With a professional career now of over three decades, Paula Abdul has just about seen it all from a celebrity perspective. She's been both the nation's darling and its embarrassing drunk aunt, its greatest star and its most pitiable disaster. With the debut of X Factor last night, we're hoping that the pendulum can swing back towards the former. Reunited with her old buddy Simon Cowell and back in the music competition judge's chair where she resurrected her career once before, Paula may never have a better chance to re-establish herself as a force in contemporary pop culture.
Even if not, though, with the work she's put in and the headlines she's made—for reasons both good and bad—since she was spotted by the Jacksons at that Laker game nearly 30 years ago, she's a pop culture icon for all time. Here's a chronicling of the high highs and low lows of the first three decades of Paula Abdul's career.
For Part 1: FROM LAKER GIRL TO POP STAR, click NEXT.
PART 1: FROM LAKER GIRL TO POP STAR
ONE OF THE LAKER GIRLS: 1980-1984
A fan of musicals and dancing from an early age, Paula is selected at age 18 from a pool of nearly 700 girls to join the vaunted cheerleading squad for the Los Angeles Lakers, known as the Laker Girls. Originally, she performs while also studying broadcasting at Cal State, but within three months of dancing with the Laker Girls, she is named head cheerleader and choreographer, and six months after that, she leaves school to focus on her career full-time. It's there four years after her audition that she catches the eye of a couple members of pop's royal family, leading to a gig that would cause her career to take off.
THE JACKSONS' "TORTURE" VIDEO: 1984
Her debut effort working in the medium she would soon become best known for, Paula is selected by the Jackson family to choreograph the weird-ass horror video for their single "Torture." Paula is extremely nervous as a 22-year-old directing such pop legends, and the set is fraught with drama, as Jermaine refuses to be in the video and Michael is busy elsewhere (the latter ultimately replaced in the clip with a very obvious wax dummy), but the video is a hit, with Paula's choreography in particular being celebrated. The video leads to gigs working with many other high-profile MTV artists, including a number of collaborations with the group's little sister.
JANET JACKSON'S "NASTY" VIDEO: 1986
Paula would choreograph many videos for Janet Jackson over the years, helping her make the transition from kiddie star to pop icon, but the smash hit "Nasty" stands out among the duo's work together for being one of the first times Paula would move in front of the camera, appearing as one of Janet's friends and back-up singers in the clip. Viewers at the time might not have known who that girl with the hoop earrings and yellow sweater sitting next to Janet in the movie theater was, but they would be seeing a whole lot more of her soon enough.
DEBUT ALBUM FOREVER YOUR GIRL: 1988
Paula saves up her shekels over the course of the decade and recorded a demo in 1987, which eventually leads to her being signed by Virgin Records and recording her debut album, entitled Forever Your Girl. The album is not terribly successful initially, as the first two singles perform underwhelmingly, but with the release of third single "Straight Up," the album's fortunes begin to turn around, as the song becomes a pop and MTV megahit. 62 weeks after the album's June 1988 release, it finally hits #1 and eventually goes on to sell 12 million copies worldwide, spawning four chart-topping hits: "Straight Up," "Cold Hearted," "Opposites Attract" and the title track.
For Part 2: AMERICA'S SWEETHEART, click NEXT.
PART 2: AMERICA'S SWEETHEART
OWNS THE '89 MTV VMAS: 1989
At the height of Forever Your Girl's popularity, Paula essentially cleans up at the '89 VMAs. Nominated for six awards for her hit video "Straight Up," Paula wins four: Best Female Video, Best Dance Video, Best Editing, and—wouldn't you know it?—Best Choreography. In addition to that, she performs a rapturously received medley of her first three chart-toppers, complete with a tap-dance-style intro and some aerial spinning, and she is even introduced by Arsenio Hall—the show's host, the breakout talk show host of the era, and even a cameo actor in the "Straight Up" clip—who Paula is rumored to be dating at the time.
MAKES OUT WITH KEANU IN "RUSH, RUSH" VIDEO: 1991
For the first single off second album Spellbound, Paula goes all out for the music video, getting Star Wars mastermind George Lucas involved as an executive producer of sorts and tabbing a 27-year-old Keanu Reeves as her male co-star. The video is a remake of the classic teen film Rebel Without a Cause, and while Keanu may have been no James Dean in the acting department, he can certainly neck and look pretty with the best of them. Both video and song are enormously successful, and "Rush Rush" ends up spending the longest time at #1 on the Hot 100 since "Like a Virgin" by Madonna—one of the few entertainers on the planet who can claim to be as popular as Paula at that point.
