Imagine a world in the multiverse where MTV had produced a show in the late 80s/early 90s called “All or Nothing.” Introducing actors Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan, the show follows two best friends from Europe as they form a band called “Milli Vanilli” and try to land a recording contract while navigating the strange land known as Hollywood, California. Along the way, they meet the women of their dreams and frantically try to track to them down because the girls forgot their numbers (even after they advised them “baby don’t“). And they have to convince a producer to give them a second chance after they missed an audition and blamed it on the rain. Girl, you know it’s true!
Maybe then we would have accepted Morvan and Pilatus lip syncing to songs other people sang and recorded. After all, famous actors like Natalie Wood, Audrey Hepburn and Christopher Plummer didn’t actually sing in West Side Story, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music, respectively. Decades later, Rami Malek would win an Oscar for lip-syncing to Freddie Mercury’s vocals in Bohemian Rhapsody. Additionally, TV shows like The Monkees, The Partridge Family and The Heights often used studio musicians and singers on the recordings that were utilized on the show.
Instead, we got an industry-changing scandal that ruined the lives and careers of the two men who made up Milli Vanilli and helped kill off the popularity of producer-driven R&B/pop dance bands in the 90s.
Like many conspiracies where a large number of people have to keep their mouths shut, the truth about Milli Vanilli was bound to come out sooner rather than later.
It all started with Frank Farian, the mastermind. The German producer had worked with the likes of Meatloaf and Far Corporation and had been part of the 70s/80s dance group Boney M. Farian had recorded all of Milli Vanilli’s songs with a bunch of seasoned studio musicians and singers that sounded great but didn’t have a marketable look.
That’s where Morvan and Pilatus came in. Already a singing duo, the heartthrobs had a lot going for them — particularly a unique, unforgettable look and an athletic, captivating dance style.
One thing they didn’t have was success. They had already released an album together, but were going nowhere until Farian stepped in. “It suddenly clicked in my mind, and it was kind of evident: I had the music, there were the people who wanted to perform outside,” said Farian. “And I said, ‘Hey, let’s put that together and make a great record out of it.’”
Also in Farian’s favor: Morvan and Pilatus were poor, naive and desperate. So they signed Farian’s contracts without reading them and happily accepted a $20,000 advance for a shot at fame and fortune.
While Morvan and Pilatus could sing, they couldn’t sing as well as the guys on the Milli Vanilli record. Rather than give them a chance to try and develop as singers, or at the very least, let the two add their voices to the existing record and then use studio magic to blend their parts in with the others so that they could, at the very least, say that they sang on the record, Farian told them to lip sync the parts during live performances.
“The rumors were heavy right from the start,” Pilatus later told the L.A. Times. “We would ask Frank when are we going to be allowed to give some input and he would say, ‘Yeah, yeah, but right now we need you to go out and do promotion. Of course, you’ll get to do it, just work with us.’ That’s how he strung us along.”
Morvan added that, since they had signed a contract and accepted the advance money, they had to, essentially, do whatever Farian told them. “We were not hired, we were trapped. You sign a recording contract with a big producer, and you get your little advance money. ‘Cool, we’re gonna get some food, some clothes, take care of the trademark—the hair.’ Then he said, ‘You have to lip-sync. If you want to get out of the contract, pay us back all the money we paid you.’ And at this point, what can we do? The only way we can repay the debt is to work, to do what they asked us to do,” Morvan said in the 2011 oral history I Want My MTV. “So we do it, and then you get addicted to the lifestyle, to being a rock star. Who doesn’t want to be a rock star? But in the end, when the party’s gone and you’re all alone, you face the reality: ‘Damn, I didn’t sing on the records.'”
For a while, the conspiracy succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The group’s 1989 breakthrough album, Girl You Know It’s True, was an immediate smash hit and would eventually be certified 6x platinum by the RIAA. The album also produced three Billboard #1 singles and two more that reached the Top 5.
And let’s be honest — this album is great. Forget about who sang what and who was credited with what. Girl You Know It’s True (a repackaged version of their 1988 debut album, All or Nothing, which was mainly available in Europe) is a fantastic album full of fun, catchy, infectious songs that will make you want to dance, or at the very least, nod along and sway your hips. The beats can be a bit repetitive (typical late 80s/early 90s production, which means lots of rhythms from synthesizers and drum machines supplemented by copious amounts of brass instruments), and while the studio singers sound great, they definitely show a lack of vocal range that manifests itself on ballads, such as “I’m Gonna Miss You” and “Dreams to Remember.” Nevertheless, it’s clear why this album did so well — it makes you feel good after listening to it, provided you don’t really care about all of the other stuff surrounding it.
