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Rob and Fab, After the Fall : Ex-Milli Vanilli Duo Confident They Can Sing on Their Own

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Robert Pilatus remembers the morning six weeks ago when he climbed onto the railing of his ninth-floor balcony at the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood and tried to muster the courage to jump.

Troubled about the decline of his career, depressed over a break-up with a girlfriend and guilt-ridden by family problems, the disgraced Milli Vanilli frontman had downed a fifth of bourbon, swallowed five dozen tranquilizers, slit his left wrist with a shard of broken glass and slowly crawled out onto the railing.

“I can still see myself dangling there nine stories above the Sunset Strip,” said Pilatus in his first interview since the Nov. 30 suicide attempt.

“I was shaking and I was crying and I could feel my arms getting weaker and weaker. I wanted to die but I was too scared to let go. So I just hung there waiting for the medication to kick in, hoping that at some point the drugs would just cause me to drop.”

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Thanks to fast action by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies, the 27-year-old lip-sync star’s life was spared.

Deputies--sent to the scene by a Los Angeles Times operator whom Pilatus had called only minutes earlier--grabbed the entertainer after luring him inside to answer a call they had placed to his room. He was taken by ambulance to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and placed under 72-hour observation.

“I’m very embarrassed about it now,” Pilatus said. “Right away, I heard people joking about it like it was a publicity stunt or something. But it wasn’t. I was truly at the end of my rope. It was like everything caved in on me all at once: the shame, the anger, the guilt. I’ve never been suicidal, but at that moment I just felt like there was no way out. It’s embarrassing but now I have to live with it.”

Pilatus, who spent December in a Tucson drug rehabilitation center, returned to Reno last week to put the finishing touches on a new album with his Milli Vanilli partner Fabrice Morvan.

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The duo sees the album as a chance to validate their talents after falling from grace in November, 1990, when German producer Frank Farian revealed that they never sang a note as Milli Vanilli. The two credit Robert Foreman, president of Taj Records, a small, Reno-based independent record label, for giving them a second shot at stardom.

Both dressed in black T-shirts, leather pants and jogging shoes, Pilatus and Morvan appeared upbeat during a lengthy interview at the studio where they are recording vocal tracks for their new record, due out in June.

Standing in the middle of a recording booth in the high-tech studio installed in a Victorian house, Pilatus and Morvan belted out a pure two-part harmony on their new pop ballad “I Just Want to Be Your Everything"--scheduled to be unveiled Saturday at the international MIDEM conference in Cannes--the same music-industry event where producer Farian introduced Milli Vanilli to the world in 1988.

The November suicide attempt came almost a year after Pilatus and Morvan admitted they never sang a note on their 10-million selling album “Girl You Know It’s True.” The duo was subsequently dropped by Arista Records and stripped of its best new artist Grammy Award by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Consumers filed more than two dozen class-action fraud lawsuits against Pilatus and Morvan and their record company in 1990. One such case in Chicago is expected to be ruled on Jan. 29. (See related story.)

Following the lip-sync debacle, Pilatus and Morvan sought to portray themselves in interviews as highly competent vocalists trapped in a hoax orchestrated by forces beyond their control.

But singing for a living has proven to be much more difficult than they imagined.

“It’s certainly not like Milli Vanilli--that’s for sure,” said Pilatus, the son of a German mother and an American soldier father who was adopted by a German couple and raised in Germany. “All we had to do in Milli Vanilli was show up for the video.”

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“Now we have to work long hours with singing and dialect coaches to make sure we get the notes and the phrasing right,” added Morvan, 25, who was born in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and raised in Paris. “It’s been a major blow to the ego.”

The duo--who reportedly earned about $4 million during their Milli days--acknowledged going through a severe identity crisis last year that caused them to seek therapy. Still, Pilatus did not place blame for his suicide attempt on the lip-sync scandal alone.

He pointed to problems with his family, including a recent call from his adoptive mother during which, he said, she requested he change his name, claiming that various European media reports related to the lip-sync hoax had disgraced the family.

The German teen idol also cited his break-up with a girlfriend and a surprise visit on Thanksgiving from his 4-year-old son and the boy’s German mother, whom he hadn’t seen in more than a year, for pushing him over the brink.

Said Pilatus: “As I stood there crying that night I thought, ‘My God, look at it. My son is growing up exactly the same as I did--without a father.’

“I never knew my dad, and my real mom was a prostitute. I grew up in an orphanage. My real parents were never there for me. And somehow I have allowed the same thing to happen to my son. Seeing him made me feel so sad and so guilty, I just couldn’t stand it anymore. That’s a big part of what pushed me over the edge.”

