Paula Abdul Talks "Very Personal" Las Vegas Residency and Paving the Way for Today's Pop Stars

Denise Truscello/WireImage
Paula Abdul performs during her 'Forever Your Girl' residency at Flamingo Las Vegas

The iconic singer, dancer, choreographer and actress opens up to The Hollywood Reporter about crafting her new Sin City concert series, while reflecting on her career milestones and the impact she's had on multiple generations of entertainers: "To see that my work stands the test of time, that is incredibly rewarding."

Paula Abdul took fans on a walk (or dance, rather) down memory lane last week when she celebrated the opening of her Forever Your Girl residency at Flamingo Las Vegas.

Abdul's signature moves, gravity-defying acrobatics and flashbacks to the songs and music videos that made her a forceful pop presence in the late 1980s and early '90s are all part of the spectacle, but the iconic singer, dancer, choreographer and actress uses her stage in Sin City as a platform to also candidly discuss her unconventional journey to success.

As Abdul said during her Oct. 24 show, it was her tenacity that helped forge a path full of remarkable career milestones despite several frustrating, and sometimes painful, setbacks. A sold-out crowd — which included notable names such as Kathy Griffin, Kathy Hilton, Frankie Grande, August Getty, Jen Atkin and Vegas legend Wayne Newton — was captivated by the autobiographical sections of Forever Your Girl, which explain Abdul's rise, fall and resurgence in precise, choreographed detail.

"The odds were against me, but my fighting spirit carried me through. I was put on this earth to dance, to create, to perform," Abdul said at one point during her 90-minute, 12-song setlist. "I had a never-give-up attitude. And even though I was never the obvious choice, that didn’t stop me from manifesting my dreams."

Indeed, the petite yet powerful performer — whose passion for entertainment began at the age of 4 when she first became enamored with Gene Kelly in one of his many classic MGM musicals — willed her way to becoming captain of the NBA's beloved Laker Girls dance team in the '80s, regardless of initial rejection. Abdul later established herself as a sought-after choreographer for the likes of Elton John, George Michael and Janet Jackson. Of her groundbreaking work with Jackson — which has ultimately inspired generations of female entertainers, from Britney Spears and Beyoncé to Normani — Abdul said in her show, "If it weren't for Janet, I probably wouldn't be here with the career that I have. She broke down doors for me. So, thank you, my fairy god-sister."

Of course, Abdul eventually became a pop star herself, signing a contract in 1987 with Virgin Records to record Forever Your Girl, her debut album and the Las Vegas residency's namesake. The LP, made on a paltry $72,000 budget from the label and released the next year, was a surprise hit and spawned four consecutive No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 singles — including "Straight Up," "Cold Hearted," "Opposites Attract" and the title track — making Abdul the first female artist to ever achieve such a feat. A Grammy followed, as did MTV Video Music Awards, American Music Awards and even a couple Emmys, including one for her astonishing performance at the AMAs in 1990. Abdul dropped her sophomore album, Spellbound, in 1991 and scored two more No. 1s with "Rush, Rush" and "The Promise of a New Day."

In the midst of all that, Abdul continued to work as a choreographer in Hollywood, creating dance numbers and blocking scenes for feature films like Can’t Buy Me Love, Coming to America and The Doors. She also choreographed portions of the 62nd annual Academy Awards, for which she accepted guidance from her idol-turned-mentor and friend Kelly. Those highs are covered in Abdul's Vegas show, as is the catastrophic incident that forced her to press pause on all the excitement in 1992 — an alleged plane crash that, as she said onstage, "crushed my cervical spine, leaving me partially paralyzed."

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter following her kickoff concert, Abdul admits that she felt "isolated" during her years-long recovery that included multiple back surgeries and the recording of her emotionally charged third studio album, Head Over Heels, which was released in 1995. "It was the first time that, no matter how hard I tried, I knew that I couldn't control that situation," she recalls of that era in her life. "I'm very grateful that I had the belief that something better would happen — something better than being in pain all the time. Sharing all that feels vulnerable, but also cathartic. Forever Your Girl, the show, is very personal."

It was the undying love that Abdul has for her fans — and an opportunity to star on a "life-changing" show called American Idol — that coaxed her back into the spotlight around the turn of the millennium. She has since served as a judge on subsequent talent competition series, fronted her own 2007 reality show, released new music in 2008 and embarked on two well-received tours in 2017 and 2018 that laid the groundwork for her Las Vegas venture.

Below, Abdul chats with THR about the making of the Forever Your Girl show — which she crafted alongside creative directing-duo Nappytabs — while looking back on her legacy and how she's paved the way for today's multihyphenate artists. 

The show begins with you pulling back the curtain on what goes into the production of a pop concert. As an artist, what made you want to take that approach?

Because I wanted it to be authentic to who I am. I started my career behind the scenes and I wanted to celebrate that. I wanted to make this a show that people would leave feeling like they got to know me a lot better. I also want people to leave the show with a feeling of inspiration and love. That was my whole goal. So, I formulated and created the show with those elements in mind. And I also wanted a visual extravaganza to celebrate my choreography, my music achievements and the funny stories of what it took to become who I am today.

What was the most challenging part of putting this show together?

I've been working on this show for the past eight months. Even before that, though, I always collected ideas and even wrote down treatments of what I'd like to do in a show like this. I had a lot of thoughts and ideas before the eight months that I really started putting this show together. It was a tricky balance to do a show that is a pop concert but also autobiographical and really intimate. To try and implement all of those things — to weave all of those different experiences and feelings into a show — was hard because it's a fine balance of just how much you can do. If I could incorporate everything I wanted to, I'd be onstage for four hours. (Laughs.)

To be fair, a lot of your fans would probably love that.

