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Paula Abdul: “Straight Up”

When Paula Abdul burst onto the music scene in the 1980s, I was among the millions of teenage girls who emulated her, flocked to her concerts and lip-synched her No. 1 hit “Straight Up” in the mirror while attempting to duplicate her amazing dance moves. Having started out as a Los Angeles Lakers cheerleader – where she was “discovered” by the Jackson 5 and hired to choreograph one of their videos – Abdul is just as well known for her choreography as she is for her vocals. Abdul enjoyed a wild ride as a pop diva; married and divorced twice – to actor Emilio Estevez and clothing manufacturer Brad Beckerman, respectively – starred in her own exercise videos; and conquered bulimia, the eating disorder she suffered from since her teens.

These days, Abdul is enjoying her second foray into the limelight, thanks to a show called American Idol. Now that the first season is over, Abdul – who, at the time of this interview, was undecided as to whether or not to return for the second season – is planning on recording another album, launching a line of hip dance apparel and continuing her work as a special correspondent for Entertainment Tonight. She took a break from her hectic schedule to chat about her amazing life.

EA: You seem so incredibly busy. What is your schedule like?

PA: With American Idol, it was supposed to be a little show that would be a perfect gig. You showed up on Tuesday for an hour, give or take makeup, maybe a couple hours, and then Wednesday the same. But because it took off so much, it required double duty in publicity. So we were flying back and forth to the East Coast during one month almost every week. We would leave after the last show on Wednesday, take the redeye to New York, I would be doing press on Thursday, and flying back late Thursday so that I could be around for work on Friday. But it was great. The last two months of American Idol, I segwayed into corresponding and filling in, anchoring Entertainment Tonight, and that’s been a real fast-paced job as well.

EA: Give me a snapshot of other things you’re doing now.

PA: I’ve been writing a lot of songs and collaborating and writing for other artists. I have written material for myself, and I’ve done the demo work. I have to now go and start recording the masters. A lot of the material is also related to some television projects that I’m working on. I have a show in development with MTV that combines music, dance and cheerleading. It’s a show I’ve created, so I’ll be producing it, and I’ll also be weaving in and out of it on camera. I have a work of animation that different studios are interested in, and I’m going to figure out where the home for that is going to be. I’m being offered to create my own line of dancewear, active wear. I’m really excited about that because I’ve been asked to do that for years, and now’s the time. And especially because I also have this new dance team that I have put together that is also being talked about … a television show, and it’ll be great because I’ll have them in the active dancewear line.

EA: Do you feel like all this is happening because of American Idol?

PA: Actually, this has all been in the works prior to it, but I’ll make no bones about it: The platform … having the exposure every week, live, and the cultural phenomenon of American Idol has just been incredible.

EA: How are you going to manage it all?

PA: It’s no different from what I always do. I entered this business in not the conventional way, and I’ve always worn different hats, and I thrive on that. I love being able to, at any given moment, switch gears and put on the other hat, from working the bottom line, below the line, and then making other people achieve their goals, and then it’s fun for me to be the performer and be the artist myself. I’ve always had multiple projects going at the same time.

EA: You mentioned that you got into this business in a different way. Can you describe that?

PA: I entered this business not knowing I’d become a successful choreographer, and I stayed focused in that area, and really focused on being successful, and saved money, and had dreams of doing other things, and then recorded my own demos, and got signed to a recording contract. All the way, all the while, people were saying, “Are you crazy? Just do one thing.” Well, that’s not who I am. I’ve just always been a firm believer. What’s interesting about American Idol is that it’s such an extension of who I am. I taught dance camp, cheerleading camp, competitions and scholarship programs for 18 years, and I’m always driving the importance of: There’s no formula, create your own path. If one avenue proves to be a successful area then stay there until you achieve enough under your belt, and then if you have to train for something else, then make that change. There’s no limit. The only limits are the ones you set for yourself.

