Paula Abdul dishes on dancing, kissing Gene Kelly and her life-changing visit to Israel in a preview of her upcoming talk in Metro Detroit.
She’s danced with Gene Kelly.
She’s choreographed for Janet Jackson.
She’s (lovingly) sparred with Simon Cowell on American Idol.
She’s Jewish. (But most people don’t know that.)
And she’s coming to Metro Detroit to talk about it all.
Paula Abdul — award-winning dancer, choreographer, singer, reality star and more — will be the featured speaker at the Lois Linden Nelson Woman’s World Luncheon Wednesday, May 4, at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.
When Abdul, 53, was 4, she saw her first MGM musical, Singin’ in the Rain. “Gene Kelly turned my world upside-down,” Abdul says. “And at 4 years old, I fell in love with him. I remember sitting with my family on the couch, and I walked up to the TV set and kissed it. [From there], there was no turning back.”
A natural at putting on shows for family and friends (and babysitter Michael Bolton), Abdul performed for her first audience when she was 7 — “You’re A Grand Ole Flag.”
“Some of my fondest memories are of performing for my family,” she says. “I loved entertaining my family and how happy they looked. The fact that they were enjoying it made me love it even more.”
Later, in college, she discovered a new style of dance: breakdancing. “I went to my cousin Tara’s house and told her, “I have to learn this. I have to be able to do this. Spot me!” Abdul says. “I dove to the floor and tried to spin in a headstand. I think I scared her!”
A determined and focused multi-talented tour de force, Abdul has reinvented her career more times than Madonna — each with enormous success. In 1981, while studying radio and TV with hopes of a career in sportscasting, Abdul tried out to be a Laker Girl for the Los Angeles Lakers — and won a coveted spot. Halfway through her first season, she became head Laker Girl and designer of the cheerleaders’ routines. She later borrowed from the street moves she incorporated into the Laker routines to create Janet Jackson’s iconic dance style for the videos from her Control album, including “Nasty.”
“Choreographing ‘Nasty’ was an incredible experience,” says Abdul, who was told this would be an important album for Jackson. “Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis wrote genius music and Janet had a really important voice in it. You don’t hear ‘Nasty’ and say, ‘Oh, this is a dance jam.’ It was a very different kind of song, kind of how ‘Straight Up’ was for me: This could define an artist completely, and I wanted to create something that would not only be signature moves, but that would also define her as being in charge.”
Abdul soon released her own album — with a catalogue of videos to accompany them. Songs like “Straight Up” and “Cold Hearted” blew up the charts. The latter was set to a Bob Fosse-inspired video, one of her favorites to make, and was directed by David Fincher (who directed videos for Madonna, Sting and the Rolling Stones and films Fight Club and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Back then, Abdul says, “people perceived me as this girl-next-door type. They didn’t think I should be doing such a sexy video because it would scare people. So I was challenged with knowing how to go right to the edge, but also how to rein myself back in. I knew I had a chance to really show people that I know how to choreograph and that I can really dance — and not take myself too seriously.”
After a music career that earned her six No. 1 singles in the late ’80s and early ’90s (as well as a Grammy for Best Musical Video for “Opposites Attract,” in which she danced with an animated cat, and a Diet Coke commercial that paired her with a digital image of her idol, Gene Kelly), Abdul earned a reputation as a quirky and charismatic judge (one of the originals) on American Idol for eight seasons, and later, on a season of The X-Factor.
“Working on American Idol was life-changing,” Abdul says. “The American Dream had the spotlight, and everyone was watching. This world is filled with talented people, and it’s great to be able to sing a challenging song. But [what catches my eye] are the singers humble enough to remain inspired by the great singers who’ve gone before them and who are open and bold enough to grow out of their comfort zones into their own style. On Idol, I had the privilege of giving them a place to be heard globally. I’m grateful for that gift to this day.”
But, she adds, she always comes back to dance. “Dance is my truest love and my burning passion — I love the passion,” she says. “You can’t dance or perform without passion — it just doesn’t work. Dance ignites passion and it’s wonderfully contagious. What a gift to be able to evoke and express joy, curiosity, sensuality, anger — to be inspired and to affect people by what inspires you. I’ve always believed that dancers are artists and athletes who bring passion and life to every moment.”