That's sweet of you to say. But honestly, that's what's so cool about doing different increments of the show here at the Flamingo. When I come back, I'm always going to be adding little things here and there. I'm always thinking of new ideas. It's exciting and inspiring to keep it fresh.

What is it like performing live at this stage in your career? Is it nerve-racking or more liberating?

It's absolutely both. I have nerves. But I've always felt like if I didn't have that, I wouldn't be passionate. That nervous energy? I rely on that. It sounds like a silly thing to say, but it just comes with the territory.

You toured with New Kids on the Block and Boyz II Men in 2017 and then, in 2018, you set out on your first headlining tour in nearly 30 years. How did those experiences serve as warm-ups to your Las Vegas show?

For me, I would never have had the courage to even try to do this if I hadn't had the experience of going out on the road and doing an arena tour with New Kids on the Block and Boyz II Men. Boyz II Men and I each had a 40-minute block and I didn't know if people would receive it well. I was uncertain. But the fact that it was such a good experience and I really enjoyed it and people seemed to really like it, it inspired me to start putting my own thing together.

And what made you want to bring your show to Las Vegas rather than go on tour again?

I was honored by the Nevada Ballet Theatre as Woman of the Year at the Wynn in 2007. And they asked me to come back last January to present Chita Rivera with her award. And it was here in Las Vegas at that event where the Caesars group came up to me and approached me about doing a residency at the Flamingo. The timing was perfect, and I was just thrilled at the opportunity. These last eight months that I've really started honing in on the show — bringing my thoughts to life, assembling a team and putting it all together — it's been such an incredible time for me. I love the creative part of it.

Interspersed with all your singing, dancing and costume changes are stories that are, like you said, funny, but also very vulnerable at times. Which parts of your life felt most important to share with your fans in this particular medium?  

The story of when I had to stop my career, that's a painful one because it was a very, very difficult time. It was the first time that, no matter how hard I tried, I knew that I couldn't control that situation. I'm very grateful that I had the belief that something better would happen — something better than being in pain all the time. Sharing all that feels vulnerable, but also cathartic. Forever Your Girl, the show, is very personal. I just had to hang in there. When you go through experiences like that, physically, it's daunting. People don't want to know about pain. It's a very isolating thing. I felt isolated, for sure. And to be a celebrity and have it look like I'm OK, but physically go through the trauma of several spinal surgeries, I couldn't let people know. I didn't want people to know that I was struggling so much. But to put it in my show was cathartic. I knew I wanted to channel that feeling of hope and be able to illustrate the story — because sometimes it's too painful to talk about.

But I also love telling the crazy stories of how I got to record "Straight Up" — and how my mom threw the demo out in the trashcan. I have so many stories like that and there's just not enough time. I share these stories so that people are inspired and that they stay hopeful like I did. I knew there was more for me.

Serving as a judge on American Idol certainly helped you facilitate a comeback in 2002 when the show first premiered on Fox. You talk about it a bit in Forever Your Girl, but how would you say doing the series changed your life?

It was life-changing. American Idol changed the trajectory of not just my life, but the lives of everyone who's been involved. It's historical. I don't know if there will ever be another time in television where over 30 million people are watching three times a week. It's insane. I had an incredible time doing that. For me, I knew that my music had made an impact in years prior. But to be on a public platform like television and to be part of something that was history-making, that changed my life completely. It was the right chemistry between the judges and the right pairing of three unique individuals — Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and myself — that was lightning in a bottle. There are a lot of shows that have followed Idol's lead and that's great. But the most amazing part of Idol was that we saw legitimate stars come out of that show.

Forever Your Girl heavily highlights your work as a choreographer. When you look back at all your achievements, what are you most proud of?

There have been so many wonderful moments where I've thought, "Oh, this is the coup de grâce. This is it." But I feel like being able to work with iconic legendary directors has been a highlight. I think most people don't even know that I did the Doors biopic in 1991. With Oliver Stone, I literally transformed Val Kilmer into Jim Morrison. That's a whole other aspect of choreography that's not dance but helping someone inhabit a character. With Oliver Stone, he was meticulous about recreating Morrison's mannerisms in Val Kilmer. I've worked with so many incredible people. For me, though, I guess one of the coolest things was doing the Academy Awards. Because at that time, I was meeting with Gene Kelly every week and he was mentoring me. I was able to secretly bring Gene Kelly down to the Shrine Auditorium and not tell the producers or Billy Crystal, who was hosting at the time, and just surprise everyone and have Gene Kelly walk in and watch rehearsals and critique them — people were thinking, "This is incredible."

And you honor your work with Janet Jackson by performing the original choreography from her "Nasty" music video. By helping Jackson come into her dancing abilities at the beginning of her career, you inspired future artists like Britney Spears and Beyoncé, who have shaped the current generation of pop stars. What do you think of the way you've impacted the entertainment landscape, setting the standard for how a pop star is capable of performing and incorporating dance into their art?

It just warms my heart. I've hung in there for all these decades. So, to hear and know that people like Britney — and even Lady Gaga and Madonna — talk about how they were inspired by me is such a beautiful thing. You want to leave a legacy behind and know that you were instrumental or important in another artist's life, to help create and set a tone for who they become as an artist. It truly is the most incredible feeling. It’s awesome. I always feel like I was born in the wrong era. I grew up being obsessed with MGM musicals and I always thought that if I ever became an artist myself, maybe I could help bring that aspect and appreciation for dance into contemporary art and performance. So, I'm really blessed to see that that's what has happened. To be someone else's Gene Kelly and to see that my work stands the test of time, that is incredibly rewarding.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Paula Abdul: Forever Your Girl is set to return to Flamingo Las Vegas on Nov. 26 and is scheduled to run through Jan. 4.