Morvan said news of his partner’s suicide attempt caught him off guard. But what surprised him most was the flippant reaction of the entertainment industry.

“What kind of a world is this that people make jokes about someone’s suffering?” asked Morvan. “Here my best friend tries to kill himself and I hear people mocking us like it was some publicity stunt. I swear, sometimes it seems like the farther we fall, the more people enjoy hammering at us.”

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Last spring, Pilatus and Morvan attempted to resurrect their career by starring in a chewing gum commercial that spoofed the lip-sync hoax. They also appeared in music videos by Hammer and the Traveling Wilburys and were featured as animated characters in an episode of “The Super Mario Brothers” cartoon show on NBC.

Hoping to branch out into film and television, the duo began taking acting lessons in August and signed a deal with Parker Public Relations, a Los Angeles-based firm that represents Arnold Schwarzenegger. Although the pair is negotiating with Alliance Productions executive Michael Weisbarth to develop a TV-movie script in which they will play themselves, no production date has been set for the project.

Re-establishing their credibility in the music business hasn’t been easy, either.

“The day after the scandal broke the industry just slammed the door in our faces,” Morvan said. “We couldn’t believe it. One morning we were rich and famous. The next day, nobody wanted to talk to us. Not the record company, not the agent, not a single one of our so-called friends. Everyone abandoned us.”

Everyone, except Taj Records President Robert Foreman, that is.

Foreman, whose tiny record label scored a Top 10 hit single last year on Billboard magazine’s R&B; chart with Gerald Alston’s “Slow Motion,” contacted Pilatus and Morvan immediately after the scandal broke to express his support. Three weeks later--after subjecting them to a technical singing test--he offered the duo a record contract.

“The way I see it, this is one of the most peculiar stories in the history of pop,” Foreman said. “I sat out here in Reno and watched the entire industry turn their back on this huge-selling pop act and I thought, ‘Hey, why not give them a chance? What we have here is an opportunity to make history. Why not roll the dice?’ ”

Foreman, who says he has invested more than $500,000 in the recording project so far, acknowledged that his interest in the duo’s future is not entirely altruistic.

“Of course, the bottom line for any record company is profit,” Foreman said. “These guys have a very loyal fan base and this album has the potential of becoming a major hit. Not only will it definitively prove that Rob and Fab can sing, it’s going to blow people away when they hear just what good singers these guys actually are.”

Foreman hopes to land a distribution deal overseas this weekend at the MIDEM music conference when he showcases Pilatus and Morvan’s new single--due out here in March--for representatives of the world’s major record labels.

But the duo’s former producer, Frank Farian, who will also be attending the MIDEM conference, doubts if Foreman will find any takers.

“In order to succeed, a record producer needs good singers,” Farian said from Frankfurt this week. “You can’t just rely on pretty faces and fancy dancing. The biggest problem with Robert and Fabrice is that they aren’t musicians. That’s why I never allowed them to perform on my records. I can’t imagine that they can sing any better now than they could one year ago.”

Farian is not alone in his assessment of the pair’s talents. Few observers in the music industry have expressed any confidence that the former Milli Vanilli frontmen can stage a successful comeback.

“Their reputation definitely proceeds them,” said Ken Barnes, senior vice president and editor of Radio & Records, a weekly trade publication that tracks airplay at more than 1,000 radio stations. “I think the likelihood of them having a hit is less than if they were a brand-new artist.”

Even Morvan and Pilatus wondered for a while whether they had what it takes to be professional singers.

“We lost confidence in ourselves for about six months there,” Morvan said. “At first, when I heard myself singing on the tape I was not pleased with the results. People can only treat you like a joke for so long before it begins to affect your work.”

“I’d be fine until the tape would start rolling,” Pilatus said. “Then all of a sudden. Bam! I’d choke. The pressure to succeed was crippling us. But no matter how bleak it looked, we refused to quit.”

The suicide incident seems to have done little to diminish the duo’s resolve to regain a foothold in the pop field. Pilatus and Morvan currently live in separate rooms above the recording studio and start each day by running through a vigorous regimen of singing and dialect drills. They exercise every evening in a nearby gym and spend much of their free time together frequenting the same restaurants and cinemas.

Pilatus credited his partner’s “unconditional” support for his speedy return to what matters most--the music.

“Fabrice has stood by me through it all,” Pilatus said. “Through the fame and through the fall. The first time we met, we both knew we were going to be a powerful team. That we were going to accomplish something big. We did it once and we’re convinced that we can do it again.”

“It won’t be long now,” Morvan said. “We’ve put our heart and soul into this record and fought hard to bring it to a finish. Pretty soon we’ll be able to say to our fans, ‘The baby is ready. Here it is. Check it out.’ ”


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