LESSONS FROM AN IDOL
“The key to my success...remember if someone says no, it's just the beginning of a negotiation.”
— Paula Abdul
Tenacity with Paula Abdul
It was a dream come true for me when I interviewed Paula Abdul for my SuperCharged Life Podcast.
On the podcast, Grammy Winner, Emmy Winner, and Multi-platinum Recording Artist Paula Abdul shares untold stories from her rise to fame! From the moment she packed three different outfits and registered with three different names to audition for the Laker Girls to hitting number one on the charts with a song once tossed in the trash can, Paula Abdul has always believed “No is just the beginning of a negotiation”.
Below are some excerpts from the interview. Learn how self-awareness and sheer tenacity took a valley girl to superstardom! Find out how she talked her way into choreographing “Coming to America”, helped discover supermodel Christy Turlington, and met her idol Gene Kelly. She told me what she really thinks about Simon Cowell (I asked her if there was any romantic connection and here's what she said) and shares her secrets for staying healthy, fit and fabulous in her 50s.
Dr. Judy: I love the story of how you became a Laker girl. Can you tell us about that?
Paula Abdul: Sure. It all starts from I always knew what time of day it was. I knew what I was up against. I never was the obvious choice, especially for the stereotype of what a cheerleader looks like. But all of my girlfriends who are like five foot seven upwards to six feet, who taught dance and cheerleading camps with me, they wanted me to come to the audition. They said, "Come with us."
And as they would tell me that they'd be looking down at me because I was here and they were up here. And I'd look up at them and say, "I don't fit the mold." And they say, "Come on. You can do it. Just come on." I figured what the hell do I have to lose?
And so, we carpooled, got down to The Forum. They were close to a couple thousand girls. I was number 742.
I put my number on and I was with my leg warmers and my leotard and I was on my toes balancing. I got cut before I could even dance.
Dr. Judy: Wait, so they didn't even let you dance?
Paula Abdul: They didn't let me dance. That was like so typecasting and then, two of the other girls got cut. There were two girls left. And I decided I was going to go into the bathroom because I was smart enough to bring a bag of other leotards. So, I figured what the heck. I went in the bathroom. I pulled out another leotard, pair of tights, leg warmers and this time, I put my hair in a ponytail and I entered as my middle name Julie and I spelled my last name Abbal, A-B-B-A-L.
And I went out there and the two girls that were cut were pissed at me. And the two girls that were remaining on the floor were pissed at me. And they're like, "It's not fair. That's not how the rules go." And I'm like, "There are no rules."
And really, that's probably the key of my success is as a little girl, my dad used to say, "God dammit, get over here. You're an adult. You can do whatever you want to do. Remember that. And remember if someone says no, it's just the beginning of a negotiation."
Dr. Judy: I love that. That is such a good mantra to live by.
Paula Abdul: I was born three months premature. I weighed 2.8 pounds. I had such bad hip dysplasia, I had turned in hips. So, I learned how to figure out my own way. Thank God for Bob Fosse, who had turned in style of being neutral and created such a funky ... He was one of my idols as a dancer, choreographer besides Gene Kelly. And so, I started developing my own style that allowed me to bypass the turnout and the ballet. I mean, I love ballet, but my body certainly didn't. I would be the kid who would be on the stairs in the splits, like with weights on my ankles, try and get turnout. But I figured that, why not? Why not just keep trying, Paula? What do you have to lose?
And so, when I went out the second time, I got cut again, so did the other two girls. Now, all of us were cut. And I asked them to just hang for one more round because I had one last outfit. And they told me, "No, you take the bus home."
I just had a plan because I knew that I wasn't the obvious choice. So, I said fine, and I went back into the bathroom and I pulled out the best leotard like the Jane Fonda. Remember the red and white chevron stripe.
Dr. Judy: Oh yes. Oh, you saved the best for last.
Paula Abdul: I've got blue legwarmers on, a blue headband. This time, I put my hair half up and half down with a hair scrunchie that became my hair trend. And I entered as my first initial P, my middle initial J and I spelled my last name Apple, A-P-P-L-E. And the third time was the charm, I got selected.
And that taught me that my dad is right. And I'm so proud of myself for having the courage to just do that. And my dad also said, "If it's not written in the rules, there are no rules. Just do what you're doing."
And so, that carried on with me and right when I became a Laker girl, I never knew that that would be the foray into the entertainment business. But I immediately became the head Laker girl and the choreographer. And who knew that there were so many record executives and so many celebrities that were season ticket holders and I was discovered by the Jacksons.
