Paula Abdul was an international pop sensation in the 1980s and ’90s, selling more than 53 million records worldwide, with hits including Opposites Attract, for which she won a Grammy Award. Her resurgence of fame and success came as a judge on shows such as American Idol and The X Factor America. Now, she is in Australia as a judge for Channel 10’s So You Think You Can Dance Australia. I caught up with the 51-year-old to chat about her love of dancing, the secret to her success and working with Simon Cowell.
What’s it like being a judge on So You Think You Can Dance Australia?
It’s exciting. I always say my very first love was dance. My entry into the entertainment business was that of being a choreographer. I was a cheerleader for the Lakers [basketball team in Los Angeles] at 17 and became their choreographer and I never looked back … I went on and worked with great amazing directors and producers at a very early age.
As a performer, do you prefer dancing or singing?
They go hand in hand. It’s the ability to have the freedom of movement, while you’re singing songs that you’re passionate about, so it’s all part of the performance for me.
Has dance changed since you first started in the industry?
Yes, I think dancers today have an Android chip in them: they’re part bionic. It’s like Tony Hawk with skateboarding and me with dancing. It’s like we’re like the parents now. We could never do what they do now, but back then, we were raising the bar and doing things that were completely new and hadn’t been seen in dance. The bar keeps raising and it’s incredible. I used to think, ”Man, I can rip five pirouettes in a go, I’m so cool,” and now you see these kids go round and round, and then they start doing it in slow motion, while they comb their hair too. I mean, it’s unbelievable what they can do. It’s insane, but it’s beautiful to watch. It’s so inspiring.
You’ve been a judge on so many shows. What do you enjoy about being a judge?
It’s so funny to hear I’m a judge. I’m the farthest thing from being a judge. I mean, I have that title, but I’m a mentor and I always have been. I’m the last person to judge someone. I always look for the good, the strength, the attributes and talent. I’ve been a mentor my whole life … You have to have that mindset of staying a student, because if you stay a student, you become a great teacher … I know I’m a good teacher and when I got the job on American Idol, I knew I was there to keep hope alive [for the contestants] and to follow their dreams; and I knew Simon [Cowell] was the disapproving dad. That was his approach.
What’s it like working with Simon Cowell?
My day was going really great until now. [Laughs] I don’t have any brothers, so working with him I can definitely credit him as one of my best teachers, and not all your best teachers come in pretty packaging. I know I’m a strong girl, but I’m a very soft girl, so he taught me strength that I didn’t know I possess to combat him. Primarily, he was like the bully [on American Idol] and I was there to just support the talent and then I would be defending for my life. So he taught me to speak up and fight for what you believe in. It doesn’t matter how you get bullied, if you have the strong point of view, go for it.
You have had such a long career in entertainment. What’s the secret to your success?
I think starting as a dancer and having that dancer’s spirit saved my life. I don’t think that I would ever be able to withstand this business, because it’s not for the weak and it’s definitely very cut-throat … I’ve been over 30 years in this business and I’ve had separate and distinct careers, starting as a choreographer and then becoming a big pop star and then becoming a television personality and in between it’s that dancer’s spirit and the fight that got me through. Even as a little kid, I was born three months premature, I was 2.8 pounds (1.3 kilograms) and I was a medical miracle … but I had a fighter’s spirit even then. I never climbed the conventional ladder of success because I never fit the mould. I broke the mould and created my own way of getting in and I think that is what you have to do in this business. The best way to describe it is when I was auditioning to be a Laker girl, I knew I might be too small for the auditions, and I just knew I would be rejected, but I learnt at an early age that ”no” is the beginning of a negotiation.
When I went for the audition to be a Laker girl, I had a plan, because I figured I was probably going to get cut. There were over 1000 girls and I was number 741, and I got cut immediately. So I went to the bathroom and said, ”OK, I’m going to go back out there.” I put a new outfit on and I put my hair up in a high pony tail and I entered as my middle name, but I got cut again. So I went back into the bathroom and I put on a really loud red-and-white-striped leotard with blue leg warmers and I had the headband like Olivia Newton John in Let’s Get Physical. I entered again but spelt my name ”Abbul”. I went right to the front and I did the routine and then they said, ”OK, front half go to the back, back half come to the front”, but I just stayed at the front and I finally got picked.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
On my bucket list is to do a tour of my hits and within it I want to build my whimsical aspect of my life story, because I’ve had such an amazing journey in my career. I’ve had a crazy life. Growing up, my baby sitter was Michael Bolton … the first musical group I got to work for was the Jacksons … and I lived in the building next to where the Tower of Power horn section lived, so there were all these musical influences that were around us all the time, and it was really cool.
WE WENT TO The Darling, Pyrmont.
WE ATE A high tea with a selection of sandwiches and pastries.
WE DRANK Herbal tea.
PAULA WORE An Alexander McQueen dress.
I WORE A Scanlan & Theodore dress.
So You Think You Can Dance Australia airs on Sundays at 7.30pm on Channel 10.