When the Best New Artist category is presented this Sunday at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, either Lizzo or Billie Eilish is expected to take home the prize. Both artists are sure to move on to long careers, but they won’t make Grammy history quite as spectacularly, and definitely not as scandalously, as the infamous artist that won the award — and then lost everything — 30 years ago: Milli Vanilli.
In 1990, Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus beat out Neneh Cherry, the Indigo Girls, Tone Lōc, and Soul II Soul for the Best New Artist Grammy, but the pop duo didn’t get to savor their victory for long. Just eight months later, when the shocking news broke that they hadn’t actually sung on their album, the public outrage was so intense that they ended up returning their statuettes during a nasty and chaotic press conference. (The Best New Artist Grammy was never redistributed to any of the other 1990 nominees.) Most fans assumed that Morvan and Pilatus were forced by the Recording Academy to participate in the press Q&A, but in a rare, candid, and largely unseen 2013 Yahoo Entertainment interview, Morvan clarified that it was the duo’s idea to return their trophies.
“There's always been a misconception as far as who wanted the Grammy back… from the start we said, ‘OK, we want to give it back because we feel like it's the right thing to do,’” Morvan explained. “But in the press, it always turns out to be we ‘had’ to give it back. The Grammy was at our house. It could have stayed at our house. But we made the choice to give it back.”
Morvan said that they had never wanted to win the Grammy in the first place, for fear that the attention would increase the risk of their secret coming out. (Skeptics had already pointed out that the French-born Morvan and German-born Pilatus’s accents and limited English-speaking skills in interviews sounded nothing like the soulful vocals on their hit singles.) Although Milli Vanilli were initially excited to be nominated, eventually “reality sat in and it was like, ‘OK, we have a secret, and this secret is in danger of being found out now because of this massive exposure we're about to get.’ So that felt a little awkward. And then, when the day came for us to get into the limo and drive to the Shrine, in downtown Los Angeles, we were hoping — both saying in our heads, because we talked about it — ‘Let's hope that it's Indigo Girls or Tone Lōc, or Soul II Soul, but let it not be us.’
“But of course: ‘And the winner is… Milli Vanilli!’ And that was shocking. Because suddenly, the world was watching closer.”
At that time, Morvan and Pilatus were getting ready to record the follow-up to their debut album, Girl You Know It’s True, which had gone to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and had sold a whooping 6 million copies in the U.S. alone. This time, they demanded that they be allowed to do their own singing — which their producer and Svengali, Frank Farian, outright refused to allow. Pilatus and Morvan countered by threatening to refuse to participate in any Milli Vanilli promotional activities, but their strategy backfired. Farian, worrying about the growing scrutiny surrounding the Milli Vanilli project, simply decided to cut ties and expose Morvan and Pilatus as frauds instead, going to the press on Nov. 14, 1990.
“[Farian] is the one person who created everything, put everything together,” Morvan said. “And at the end, because we didn't want to continue with the whole thing, then he went out to New York and told the world. We felt like we were abandoned by everyone. That's what it felt like, because when the news came out, we were the ones that people were focusing on. But the fact of the matter is, there were a lot of people that were involved with the project. We felt betrayal by a lot of people.”
The post-Grammy press conference, held in Los Angeles six days after Farian’s bombshell, was Morvan and Pilatus’s attempt to wrest back control of their narrative and have the last word. “Rob and I decided it was time to talk to the press,” said Morvan. “At that time, the PR firm we were working with let us go, so there was no support there. We had to kind of decide on our own and say, ‘OK, let's give a press conference so where we can speak and address some of the questions they want to talk about. We just thought it was necessary.”
It was a gutsy move, but the 100 reporters in attendance were less than empathetic. “All those journalists were just out for blood. They were really there to hang us dry. Rob and Fab were there, and it was ‘We're going to get them!’ The atmosphere was just bloodthirsty. We were there willing to answer the questions that they had, but people were pretty aggressive. I was really surprised by that,” Morvan recalled.
The duo attempted to rebrand themselves as Rob & Fab, singing in their real voices, but they could never recover from the vicious backlash of 1990, and the Rob & Fab album sold only about 2,000 copies. The duo went their separate ways for a while, with Pilatus struggling with substance abuse and suicide attempts as he tried to cope with the Milli Vanilli fallout. In 1996, Pilatus went to prison for three months for assault, vandalism, and attempted robbery, but when he was released, Frank Farian, of all people, bankrolled his stay in rehab. A year later, Farian, Pilatus and Morvan reunited in the studio to record what they hoped would be Milli Vanilli comeback album, Back and in Attack. But on the eve of the album’s promotional tour, Pilatus was found dead of a drug overdose in a Frankfurt hotel room. He was 32 years old. Back and in Attack was never released.
“Fame is really interesting, because usually when fame disappears it's a gradual process,” mused Morvan, who went on to a modest solo career in the 2000s. “But with us, it went from one day to the next day, we lost the fame. …We were pushed aside suddenly. And you had to live with that.”
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