Dr. Judy: Well, I love that story, because if that's not grip, what is, right? I mean, you were rejected twice. And you still said, I'm going in there because I belong there.
Paula Abdul: Yeah. Because you know what? I always knew that I'm the underdog. And I knew at a young age, just trying to ... I had collapsed lungs and a broken windpipe when I was born. So, the first two and half years of my life was spent mostly passed out because I didn't have the breath control when I inhale to cry. So, everything that doesn't make sense, I didn't have the body ability to become a dancer or a choreographer, nor did I have the lung capacity to become a singer. But when you're tenacious and when you have that never give up attitude, and even when I feel like I want to give up, there's something inside of me that just says, "Get your ass up."
Photo Credit: Getty Images
How to take criticism gracefully and use it for self-improvement
Paula Abdul: When I give advice to young performers, it's so hard. It's easy to say, but if you can somehow practice going in, showing up, doing the best that you can and don't have an attachment to the outcome. Just go in there, do your best and be okay and happy with it and proud of yourself for doing that. When you have an attachment to the outcome, it becomes more devastating when you hear no.
Dr. Judy: That's such a good piece of advice because people are always imagining the outcome. And I think sometimes the vision boards I think have failed people. Because it's like, you have this vision board, right? You just keep thinking about the outcome.
Paula Abdul: Well, sometimes the universe and the man or woman above has different plans. But yeah, it's like I always said, the path of least resistance, I'm going down and I'm going to make it the best that I possibly can.
Dr. Judy: Yeah, and it's all about the process. You embrace the process. That way you can be present instead of thinking, but what if I fail? What if I don't make it? What if I don't do this move right? What if they say no? I mean, for you, no isn't devastating because we've already said no is just the beginning of a negotiation.
Paula Abdul: I'm human like everyone else. I'm not going to say it never affects me. Of course, it does. But I've learned through wisdom and experience to not pay attention to what naysayers say. Believe in yourself. When you read criticism, take the nuggets of things that resonate and ring true a little bit. It may not feel good. Go back and read it again. And work on that, of what you can improve.
And no is no, but no is not the end of the world. And you know what, what's the worst you can do is fall down on your butt. And I always say, "Well, I've made a career out of doing that and getting back up again."
Dr. Judy: Yup. And again, I think that is just so important for people to know. Sometimes in that critique, I mean, some of it's just unfair, who cares? But some of it, if there's any nugget that you can learn from, it's like, you say thank you to that. You're like, "Hey, you pointed out something that I can do better."
Paula Abdul: It may not feel great, but you know what, there's some truth to it and I'm going to work on that.
Dr. Judy: I'm a professor and I do that sometimes with my reviews. My students submit their reviews. I go and look at it. And the first time I'm like, "Ooh, I didn't like certain comments." But I do the same thing that you do. I kind of step away for a few days. And then I go back and I say, "You know what, that critique is fair. I can do it differently the next time, right." But when you first see it though, it's kind of devastating. It is.
Paula Abdul: Of course, we're human beings. No one's immune to being criticized or facing rejection. It's just what you do with it. You got to keep moving forward.
Paula and Simon's unique relationship
Dr. Judy: You were a judge on American Idol, one of the original judges and you had to reject a lot of people, but you always were so kind to everybody at the same time, you gave valuable advice. But you also pretty much told every single contestant something positive that they did, too.
Paula Abdul: Well, they had to have something positive to even make it on the show at the stages that they were on. If you made it to the top 20, that was out of tens and twenties and 50,000 people that were vying for those spots. So, it's their talent that got them there. And you know what, it's the yin and yang. Simon was the disapproving dad. I was the nurturing mom. And Randy was the cool brother.
Dr. Judy: That's so true. You guys all had your roles and you recently just reunited with them as well. So, how was that?
Paula Abdul: It felt so good.
Dr. Judy: People are obsessed still I think with your relationship with Simon. People are still talking about it.
Paula Abdul: Forever and ever.
Dr. Judy: And recently, Simon says something like, "Oh, there was sexual attraction, but it was mostly Paula and it wasn't me." I mean, when you hear that kind of stuff, do you just think to yourself, "Shut up."
Paula Abdul: I became so used to it that was like, "Come up with another line here." I want you so bad, Simon. Yes, I want you so bad.
Dr. Judy: Does that ever cross your mind?
Paula Abdul: No!
Dr. Judy: Okay.
Paula Abdul: Not even for a nanosecond.
