30 Years Later: The Great Milli Vanilli Hoax

Michael Putland/Getty Images
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Pop music has always been part talent show, part magic trick. This has never been more apparent than it was on November 15, 1990, when German producer Frank Farian revealed in a press conference that then-superstars Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, members of the pop duo Milli Vanilli, hadn’t sung a note on Girl You Know It's True, their 1989 multi-platinum debut album.

Milli Vanilli truthers had long speculated that Rob and Fab, two guys with thick European accents and limited command of the English language, couldn’t possibly have crooned hits like “Girl You Know It’s True” and “Blame It On the Rain.” And yet the news came as a shock to many. Milli Vanilli instantly went from Top of the Pops to laughing stocks. Rob and Fab were stripped of the Grammys they had won for Best New Artist, and duped fans filed class-action lawsuits.

It was one of the biggest scandals in music history, though it wasn’t an isolated incident. Around the same time, dance-pop groups Black Box and C+C Music Factory got caught doing almost exactly the same thing.

“We sold our souls to the devil,” Pilatus told the Los Angeles Times just days after Farian’s bombshell. “We lied to our families and our friends. We let down our fans. We realize exactly what we did to achieve our success. We made some very big mistakes and we apologize.”

 

The devil, in Rob and Fab’s version of the story, was Farian, a genius musician and marketer who’d pulled similar stunts before. In the 1970s, Farian struck gold with Boney M., a German disco group seemingly fronted by four Caribbean singers. In reality, Farian himself had provided the vocals on the group’s first album. He knew the importance of image better than anyone, and when he met Rob and Fab in early 1988, he immediately saw an opportunity.

Young, attractive, and hungry for success, the aspiring pop stars were easy marks. Rob, the son of a black American soldier and white German woman, was born in New York City but spent the first several years of his life in a Bavarian orphanage. He was adopted when he was 4 years old. Growing up in Munich, he grappled with racism and feelings of isolation. It was only through music and breakdancing that he found his identity. When he met Fab—who had been raised in Paris by parents from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe—he found someone with similar interests and life experiences.

Milli Vanilli perform live, as Liz Smith looks on (left) in the 1990s in New York City, New York
Catherine McGann/Getty Images

“Something clicked between us,” Rob told the Los Angeles Times in July 1989, when Milli Vanilli’s star was still on the rise. “Maybe it’s because we’re both black people who grew up in foreign cities that don’t have too many blacks."

In the early days of their friendship, Rob and Fab were regular faces on the Munich club scene. They dabbled in dancing and modeling, but what they really wanted to do, Rob said in a 2017 interview with VLADTV, was make music. They began hanging out with local studio musicians in Farian’s orbit and played a few club shows. Soon, Farian himself took notice.

 

What happened next is the most crucial and contested part of the story. Farian invited Rob and Fab to his studio and signed the duo to a record deal. That much is known. The question is whether Rob and Fab knew what they were getting into.

“We walked into a trap, not knowing it was a trap,” Fab told VLADTV. In his version of events, he and Rob signed the contract without realizing they were being hired purely to lip-sync. They wanted to sing, and the first time Farian played them “Girl You Know It’s True”—the song that would become their international breakthrough—he presented the track as an instrumental. Little did they know Farian had already recorded vocals with professional singers.

By the time they learned the truth, Fab said, they had already spent Farian’s advance money on new clothes and their trademark hair extensions. They were suddenly in debt to Farian, and they couldn’t walk away from the project until they paid him back. Once the group took off, and girls and drugs and money came into the picture, it became even harder for Rob and Fab to break away.

Farian claimed that Rob and Fab were never going to be proper recording artists. “I’ve never heard such a bad singer,” Farian said of Rob in a Los Angeles Times interview “They wanted to sing. They wanted to write songs. It never happened. They went instead to discos 'til 4 a.m. and slept all day. All they ever really did was party. Someone who lives like that can’t make good music.”

 

For all his showbiz acumen, Farian had no idea how big the whole thing was going to get. “It was a crazy idea,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I thought, OK, it’s just for discotheques and clubs.” But his mix of pop, R&B, and hip-hop was perfectly pegged for the times, and Milli Vanilli quickly became the music industry's equivalent of Frankenstein monster.

“Girl You Know It’s True” went to No.1 in Germany and earned the group a deal with Arista Records in the United States. Thanks in large part to their music videos, which featured the photogenic pantomimers rocking cool clothes and swinging those signature braids, Milli Vanilli scored five Top 5 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. That included three No.1 singles: “Baby Don’t Forget My Number,” “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You,” and “Blame It on the Rain.” All four singles were on the album Girl You Know It’s True, which went six-times platinum in America and sold millions more copies worldwide.

