Milli Vanilli really proved to the world that pop music has always been half a talent show, a half magic trick. In a press conference on November 15, 1990, music producer Frank Farian confessed that the pop-duo members, Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, had never sung a single note on their 1989 multi-platinum debut album Girl You Know It’s True.
Milli Vanilli doubters had long speculated that there is no way that Rob and Fab could have belted out tunes like “Girl You Know It’s True” and “Blame It on The Rain.” After all, they did have thick European accents and a limited command of the English Language. Yet, when the truth came out, everyone was shocked. Milli Vanilli immediately went from respected pop artists to musical laughing stocks. Rob and Fab returned the Grammy awards they won for Best New Artists. Fooled fans even filed class-action lawsuits.
The Milli Vanilli hoax was one of the biggest scandals in musical history, but it wasn’t the only incident where artists duped fans. Around the same time, dance-pop groups Black Box and C+C Music Factory got caught doing almost the same thing.
“We sold our souls to the devil,” Pilatus admitted to the Los Angeles Times after Farian’s bombshell. “We lied to our families and our friends. We let down our fans. We realize exactly what we did to achieve our success. We made some very big mistakes and we apologize.” So, the big question is, are they really sorry? Or just sorry they got caught?
In Rob and Fab’s version of the story, “the devil” was Farian, a genius musician and marketer, who had pulled stunts like this in the past. Farian struck gold in the 1970s with Boney M., a German disco group posing as four Caribbean singers.
But that wasn’t exactly the case. In reality, it was Farian who provided the vocals on the group’s debut album. More than anyone, Farian understood how important image was when it comes to performers; to him, talent wasn’t the priority. In 1988, he met Rob and Fab and saw an opportunity immediately.
When Farian met the young, good looking, aspiring pop stars, they were easy marks. Rob was born to a Black American soldier and a white German woman in New York City, but he spent the earliest years of his life in a Bavarian orphanage. He was finally adopted at four years old.
Growing up in Munich, Rob dealt with a lot of racism and feeling like he doesn’t belong. It was music and breakdancing that helped young Rob find his identity. Fab, on the other hand, was raised by his parents, who were from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. When Rob met him, he felt like he had finally found someone with the same interests and life experiences.
The pair hit it off right away. “Something clicked between us,” Rob told the Los Angeles Times in 1989 when Milli Vanilli’s career was flourishing. “Maybe it’s because we’re both Black people who grew up in foreign cities that don’t have too many Blacks.”
When they first became friends, Rob and Fab were frequently seen around the Munich club scene. They did a little bit of modeling and dancing, but Rob said in a 2017 interview that what they really wanted to do was make music. The pals started hanging out with local studio musicians in the same circles as Farian and even played some club shows. It didn’t take long for Farian to notice them.
The next part of the story is the most crucial and contested. Farian invited the boys to hang out at the studio and signed the pair to a record deal. That’s what we know. The real question is whether Rob and Fab knew what they were getting themselves into.
“We walked into a trap, not knowing it was a trap,” Fab explained. According to his story, he and Rob signed the contract, not knowing that they were hired to lip-sync- when they had wanted to sing. When Farian played them the song “Girl You Know It’s True” for the first time, they knew the track would be their big international break. What they didn’t know is that Farian had already had professional singers record the vocals.
Fab explained that by the time they found out what was going on, the duo had already spent Farian’s advance money on their trademark hair extensions and new clothes. They were basically in debt to Farian and couldn’t walk away from him until they paid him back.
But then, the duo took off, and fame, girls, drugs, and more money came into the picture. At this point, it was difficult for Rob and Fab to break away. Their dreams were coming true. Besides the fact that nobody saw their real skills (or lack thereof), Rob and Fab felt like they had made it. But according to Farian, they weren’t good enough.
Farian revealed that there was no way Rob and Fab would ever be real recording artists. “I’ve never heard such a bad singer,” Farian said, referring to Rob in an interview with The Los Angeles Times. “They wanted to sing. They wanted to write songs. It never happened. They went instead to discos ‘til 4 a.m. and slept all day. All they ever really did was party. Someone who lives like that can’t make good music.”
Despite his experience in showbiz, Farian had no clue how big it was going to get. “It was a crazy idea,” he admitted. “I thought OK, it’s just for discotheques and clubs.” But his combination of pop, R&B, and hip-hop was what people wanted to hear at the time, and Milli Vanilli quickly became a music industry sensation.
Their hit track “Girl You Know It’s True” made it to number one in Germany and landed the group a deal in the United States with Arista Records. Their amazing music videos featured the photogenic singers rocking those signature braids and cool clothes, which helped Milli Vanilli score five Top 5 hits on the Billboard Hot 100.
Included in these were three No.1 singles: “Baby Don’t Forget My Number,” “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You,” and “Blame it on the Rain.” All the tracks were featured on the album Girl You Know It’s True, which went platinum six times in America and sold millions more around the world. That’s pretty impressive.
As they enjoyed the perks that came with fame, Rob and Fab struggled to live with their secret. On July 21, 1989, during a Club MTV tour stop in Bristol, Connecticut, the duo’s backing tape malfunctioned. Rob panicked and ran off the stage as the words “Girl, you know it’s…” kept repeating over and over again.
Shockingly, the mishap didn’t have an immediate effect on their career. But Rob later referred to the incident as “the beginning of the end.” Assuming that their time was beginning to run out, Rob and Fan went against Farian and demanded to sing on their next album.
