Milli Vanilli. The mere mention of the name still calls up the same derision it did when the dance-pop duo's career came to a sudden and ignominious end: Fakers. Frauds. A blatant marketing scam. Their story has been retold countless times: after selling millions of records, Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan were revealed to be models who publicly lip-synced to tracks recorded by anonymous studio vocalists. They became the first act ever stripped of a Grammy award and came to symbolize everything people disliked about dance-pop: it was so faceless that every musician involved could remain anonymous without anyone knowing the difference, so mechanical and artificial that the people who constructed it had to hire models to give it any human appeal, so pandering and superficial that people bought it just for its attachment to a pretty face. Whether that assessment was fair or not, it was beyond easy to hold Milli Vanilli in contempt. Yet for all the scapegoating, they were far from the only dance-pop act to be fronted by lip-syncers in the late '80s (the Martha Wash-voiced Black Box and C+C Music Factory spring to mind), nor were they the only Europop act to employ similar marketing tactics. (They were simply the most successful and visible, since their incorporation of rap made them more appealing to Americans.) What's more, pop music had a long tradition of hits recorded by anonymous studio musicians, dating back to '50s instrumental combos and '60s bubblegum. Milli Vanilli had the bad luck to get caught in a hoax during the extraordinarily image-conscious MTV era and a time when dance music of any stripe was accorded virtually no critical respect anyway, before its producers were perceived as the real creative points of focus. It's not as though Milli Vanilli were acclaimed for their honesty of expression before the scandal broke; it's more likely that what fueled the backlash was public resentment over Rob and Fab's celebrity (why should they be famous if they couldn't sing?) and embarrassment over the fact that Milli Vanilli's marketing had worked like a charm on everyone right up through the Grammy committee.
Milli Vanilli was the brainchild of German producer Frank Farian, who'd previously masterminded the European disco group Boney M. and the session-musician rock outfit Far Corporation. Seeking to fuse European dance-pop with elements of American rap, Farian assembled a number of session musicians and vocalists, including rapper Charles Shaw (an Army veteran) and two middle-aged American singers living in Germany, Johnny Davis and Brad Howell (some accounts give his name as Howe). Realizing that he had a marketable record but a distinctly unmarketable image, Farian hired two aspiring models and former breakdancers, Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan, to pretend to be the group in videos, concerts, interviews, and the like. Pilatus had been born in New York in 1965, but grew up in Munich, spending some time in an orphanage after his parents (an American soldier and German stripper) gave him up for adoption. Morvan was born in 1966 on the island of Guadeloupe, lived in Miami for a time, and moved with his mother to Paris; he had been a skilled trampoline athlete until he suffered a neck injury in a fall. Both skilled dancers, the two had met sometime circa 1984 (differing accounts list their meeting place as Munich, Paris, or Los Angeles) and were attempting to make it as singers, dancers, models, or whatever they could. Their exotic look and long dreadlock extensions were just what Farian was looking for.
Milli Vanilli's first album, All or Nothing, was released in Europe in 1988 and was an instant success. Retitled Girl You Know It's True (after the lead single) and trimmed a bit, the record was issued in the U.S. in early 1989. Its catchy, lightweight pop-rap proved equally popular with American audiences; "Girl You Know It's True" raced up the pop charts to number two, and the next three Milli Vanilli singles -- "Baby Don't Forget My Number," the ballad "Girl I'm Gonna Miss You," and the Diane Warren-penned "Blame It on the Rain" -- all hit number one. Despite near-universal critical distaste (Farian's productions often recycled the same sounds and drum tracks), Girl You Know It's True sold an astounding seven million copies in the U.S. alone; internationally, Milli Vanilli sold approximately 30 million singles. In December 1989, as the fifth single "All or Nothing" was climbing the charts on its way to the Top Five, rapper Charles Shaw revealed to a New York reporter that Pilatus and Morvan had not actually sung any vocals on the album. Shaw quickly retracted his statements (apparently paid off by Farian to keep quiet), claiming that they were merely a PR stunt for his own album. Milli Vanilli was soon nominated for a Grammy award for Best New Artist, even though the rumors continued to swirl. And in early 1990, they won it, for the record beating out the Indigo Girls, Neneh Cherry, Soul II Soul, and Tone-Loc.
Success (or at least fame) was beginning to go to the duo's heads, particularly Pilatus, who was given to extreme mood swings and erratic behavior, and developed a cocaine problem. In an interview with Time magazine, Pilatus compared himself and Milli Vanilli favorably to Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney, and Mick Jagger, and was roundly ridiculed for his statements. Additionally, Pilatus and Morvan had been pressuring Farian to let them sing all the vocals on the next Milli Vanilli album. Exasperated with them, Farian exposed the whole scheme in November 1990 and the public was furious. Pilatus and Morvan were stripped of their Grammy (ironically, the committee had justified its vote by citing the duo's "visual impact"), and a class-action suit was filed against Arista Records, allowing anyone who believed they'd been defrauded into purchasing the group's records to apply for a rebate. Arista dropped the group and deleted Girl You Know It's True from their catalog, making it the biggest-selling album ever taken out of print.
In 1991, Farian attempted to re-form Milli Vanilli with the original session vocalists (including female backup singer Gina Mohammed), this time crediting them and billing them as the Real Milli Vanilli, while also adding a Pilatus/Morvan look-alike named Ray Horton. However, the resulting Moment of Truth album flopped. Pilatus, meanwhile, was unable to deal with the sudden fall from grace; after mixing alcohol and prescription drugs, he slashed one of his wrists in a Los Angeles hotel, then called police and reporters to the scene, where he had to be removed from the balcony he was threatening to jump off of. Attempting to prove that they really could sing if given the chance, Pilatus and Morvan regrouped in 1993 as Rob & Fab; however, with their credibility damaged beyond repair, their self-titled debut reportedly sold only 2,000 copies total, despite an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show. Farian had also attempted yet another album, this time renaming his group Try 'N' B and retooling the lineup again to enhance its visual appeal (which meant discarding the original singers); however, Sexy Eyes also stiffed. From there, Pilatus hit rock bottom. Beginning in 1995, he was arrested for several separate incidents in Los Angeles involving assaults (including one man he attacked with a metal lamp base), vandalism, and attempting to break into a car. Convicted of four different misdemeanors, he was sentenced to several months in jail in 1996, and did the first of numerous stints in drug rehab centers for his cocaine addiction. Pilatus eventually returned to Germany; in April 1998, his body was found in a Frankfurt hotel room after he mixed a fatal combination of pills and alcohol. Morvan continues to pursue a solo career. ~ Steve Huey, Rovi