If you were a music lover in the late '80s, then chances are the story behind Milli Vanilli is one that’s pretty familiar to you.
Formed in Germany by producer Frank Farlan in 1988, Milli Vanilli consisted of Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus, two models who had only dabbled in singing careers. The two released their international debut album, Girl You Know It’s True, in 1989, and the album quickly skyrocketed to international success, hitting the #1 spot on Billboard’s Top 200 chart and going platinum a whopping SIX times.
The album was a genuine sensation thanks to it's title track and songs like “Baby Don’t Forget My Number,” and “Blame It On The Rain,” and Milli Vanilli soon found themselves touring the globe. This all culminated in a Grammy win for Best New Artist. However, things started to get weird when they found themselves being featured on TV.
MTV executive Beth McCarthy-Miller commented that people were starting to become suspicious of the duo when they revealed their thick accents and limited English skills during interviews, but the worst was actually yet to come.
During a performance broadcast by MTV at the Lake Compounce theme park in Bristol, Connecticut, it was revealed that they were lip-syncing to their songs when the recording of the album’s title track jammed, and the “Girl you know it’s…” line kept repeating over and over.
The duo attempted to keep dancing for a few more moments, but then both ran offstage. However, according to people in attendance at the show, the audience seemed to neither notice nor care about the lip-syncing.
However, Milli Vanilli weren’t doing themselves any favors perception-wise. In an interview for Time magazine in 1990, Pilatus referred to himself as “the new Elvis” and asserted that the duo were more musically talented than artists like Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and Mick Jagger.
But once the story started to spread, things were about to take a turn for the worse.
Things behind the scenes weren’t much better. Unlike on their Europe-only debut album All or Nothing, the production notes for Girl You Know It’s True listed the performances and lyrics as being solely those of Morvan and Pilatus, which people were quickly beginning to suspect was not the case.
This came to a head when singer Charles Shaw became angered at the lack of credit he received, and revealed that he was one of three singers who were actually contracted to record all of Milli Vanilli’s songs. Morvan and Pilatus were just lip-syncing along in the videos and live performances.
Frank Farlan, still the band’s producer, ultimately paid Shaw $150,000 to retract his statements, but at this point this did little to change the public’s perception of the group or the legitimacy of their music. Between the media outcry and Morvan and Pilatus’s demands that they be given more chances to sing themselves on the next record, Farlan ultimately revealed to the press in November 1990 that the duo did not sing whatsoever on the records.
The reaction to this was borderline nuclear. Within four days, the band’s Grammy award was retracted, the first time in history this had ever happened.
Not only that, but both the duo and their record label received a whopping 27 lawsuits, filed from various U.S. fraud prevention laws.
A settlement was ultimately agreed upon to many of these suits, and nearly 10 million people were eligible to receive refunds for either buying Milli Vanilli albums or attending their live performances.
As a result of all of this negative press, everyone involved with the group went their separate ways. Farlan continued to work in the music industry, but never produced another hit album. Meanwhile, singers Brad Howell and John Davis, the other two real voices behind Milli Vanilli’s songs, released an album under the moniker The Real Milli Vanilli, only to soon rename themselves to Try ‘N’ B. The album, The Moment of Truth, was never released in the United States, and had little chart momentum in Europe.
As for Morvan and Pilatus, things became a bit more of a roller coaster. Morvan found some solid success as a DJ in Los Angeles, and the two soon recorded a new album as Rob & Fab, but the album failed to find any success. They were soon commissioned to record a Milli Vanilli comeback album, this time using their real voices, which became the album Back and In Attack, released in 1998.
However, during the recording of the album, Rob Pilatus began to struggle with his personal life. He turned to hard drugs and a life of crime, committing several assaults and robberies that found him sentenced to three months in jail and six months in a drug rehabilitation clinic. Farlan paid for the entire process, but on the eve of the album’s promotional tour in April 1998, Pilatus was found dead of an overdose in a Frankfurt hotel room.
His death was ruled as accidental, though many at the time speculated that it may have been a suicide, due to both his tumultuous personal life and the embarrassment faced by the band. In any case, it was the end of Milli Vanilli.
Fab Morvan continues to perform and to offer public speaking appearances.