Milli Vanilli burst onto the global music scene with ultra-tight leggings, dramatic long braids and flashy dance moves, fitting perfectly into the burgeoning universe of music videos and MTV.
A phenomenon before they were famous, the act's best-selling songs were later marred by fraud revelations, embarrassment and a revoked Grammy.
A new documentary on Paramount+, premiering Tuesday, examines how people turned to Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan after revelations that the vocals they loved didn't match the faces they knew.
To add insult to injury, pop culture has evolved to embrace and glamorize lip syncing. through the lens of the TikTok generation, Ru Paul's Drag Race and Lip Sync Battle, the duo's ill-fated musical career seems even sadder.
“They're celebrated for being the best lip syncers… but we're cross,” says Morvan The independent. “And it was dark – it got very dark.”
Pilate suffered tragically from addiction after the public crisis and died at the age of 32.
Milli Vanilla Director Luke Korem – who was a child at the time of the artists' decline – admires the face of the music industry and its fans, and said at first screenings young people couldn't understand the reaction to lip syncing.
“People who were around 35 or younger, who didn't know about the scandal, were like, ‘Why was there so much hate for this?' And they've gone crazy,” he says.
Even the “older audience,” Korem hopes, “will look back and be like, ‘that's so crazy, the hate these guys got and the way people broke records.' It was absurd.”
For the beaters, the uninitiated, or those who may have just forgotten, what happened was this: Milli Vanilli exploded in Europe and then America, with anthems like Blame It On The Rain and Girl You Know It's True. The style and beats were at their peak in the 1980s, but there was one problem: Fab and Rob weren't singing.
Milli Vanilli was created by German producer Frank Farian, the band was even named after his assistant and sometime lover Ingrid. he combined the style and movements of the duo with the vocals of unknown singers that he felt best suited his songs.
Fans – and some music executives, if they're to be believed – were caught off guard. The recorded vocal track was then omitted at a concert in Connecticut, raising eyebrows. It wasn't long before the jig was completely over, torpedoed by Farian himself (who wasn't involved in the new doc) when the performers tried to pressure him into letting them actually sing.
The world felt betrayed, Milli Vanilli handed back the 1990 Grammy for Best New Artist, and the duo parted ways.
Frenchman Morvan, 57, now lives in Amsterdam with his Dutch partner, Tessa, and their four children. Pilate died in April 1998.
Korem's new film shines a particularly sad spotlight on Pilatus.
He spent the first four years of his life in a German orphanage, having been born to a black American soldier and a German dancer mother. His stepsister, Carmen, agreed to participate in the documentary, offering heartbreaking commentary on her brother's desperate yearning to be loved.
“She's the one who picked him out of the trash at the orphanage, so they had a bond,” Morvan says of Carmen. “I'm so glad that he was in there and he could talk and talk about all these things that he was going through.”
He says that even when he and Pilatus first met on the party scene in Germany in the 1980s, he felt “a void” in his future musical partner.
“He didn't hold back at first,” Morvan says of his friend's early years at the orphanage. “And I'm not a psychologist, but I know that if you don't hold back early in life, that void will become and pop music, becoming a star and being loved, was a way to fix it. .”
The men became fast friends, bonding over their shared love of style, music and dance – as well as their pursuit of fame. They started throwing parties and attracting buzz, and eventually Farian – who had previously formed another successful European black-fronted group, Boney M – offered them a contract.
A new Milli Vanilli documentary begins streaming October 424 on Paramount+
Accounts within the film differ as to what happened next. Morvan says that a fight broke out when he and Pilatus realized that Farian didn't want them to sing, but they eventually agreed. Farian's longtime collaborator and friend Ingrid Segieth claims the duo never had a problem lip-syncing to recorded tracks, so eager were they for fame and fortune.
Regardless of who knew or did what, Milli Vanilli took off and even Morvan admits the couple's egos were shot as well. The documentary outlines their diva behavior, but also gets to the heart of Pilate's insecurities – how, yearning for affection, he platonically slept in bed with Segeth, for example.
So deep was his need for love and acceptance, Morvan says – echoing the words of Pilatus' sister – that it was too much for him when it was taken away.
“When that love disappeared – and fell into complete decay, overnight. we didn't have time to adjust, it just went from hot to cold – that affected him a lot,” says Morvan The independent. “And drugs and alcohol were a way to self-medicate … to deal with carrying this chest on our back with a secret locked inside.”
Korem and Morvan say they felt a sense of responsibility towards Pilatus as they made the documentary, which includes audio from an interview the late singer gave from a drug rehab clinic in Germany just 60 days before his death.
“That was crucial to the making of the film because, yes, Fab is the only one who can go on camera and talk, but… [Pilatus’ audio] throughout the film,” Korem says The independent.
Between Pilatus' actual voice and his sister's interviews, Korem says, “I feel like you feel Rob's spirit” in the documentary.
He and Morvan admit that, in some ways, attitudes toward meritocracy have changed. Milli Vanilli broke down “pre-Auto-Tune, pre-reality TV, social media and this plethora of packaged pop stars that we just accept as pure entertainment now,” says Korem.
But when it comes to attitudes towards – and concern for – the performers themselves, perhaps not as much progress has been made. In the quarter century since Pilate's death, countless other pop stars have fallen to addiction, suicide and the fickle tide of public opinion.
It is interesting to note that Milli Vanilla begins streaming on the same day as the release of Britney Spears' new memoir – a star whose mental health, well-being and treatment by the industry has been scrutinized perhaps more than any other celebrity in living memory.
“The industry is a machine,” says Morvan The independent. “And you put human beings in the machine and they're going to be treated as parts – and if a part in a machine doesn't make or do what it's supposed to do, they're going to take another part and replace it. That's not going to change.”
He hopes, however, that there are “more steps towards ensuring that artists are cared for” as society, as a whole, is more aware of the “signs of a downward spiral”.
But, Morvan says, “who the artist surrounds himself with is the difference.”