, matching meticulous dance choreography with pop music.
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 the dance steps up in your mind, and then you would run to the bathroom mirror and go through the steps that you’d already envisioned. I find that so interesting, because that’s how I write. I write by either talking to myself or thinking out loud, whatever you want to call it (laughs); or by having these inspired thoughts that come into my awareness. I’ll then rush over to the computer and type it all out. By the time I get to my computer, it’s already written, just like by the time you get to that mirror the choreography is already done.
Paula Abdul: Exactly the same!
Allison Kugel: Do you feel that when it comes to your choreography, it’s 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 you being four or five years old 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 seven, but I was four 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 hysterical crying. The thought of missing a dance class was just devastating to you. Did you actually 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 has yet to be done?
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 your tour, 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 rehearsal hall or anything else I’m trying to accomplish. For me, muscle memory is now a tricky thing. Your brain also, in terms of remembering, it’s different now. Things that were natural in my body, from so many years of injuries, I need to re-address certain dance moves and change it to what feels better for me now.
Allison Kugel: When you were talking about time flying by, or crawling by, it reminds me of what Deepak Chopra says about time not really existing, except in our minds. If you’re in the zone, you lose track of time and nine hours feels like nine minutes.
Paula Abdul: And 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.
(Paula’s dog wanted some attention and began to get very vocal in the background. We paused for a minute, so Paula could give her some love…)
Paula Abdul: It’s so funny! Every time I’m doing an interview and she’s supposed to be quiet, she knows, and she starts up (laughs)!
Allison Kugel: She can join in the conversation!
Paula Abdul: Do you have any dogs?
Allison Kugel: I have two dogs whom I adore, and I love horses as well. I ride horses a lot. Have you ever ridden?
Paula Abdul: That’s so cool. There is this one place called Miraval Resort and Spa in Arizona. It’s magical and mystical, and they do this whole equine course. It’s unbelievable how vulnerable and therapeutic the experience is.
Allison Kugel: Do you see yourself as a pioneer with putting 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 extremely commercially successful, you had your share of critics. A lot of other artists at the time said, “She’s really a dancer, just trying to be a singer. She’s off-key, she should stick to choreography…” How did you handle that kind of criticism back then, and how do you handle it now?
Paula Abdul: I feel like being in this business for over thirty 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 my generation; those of us who were coming of age in the late eighties and into the early to mid-nineties?
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 ten-year dream, as in, “in ten years I’d like to be retired, living on the beach.”? Do you have a plan like that, or is this the dream, to keep singing and dancing for as long as you can?
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 out there are aware that you went through this ordeal. Were you belted in when the plane began to plummet?
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 fifteen 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 seven years off to have all these different neuro-surgeons 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 come out to 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 celebrating my career, with the ups and the downs, and everything in between. I hope everyone leaves with a smile on their face.
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.