September 2001


Paula Abdul returns to her roots as choreographer for the Off Broadway musical Reefer Madness.

by Gia Kourlas
Paula Abdul
MARY JANE GIRL Paula Abdul makes it burn as choreographer of Reefer Madness

Paula Abdul is haunted by the '80s. MTV made her a star in that shoulder-padded decade, but it also tainted her. It's nearly impossible to say her name aloud without snickering–less at the memory of silly songs like "Cold Hearted" and "Straight Up" than at the glistening, muscle-bound dancers who graced her videos. And then there's the mystifying cheerleading association: Abdul, who began her career as both a member and the choreographer of the Laker Girls, runs cheerleading and dance camps to this day. She's even created a forthcoming MTV show about that world, aptly called Skirts. But while the adorable Abdul may fancy cheerleading, she's definitely no flake.

After Laker Girl routines she'd designed started generating buzz beyond the basketball courts, Abdul landed choreographing gigs on videos for Duran Duran, Janet Jackson and ZZ Top. She was also teaching TV stars how to move–in 1986, she won an Emmy for her work on The Tracey Ullman Show. She could sing, too, as evidenced by the six No. 1 songs she rang up between 1989 and 1991.

But life was far from perfect. She suffered in the romance category: A 1992 marriage to Emilio Estevez ended after two years; her second trip to the altar, with clothing manufacturer Brad Beckerman, lasted barely a year. In 1995, Abdul's longtime battle against bulimia landed her in a hospital.

These days, Abdul, 38, is bouncing back by reaching to her roots. The choreographer of a number of films (including The Doors and the cheerleading scenes in 1999's American Beauty) is not only back on MTV, but she's working Off Broadway as well. Her latest task is to make up the moves for the new musical Reefer Madness, inspired by the cult-classic 1936 propaganda film that branded pot as the devil's tool. For Abdul, nothing is quite as satisfying as teaching nondancers how to shake it. "The best part is seeing a look of horror turn into an air of confidence," she says after a recent rehearsal. "And hearing cast members say, 'Hey–Paula Abdul made me look good.' You can't put a price tag on that."

Time Out New York: Did you revive any of the stoner scenes from The Doors for Reefer Madness?

Paula Abdul: Oh, God. [Covers her face with her hands] That was the most dreadful film. It wasn't fun. How could it be? To restage every movement of Jim Morrison? Val Kilmer was brilliant. But it was just, for a choreographer, not rewarding.

TONY: What's the plot of your new television drama, Skirts?

PA: It's about a cheer-dance squad that hasn't won a championship since I left as head cheerleader. I play the cheerleading coach. It's kind of like The White Shadow.

TONY: I loved that show.

PA: My favorite show. I loved the camaraderie, and all the back-stories of the characters. There was conflict, resolution and humor.

TONY: Salami was yummy.

PA: I admit Salami was my favorite.

TONY: Do you know what he looks like now?

PA: I saw!

TONY: On ESPN, right?

PA: [Shrieks]Yes! Because they're doing a reunion. I was like, Oh my God, that's Salami?

TONY: It was shocking. All his hair is gone.

PA: [Claps her hands]. We're all getting older, but it's funny.

TONY: In high school, you were senior-class president and head cheerleader. How do you accept defeat after that?

PA: [Laughs] I learned that feeling of hard-core rejection at a very early age. I would go on open calls and be cut because I didn't have the right body. I thought, I'm not going to make it as a dancer, but I can probably make it as a choreographer. And I'm going to hire short people! And I did.

TONY: What did you wear to your Laker Girl audition?

PA: I wore the most obnoxious red-and-white—striped leotard. I was damn proud that I made the squad. After a while, I became the choreographer, which was my first time working with girls [who had no] dance training. When I was first a Laker Girl, it was still a little pom-pom–but I got rid of that. We danced.

TONY: There's a line in the movie Bring It On in which a choreographer says, "Cheerleaders are dancers who have gone retarded." Do stabs like that hurt your feelings?

PA: Not really. I was a cheerleader because it was the only outlet for dance in school. Swear to God. Cheerleading opened up my whole career. [Bows to the floor] I pray to the cheerleaders.

TONY: How does George W. Bush affect the reputation of cheerleading?

PA: [Snickers] Oh, God. No worse than it already is.

TONY: Why did you go public with your bulimia?

PA: I knew I had a problem. I did not want to be stuck in this wretched disorder. [For treatment,] I just wanted to go somewhere far away, so I found a place in Tulsa. So here I am with these girls, from compulsive overeaters and anorexics with tubes in their arms to bulimics. I was scared as shit, and they were more scared because [Assumes hick voice] "Holy shit, it's Paula ABdul." On our second day, we had an outing–we all went to a mall, and fans followed me back to the hospital. The next day, there was press in the bushes, bombarding these scared girls! I felt worse for them but icky for me, but I decided, Screw it–I'm going public.

TONY: Do you have a boyfriend?

PA: No. Am I dating? A little bit. I find it hard to meet men who are into strong, independent women.

TONY: Did you write the song "Spinning Around"–for Kylie Minogue–about Brad Beckerman?

PA: [Horrified] How the hell did this come up?

TONY: I read some newspaper articles on the Internet.

PA: Unbelievable. [Turns bright red]

TONY: Is it true?

PA: You are the second person who has asked me that. That is so bizarre. Where did that come from? [Looks at the article] I love this: "Former '80s pop queen." [Mumbles] "Man bashing." I have no comment.

TONY: How did instant fame affect you?

PA: When my career was a rocket, I was running as fast as I could to catch up. It's difficult to really pay attention to what you've accomplished because there's no time. This is the first time in my career that I pick and choose what I want to do. When I was a pop star, I was always trying to take care of everybody, but along the way I could feel dissension and jealousy. I realized I can't do that anymore. I have to just be true to myself.

Previews for Reefer Madness begin Saturday 15 at the Variety Arts Theatre.


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