EA: Do you have any other tips for women who would like to get into the entertainment industry?

PA: I’m just a firm believer of: If you know you possess power, then you have to just keep cultivating it. Realize your strengths, and keep nurturing those. Realize your weaknesses, and continue to strive to become better. Life is funny. There may be something staring you right in the face that you say, “Well, I don’t really want to do that.” But if it’s something that people are gravitating towards and you’re good at and people are celebrating, go for it! Become successful in that area. That doesn’t mean that you can’t still go and do all that you want to. It may very well be the thing that opens the door to getting closer to where you want to be. And you know what? I think you cannot look outside for validation. It doesn’t matter what anyone says. If you have a belief in yourself and you do possess power, go for it! But be realistic, and set realistic goals and a timeframe. Meaning, if you can say, “I’m going to spend the next year to three years really doing everything I can to try to make it in this profession.” After that time if it doesn’t happen, then be realistic and switch gears because you may be missing out on things – a great doctor, a great teacher, a great whatever. You have to be realistic, but don’t let anyone crush your spirit and your dreams, but set a timeframe. That way, only you can know if it’s the right thing and if it’s time to move on.

EA: Do you think that Simon Cowell (of American Idol) was crushing people’s dreams?

PA: Absolutely! I understand why Fox hired me. They knew exactly what they were doing by hiring me. I knew I’d be mopping up tears. Fox called me the “heart and soul” of the show. The truth is that I’m the only judge who knows what it’s like to be vulnerable, having to be on the spot, and you can’t be nervous, and hope and pray that you do a good job. Simon doesn’t know what that’s like so it’s very easy for him to just say something that’s crushing, and it’s not really like that. I know it makes for great television and it does show a side of the business that is very, unfortunately, cruel. Friends of mine who’re in the business would come up to me and say, “Jeez, you’ve got to tell, you’ve got to get the message out there that it’s not like that.” From Alyssa Milano to Faith Ford, so many people would come up to me and say, “It’s not like that,” and I go, “I know, but it makes for great television.” The truth is that as an artist, we by nature are very sensitive and vulnerable, and we can hear someone say, “Thank you so much for coming down,” and that alone says, “I suck! Oh, God, I didn’t get it!” You don’t need someone to say, “That was horrific. Sue your vocal coach.” But the truth is that I was there to be the direct line of empathy and also I helped them hold on to their dignity.

EA: Do you feel the best contestant won?

PA: I will tell you that the way this show worked, there were some very strange things. I don’t feel Tamyra should have ever been out of the competition. This show has proven that there are several American Idols, and at the very end when Tamyra was knocked out, there’s Nicky, Justin and Kelly. Justin and Kelly deserved to be the two finalists; however, I believe Nicky’s going to have a career, I know for a fact Tamyra’s going to have a career, I know Justin’s going to be a major star, and Kelly’s already well on her way. I do feel that Kelly’s voice was so unbelievably amazing.

EA: Would you give them any advice, starting out on this journey?

PA: I’ve done everything but breastfeed these kids. They call me up, I’ve given them so much advice I think that they’re blue. But the most important thing, and I see it happening even as I was in Las Vegas, I’m away from them for two weeks and I already see the wild ride that they’re on, and I handed a few of them a little mini tape recorder. I said, “If you don’t have time to write in a journal, make notes for yourself and write later, because you’ve got to experience and celebrate all the first time – meaning the first time you hear your song on the radio, take it in, write what you feel, take it in, acknowledge it. The first time you have a No. 1 record, the first time you see your picture on the cover of a magazine, when you grace the stage on your world tour, take it all in because you grow at such a fast pace.” You’re living in a bubble, and you’re trying to catch up to the bullet time of your career. Oftentimes you don’t even get to appreciate all the hard work, you know you’re working hard, you’re busting your butt, but it goes by so quickly. So I told them to document it, and stand firm, no matter what the management, agent, record label is telling you, and the schedule that you keep, you have to make time to soak up all the wonderful things that you’re achieving and doing. I wish someone told me that, because I look at them and I see it so clearly. Ultimately people pretend or they may very well feel they have your best interests at heart, but only you can take care of yourself.

