R&B duo Milli Vanilli stormed into the pop world as the 1980s came to an end. They were young, attractive and their tunes were catchy. What’s more, their debut album “Girl You Know It’s True” enjoyed massive success in 1989 – in fact, they even picked up a Grammy award for Best New Artist. But before long, the title of their album would seem desperately ironic when it was later discovered that there was a great deal of deception behind the act – and the scandal that followed was epic. In recent years, however, Fabrice Morvan, one half of the duo, has spoken about exactly what happened.
Milli Vanilli was formed in 1988, and was made up of Rob Pilatus from Munich, Germany, and Paris native Fabrice “Fab” Morvan. The duo came to promote themselves as “The Brothers of Soul,” but nothing about the band, even its name – it was incorrectly claimed to mean “positive energy” in Turkish – was real. Indeed, Pilatus and Morvan had been recruited to be the face of other people’s music.
To form Milli Vanilli, producer Frank Farian gathered up a gang of good vocalists. These were Charles Shaw, Linda and Jodie Rocco, John Davis, and Brad Howell. But they didn’t give off the image Farian wanted for his band, so he uncovered Morvan and Pilatus to front this new music project.
Meanwhile, Morvan and Pilatus always maintained that they were lured in by Farian’s promises. They argued that they had signed a contract after the producer gave the duo a considerable advance of money. The men subsequently spent most of the money, only to be told afterwards that they would be lip-syncing the songs. And by then, they had no way to pay back the cash, and reluctantly had to agree to the deal.
Indeed, a 1989 interview given to the LA Times before everything went wrong showed how much was at stake for Pilatus. He explained, “I want to show my countrymen what has happened to us, what I’m capable of. The Germans are very critical. They like to drag acts down. They make you feel you’re not so good – not so important. But now we are important. We’re on top in the United States.”
Meanwhile, Milli Vanilli’s popularity continued to soar. And at the height of their fame, Pilatus reportedly claimed that the band had done more to contribute to popular music than artists like Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan. Pilatus later denied he said anything of the sort, but the damage was already done. Then something very odd happened at one of their concerts.
In July 1989 Milli Vanilli performed in Bristol, Connecticut, for MTV and something went wrong. That’s because as they sang their smash hit “Girl You Know It’s True” the recording suddenly broke. The song stuttered, making it clear Morvan and Pilatus weren’t singing it. The pair almost seemed for a second like they were going to carry on regardless, but then they ran from the stage.
However, 1989 was long before YouTube and the practice of videos going viral, so the secret wasn’t as out as it could have been. And the following year, Milli Vanilli picked up a Grammy for Best New Artist, an award Morvan told Yahoo Entertainment in 2013 that he hoped they wouldn’t win.
Meanwhile, Morvan and Pilatus badly wanted to do the thing that everyone thought they were doing anyway: sing. So they went to Farian to persuade him to drop the deception, which he did – but not in the way they wanted. And in November 1990 everything blew up, after he held a press conference and told the media the truth: Milli Vanilli weren’t a real band at all.
The Milli Vanilli duo were then quickly stripped of their Grammy Award, and the day after they held their own press conference, which more than a hundred journalists and photographers turned up for. Indeed, Pilatus and Morvan confessed everything had been a fraud, but insisted they could actually hold a tune. Voice coach Seth Riggs even told the conference, “They can sing up to Pavarotti’s high C.”
But whether Pilatus and Morvan could really sing up to Pavarotti’s high C was irrelevant – the media wanted to know every agonizing detail of the band’s downfall. Meanwhile, at the press conference the singers told the audience that they’d “made a deal with the devil” and now they were suffering the terrible consequences.
“We lied to our families and our friends [and] we let down our fans,” Pilatus told the LA Times in an exclusive interview published the day after the press conference. “We realize exactly what we did to achieve our success, we made some very big mistakes and we apologize.”
“[Pilatus] and I never meant for it to go this way,” Morvan added. “Our producer tricked us. We signed contracts as singers but were never allowed to contribute. It was a nightmare, we were living a lie. The psychological pressure was very hard. It was like we were trapped in some golden prison.”
Meanwhile, Pilatus recalled the financial difficulties he and Morvan had faced when they were young. He told the LA Times, “We got a call to come to his studio and we said, ‘All right that’s it.’ We were just dumb little kids, so we said, ‘Let’s go.’ When we got to the studio, ‘Girl You Know It’s True’ was just a demo and he asked us our opinion of it and if we could sing it and we said, ‘Yeah, we could sing it.’ And he said, ‘Oh beautiful… I’ll make you into a millionaire.’”
There were legal consequences for the deception as well. A settlement was reached wherein people who had bought Milli Vanilli’s music, be it on CD or tape, could claim a small refund. Such was the chaos that a toll-free phone number was even created purely for fans who wanted their money back.
“I feel very sad about my fans,” Pilatus told the LA Times at the time. “I know it’s going to be hard for the kids to stand behind us. But I hope they understand that we are just two human guys who were so hungry for success that we allowed ourselves to be manipulated. We wanted to get on the top. We apologize and hope they’ll give us a second chance.”
And Morvan very much agreed with his singing partner Pilatus. He added, “We’ve always wanted to sing. We made the mistake ourselves, but it’s true, we let our fans down. For them we are idols and they loved our videos and bought the records and we let them down. It’s very hard, I know. I just hope they will forgive us.”
For his part, Pilatus suffered greatly in the years following the scandal. Indeed, in November 1991 he had to be talked off the balcony of a hotel in the Sunset Strip, and was sent to rehab straight after. The singer told the LA Times two months after, “Right away, I heard people joking about it like it was a publicity stunt or something. But it wasn’t. I was truly at the end of my rope.”
