Milli Vanilli was experiencing unheard of meteoric fame. Their debut hit “Girl You Know It’s True” was on the Billboard Hot 100 for 26 weeks, peaking at No. 2, in April 1989, so joining the inaugural Club MTV Tour alongside Paula Abdul and Tone Loc seemed to be the next logical step to catapult them into fame with live shows.
Performing in front of a crowd of 80,000 at the theme park Lake Compounce in Bristol, Connecticut, in 1989, the duo of Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus started with their trademark energy and dance moves. But then their famous chorus came — and suddenly the lyrics repeated endlessly through the venue: “Girl you know it’s, girl you know it’s, girl you know it’s…”
The word “true” never came. After all, it wasn’t true. In fact, very little of what Milli Vanilli was about was true at all.
“I knew right then and there, it was the beginning of the end for Milli Vanilli,” Pilatus told the Los Angeles Times in November 1990. “When my voice got stuck in the computer and it just kept repeating and repeating, I panicked. I just ran off the stage.″
Even so, after that scandal, the group went on to win three trophies at the American Music Awards in January 1990 and the Grammy for Best New Artist, beating out the Indigo Girls and Tone Loc, the following month.
In a time before social media watchdogs and when lip-syncing to live performances was commonplace, Milli Vanilli got away with their ruse for longer than they might have today. But now their name is pretty much synonymous with the biggest lip-syncing scandal in pop culture history.
"Girl You Know It's True" was already hit before Pilatus and Morvan were cast
German record producer Frank Farian was in a disco in his native country when he heard the song “Girl You Know It’s True” by the Baltimore band Numarx — and immediately knew it could be a bigger hit. So he set out to assemble a team to recreate a new version, taking the original hip-hop track and mixing it with a bit of Eurodance, according to Billboard.
He started recruiting singers in 1988 — sisters Linda and Jodie Rocco sang backup and Charles Shaw rapped on the track. “When he played the record for me, I already knew the song,” Shaw told Billboard. “I had been dancing to the Numarx version on the weekends in American clubs in Hamburg. Farian played it and I said, ‘This song ain’t new.’”
Shaw says Farian admitted it wasn’t new. But he still went with it and just started mixing voices. “You can’t really hear the vocals or exactly who’s singing, because there are so many voices on the chorus,” he said. Eventually, Brad Howell and John Davis were brought in for vocals.
There was no denying that Farian knew what he was doing. His version of the song quickly became popular in Europe. Now he just needed faces to go along with the music group.
Morvan and Pilatus were present in the recording studio but didn't sing one note
At the time New York-born, German-bred Pilatus and Guadeloupe native Morvan were living in a housing project in Munich — poor to the point they stole food to survive — when Farian came along and offered each of the dancers $4,000 to become the faces of the duo Milli Vanilli, named after the nickname of Farian’s girlfriend.
Farian wasn’t new to the game. He had done the same thing with his 1970s disco-funk group Boney M., with a singer who was actually just a dancer, lip-syncing to Farian’s own vocals. (He was able to hang onto that secret for 25 years, according to Shaw.)
“Farian came back after the song hit the charts in England and said he had to have two faces for the project,” Shaw continued. “I was already paid $12,000 for doing [“Girl”] and he said, ‘Keep your mouth shut and you can do the whole album.’ I’m thinking, ‘That’s studio work for me.’”
Had Farian realized how popular the group would become, he may have realized the dancers’ accents — with Pilatus’ mother tongue of German and Morvan’s of French — would be an issue.
Linda and Jodie were also brought back in for more vocals. “There was no real plan… we were just recording stuff real fast, to get enough together for a four-song EP for the American market. Then Frank said Arista was involved and he was talking to Clive Davis,” Linda said.
Sure enough, soon there was a record deal, so they figured there was a group. But when they got to the studio, it was just Linda, Jodie and another singer, Joan Faulker. “[Pilatus and Morvan] would come in and go down to the basement where the pool was and hang out for a couple hours,” Jodie said. “They’d make appearances, then go down to the basement, but they never sang a note or went into the studio.”
Linda said they were kept a distance from the guys so that they wouldn’t get too close.
The real singer was secretly brought in at night
Somehow they were able to keep up the facade. They were able to keep a music label rep from traveling to Germany by saying they wanted to retain creative direction.
“It wasn’t out of the question,” the Arista A&R manager at the time, Richard Sweret, told Billboard. “Other producers would do their work and send it in. They just didn’t want anyone in the studio with them because it’s a creative professional distance a producer wants to have. I respected that and there was no reason to think that it was anything other than that.”
But there was a lot of fishy business going on. Howell would be taken to the studio late at night, even after other staff was gone, so that no one would know he was the true voice. “It was a secret,” the engineer on the album, Tobias Freund, said. “We worked in the evening and closed the windows.”
