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The Milli Vanilli scandal, 30 years later: 'We felt like we were abandoned by everyone'

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Thirty years ago, on March 7, 1989, Milli Vanilli released their American debut album, Girl You Know It’s True. It became an unexpected blockbuster hit, yielding five top five singles (three of which went to No. 1), selling 6 million copies in the U.S. alone, and spending an incredible 41 weeks in Billboard’s top 10 albums chart. The next year, the pop duo of Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus were still riding high, beating out Neneh Cherry, the Indigo Girls, Tone Lōc, and Soul II Soul for the Best New Artist Grammy Award. But Milli Vanilli’s brief career would soon be summed up by the title of one of their hits, “All or Nothing.”

When the shocking news broke that Milli Vanilli had not actually sung on their album, the sort of backlash not seen since 1979’s “Disco Sucks!” movement erupted. Consumers demanded refunds for their album purchases, threatened to sue Milli Vanilli’s label, Arista Records, for fraud, and protested with LP-burning bonfires. The duo’s Grammy was rescinded. Arista swiftly dropped Milli Vanilli and even deleted their album from its catalog (making Girl one of the biggest-selling albums to ever go out of print).

“Fame is really interesting, because usually when fame disappears it’s a gradual process. But with us it went from one day to the next day,” Morvan said in a rare, candid, and largely unseen 2013 Yahoo Entertainment interview. “We were pushed aside suddenly. You had to live with that.”

And then, eight years after the Grammy scandal (and only eight months after Milli Vanilli starred in the very first VH1 Behind the Music special), the duo went from being a joke to one of the music industry’s greatest tragedies, when Pilatus was found dead of a drug overdose in a Frankfurt hotel room.

In his Yahoo interview, Morvan — who went on to a solo career, with his real singing voice, after Pilatus’s death — reflected on the fleeting nature of celebrity and the loss of his old friend. And the irony was not lost on him that lip-synching, singing to track, or employing AutoTune barely stirs any outrage nowadays.

“It’s very interesting, because I’ve been getting this question more often: Do you think it’s weird that you were hung out to dry for lip-synching, and now people are using AutoTune?’” Morvan pondered diplomatically. “I’m not going to point the finger at anyone, but I’ve been getting that question a lot. And I’m like, ‘Hey, this is the way it is.’ The world has changed.”

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Around 1989-1990, however, lip-synching was still an unforgivable offense. And as the band’s fame grew, so did the scrutiny surrounding them, with skeptics noticing that the French-born Morvan and German-born Pilatus’s accents and limited English-speaking skills in interviews sounded nothing like the soulful vocals on Girl You Know It’s True. Such speculation only increased after Milli Vanilli’s Grammy nomination was announced, and Morvan confessed to Yahoo that he and Pilatus were hoping they would not win. “We said, ‘Let’s hope that it’s Indigo Girls or Tone Lōc or Soul II Soul, but let it not be us,’” he said, recalling the conversation they had on the limo ride to the Grammy ceremony. “But of course: ‘And the winner is … Milli Vanilli!’ And that was shocking, because suddenly the world was watching closer.”

Pilatus and Morvan demanded that they be allowed to sing on the next Milli Vanilli album, but their producer, Frank Farian (who according to various reports had duped the two naïve club kids into signing a shady contract) rejected that proposal right away. When Pilatus and Morvan stood firm, refusing to participate in any Milli Vanilli activities until Farian relented, their strong-arm tactics backfired, and Farian outed them.

“The news of us not singing on the record was brought on my producer, Frank Farian. He is the one person who created everything, put everything together, and at the end because we didn’t want to continue with the whole thing, then he flew to New York and told the world,” Morvan explained. “We felt like we were abandoned by everyone. That’s what it felt like, because when the news came out, we were the ones that people were focusing on. But the fact of the matter is, there were a lot of people that were involved with the project. We felt betrayal by a lot of people.”

Pilatus and Morvan willingly returned their Grammy to the Recording Academy, at a now-historic press conference which was their idea. Morvan recalled the mood at that event was extremely vicious. “All those journalists that were just out for blood. … It was like, ‘We’re gonna get them!’ The atmosphere was just bloodthirsty.”

Pilatus and Morvan attempted a comeback as Rob & Fab, and later poked fun at themselves by lip-synching to an opera record in a Carefree Gum commercial, but the traumatic experience eventually caused the longtime friends to drift apart. And although they arguably deserved some ridicule for being part of a scheme to deceive the record-buying public, Pilatus became a cautionary tale — an example of how a pitchfork-wielding media hate campaign can go way too far.

“[Rob] was heartbroken by the whole thing, by the music industry and people in the music industry, so he kind of stepped away from the music. He had a bad taste. But I wanted to continue. I wanted to pursue it. It made me happy. That’s the reason why I continued,” Morvan told Yahoo. “If Rob was alive today, we possibly would have collaborated on a few things, for sure. He was like a brother to me. … I remember back then when he was not doing so well, he was in and out of rehab, he wanted for us to work together, to continue to work together. And I said, ‘Yeah, man. Just get yourself clean, and then we can really build something. But until then, you really have to handle that.’ I could see he had a little fire in his eyes, talking about us collaborating on some things together.

“Losing Rob was a major blow, because he really didn’t need to leave this planet. He was supposed to live a long life. When I got the news [of his death] really it just shocked me, because now the one person that I could talk to, that knew exactly what it was to walk in our shoes, was gone. There was no one that could really understood what we felt like. I was alone now. But I knew that he was in a better place.”

Morvan channeled his grief into a song he wrote for Pilatus in 2003, “It’s Your Life,” and thankfully he emerged from the entire scandal more unscathed than his troubled late bandmate. And he maintains a positive attitude and perspective years later. “When I look back at this whole experience with the Grammy and the media, I say, ‘Wow, life is full of surprises.’ You never know what is going to happen. You just have to go with the flow, and there’s nothing much you can do. But when you find yourself in the position where you can regroup, pick up the pieces, and move forward — do it. It’ll happen. At that moment in time it feels like it’s the end of the world, but it’s not. You can always regroup and find yourself.

“We all have baggage, we all have stories. The only difference is Rob and Fab went through their lives in public. That’s the only difference.”

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