EA: Definitely. So what do you do to keep looking great?

PA: Well, dancing is my love, and I’m grateful for the fact that it’s never felt like exercise. For me, I feel like what I’m about with my projects, with my life, is I celebrate energy. If I feel like I’m working out, then I lose interest, and it becomes tedious for me. There are certain things that are tedious that I do stick with, and that for me is ballet warm-ups, and sometimes I go in and out of Pilates because it’s necessary. It makes me feel good. It’s not fun because I’m not dancing, but it is something that helps improve my dancing. Pilates has been around forever. I, as a dancer, and all of my friends have been doing it forever. It’s been such a great form of toning and strengthening, and it’s so amazing how now middle America everyone knows about it, everyone’s gravitated toward that and yoga. It’s great because it is a key, essential way of staying toned. I do free weights. I don’t do heavy free weights. I do 5 pounds, 6 pounds, 8 pounds. I do free weights for upper body, and if I go to the gym, I’m usually doing some kind of class that’s just fun, whether it’s a cardio-dance or a cardio-fitness. It’s fun for me to just kind-of let loose and be a student, too, although I have to put blinders on because people are staring at me.

EA: Do you just go to a run-of-the-mill gym, where no one there is a celebrity?

PA: Absolutely. Those are more fun. I go all around, whatever city I’m in. I have people all over in different cities, ex-dancers and stuff, and I ask, “OK, where’s some fun classes, just mindless fun?” To me, put on good music and you can turn a class into being fun.

EA: What do you do if people stare at you?

PA: I goof up on purpose so that they laugh, and I go, “See? See? Don’t watch me, I’ll goof up more, because I’m just like everybody else. Nobody’s perfect.” I certainly am not at all. I used to be so caught up when I was in the throes of an eating disorder. Part of my bulimia, everyone thinks it’s just vomiting – it’s not. Bulimia is excessive exercising, and believe me, I did that. It wasn’t just that I danced three hours a day, I also ran on the treadmill and did the Stairmaster and walked for miles, and I would calculate how I would count my calories that way, and that was how I was in control, and ultimately I was completely out of control. My body fell into its natural zone, so to speak, when I stopped obsessing, and when I stopped the craziness of dieting and binging and doing all that. It’s a mindset. I let go, and I committed to wherever my body goes. If I gain some pounds, it’s OK. I believed my advisors and people who understood this disorder that your body’s going to go whichever way it needs to go, and if you’re patient enough and you’re sensible and you have a way of eating sensibly and exercising realistically, it will somehow settle out to where it’s supposed to be. Thank God I trusted because now I don’t obsess at all. I don’t weigh myself at all.

EA: Do you know how much you weigh?

PA: I think I weigh probably 100 pounds, between 98 and 100, only because I saw on my physical. But if I go and take my physical, the doctors know, I go, “Look, it’s not my business to know how much I weigh.” Because some people are prisoners to their scale, and they don’t

understand that muscle weighs more. Right now, I’m feeling a little bit on the thinner side. My normal weight for me is around 103 to 105. But I’ve been working so much.

EA: So you think you’ve lost weight because of the stress?

PA: Probably. I’ve been going, going, going. If I’m not able to do some kind of physical fitness, I’ll stretch, I’ll do something like that. But one thing I’ve made a commitment to is I have to eat three meals a day, because schedules, sometimes it doesn’t even allow you to book in time to eat, and that is a must for me because that can really mess me up.

EA: Can you give me an example of what your meal plan might look like for breakfast, lunch, dinner?