Jens Gad, who played guitar and co-wrote several songs, didn’t even cross paths with the faces of the music he was working on: “We never met Rob and Fab, there was no need for them to be in the studio. It was show business: Frank created the scenario where he put this and this and this together, and that was the show. It was completely normal.”
Pilatus and Morvan were catapulted into stardom
Soon the music video for “Girl You Know It’s True” was a global hit and Milli Vanilli also had four other hit songs — “Blame It On the Rain,” “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” and “Baby Don’t Forget My Number,” which all hit No. 1 and “All or Nothing” which peaked at No. 4. In short, they were everywhere.
And with that, the suspicions started to come. “Every time we gave an interview, the reporters would hear my French accent or Rob’s German accent and they’d say, ’No way. How could these guys have sung the songs?’” Morvan told the Los Angeles Times.
They even had dialect specialists brought in — paid by Arista Records — to try to help the situation. But fast fame didn’t make it easy.
″We didn’t want to do any more interviews,″ Pilatus added. ″The more we talked, the worse things got.″
Their former Arista product manager, Robert Wieger, recalled the situation to Billboard. “I remember there were some words Fab couldn’t pronounce. He had a pretty thick French/Guadalupan accent, so on ‘Girl I’m Gonna Miss You’ he couldn’t say ‘miss,’ and he said ‘meeees.’"
But fans were in love. The duo did an appearance in Los Angeles where they were mobbed to the point that the cops were brought in. After all, they had the looks, moves and charisma — they were just lacking the vocal talent that it was all built on.
Having gone through the rags-to-riches rise so quickly, even Pilatus and Morvan got caught up. “Their egos were so big, because they were such big stars, that they were like, ‘We can sing, no problem,” Wieger said. “They became believers in their own false story.”
Despite being common for musicians to sing to track on tour, a broken single gave away Milli Vanilli's lip-syncing secret
With that level of confidence, it’s no wonder they were comfortable getting up in front of a live crowd and performing. Plus, in that era, it wasn’t unusual for singers to lip-sync since the live demands of running around a stage could get in the way with vocals.
“Everyone was singing to track on that tour,” MTV VJ and Club MTV host Downtown Julie Brown told Billboard. “It wasn’t so much about who had the best voice, just as long as you could perform and give the audience exactly what they wanted. They wanted to see you perform and touch you. That was the fun of that whole clubby vibe. Milli Vanilli definitely brought that to them.”
But there was already some foreshadowing that this was risky business in front of such big crowds. During a Milwaukee stop of the tour with 22,000 people, Milli Vanilli’s vocals simply didn’t come on. They guys were caught looking like they were ready to start, but with no voices to go along with that. “They ran offstage, punched [their tour manager] in the chest and locked themselves in their tour bus,” former MTV director of on-air talent Steve Leeds added to the Billboard story.
“I wanted to die,” Pilatus told MTV. “I couldn’t repeat it 15 times, so I stopped, I panicked, I went off stage.” He said Brown went running after him. “I said, ‘I’ve had enough. I quit.’”
But Brown knew what she needed to do: “Backstage it was hell-raising. Rob was so mad. I told him to get open the door, and I just had to talk to him, saying, ‘They’re here to see you perform and you’re doing such a great job — don’t let this stop you from giving fans what they want.’”
He did get back on stage. And they did finish the show.
They demanded to sing on their next album
Oddly, they weathered that 1989 performance and went on to win at the AMAs and Grammys in 1990.
Pilatus and Morvan pressed Farian to let them showcase their true vocals and that’s when everything unraveled. “We said to Frank Farian, ‘You don’t let us sing on the album. Don’t do this anymore,’” Pilatus told the Los Angeles Times. ″We don’t want to live like this.”
Farian blamed the duo’s cocky attitude while the men blamed Farian for taking advantage of them.
Eventually, Farian’s statement came out first, saying the guys had set an ultimatum. The guys countered with a press conference, where Pilatus said, ″We were seduced, we were abused and we felt very guilty.”
The fallout was large and wide. Arista dropped them and deleted their entire catalog, fans demanded refunds and threatened to sue for fraud and — for the first and only time — their Grammy was revoked.
“To lose everything so publicly was harsh,” Morvan said on Oprah Winfrey’s Where Are They Now? “You don’t know where to turn to because there’s nobody around you, you’re left alone. We were famous and now we’re infamous just like that.”
While he eventually found his way back to EDM music, Pilatus never rebounded. “Rob Pilatus didn't do well with humiliation,” Morvan continued. “Being punched every day in the public eye leaves marks. They only way he could deal with it, for him, was the addiction.”
Pilatus was found dead at 33 in Frankfurt on April 2, 1998, of a suspected overdose.
“When I heard the news of Rob’s death, everything went blank at that moment. Silence,” Morvan said. “It was like losing a part of myself. In order to honor him, and for myself, I said a vow that I would do my thing. And I would make sure the name Milli Vanilli itself means when you fall, you stand back up, and you move on.”