Needless to say, Farian wasn’t happy about the duo turning against him. As the battle intensified, Farian decided to hold a press conference. When he revealed that Rob and Fab had never sung, Farian seemed unapologetic about the scam, but nevertheless, told the truth.
Then, in 1991, he released a new studio album called The Moment of Truth, and it was credited to the Real Milli Vanilli, aka the singers who recorded the first album. Arista (the record label) claimed to have had no knowledge about this deception. However, Rob and Fab were adamant that they knew exactly what was going on the whole time.
Just days after Farian’s shocking press conference, Rob and Fab called their own. They were accompanied by a voice coach who assured the public that, yes, they could sing. Then Rob and Fab returned their Grammys, which they had planned on doing before the Recording Academy officially revoked the awards.
Being stripped of their Grammys was the least of their worries. The backlash that followed was devastating and humiliating for Rob and Fab. In 1993, they released a self-titled comeback album and appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show to sing live in front of a national audience. Unfortunately, it was a complete flop, and the former superstars struggled with drug addictions.
Eventually, Fab sobered up, but Rob continued to spiral out of control. In 1996, he found himself behind bars and served time for assaulting two people and breaking into a car. Sadly, he never got the chance to turn his life around. In 1998, Rob died of a drug overdose in a Frankfurt hotel room. He was just 33 years old.
Apparently, at the time of his death, Rob was working with Farian again. “I’m totally shocked,” the producer said to The Independent after hearing about Rob’s untimely death. “Rob looked really good again. He was full of optimism for the future. We intended to tape material for another album.”
Fab wasn’t involved in that project, he did, however, revisit his Milli Vanilli past in his own way. In yet another strange twist, Fab partnered up with John Davis- one of the singers whose voice he used to lip-sync to. They teamed up to create Face Meets Voice: A Milli Vanilli Experience.
The revelation of that unlikely pair would make a great ending to the Milli Vanilli movie that has been in the works since 2007. The project was about to beginning filming when director Brett Ratner lost his co-financing deal with Warner Bros. after sexual misconduct allegations.
If you’re like me, you are probably wondering how the record label didn’t know. But apparently, they had tricks to keep up the façade. They said that they wanted to retain creative direction to keep a music label rep from traveling to Germany with them.
“It wasn’t out of the question,” revealed the Arista A&R manager, Richard Sweret. “Other producers would do their work and send it in. They just didn’t want anyone in the studio with them because it’s a creative professional distance a producer wants to have. I respected that, and there was no reason to think that it was anything other than that.”
But there was still a lot of sketchiness going on. Howell (one of the real singers) would be taken to the studio at night after the staff went home so that nobody would even suspect that he was the true voice. “It was a secret,” Tobias Freud, an engineer on the album, admitted. “we worked in the evening and closed the windows.”
Jens Gad was the guitar player and a co-writer for some of their songs. He revealed that he was never even introduced to the people whose music he was working on: “We never met Rob and Fab, there was no need for them to be in the studio. It was show business: Frank created the scenario where he put this and this and this together, and that was the show. It was completely normal.”
Back when their career was skyrocketing, Milli Vanilli claimed that their group’s name meant “positive energy” in Turkish. Well, as it turns out, that wasn’t exactly truthful. The name was partly inspired by an English pop group named Scritti Politti. Somehow, Fab has managed to maintain a remarkably positive attitude as he’s aged.
He continues to make music and has also branched out into motivational speaking. He uses his dramatic and humiliating story as an example of how one can “not just survive but thrive” after adversity. It took time, but he has finally made peace with his own legacy.
It’s crazy how differently Fab and Rob reacted to the situation. Fab got stronger, and unfortunately, Rob got weaker. In a 2018 interview with the Associated Press, Fab defended his and Rob’s contributions to pop culture twenty years earlier.
“People might say, well, you know, they didn’t sing on the record,” Fab explained, “But look at the rest. We were the heart and soul of Milli Vanilli. We did those 107 cities [on tour] … in eight months. We worked hard. We worked our butts off. We entertained people.” At the end of the day, they were great performers. Unfortunately, they left a legacy of fraud behind.
The reason why no one really questioned Milli Vanilli’s tape skipping fiasco is because it’s not uncommon for singers to sing track while touring. It’s incredibly hard to sing and dance at the same time, so for the sake of an incredible performance, many artists lip-sync on stage. The difference is, they lip-sync to their own voice. Even if it’s their autotuned voice.
With Milli Vanilli’s confidence, it’s no wonder they were so comfortable performing in front of a crowd. “Everyone was singing track on that tour,” Club MTV host Julie Brown admitted to Billboard. “It wasn’t so much about who had the best voice, just as long as you could perform and give the audience exactly what they wanted. They wanted to see you perform and touch you. That was the fun of that whole clubby vibe. Milli Vanilli definitely brought that to them.”
So, at the end of the day, the public was mostly disappointed in the duo. They enjoyed their music, sang along, bought their records, only to find out they had been tricked the entire time. People will go to extreme lengths to achieve success. Once Rob and Fab got a taste of stardom, they didn’t want to give up their fame and fortune.
Unfortunately, they drowned themselves in their lies and faced scrutiny and humiliation once the truth came out. Despite being the most well-known hoax in musical history, it might not be the only one. There is a conspiracy theory out there claiming that The Beatles member Paul McCartney died in the ‘60s and was replaced.