Abdul, who has a sister, Wendy, grew up in a middle-class development in North Hollywood, Calif., that Abdul once called “a cool place, sort of like a commune or kibbutz.” Her mom, Lorraine, who was born near Winnipeg, Canada, with a Russian-Jewish heritage, was the longtime assistant to director Billy Wilder. Her father, Harry, bought and sold livestock for a living.
“He was put up for adoption at birth at an orphanage in Cleveland, Ohio,” Abdul says. At 9, Harry was adopted by a Jewish family and later became a bar mitzvah — reports of his Syrian heritage are incorrect, Abdul adds. “He was never in Syria, from what I know,” she says. Although her parents divorced when Abdul was 7, they raised their children observing the Jewish High Holidays.
In a 1989 article in Rolling Stone, Abdul was described as “a nice Jewish girl from the San Fernando Valley” with a “Protestant work ethic.” And though there may not have been much discussion of her being Jewish beyond that, she proclaimed to an American Idol audience in 2006 that visiting Israel was her “dream.”
That dream came true in 2013 when she traveled to Israel at the invitation of then-tourist minister Isaac Herzog, who offered to find Abdul a “nice Jewish match.”
“Judaism is the fabric of my life,” says Abdul, who lights Shabbat candles and attends Chabad of Bel-Air. “While I did not grow up in a Conservative Jewish family, we observed the holidays. I am guided by the morals and lessons Judaism has taught me. Ultimately, my faith has always been my compass. My most vital and transformational pursuit has always been that of my spirituality.”
During her visit to Israel, in the northern town of Tzfat, Abdul had her bat mitzvah. “I talked to my rabbi and told him I wanted to do it in Israel,” she says. “It was a wonderfully private moment in a very old temple. It was very emotional. It was perfect. That experience changed my life in a way I hadn’t expected.
“Focusing on my growth as a Jewish woman enriches my life, and it centers me,” Abdul says. “I decided to visit Israel as part of that growth.”
In 2014, Abdul recorded a promo video for the Shabbos Project, an annual worldwide initiative to encourage Jews to observe Shabbat together one weekend of the year. Abdul — who was contacted by Warren Goldstein, chief rabbi of South Africa and founder of the Shabbos Project — said in the video, “When the chief rabbi calls, like you’re going to turn him down?”
“I treasure the traditions of Judaism. They have grounded me during my most challenging hours when only my faith could hold me to my life’s course,” Abdul says.
“When I think about it, that’s ultimately the only thing that can ever truly keep me traveling in the right direction. I’ve said many times that I love Shabbos. It refreshes me. When my schedule is jammed tight and there seems to be no space even for me to have a moment to breathe, Shabbos creates such a beautiful, wide-open space. It’s not just a brief pause; for me, it’s a way of taking a stand for my peace of mind.
“This is a distracted, plugged-in, charged-up, over-connected world we live in. Right when we get a moment to reflect on what’s truly important we get a ping, a ring or a chime. Of course this is life, and there are people and situations that need to be addressed. But when my faith isn’t the first order of business to handle on my ‘To-Do’ list, I’m off course.
“It brings Jews together and it preserves our traditions,” Abdul says. “It preserves our family. And it preserves our sanity.” *
— Lynne Konstantin, Arts & Life Editor
Paula Abdul will speak, followed by a Q&A period moderated by Emmy Award-winning FOX 2 news anchor Sherry Margolis, at the Lois Linden Nelson Woman’s World at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield Wednesday, May 4. Boutique shopping begins at 9 a.m.; Patron Event is at 11 a.m.; presentations (honoring philanthropist Henrietta Weisberg followed by Abdul’s talk) begin at 11:45 a.m.; and luncheon and raffle is at 1:30 p.m. Cost for Abdul’s talk is $36; luncheon tickets start at $54. Boutiques are free. For tickets and information, call (248) 357-5544 or visit llnwomansworld.org.