Ex-Laker Girl Slam-Dunks : Paula Abdul scores with new singing career and debut album
Singer Paula Abdul chuckled at the thought of being married to L.A. Lakers’ center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Thinking of how they’d look together--at 5-foot-2 she’s about two feet shorter--struck her so funny that the chuckle mushroomed into roaring laughter. Abdul, who currently has the No. 1 pop single with “Straight Up,” was doubled up in her chair at a West Hollywood restaurant during a recent interview.
“I wouldn’t have to do much to change my name if we were married,” said Abdul, a perky, bubbly type whose little-girl voice makes her sound much younger than her 25 years. “I’d just tack on Jabbar to my name. Because of my name, people used to ask me if we were married all the time.”
Those people made the connection because of her link to the Lakers. Until a few years ago, Abdul was head of the Laker Girls, the team’s cheerleading squad. Choreographing their routines was her entree into the music business.
She was best known as a rock-video choreographer until “Straight Up,” the third single from her debut album, “Forever Your Girl,” established her as one of the best of the flock of pretty dance-music queens.
A former cheerleader at Van Nuys High School, Abdul beat out hundreds of competitors in 1980 for a coveted spot with the Laker Girls. A year later she was the leader, choreographing the routines. She de-emphasized conventional cheers and emphasized dancing.
“I joined the Laker girls for fun,” said Abdul, who was with the squad for six years. “But those games aren’t just games. There’s a heavy show-biz scene there too. There’s a lot of people in the entertainment business in the stands.”
A budding choreographer couldn’t have asked for a better showcase. The dance routines were more than just entertainment. They were advertisements for Abdul’s choreographic skills. “There were all sorts of calls to the Forum office with job offers--TV commercials, TV shows,” she said.
For a while, though, Abdul, a student at Cal State Northridge in the early ‘80s, had another goal. “I wanted to be a sports commentator,” she recalled. “I used to sit in the booth with (Lakers announcer) Chick Hearn and watch how he did things. He’d even interview me at half time.”
But a big choreography break steered her permanently in that direction. In 1984, when the Jacksons were at the Forum to see the Lakers, they were checking out more than the game.
“I got this notice that they wanted to talk to me,” said Abdul. “They wanted me to fly to New York to choreograph a video. I was floored. I had never done anything like a video before.”
Abdul choreographed routines for the video of “Torture,” a song on the Jacksons’ “Victory” album. “My only problem was how to tell the Jacksons how to dance,” she said. “Imagine me telling them what routines to do. I was young, I was scared. I’m not quite sure how I got through that.”
A year later, her exposure with the Laker Girls got her another assignment, coincidentally with another Jackson--Janet. “An executive with A&M; Records who had season tickets liked what I did with the Laker Girls and wanted me to work with Janet on her dancing and her videos,” Abdul said.
Abdul not only helped turn Jackson into a polished dancer but also choreographed the videos for the “Control” album. Those videos did as much for Abdul as they did for Jackson.
The flood of choreography assignments included videos--for ZZ Top, Duran Duran and the Pointer Sisters-- and movies such as “The Running Man” and “Coming to America.” In 1986, she was so busy she had to drop out of the Laker Girls. By then another activity was taking more and more time--singing.
Though Abdul was dancing at age 7, she started singing in her teens, working with a theatrical-musical group during summer vacations. By her late teens, she was more into dancing--contemporary and theatrical. Despite years of ballet training, she had given up on ballet as a career, figuring she was too short.
But while she was expanding her dancing skills and learning the rudiments of choreography, she never really discarded the notion that she might also be a singer.
“I’d always admired Liza Minnelli,” Abdul said. “She can dance and sing. I wanted to be one of those Broadway-type performers who could do it all.”
Abdul can’t do it all quite yet. Her singing still needs some polish. “Forever Your Girl” is a typical dance-music album, emphasizing instrumentals and rhythms while beefing up the singer’s voice with studio techniques. It was mostly the strong hooks that lured listeneres to “Straight Up"-- one of last year’s best pop singles--not her vocals, which are just passable.
Abdul has no illusions about being a great vocalist just yet. “I’m not a really soulful singer--not as soulful as I want to be,” she said. “With my singing, there’s room for improvement.”
Janet Jackson was important to Abdul’s singing career in several ways. First of all, Abdul, who had been shopping her demonstration tapes to record companies for several years, got moral support and encouragement from Jackson. But most important, Jackson’s “Control” album was such a smash that every label was in the market for a female R&B;/dance-music singer like her. In 1987, Virgin Records signed Abdul as their entry in this category.
That signing took a while to pay off. Released last June, the “Forever Your Girl” album seemed to be going nowhere at first despite a black-chart hit, “Knocked Out,” written by the hot team of L.A. and Babyface. But late last year, pop stations turned on to “Straight Up,” which went straight up the chart, pulling the album--now No. 13 on the Billboard pop chart--with it.
“What am I?” mused Abdul. “People ask me that all the time. I’m a Valley Girl--born and raised in the Valley. But I’m not what people think I am.”
With her olive-colored skin, she could be just about anything--black, white, Mexican, Arabic. “I’ve been called everything,” said Abdul, whose father is Syrian and Brazilian and whose mother--a classical pianist--is French-Canadian.
What is she most often called?
“Maybe black, because of the music,” she replied. “I sing R&B; music--dance music--that’s aimed at the black audience. They think I’m one of them. People tell me all the time: ‘I’m glad to see another sister (black woman) making it.’ ”
There was a time, though, when she was a student at Van Nuys Junior High School, that her heritage worked against her. “Then blacks and Mexicans gangs were fighting each other,” she recalled. “Blacks thought I was Mexican and the Mexicans thought I was black. I was caught in the middle. I was getting it from both sides. It was scary sometimes.”
But most often, she concluded, having an unclear identity is a bonus: “I can be what I want. I can fit into any situation. People are always curious about someone like me. It’s fun to be a mystery.”