In the late 1980’s, early 1990’s, Milli Vanilli was probably one of the biggest names in R&B music, globally.
Milli Vanilli was a French-German R&B duo from Munich, founded in 1988 by the controversial Frank Farian, and consisted of dancers -Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus. Their debut album, All or Nothing in Europe, released as Girl You Know It’s True in the US, was internationally successful and gained them the ‘Best New Artist’ Grammy Award.
The Founding of Milli Vanilli
Pilatus and Morvan met during a dance workshop at a club in Munich, and the dynamic duo bonded over their comparable experiences during their childhood. They both grew up in foreign cities that didn’t have many black people, so that’s what really glued them together.
During the early days, they initiated their career by trying to find work as backing singers, and focused on living their dream by becoming famous.
Pilatus said to The Washington Post “We had no money. We wanted to be stars,” which indicates they really struggled with poverty during the dawn of their career. This was until they met music producer, Frank Farian, who invited them to his studio in Frankfurt, to listen to the demo of Girl You Know It’s True.
Signing A Deal With The Devil
The young and naive duo jumped at the chance to visit Farian’s studio with the possibility of releasing their very own album.
Frank queried them to whether they could sing the demo and of course, they said yes. “Oh beautiful, I believe it, but next week we have shows to do, so don’t worry, I’ll make you into a millionaire.” To me, this screams red flags, but Fab and Rob were living in poverty, and this was what they had always dreamt of doing together.
They signed Farian’s contract in 1988 which obligated them to record 10 songs a year. But little did they know, their voices would never be recorded and used on their albums. This was due to the fact that Frank believed they “Didn’t have enough quality” for performing vocals, despite already signing a contract.
So Frank hired studio performers Charles Shaw, John Davis, Brad Howell, and Jodie and Linda Rocco to finish the final mix of Girl You Know It’s True. In turn, Brad Howell and John Davis became the main voices behind the frontmen of Milli Vanilli. Unfortunately, Frank had a reputation for forcing artists to lip sync which the duo (only teenagers during the signing of the contract) did not know.
Farian pretty much dictated everything, even the project name ‘Milli Vanilli’ was chosen by him. ‘Milli’, inspired from the nickname of his then-girlfriend, Ingrid Segieth and ‘Vanilli’, simply added to appear like the British band, Scritti Politti.
Three months after beginning their contract with Farian, Pilatus and Morvan were touring Europe, lip-syncing to pre-recorded songs, gripping the hearts of their rapidly increasing fanbase.
During this time, the duo would repeatedly ask Frank when they would be allowed to integrate their own artistic input into the recordings. However, he would just tell them “right now we need you to go out and do promotion. Of course, you’ll get to do it, just work with us.” Through this manipulation, Farian was able to string them along despite Milli Vanilli’s obviously divided opinion on lip-syncing. By the release of their debut Frank simply told them, it was too late to stop.
To some degree, that statement was true. Their first single was an extensive success which entered the Billboard Hot 100, along with four other singles. Baby Don’t Forget My Number, Blame It on the Rain, and Girl I’m Gonna Miss You even made it to the number one spot in the list. By 1990 Girl You Know It’s True was a certified 6x platinum song by the RIAA, due to it’s impressive 41 weeks in the top 10 of the Billboard top 200. If fans and media were to find out that Milli Vanilli simply lip-synced all their live performances, and not even with their own voices, the duo’s career would deteriorate. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.
Girl You Know It’s…
And so, their worst nightmare became reality. In the summer of 1989, Milli Vanilli were dancing and “singing”, at a live MTV performance, in front of a crowd of 15,000 adoring fans. As they were performing, a hard drive issue corrupted the recording of the song Girl You Know It’s True, causing it to jam and skip, again and again.. and again… you get the jist.
The recording just repeated “Girl, you know it’s…” through the speakers. In a panic, Pilatus ran off stage. He knew that this technical issue would be the cause of the spiralling downfall of their career. However, former MTV host, ‘DownTown’ Julie Brown convinced the deflated duo to come back on stage. With many screams and cuss words later, they reluctantly finished the set.
Honestly, this situation affected Pilatus and Morvan more than the crowd because the audience didn’t seem to care, or even notice after the concert continued like nothing happened.
Frank Farian told them “I’ll cover you guys. Nobody will find out” at the beginning of their career, whilst ensuring them with $20,000 before even performing anything. This was obviously a blatant lie because in late 1990, Farian had fired the group, confessing that they had never sung on the records.
This mishap on stage caused an extreme backlash as their ‘Best New Artist’ Grammy Award was revoked. Some disgruntled fans even opened lawsuits against the R&B group and the record company for deceiving consumers out of “tens of millions of dollars.”
The two years that Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus spent as Milli Vanilli were described as hell. All they ever wanted was to become famous through their dancing and singing. Frank Farian completely turned their dream into a nightmare and destroyed any chance the duo had at a career. They could sing and rap but Farian decided that they weren’t good enough for him. Farian solely valued them on their looks and stage personas.
Unfortunately, Pilatus turned to a life of crime, drugs and alcohol after Milli Vanilli. He died due to drug and alcohol overdose at the age of 32.
To this day, Morvan works as a session musician, singer-songwriter, DJ, and spokesperson in the Netherlands for KFC’s ‘Value Campaign’.