Flashback to the 1990. Two dashing performers with long, braided hairstyles, tied in bandanas, caused a sensation around the world with their slick choreographed dancing steps and catchy pop songs.
Only that Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan, the duo known as Milli Vanilli, turned out to be nothing like the pop stars that were presented to the world. Millions of fans were outraged when their lip-syncing cover was blown and the music industry that had feted the duo with its highest honours, was left reeling in shame.
The story that became one of the biggest scandals in the history of pop music is told in the documentary Milli Vanilli, which premiered this week on the Paramount + streaming platform. “For over 30 years, the story of Milli Vanilli, in particular Rob and Fab, has been reduced to sensational headlines,” says director Luke Korem.
“With this documentary, we pull back the curtain on pop music. Featuring interviews with the real singers, record executives, the producer mastermind behind the deception and exclusive interviews with Rob and Fab, we unveil the truth of this complex, exciting and dramatic story.”
Fabrice was born in Paris and at 18 moved to Munich, Germany where his love for dancing drew him to an event where he met Rob, the child of an American soldier and a strip dancer, who had grown up in a children’s home and was adopted by foster parents at the age of four
“The dream was to become the biggest pop stars in the world,” says Fabrice with an exaggerated expression of euphoria. They gained fame as models and dancers on TV, and formed a group called Empire Bizarre. They were soon introduced to Frank Farian best known as the German producer behind the 1970s disco band Boney M.
He offered them a recording contract and a new name Milli Vanilli, but ominously warned them “not to mess with him”.
Months after that, Farian invited them to the studio to listen to tracks that he had created. “I could not believe this music was for us,” recalls Fabrice.
But Farian didn’t want them to sing, he wanted them to lip-sync. They would have to agree to the deal or pay back all the money that had been advanced to them during the signing of the contract
“I was 21 and Rob 24 and we were scared as hell,” says Fabrice. “We had nowhere to go so we thought it is one song, we do that and we are out”
The actual singers and rappers on the record included Americans Brad Howell and Charles Shaw. “He took my voice, he took their faces, he put the project together and made money off it,” says Shaw.
Milli Vanilli was an instant success hitting the Top five in 23 countries around the world and touring across Europe. “We embraced the lie,” recalls Fabrice. “To be adored to be loved, that became very addictive.”
Arista Records boss Clive Davis didn’t think the album was strong enough for the US market so he contacted renowned songwriter Diane Warren to add one more song.
In March 1989, Arista released the album in the US featuring the hit singles Blame It on the Rain (written by Warren), Baby Don’t Forget My Number, Girl, I am Gonne Miss You and Girl You Know It’s True.
The album went six times platinum in the America and the duo was invited for a promotional tour across the US. The vocals were programmed so all they did was lip sync but the plan went awry on one of the shows when the recording of Girl You Know It’s True jammed and played the same line repeatedly. “Lies takes the elevator and the truth takes the stairs. I knew that at some point they were going to catch us,” says Fabrice.
That moment came when Milli Vanilli won the Best New Artiste at the 32nd Grammy Awards in 1990. “Once they won the Grammy, they hang themselves,” says Shaw. They compared themselves to Elvis Presley, snubbed Paul McCartney at the Grammys and said they were better than the Beatles.
They had signed a contract for multiple albums so they pushed Frank Farian demanding more money to keep the charade going.
But Farian called their bluff and in November 1990 he publicly revealed that Fabrice and Rob were not the actual singers on the Milli Vanilli records.
The fallout was rapid. The Grammy award was revoked, Arista withdrew the album, they faced multiple lawsuits for fraud and racketeering
Rob who had sunk into drugs and crime was found dead in a Frankfurt hotel room in 1998 at the of age 32. Fabrice has struggled to survive as a solo artist and says he has put the shame behind him: “When I heard someone laugh, I always thought it was directed at me. But now I am proud of being Milli Vanilli.”