As they enjoyed the trappings of fame, Rob and Fab struggled to live with their secret. On July 21, 1989, the group’s backing tape malfunctioned during a Club MTV tour stop in Bristol, Connecticut. As the words “Girl, you know it’s ...” repeated over and over, Rob panicked and ran offstage. The incident had no immediate effect on their career, but Rob would later call the mishap “the beginning of the end.”

Figuring their time was running out, Rob and Fab turned against Farian and demanded to sing on their next album. As the battle intensified, Farian had no choice but to call a press conference and spill the beans. He was unapologetic about the scam, and in 1991, he released The Moment of Truth, a new studio album credited to The Real Milli Vanilli, i.e. the singers from the first album. Arista, meanwhile, claimed no prior knowledge of the deception, though Rob and Fab insisted the label knew exactly what was going on.

 

Days after Farian’s press conference, Rob and Fab called their own. They were joined by a voice coach who assured the audience that, yes, they could sing. Rob and Fab then gave back their Grammys, which they’d planned on doing even before the Recording Academy formally revoked the awards.

The fallout was devastating for Rob and Fab. They released a self-titled comeback album in 1993 and even appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show to sing for real in front of a national audience. But Rob & Fab flopped, and the two former idols wrestled with drug addiction.

Rob and Fab, singers of the pop group Milli Vanilli attend a press conference November 20, 1990 in Los Angeles, CA
Barry King/Liaison via Getty Images

Fab ultimately sobered up, but Rob spiraled out of control. In 1996 he served jail time for assaulting two people and breaking into a car, and in 1998, he died of a drug overdose in a Frankfurt hotel room. He was 33 years old.

At the time of his death, Rob had apparently been working with Farian again. "I'm totally shocked," the producer told the Independent upon learning of Rob’s death. "Rob looked really good again. He was full of optimism for the future. We intended to tape material for another album.”

Fab wasn’t involved in that project, but he has revisited Milli Vanilli’s past in his own way. In yet another bizarre twist to this story, Fab teamed up with John Davis, one of the real singers whose voice he’d once lip-synced to, for the project Face Meets Voice: A Milli Vanilli Experience. The emergence of that unlikely duo might make for a good ending to the Milli Vanilli movie that’s been in the works since 2007. Filming was all set to begin on the project when director Brett Ratner lost his co-financing deal with Warner Bros. amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

Back in their heyday, Milli Vanilli claimed the band’s name meant “positive energy” in Turkish. That wasn’t true: The moniker was partially inspired by the English pop group Scritti Politti. But Fab has maintained a remarkably upbeat attitude as he’s gotten older. In addition to making music, he’s branched off into motivational speaking, using his story as an example of how one can “not just survive but thrive” after adversity. He’s certainly made peace with his own legacy. Speaking with the Associated Press in 2018, he defended his and Rob’s contributions to pop culture some two decades earlier.

“People might say, ‘Well, you know, they didn’t sing on the record,’” Fab said. “But look at the rest. We were the heart and soul of Milli Vanilli. We did those 107 cities (on tour) ... in eight months. We worked hard. We worked our butts off. We entertained people.”

15 Fun Facts About Betty White

Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

Happy birthday, Betty White! In honor of the ever-sassy star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls's 98th birthday, let's celebrate with a collection of fun facts about her life and legacy. 

1. Her name is Betty, not Elizabeth.

On January 17th, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, the future television icon was born Betty Marion White, the only child of homemaker Christine Tess (née Cachikis) and lighting company executive Horace Logan White. In her autobiography If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't), White explained her parents named her "Betty" specifically because they didn't like many of the nicknames derived from "Elizabeth." Forget your Beths, your Lizas, your Ellies. She's Betty.

2. She's a Guinness World Record holder.

In the 2014 edition of the record-keeping tome, White was awarded the title of Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Female) for her more than 70 years (and counting) in show business. The year before, Guinness gave out Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Male) to long-time British TV host Bruce Forsyth. As both began their careers in 1939, they'd be neck-and-neck for the title, were they not separated by gender.

3. Her first television appearance is lost to history.

A photo of Betty White
Getty Images

Even White can't remember the name of the show she made her screen debut on in 1939. But in an interview with Guinness Book of World Records, she recounted the life-changing event, saying, "I danced on an experimental TV show, the first on the west coast, in downtown Los Angeles. I wore my high school graduation dress and our Beverly Hills High student body president, Harry Bennett, and I danced the 'Merry Widow Waltz.'" 

4. White's initial rise to stardom was derailed by World War II.

Before she took off on television, White was working in theater, on radio, and as a model. But with WWII, she shelved her ambitions and joined the American Women's Voluntary Services. Her days were devoted to delivering supplies via PX truck throughout the Hollywood Hills, but her nights were spent at rousing dances thrown to give grand send-offs to soldiers set to ship out. Of that era, she told Cleveland Magazine, "It was a strange time and out of balance with everything." 