But where Milli Vanilli really thrived was with their music videos, which heavily featured their good looks and impressive choreography. Their videos became very popular and went into heavy rotation on MTV, which proved to be a natural partner for the image-oriented band. As such, Milli Vanilli were a natural choice to headline the inaugural Club MTV Tour, which included some of the hottest dance acts at the time, such as Paula Abdul, Tone Loc, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, Was (Not Was) and Information Society.
It was at a tour stop on July 21, 1989, at Bristol, Conn., when things began to unravel. Milli Vanilli launched into a performance of “Girl You Know It’s True,” when the pre-recorded track they were lip syncing to suddenly started skipping like a broken record. It was “Girl you know it’s — girl you know it’s — girl you know it’s…” over and over again. A seasoned performer might have been able to play it off as intentional — as if he were repeating the line over and over again to get the audience to participate.
But, obviously, Pilatus and Morvan weren’t seasoned performers. Pilatus ran off stage and only returned after much coaxing from Club MTV host “Downtown” Julie Brown.
″I knew right then and there it was the beginning of the end for Milli Vanilli,″ Pilatus later told the AP. ″When my voice got stuck in the computer and it just kept repeating and repeating, I panicked. I just ran off the stage.″
At first, it didn’t look like the beginning of the end. Brown later told VH-1’s Behind the Music that it seemed like no one noticed the faux pas. And while there had been some reports that Morvan and Pilatus hadn’t actually sung on any of Milli Vanilli’s recordings, it hadn’t been enough to derail them. When they won Best New Artist at the 1990 Grammys, it seemed like the 90s were going to be the Decade of Milli Vanilli. The band certainly thought so — comparing themselves to the likes of Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Bob Dylan.
But then things finally came apart. Reporters, especially those skeptical that the heavily accented Morvan and Pilatus could sound so flawless on the records, started looking deeper into the lip syncing rumors. People were starting to talk — studio musician Charles Shaw had given an interview in December 1989 to Newsday claiming he had actually performed the raps on the album. He retracted his comments, reportedly, after Farian paid him $150,000. Pressure was also coming from Morvan and Pilatus to be allowed to sing on the next Milli Vanilli album, which was already being readied for release.
So, with the walls closing in, Farian decided to sing. In November 1990, he admitted the truth and confirmed that Morvan and Pilatus had been nothing more than cover models who hadn’t actually sung a note on any of their band’s recordings.
And then people absolutely lost their shit.
First, the Academy took the unprecedented step of revoking their Grammys (complete with a humiliating press conference where Pilatus and Morvan physically handed them over). For reference, the Academy let convicted murderer Phil Spector keep all of his Grammys, and recently demurred when asked if they planned on taking back Grammys awarded to R. Kelly, who was convicted on federal charges of sex trafficking and racketeering last year.
Then Morvan and Pilatus got put through the ringer, doing mea culpa interview after mea culpa interview, all the while people called them frauds, liars and talentless hacks (the AP quoted one girl calling them “scumbuckets”). Lawyers even got involved, organizing class action complants for people who had been defrauded by Milli Vanilli, while politicians vowed to pass laws to prevent something like this from ever happening again.
Their American label, Arista, played its part, angrily denying it had any knowledge of the fraud and going so far as to delete the album’s masters from its catalog. Morvan and Pilatus have always maintained that Arista head Clive Davis certainly knew of the deception. “This is Clive Davis. If a pen dropped in that building, he knew and he knew who dropped it,” Morvan said in a 2017 interview.
At first glance, it’s odd that Milli Vanilli paid such a hefty price, considering lip syncing was nothing new. Heck, shows like Top of the Pops and American Bandstand required it, as does the Super Bowl Halftime Show (to an extent). Also, there had been a number of acts at the time, especially in the R&B/pop dance genre, that had utilized non-singing performers as front-people. For instance, C+C Music Factory famously used singer Zelma Davis to lip-sync vocals recorded by Martha Wash in the video for their smash hit, “Gonna Make You Sweat.” Other dance music groups like Black Box and Technotronic did similar things (the former also used vocals from Martha Wash). Meanwhile artists like New Kids of the Block and Paula Abdul faced allegations that they didn’t actually sing on their recordings (NKOTB went on The Arsenio Hall Show to prove their bona fides, while Abdul won a jury verdict). Even rock bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana credited members with instrumental performances when they didn’t actually play on the album.
But Milli Vanilli seemed to be a bridge too far for the music industry and consumers. Maybe it was the Grammy. Maybe it was the fact that they were foreigners who had taken America by storm.