Pilatus also told the LA Times in 1992 that Milli Vanilli were working on a new album, one which would prove once and for all that they could sing. Indeed, a small label called Taj Record based in Reno, Nevada, had given them a chance at redemption. Morvan added, “Now we have to work long hours with singing and dialect coaches to make sure we get the notes and the phrasing right.”
Nevertheless, Pilatus and Morvan were surprised at the backlash they received following the lip-syncing incident. The latter told the LA Times, “What kind of a world is this that people make jokes about someone’s suffering? I swear, sometimes it seems like the farther we fall, the more people enjoy hammering at us.”
Milli Vanilli had high hopes for their new record, but, sadly, it wasn’t the hit they hoped for. And when the album – called Rob & Fab – finally came out in 1993, it barely made a blip on the radar and sold a mere 2,000 copies in the U.S. Indeed, the comeback attempt had failed.
After that, unfortunately, things got worse for Pilatus, as he sank into substance abuse. And though his relationship with Morvan became very strained, they actually later created another album together. Called Back and in Attack, it was recorded in 1998, but just before the duo embarked on a promotional tour, Pilatus was found dead from an overdose.
Meanwhile, after the news of Pilatus’ death, Morvan released a short but moving statement about his partner. “Milli Vanilli was not a disgrace. The only disgrace is how [Pilatus] died – all alone, destroyed from the rapid rise then sudden fall. Where were the ones that pushed us to the top, who made the millions?”
For his part, Morvan started working as a solo artist and had some success, releasing the album Love Revolution in 2003. And one of the songs on it, “It’s Your Life” was dedicated to Pilatus. The sad lyrics begin, “Oh no, don’t take that alley. You will see [that] it’s the wrong place to be for your soul.”
As the years passed, Morvan began talking more and more about what had happened to Milli Vanilli. Indeed, he gave an interview to Pop Eater in 2010 where he said that he and Pilatus had been scapegoats from the start. He said, “[It’s not fair to just] point the finger at two guys – a lot of people made a lot of money.”
Nevertheless, Morvan accepted that he wasn’t completely blameless in everything. He said, “I’m taking responsibility for what I did. I’m saying right here, ‘Yeah, I did it.’ Okay. [But] I’m not the only one in this… [and] people don’t get and grasp that because it’s never really been brought up to them in a concise way.”
“After all of it, the smallest link in the chain were the ones who were left hung out to dry and then having to fight to create something for yourself when everyone’s pointing the finger at you,” Morvan continued. “You’re the guilty one, but in fact, there are a lot more. Things happen, there are consequences to any decisions and actions you make, and you have to be strong to say, ‘This is it.’”
Morvan also mentioned in 2010 that a Milli Vanilli biopic was in the works. “There will be a movie. When it’s done, you’ll see the true story,” he said. “[Producer] Kathleen Kennedy is involved and there’s more people coming to the table. When we’re happy with everything, it’ll go.” But several years later, no movie has yet surfaced.
Morvan shared even more in a 2013 interview with Yahoo Entertainment, and gave some thoughts on how the music industry had changed. He said, “… I’ve been getting this question more often: Do you think it’s weird that you were hung out to dry for lip-syncing, and now people are using AutoTune?’ 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.’”
Morvan also talked about how betrayed he had felt when the news came out. He mused, “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 continued to Yahoo Entertainment, “If Rob was alive today, we possibly would have collaborated on a few things, for sure. He was like a brother to me.” The singer added, “… 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.”
“Losing [Pilatus] was a major blow, because he really didn’t need to leave this planet. He was supposed to live a long life,” Morvan continued. “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.”
Then in 2018 Morvan turned to the press to clear up a longstanding misconception about Milli Vanilli and their retracted Grammy win. He told The Associated Press in January that year, “We didn’t sing on the record. That is 100 percent, so we wanted to give [the Grammy] back. It was the right thing to do.”
“And to this day it got twisted [and people thought] the Grammys wanted it back, when in fact we were the first to say, ‘We want to give it back,’” Morvan continued, adding, “Winning the award definitely made us a major target. It [upset people].”
Morvan also mentioned that he and Pilatus did actually work for that initial success. He continued to The Associated Press, “People might say, ‘Well, you know, they didn’t sing on the record.’ But look at the rest. We were the heart and soul of Milli Vanilli. We worked hard, we worked our butts off [and] we entertained people.”
Meanwhile, Morvan still works hard to this day. Indeed, in the past few years he’s been the face of an advert for KFC, has performed as a legitimate singer, taken up fashion design, and he often DJs in Amsterdam, Holland. Indeed, gradually he has worked his way away from the scandal which almost consumed his whole life.
And the rumored movie about Milli Vanilli may still actually happen. In 2007 a script was penned by writer and fan Jeff Nathanson. It’s been floating around in development hell for a long time now, but the rights are currently in the hands of executive producer Kim Marlowe, Morvan’s manager.
“This is a compelling story that has yet to be told,” Marlowe told Variety in April 2018. “The movie has all the elements for success, including vintage MTV style, great dance sequences and a narrative that has both triumph and tragedy.” That’s true, and Morvan still takes time to remember the tragedy.
In April 2019 Morvan posted a memorial to Pilatus on his official Twitter account. “[Pilatus, you are] always in our hearts bro! There isn’t a day that goes by without you being mentioned, and the music being played around the world.” Meanwhile, in a touching and apt tribute, he added, “To me [Milli Vanilli] means when you fall you stand back up and move forward.”