Dr. Judy: Not even a tiny bit?
Paula Abdul: No.
Dr. Judy: No sexual attraction whatsoever?
Paula Abdul: No. I love him like a brother. I don't have brothers but I learned what it's like to have them, between me being the only girl.
Dr. Judy: No, you know what? I think that's projection. As a psychologist when people say stuff like that, I'm like, "No, that's how you feel." So, I think the real story-
Paula Abdul: He's like a little boy in school that hits you.
Dr. Judy: Teases the girl that he likes.
Paula Abdul: But you know, I learned how to spar with him. And that's when it became very, very, very fun for me.
Dr. Judy: Oh, it's fun. I mean, we all tuned in everyday just to see that.
Photo Credit: Getty Images/TooFab
The Real Story of Straight Up
Dr. Judy: You have so many great relationships with other artists, other writers. And in fact, you launched a career of a very important writer, the writer of Straight Up, Elliot Wolff, Actually your mom received the demo. Your mom's a musician. I mean, obviously she has great taste and she laughed at it. She said, "This is junk." She threw it in the trash.
Paula Abdul: It was the worst. My mother worked for one of the most prolific genius filmmakers of the golden era. His name is Billy Wilder. Everybody in the business bows down to Billy Wilder and my mom worked with him as his personal assistant for the last 12 years of his career. And all I ever wanted to do as a kid was meet Billy Wilder and my mom would say, "No, you're a cheerleader." It wasn't until I proved myself becoming a successful choreographer that Billy Wilder wanted to meet me. And he started mentoring me to become a director. That's a natural progression for choreographers. I was so excited about that. And then, God had another plan and I was signed by Virgin Records. And thank God my mother was consoling and commiserating with Billy Wilder in the office saying, "I can't believe my daughter." "Well, put a pin in it. She'll come back. She can make a stupid record."
Well, thank God she said that because my mom's assistant overheard my mom and said, "Ms. Abdul, my boyfriend is an aspiring songwriter and producer. Can I submit a demo for Paula?" And my mom said, "Well, who's he written for?" She said, "No one. He's studying to be a nuclear physicist."
And I'll never forget my mom called me hysterically laughing asking me if I was coming over for dinner still, because every Thursday, I'd have dinner with her. And she said, "I don't know what to tell my assistant tomorrow, because her boyfriend submitted a song for you is the worst sounding piece of crap I've ever heard." Like, she was laughing. And I came over and she played it for me. It was an eight-track demo of someone plunking on their computer.
Dr. Judy: Yeah, terrible quality,
Paula Abdul: Singing completely off key, like notes you've never heard of. And we were laughing and crying and my mom threw it in the trash. And a couple seconds later, I dug it out of the trash and said, "There's something really cool about this." My mom looked at me like I was crazy, because my mom was a music savant. She self-taught herself to play the piano by ear. She became very famous in Canada, as in the Philharmonics and on radio. She's brilliant. And she's cringing at it. And I'm laughing and I go, "But there's something there." She goes, "You can't play that-
Dr. Judy: She can't hear it again.
Paula Abdul: And I didn't have time to demo it because that was just like a deadline was coming up on my album. But I went in and I played it for Jeff and Jordan. And they were laughing saying this is crazy. I said, "Please, please. I'm coming in on budget," from the amount of money that was given to make my album.
And they allowed me to and they only said that they were committing only 2000 to $2500 to produce an entire track. And back then, you could not get a notable producer to produce a track for less than a 100 grand, 75 to 100 grand and here, I meet Elliot Wolff. I'm expecting this R&B guy and I meet him and he's very slight, thin, red frizzy hair, Coke bottle glasses. He looked like a cross between-
Dr. Judy: A mad scientist.
Paula Abdul: A cross between Spielberg and Woody Allen. And very quiet, soft spoken. And we recorded Straight Up in his shower.
Dr. Judy: In his shower?
Paula Abdul: $2,000 or $2500 doesn't get you studio time.
Dr. Judy : It gets you shower time.
Paula Abdul: So, I recorded it in the shower at his studio apartment. The same apartment building that on another floor, L.A. and Babyface were roommates in. And thank God, everything ended up okay because the first 100,000 albums that were printed that weren't selling, you could hear in the master recording strip. You can hear someone next door going, knocking saying, "Shut up." I had to wait until the miracle that 100,000 albums were sold and we got to reprint them. But I'm telling you, it's like the funniest stories.
Photo Credit: Tobin Center for the Performing Arts