Or maybe it was just the end of an era. No more producer-driven acts where the performers were deemed to be secondary or even disposable. No more manufactured bands where members were chosen more for image or marketing potential than musical talent. The rise of grunge and gangsta rap showed that authenticity was in demand — at least until boybands made a comeback in the latter part of the decade.
Farian, on the other hand, got off relatively easily. In an interview with the L.A. Times one month after the scandal broke, he claimed that people in Europe didn’t really care who was credited for what. They only cared about whether the music was good. “What was the betrayal? Did anyone in America believe that the Village People or the Monkees really sang themselves? The Archies? Please. Everyone’s been doing it for 25 years. Madonna, Janet Jackson–these perfect dance shows are expected now. So the best way to go onstage is with tapes,” he said, adding that maybe it would have been a better idea to have had everyone on stage together and have the actual singers doing their parts with Pilatus and Morvan dancing.
He even tried to salvage what was left of Milli Vanilli, releasing the band’s planned second album with the names and faces of the studio musicians who had performed on it front and center. The band, billed as “The Real Milli Vanilli” featured singers John Davis and Brad Howell, who had performed on Girl You Know It’s True, and several new singers and rappers, including a guy with long dredlocks that could have passed as Pilatus’s stunt double. The album went nowhere, although lead single “Keep on Running” went to #4 in Germany. When it came time to release the album in America, the label scrapped all association with Milli Vanilli and billed the band as “Try ‘n’ B,” to no avail.
That wasn’t the end of the story for Morvan and Pilatus, though. Whether it was stubbornness, fortitude or simply the power of friendship, they decided to stick together and prove to the world that they really could sing. In 1991, they starred in a memorable commercial where they made fun of themselves and their infamous record-skipping moment.
The following year, they released an album as “Rob & Fab” and even performed on Arsenio, where they received a sympathetic reception from the host, who had been one of the loudest voices mocking them over the years. Their performance wasn’t great — the two were clearly nervous and seemed tentative without the safety blanket of their pre-recorded music. Additionally, Morvan had some pitch issues while Pilatus’ parts got drowned out by the background music.
Still, they had proven their most important point: They could sing. They just couldn’t sing as well as the people who had recorded the songs they had made famous. Plus, they were still poison at the time. They could have sounded better than the Righteous Brothers and no one would have cared. After their comeback album sold around 2,000 copies, the two friends went their separate ways.
Pilatus descended into a life of substance abuse and crime. Farian actually helped him out of it and even managed to convince him to give Milli Vanilli one more shot. In 1997, Farian decided to produce a Milli Vanilli comeback album with Pilatus on lead vocals (Morvan didn’t want to work with Farian again, so he declined to participate). The planned album, Back and in Attack, was scheduled for release in 1998 but was shelved after Pilatus died that year of an accidental drug overdose.
Morvan, meanwhile, has performed as a solo act for a number of years and often does Milli Vanilli covers. He’s improved a lot as a vocalist and does pretty good versions of his band’s old songs.
He’s survived to see public opinion turn back in favor of him and his deceased bandmate and friend. Nowadays, the two are rightfully seen as victims of the music business who got thrown under the bus simply for doing as they were told (and contractually obliged) to do. A lot of people would have done what they had — wave $20k in someone’s face today and see if they won’t jump when you order them to.
And, as it turns out, the need for authenticity only went so far. A lot of singers have used, and continue to rely on studio tricks like blending vocals with better singers, hiring other singers to record the demo and then keeping some of those parts on the finished product, utilizing Autotune and, yes, lip syncing during performances. In a way, Farian was right. We expect artists like Britney and J. Lo to do these difficult, energetic dance numbers during their shows without regard for how it might affect their ability to properly hit their notes. Go watch a Milli Vanilli show from around the period when they were popular — Pilatus and Morvan would have had to be superhuman to be able to dance like that and still sing properly.
To this day, I’m the poster boy for lip-syncing. But we didn’t invent it. And what I did back then is no different from what people are doing today. With the audio tools we have, Auto-Tune and Melodyne, you can take anybody off the street and make him sound like a beautiful bird. We can enhance someone’s performance, enhance someone’s looks, we can enhance everything, and create something that appears to be, but is not. For years, everyone tried to crucify me and make me suffer for “not being authentic,” and I’m like, “You’re making me laugh now.” There’s so many people that came before me, and that came after me, and that will come after and after and after. Authenticity? No, it’s about entertainment.Fab Morvan, I Want My MTV (2011).