PA: I never skip breakfast. If I’m on the go, I have scrambled egg whites, I’ll have a piece of fruit. If I’m snacking along the way in between meals, I love Luna bars. Lunch, because it’s what I like, it may sound boring, but I love salads, so lunch usually consists of salad with protein in it. Chicken or tuna. In the afternoon, usually I have a piece of fruit or I’ll have a frozen yogurt. I love these things called Tofutti Cuties. They’re like ice cream sandwiches. I’m hooked on them. I love dried cranberries. And I love dill pickles. And then for dinner … I used to not eat meat because my father was in the meat packing business, and I became vegetarian for a long time. But as I got older I felt like I craved meat, so once in a while I’ll have steak. But mostly I’ll have either chicken, fish or a little bit of meat, and I’ll have some rice, or I’ll have a little bit of pasta. I’m not into the no-carbs thing. I don’t eat a lot of carbs, but I don’t cut them out because I think it’s important to not go too overboard one way. I do have a sweet tooth. I give in to red licorice, I love red licorice, the kind of Twizzlers that can peel, love those, and I like Hot Tamales, candy hot tamales. I’ve cut back a lot – I used to have a terrible sweet tooth, but I’ve cut back quite a bit on the sugar and I feel a lot better.

EA: If you’re going to splurge, what would be your ultimate decadent food?

PA: I do splurge. On weekends, I go out a lot. I’ll have pizza, I’ll have Mexican food, chips and salsa, but my favorite dessert is my mother’s lemon cake. Oh, my God, it’s so good.

EA: Do you plan to have a family someday?

PA: I thought by now I already would have one. I love kids, it’s like I’ve got this ability to communicate to younger people, and kids gravitate towards me. Throughout all my camps and competitions for years I’ve been able to, you know, live vicariously through the hundreds of thousands of kids that I teach, but I do, I do love kids. Ultimately, I’d love to have a partner that would help raise a kid with me, but if that doesn’t happen, I definitely feel like I need to have kids. I’m very maternal that way.

EA: Are you in a relationship right now?

PA: I just entered into that scary world of dating again. People always think that it must be so easy. “Oh, come on, Paula, come on, how hard can it be?” I feel like I’m very approachable.

EA: You come across very warm, but because you’re famous, you may seem unapproachable.

PA: That puts a damper on the whole thing, because there are people who don’t know, it’s a very real, kind of weird thing, but it’s just what we do, it’s not who we are. It’s our job. Look, I wasn’t born and raised here, and I got my start in the business by working behind the scenes. I’m a normal girl that has a career, but it can be very intimidating at times.

EA: Do you prefer to see people who are also in the business or would you rather see people who aren’t in the business?

PA: Love is funny. If I fall in love with someone who is an entertainer, then so be it, but I think it would be better for me to be matched up with someone not an entertainer. However, someone who has something to do with entertainment, because it’s a tough industry to grasp and understand and I feel like I need to have someone who appreciates entertainment. Basically, they have to be a nice person. I’m into nice people as opposed to the bad guys. I’ve had my fair share of that.

EA: You’ve been in two marriages. Did they both end badly?

PA: My first – I think Emilio’s a wonderful guy. I think he’s a great person. My second husband – we weren’t cut out to be together, and we were two different people. I really don’t know what to say, to be honest. I just wish him the best, and we never should have been married.

EA: You will find the person that’s right for you.

PA: I believe that, too. I think for the first time in my adulthood, I’m ready for it. I think I’ve gone through enough, I’ve ridden the roller coasters and gone through the entire plethora of emotions and struggles and triumphs. I think that turning 40, I couldn’t wait. I couldn’t wait to turn 40 because I feel better now than I ever have. And I feel more grounded, I just feel centered, and I know what to expect. When you jump into the world, all of a sudden you’re successful and you’re recognizable. It can be a very, very scary thing.

EA: You’re probably in a place where you can handle that a lot better.

PA: Much better. My heart goes out to those who are young in the business. I wish for them that they have good people around them, and family, and really great friends.

EA: Exactly. Do you have any nutrition tips?