DANCES WITH GENE KELLY IN DIET COKE COMMERCIAL: 1992
At perhaps her highest point of media saturation, Paula gets to check another item off her bucket list in 1992 when she co-stars with her dance idol, Gene Kelly, in a commercial for Diet Coke. Of course, with the real Gene Kelly in his 80s at that point, it isn't the live actor that Paula dances with, but rather a digital image of Kelly, taken from the 1945 film Anchors Aweigh, in which the dance legend had originally tangoed with Jerry, the mouse from the Tom and Jerry cartoons. The commercial is very popular, and represents yet another medium that Paula had appeared to conquer.
For Part 3: FADE FROM THE SPOTLIGHT, click NEXT.
PART 3: FADE FROM THE SPOTLIGHT
BREAKS UP WITH EMILIO ESTEVEZ: 1994
As all true pop stars invariably must, Paula has a relationship with a fellow celebrity, ex-Brat Packer and then-Mighty Ducks star Emilio Estevez. The two are married for two years, but divorce in 1994 over differing priorities—mainly, that Paula wants to have kids, and Emilio (who has two of his own already with model ex Carey Salley) does not. Reports from the time say that Emilio may also consider Paula too emotionally volatile to have children, as she was suffering from bulimia and was behaving rather unstably. The two remain friends, and Paula gets engaged two years later to designer Brad Beckerman, though their marriage is similarly short-lived, and the two divorce in 1998.
HEAD OVER HEELS FLOPS: 1995
Though second album Spellbound was a hit, it only sold seven million worldwide to Forever's 12, and the downward trend continues with third LP Head Over Heels. Featuring a less poppy, more R&B-focused; sound, the album sells just three million worldwide and merely went Gold in the U.S., spawning just one top 40 hit, the #28 "My Love is For Real." After the album's underwhelming performance, Paula goes on a musical hiatus, and to this day has yet to release a fourth album, only releasing singles sporadically.
STARS IN TV MOVIE TOUCHED BY EVIL: 1997
With her music career temporarily in the rearview, Paula attempts a long-overdue crossover to feature film acting. Well, sort of—Touched By Evil, which features Paula in her first-ever starring acting role, is an ABC TV movie, in which Paula plays Ellen Collier, a businesswoman who suspects that the serial rapist who attacked her may in fact be her own boyfriend. The movie—available for viewing in full on YouTube—is mildly sensationalistic and lacking in nuance, and it features Paula wearing this weird short-permed bob hair thing, which was none too flattering. Needless to say, it does not serve as a launching pad for a long and successful career as a leading lady for Paula.
CHOREOGRAPHS AMERICAN BEAUTY CHEERLEADING SCENES: 1999
A rare positive note from the late '90s, Paula is able to get back to her Laker Girl roots with her work on the movie American Beauty. Paula gets tabbed by director Sam Mendes to direct the movie's cheerleading scenes, in which Kevin Spacey's character fantasizes about his daughter's head-cheerleader friend (played by Mena Suvari) dancing just for him. The movie is enormously successful, winning the Oscar for Best Picture, and the cheerleading scene became one of the movie's most famous, even receiving the Family Guy parody treatment.
For Part 4, THE IDOL YEARS, click NEXT.
PART 4: THE IDOL YEARS
JOINS AMERICAN IDOL: 2002
At the height of the reality show boom at the turn of the century, Paula joins the judging panel on American Idol, a music competition show designed to select one contestant a year to win the titular status. Establishing a role early as "The Nice One" of the panel, Paula is often cast in stark opposition to harsher judge Simon Cowell, leading to many on-air disputes between the two, and also causing Paula to consider leaving the program altogether. However, these mini-dramas among the judges help make the show a compelling one, and Idol is a hit, averaging nearly 13 million viewers an episode and launching a legitimate pop star in the season's winner, Kelly Clarkson.
IDOL BECOMES TV'S HIGHEST-RATED SHOW: 2005
With ratings climbing steadily from season to season, in the show's fourth season, Idol officially becomes the nation's most popular program, drawing an average of 26.8 million viewers per episode. With Paula's presence now firmly entrenched in the show's identity, her bantering with Simon—sometimes affectionate, often antagonistic, occasionally downright hostile—becomes one of Idol's main drawing points, a tension that almost forces viewers to choose sides between the two. By 2008, Abdul is said to be drawing between $5 and $8 million a season, though that soon proves to not be enough for the newfound TV star.
