EntertainmentMilli Vanilli scandal: Rise and fall of lip-sync legends revealed

Milli Vanilli scandal: Rise and fall of lip‑sync legends revealed

Milli Vanilli
Milli Vanilli
Images source: © Getty Images | Michael Putland

12:19 PM EDT, June 1, 2024

They were mega stars around the world. They made millions and had even more fans. Milli Vanilli was a global phenomenon whose career ended dramatically. "We knew that the truth would eventually come out," says Fabrice "Fab" Morvan many years later.

There is no comparable situation in pop music history. Two guys from nowhere—Fabrice "Fab" Morvan and Robert "Rob" Pilatus—became huge, global stars in months. Their incredible dream of great fame began. This dream cost them everything. As Fabrice said, they made a pact with the devil, which ended tragically for him. A new documentary film on SkyShowtime tells the story of the band's great success and downfall. It will be one of the best things you watch this month.

From the bottom to the top

Rob and Fab met in Munich. Rob was a charismatic German, and Fab was a well-presented, energetic Frenchman. Both were barely making ends meet and came from broken, dysfunctional homes. They were connected by a sad childhood and a passion for performing on stage—they wanted to be stars. In a few years, their dream came true.

In their 20s, they crossed paths with producer Frank Farian and his partner, Ingrid Segieth. Farian invited the guys to his studio in Frankfurt. He saw potential in them. He played the single "Girl You Know It's True" for them and suggested they could sing it and become millionaires.

However, it was quickly determined that although Rob and Fab looked great and had a great sense of style and dance skills, they couldn't sing well. Farian nevertheless came up with the idea of forming the band Milli Vanilli. Rob and Fab were to present themselves to the world and perform on stage but only lip-sync to the playback. The real artists singing for them would remain unknown.

Too good to be true. In the film, Fab admits there was a moment at the beginning when they wanted to back out. They knew Milli Vanilli was an outright fraud that would eventually be exposed. He points out that the producers threatened them with losing all their money. They were to lose their current earnings and pay for all the investment in the project's development. Fearful of the consequences, they stayed. That's one perspective in the film. Ingrid, a former producer, presents the other: on camera, she recalls that no one held a knife to the "singers'" throats or blackmailed them; they could leave at any time but wanted to be stars, as she recalls.

The machine started. And what a machine it was. Milli Vanilli was a star in Germany, then Europe, and finally began dominating the United States. Albums sold in millions of copies. They appeared in entertainment programs and gave smaller and larger concerts. They became shining stars of show business. They felt like frauds, but their career and massive interest in them were addictive. Fab recalls how he was afraid he'd be caught in the scam, mentioning it was always on his mind.

Milli Vanilli captivates hearts, but something is wrong

All across America, "Girl You Know It’s True" was heard everywhere. It was the voice of Charles Shaw, a black rapper who had to watch Milli Vanilli's great success even though he was singing. In the movie, frustrated Shaw says that Frank Farian took my voice, their faces, and made himself a millionaire.

Milli Vanilli
Milli Vanilli© Getty Images | Michel Linssen

Many clues could help people realize that Milli Vanilli was a big con. The guys sang beautifully in English but couldn't give interviews in the language. Rob had a strong German accent, and Fab had a French one. In the European edition of their first album, they were not listed among the musicians; instead, the names of the actual singers were included. When their concert tour began, some of the musicians performing with them noticed the situation—Rob and Fab didn't participate in rehearsals. They didn't sing.

Charles Shaw says in the film that they had gold records with his voice, and they won awards with his voice! He recalls that to deal with it, he started drinking, doing drugs, and sinking deeper. Eventually, his manager said: we're going to the media. You're going to give an interview."

Shaw went to the media and said he was Milli Vanilli's authentic voice. It went unnoticed at first. The situation started falling apart a bit later. The slip-ups piled up. Once, during a concert, the playback record got stuck. The audience was shocked and booed the artists. The musicians on the tour thought it was best to stay silent and wave it off because there was too much at stake.

There was, oh, there was. The members of Milli Vanilli started doing more and more drugs to—as Fabrice recalls—numb themselves and forget the guilt. They were deceiving millions of fans who loved them. This frustration mainly took a toll on Robert.

The fraud could have lasted even longer if not for a young and dedicated band manager who decided that they deserved a Grammy nomination since they were such an incredible phenomenon worldwide. The record executives intentionally did not submit them for these awards. They knew that the Grammys had rules to be followed and that Milli Vanilli couldn't get that nomination. The manager, however, sent a letter to the Academy that awards the Grammys on his own. Shortly after, Rob and Fab learned they were vying for the "Best New Artist" award.

The mess hit the fan. During the Grammys, there was a cardinal rule—you had to sing live.

Milli Vanilli "threw themselves under the bus"

Milli Vanilli won, after which fame went to their heads. They became the most prominent celebrities. They saw that they weren't the ones singing, but in interviews, they claimed they were better than the Beatles or reincarnations of Elvis. They felt so confident that they declared they would sing themselves on the upcoming second album. Frank Farian said they were blackmailing him. The guys "threw themselves under the bus," as the experts in the film point out.

On November 15, 1990, Farian revealed Milli Vanilli's secret to the press. He introduced the actual singers. The hunt for Fabrice and Robert was in full swing. All the media loudly reported on the vast scam. TV hosts and stars mocked them. People massively destroyed their records. Some even filed lawsuits for fraud and embezzlement of money. Someone had to return a Grammy award for the first time in history.

The blame was placed mainly on two guys barely speaking English, not on the big label that for years had been milking millions of dollars thanks to Rob and Fab. The absurdity was that the truth about Milli Vanilli wasn't fully revealed. The first album involved two white artists. They were never introduced because they "didn't fit" skin color-wise. Instead, two other artists were substituted to create another fake Milli Vanilli.

The film directed by Luc Korem, which you can watch on SkyShowtime, is an excellent production showcasing the Milli Vanilli phenomenon from various perspectives. On one side, we have the story of the still-living Fabrice, who leveraged his fame and was exploited. Conversely, the record label washed its hands clean despite making much money from the "project." After all, the band's first album went platinum six times. The stars were only exposed when they wanted to become independent and thus threatened the label with loss of money.

Milli Vanilli's climb to the top had a cruel price. The last part of this film poignantly portrays Robert Pilatus's downfall. We'll stop here so as not to spoil the most moving part of the story. You have to see it yourself.

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