PA: Don’t skip meals. It’s OK to have healthy snacks in between. Usually, when I’m getting ready for a performance or I have a project, I have six small meals a day.

EA: What is your beauty regimen like?

PA: I tend to look my best when I get enough sleep. I think sleep’s important, and it’s been tough with my schedule lately. But, I definitely can see it in my skin if I’m dehydrated and don’t have enough sleep. I think sleep and keeping yourself hydrated is the most important thing. I don’t splurge on cleanser. I don’t think the cleanser’s important, but I do spend more money on the cream, day cream, and sun block is pretty important to me, a good eye cream, and a good night cream. I never go to bed with my makeup on. I always, always, always take my makeup off and good toner and cream.

EA: You look nowhere near 40.

PA: I appreciate that. Honestly, mentally, I certainly don’t feel it. I mean, 40 is just a number to me. I think of 40 as the new 30. I really do, because everyone to me is looking better and better. And I think that people haven’t seen me in a while, I was out of the spotlight for five, six years, and people go, “You had to have had plastic surgery.” I read this and I’m laughing. It’s funny to me, and I think it’s just because people haven’t seen me in a while.

EA: No plastic surgery for you?

PA: No. And I feel compelled to walk up to Howard Stern and tell him, “Go ahead. Examine my face. Look around my ears and check my scalp.” I mean, my God, during American Idol, there’s just no way he could accept that I hadn’t. And I’m not opposed to it, because I’ve seen beautiful jobs done, and when it’s time, I’ll consider it. I’m not a believer in changing the way you look, though. Women who age gracefully and do minimal things, that’s the way to do it.

EA: What do you do for your personal time?

PA: I love getting massages, especially because my working out, muscles, that’s a real treat. I love going to spas. I’m a firm believer that you should work hard, but give time to play hard, too. I love doing Zen-type getaways to spas and just really reading, getting lost in good books.

EA: What dreams do you still want to fulfill?

PA: Oh, man. I have so many, and hopefully I’m starting to pave the way to do them. I mean, my most proud moment is being able to meet my idol, having the ability to become a friend of Gene Kelly’s. I felt, and I still do, if I die today, I’ve gone to heaven already, and I feel like I got a chance to meet someone who shaped and influenced my life so much. And I feel like I’ve always been a teacher at heart, and I’ve always had my most precious moments being that of helping kids find their confidence and watching them just become, achieve their personal greatness, and I feel that I’ve had the ability to connect in that way. I think what I’m most proud of is that, is helping people realize their dreams. So all the content that I’m developing now is a further commitment to that. All the stuff I’m doing is celebrating life through energy, movement, dance, music, and all the programming I’m creating for television is just that; is celebrating that.

EA: What do you want people to remember you for?

PA: That I stuck to my beliefs and that I stayed true to who I am. You know, in a weird way, this little gem of a show, American Idol, it did something that as an artist you could only … hope and dream you have. As an entertainer and as an artist, we always have our ups and downs in our career. Are we successful now? Are we not? Are we the flavor of the month or are we not? I always felt that, that’s only what I do. This show allowed me to be who I am and show my character. That far surpasses whatever project I’m working on. It allowed me to be, and as an entertainer, sometimes you never get that chance. People only have pre-conceived ideas or they only know you through your projects. This is an interesting show because it so is who I am. And anyone standing next to Simon Cowell can appear nice, but at the end of the day, at the end of the season, I knew that people will know who I am, and I really believe that this show allowed me to just be my character, not what song I’m singing or who I’m choreographing.

EA: That sounds like a really good argument to do it again.

PA: I hear you. I don’t know.

EA: How many venues in the media do you really get to be yourself?

PA: Well, true, and how many artists – not counting Madonna; she’s probably the only one – who have the ability to pretty much sustain? Every artist at some point or another goes through their good times and their bad times, their successes and their battles, but as a human being you’re a human being. It’s not an easy business to be in, but it’s rewarding as can be, and there are lessons to be learned.