CAUGHT IN A HIT-AND-RUN: 2005
In late 2004, Paula hits another vehicle while changing lanes and speeds away from the scene—though not before the other driver gets a snapshot of her license plate. Eventually the incident is traced back to Paula, and in 2005, she pleads no contest to misdemeanor hit-and-run charges, and is sentenced to 24 months probation and a combined $1,675 in fines and damages. The story, in part due to the headline's similarity to a chorus lyric in Paula's signature hit, catches national attention, and is the first of many public embarrassments for Paula in the '00s.
EMBROILED IN COREY CLARK SCANDAL: 2005
Paula's year of rough PR continues in May 2005, when second-season contestant Corey Clark gives an interview with ABC's Primetime Live where he alleges that Paula had coached him on how to succeed on the show, and that her mentorship eventually evolved into a sexual relationship with Clark. He produces evidence including a voice mail message, phone records and even a cough syrup bottle prescribed to Abdul, though Paula continues to deny any such relationship with Clark, and the Idol judges and producers back her claims. The scandal eventually fades from the foreground, and Paula continues on Idol, but the credibility of both Paula and the show are cast in serious doubt.
GUEST JUDGES ON UK X FACTOR: 2006
In a little bit of foreshadowing, Paula follows co-host Simon to the UK for a couple episodes as a guest judge on the British version of The X Factor. Turns out that she can balance out Simon's rough edges just as well in a slightly different format on the other side of the Atlantic, and her guest stint goes well enough that five years later, when considering co-judges for the U.S. version of his show, Simon doesn't write her off completely.
For Part 5, THE END OF IDOL AND BEYOND, CLICK NEXT.
PART 5: THE END OF IDOL AND BEYOND
INTOXICATION ALLEGATIONS: 2007
During her American Idol days there are more than one striking Paula moments captured on camera where her behavior was cause for concern. The show compiles these into a zany montage, leading to cheap shots by the show's judges and host, as well as multiple theories among fans and members of the media, the highest circulated being that she has a substance abuse problem. Abdul adamantly denies the claims for years, admitting to being diagnosed with reflex sympathetic dystrophy in 2005. She speaks about her struggle to overcome dependence on painkillers to Ladies Home Journal in 2009, making some believe that her behavior stemmed from either too much of the drug or exaggerated withdrawal symptoms, and in 2011 she tells Julie Chen that she has "never physically been drunk in [her] life" and doesn't use recreational drugs. Apparently, the Paula Abdul we see on screen is simply just "goofy."
HEY PAULA: 2007
Hey Paula airs on NBC's glamorous cable child Bravo in June 2007, with an initial 15 episode order. After seven episodes, the producers pull the plug, and Abdul herself complains later about the way footage was edited and her overall portrayal. While she was working on Idol and an upcoming Bratz movie, the live action film based on the popular doll series, a lot of what did make the cut were lengthy hair and makeup montages, her worries about winding up on the Worst Dressed list, lack of sleep and mini temper tantrums. The short-lived series does capture Abdul's departure from the Bratz film—for which she was supposed to choreograph, provide wardrobe design and even act in— all together, which spawns a predictably spiteful reaction.
SPLITS WITH IDOL: 2009
With reports leaking that Paula is looking for something in the neighborhood of $20 million a season to stick around on American Idol, the show's producers announce that she will not be returning for the show's ninth season. (Paula claims her reason for leaving is not financially based, but rather a "stand on principle.") Taking her seat on the judging panel is talk show host (and music business amateur) Ellen DeGeneres, whose role on the show comes off as superfluous. By the time of the show's tenth season, Ellen has left the show as well, as has Simon Cowell, who sets to work on bringing the other music competition show he had long been involved with over to America.
REJOINS SIMON COWELL ON X FACTOR (2011)
Amidst an absolutely endless stream of rumors about who will and will not be taking part in the U.S. version of the stateside version of The X Factor, Simon Cowell announces in April that Paula is being considered as one of the judges. "I hate to admit this but I actually miss working with her," Simon claims. "When I was working with her at times, I actually wanted to kill her, she was the most annoying person. And then I’d miss her, and I think she was the same." By May Paula's involvement had been confirmed, and the duo that helped make American Idol one of the most important institutions in music and television of the early 21st century were officially reunited. Where X Factor will take Paula next is anybody's guess.