5. Her first sitcom hit was in the early 1950s.

A photo of actress Betty White
Getty Images

Co-hosting the Al Jarvis show Hollywood on Television led to White producing her own vehicle, Life With Elizabeth. As a rare female producer, she developed the show alongside emerging writer-producer George Tibbles, who'd go on to work on such beloved shows as Dennis The Menace, Leave It To Beaver, and The Munsters. Though the show is not remembered much today, in 1951 it did earn White her first Emmy nomination of 21 (so far). Of these, she has won five times.

6. White loves a parade.

From 1962 to 1971, White hosted NBC's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade alongside Bonanza's Lorne Greene. But that's not all. For 20 years (1956-1976), she was also a color commentator for NBC’s annual Tournament of Roses Parade. However, as her fame grew on CBS's The Mary Tyler Moore Show, NBC decided they should pull White (and all the rival promotion that came with her) from their parade. It was a decision that was heartbreaking for White, who told People, "On New Year's Day I just sat home feeling wretched, watching someone else do my parade."

7. She has been married three times.


Getty Images

White and her first husband, Dick Barker, were married and divorced in the same year, 1945. After four months on Barker's rural Ohio chicken farm, White fled back to Los Angeles and her career as an entertainer. Soon after, she met agent Lane Allen, who became her husband in 1947, and her ex-husband in 1949 after he pushed her to quit show biz. She wouldn’t marry again until 1963, after she fell for widower/father of three/game show host Allen Ludden.

8. Her meet-cute with husband number three happened on Password.

Bubbly Betty was a regular on the game show circuit, but she met her match in 1961 when she was a celebrity guest on Password, hosted by Allen Ludden. Though White initially rebuffed Ludden's engagement ring (he wore it around his neck until she changed her mind), the pair stayed together until his death in 1981. Today, their stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame sit side-by-side.

9. White originally auditioned for the role of Blanche on The Golden Girls.

A photo of actress Betty White
Getty Images

Producers of the series thought of White for the role of the ensemble's promiscuous party girl because she'd long played the lusty Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Meanwhile, they eyed Rue McClanahan for the part of naive country bumpkin Rose Nylund because of her work as the sweet but dopey Vivian Harmon on Maude. Director Jay Sandrich was worried about typecasting, so he asked the two to switch roles in the audition. And just like that, The Golden Girls history was made.

10. If she hadn't been an actor, she'd have been a zookeeper.

"Hands down," she confessed in a 2014 interview. This should come as little surprise to those aware of White's reputation as an avid animal lover and activist. Not only does she try to visit the local zoo of wherever she may travel, but also she's a supporter of the Farm Animal Reform Movement and Friends of Animals group, as well as a Los Angeles Zoo board member, who has donated "tens of thousands of dollars" over the past 40 years. In 2010, White founded a T-shirt line whose profits go to the Morris Animal Foundation.

11. She passed on a role in As Good as It Gets because of an animal cruelty scene.

A photo of actress Betty White
Getty Images

White was offered the part of Beverly Connelly, onscreen mother to Helen Hunt, in the Oscar-winning movie As Good as It Gets. But the devoted animal lover was horrified by the scene where Jack Nicholson's curmudgeonly anti-hero pitches a small dog down the trash chute of his apartment building. On The Joy Behar Show White explained, "All I could think of was all the people out there watching that movie … and if there's a dog in the building that's barking or they don't like—boom! They do it." She complained to director James L. Brooks in hopes of having the scene cut. Instead, he kept it and cast Shirley Knight in the role.

12. A Facebook campaign made White the oldest person to ever host Saturday Night Live.

In 2010, a Facebook group called Betty White To Host SNL … Please? gathered so many fans (nearly a million) and so much media attention that SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels was happy to make it happen. At 88 years old, White set a new record. Her episode, for which many of the show's female alums returned, also won rave reviews, and gave the show's highest ratings in 18 months. White won her fifth Emmy for this performance.

13. She is the oldest person to earn an Emmy nomination.


Getty Images

In 2014, White earned an Emmy nod for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program for the senior citizen-centric prank show Betty White's Off Their Rockers. She was 92. She also holds the record for the longest span between Emmy nominations, between her first (1951) and last (so far).  

14. She loves junk food.

The key to aging gracefully has nothing to do with health food as far as White is concerned. In 2011, her Hot in Cleveland co-star Jane Leeves dished on White's snacking habits, "She eats Red Vines, hot dogs, French fries, and Diet Coke. If that's key, maybe she's preserved because of all the preservatives." Fellow co-star Wendie Malick concurred, "She eats red licorice, like, ridiculously a lot. She seems to exist on hot dogs and French fries." 

15. She wants Robert Redford.

A photo of actor Robert Redford
Getty Images

White once gave this cheeky confession: “My answer to anything under the sun, like ‘What have you not done in the business that you’ve always wanted to do?’ is ‘Robert Redford.'” Though she has more than 110 film and television credits on her filmography, White has never worked with the Out of Africa star, who is 14 years her junior.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER