These include an HSN jewelry and handbag line called Forever Your Girl, a new fragrance, and a new album -- her first original record in 18 years. Her cheerleading competition program, RAH! Paula Abdul’s Cheerleading Bowl, aired in January, and she’s also developing a sitcom, Skirts, in which she stars as a former professional cheerleader who returns to teach at her old high school. But there’s more than work on the horizon, she hopes. The twice-divorced entertainer admits, “I want to meet someone who’s my companion and my partner. I want someone in my life.”
During one of our several long, thoughtful conversations at her Mediterranean-style home, Abdul’s father, Harry, drops by to see if she is free for lunch. (Abdul is close with both of her parents, who have long been divorced, as well as with her only sibling, older sister Wendy.) Harry, a garrulous businessman, joins his daughter at a large rustic dining table that offers a view of the backyard pool and deck. He speaks of Paula’s transition into a new stage of her life, one where she will try to find as much personal happiness as she has found professional success. It won’t be easy, he says, before adding that hurdles have never impeded his daughter’s drive.
“Let me tell you something; this lady is a warrior,” he says as Abdul beams from across the table. “You’ve never seen a fighter like her. She will not accept defeat.”
He’s certainly right. Abdul’s success on Idol is actually the fourth incarnation of her diverse career, and in the entertainment industry, most people are lucky if they get a single shot. First, the ambitious Southern California girl earned a spot as a cheerleader for the Los Angeles Lakers, becoming the head of the squad after just three months. She later translated her skill of designing the squad’s dance routines into a successful career as a choreographer. Abdul choreographed for singers such as Janet Jackson and for TV shows such as The Tracy Ullman Show, for which she won one of her Emmys. She also did work on movies, including Coming to America, and she taught Val Kilmer how to gyrate like Jim Morrison for the film The Doors. While she was working on The Tracy Ullman Show, Abdul decided to use her own money to put together an album. Because of her busy schedule, she had to work on her music at night and be ready early the following morning to choreograph. She recalls with a chuckle that after finishing her recording sessions, she would often go straight to the Twentieth Century Fox movie lot, where Ullman’s show was taped, and sleep in her car.
The result was Forever Your Girl, an album of finger-snapping dance songs that sold slowly at first but went on to become a multiplatinum success in 1989. Abdul’s singing career had achieved liftoff, and two more albums followed as well as a memorable television commercial for Diet Coke that had Abdul digitally sharing a dance floor with one of her idols, Gene Kelly, and sharing a drink with Cary Grant. Abdul seemed right at home with the show-business royalty.
No one close to Abdul was surprised at her success. “Paula has always had a personality to where you knew she would be an entertainer and you just knew she was going to do it,” says her sister, Wendy. “She always wanted to be onstage. She was never happier than when she was on a stage. Oh, I knew she’d make it. She has a real social gift.”
But things began to unravel for the gifted, fragile beauty. Her workaholic schedule took a toll on her health and her personal life. Her marriage to Emilio Estevez lasted just two years, and they split in 1994. Abdul says their close friendship -- one they still maintain today -- was actually at the root of their troubles. “I married my best friend,” she says. “That works when you’re older, but I was too young for that. He’s a great guy. Emilio taught me about art. He turned me on to that, and I’ll always appreciate it.”
Two years later, she married again, this time to a businessman who wasn’t involved in the entertainment industry. But the marriage lasted just 17 months, and she now dismisses it as a mistake. “That one doesn’t count,” she says.
Health troubles also hobbled Abdul. She suffered injuries from several accidents, which led to years of back and neck problems. She underwent a long series of operations to help alleviate the pain. She also struggled with bulimia and then later became a spokesperson for the National Eating Disorders Association.
In the late 1990s, Abdul received fewer and fewer work opportunities until her career had all but dried up -- an experience made more painful by the fact that few of her friends and loved ones stood by her.
“I thrive on work,” she says. “I don’t like to take days off, but my career just disappeared. Everyone dropped me.”
One of her first steps in rebuilding her career was cowriting with DioGuardi what became Kylie Minogue’s comeback hit. It got the attention of Idol producer Ken Warwick, who at the time was producing Great Britain’s Pop Idol, the predecessor to and inspiration for American Idol. He says it was Abdul’s experience as a veteran entertainer that made him realize she was an ideal candidate for a judge position. “I mean, she has something like nine number one songs or something,” he says. (The correct number is actually six, starting with “Straight Up” in 1989.) “She’s very American, very attractive, and has a great sense of show business. She’s not just a singer but also a dancer and choreographer. We needed someone between those two guys with that credibility.”
Both Abdul and Warwick acknowledge the importance of her compassion for the contestants, as she’s the only one of the three original American Idol judges to understand the pressures of performing as a solo artist. “I’m the only one who knows what it’s like to stand there alone on a stage and say, ‘Please like me,’ ” she says.
But Abdul’s empathy for the young singers has been both a strength and a weakness; while it has made her a darling with the contestants, her fellow judges have frequently dismissed her as naive and simplistic. Abdul says the sniping took her by surprise.
“Honey, I didn’t know I was going to be sitting next to Simon Cowell,” she says. “I thought it was an act at first. I didn’t get it. He really represents the harshness of this business. But what was worse was they seemed like they were trying to make me look just simple or silly. I thought, ‘How could they do this to me? I’m a bright girl.’ ”
But Warwick says a major reason the show has lasted so long is the power of Abdul’s sincerity. “No matter what Simon says, no matter how ridiculous he sounds or makes her sound, she always says exactly how she feels,” Warwick says. “It’s always from the heart. She’s straight as an arrow. Such is the reservoir of her integrity that the public kind of loves her for it.”
And it’s not just Jackson and Cowell taking shots at Abdul -- the press has been equally unkind at times. The low point came when Abdul’s erratic behavior in several on-air interviews prompted rumors of drug use, which she flatly denies. Such experiences have hurt, she says, but have made her more determined to forge her own path in the future. Her celebrity status has had another sad consequence as well; in November 2008, an alleged stalker took her own life down the street from Abdul’s home. Abdul has been so affected by the incident that she wants to sell her home, though it was not listed at press time.
As for the show, she says she has made her peace with her fellow judges as well as with host Ryan Seacrest, and that she now enjoys their time together. “Ryan calls me; I call Ryan,” she says. “We’ve all grown up now. I even get along with Simon. There’s a rhythm and a vibe that we have.”
Sitting at her dining table, her father urges her to not only do the projects she wants to as she moves forward but also to develop the strength to resist doing those she doesn’t. “Paula can’t say those two letters, n-o,” he says. Abdul smiles.
Ever the people-pleaser, she gamely shows up days later for an event sponsored by Radio Disney at a south-Los Angeles shopping mall, where she is to teach dance routines to kids. The youngsters are wide-eyed and enthusiastic, but the crowd is less than expected. Undeterred, Abdul leads them through their paces for an hour. She admits that for someone who wants to slow down, she still has a lot on her agenda. “My life takes 20 million turns, and that’s in a day,” she jokes. But she says her real aim is to do projects that provide a more intimate view of her true self rather than that of the reality-show judge.
“The show has been great, but people really don’t see me, my sense of humor,” she says. “That’s why I may be ready to do my story.”
JAMES STERNGOLD was a domestic and foreign correspondent for the New York Times for 20 years. His journalistic adventures have taken him from the Imperial Palace in Tokyo to prisons in California.
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