LOS ANGELES -- Paula Abdul's black XJ12 Jaguar convertible needs a wash. But as she walks into La Loggia, one of the valley's tonier Italian restaurants, receives effusive greetings, and heads for a table with her guest, the car is probably the last thing on her mind.
These days, the dancer-choreographer turned vocalist, whose songs haven't left the top 40 pop charts for a year, spends much of her energy juggling the demands of stardom. There are endorsement contracts with Reebok and Diet Coke to fulfill, overseas tours to plan, and the Academy Awards show to choreograph. She's posed for the cover of People and answered rumors of romantic alliances. (Prince? No. Arsenio Hall? They're just dear friends. Actor John Stamos? Well, she took him to the Grammys, didn't she?)
In fact, every music awards show wants -- and because of her widespread popularity has probably earned -- a piece of her. She appeared on the American Music Awards show and the Grammys. And in one hectic week, while she rehearsed for the Oscar show during working hours, she went to the People's Choice awards one night, a cocktail party for the music retailers convention the next, and the following afternoon developed a 101-degree fever. What if she wasn't feeling up to the "Soul Train" awards the next night, her manager fretted? She recovered.
"We had an offer from the president," says Larry Tollin, her manager, referring to an invitation to Abdul to make an appearance at an anti-drug rally in Santa Ana, Calif., with President Bush and several other celebrities early this month. She declined. The White House press office confirms this. Tollin explains, "They gave us two days and we had all these commitments that couldn't be changed."
Citing similar time constraints, Abdul canceled an interview she had scheduled in connection with this article.
For weeks, the Academy Awards show has laid first claim to Abdul's time. As choreographer of the show's two musical numbers, she's been rehearsing more than 30 dancers every day. And despite all the attention already showered on her, tomorrow night promises to be climactic, since she will face her largest international audience ever -- as both an Oscar presenter and a choreographer. After suffering through the Snow White-Rob Lowe musical debacle of last year's show, most viewers, even those unmoved by Abdul's music, will no doubt be curious about what she can offer up on the Oscar stage.
"I would like this show to reflect what happened in 1989," says this year's Oscar show producer, Gilbert Cates, explaining why he hired Abdul. "We've made an effort to go to various societies and show the changes in the world -- the Berlin Wall coming down, perestroika, glasnost. ... What dance reflects 1989 better than Paula Abdul? In a strange way, she suggested herself."
Abdul's manager suggests that the Oscar organizers expect Abdul to draw her youthful fans to the show. "That's not why I hired her, but I do hope she will attract that audience," Cates says. "Her choreography is really extraordinary. I hate to use this word -- it's so overused -- but it really is contemporary."
Paula Abdul is the hot pop princess of the moment -- and the moment has lasted a little over a year. The 27-year-old singer has made the pop charts, the black charts, the dance music charts. For months, you couldn't drive a stretch of L.A. freeway without the car radio offering up one of their "homegirl's" hit singles -- "Straight Up," her first number one hit, "(It's Just) the Way That You Love Me," "Knocked Out," "Forever Your Girl," "Cold-Hearted" and, her latest, "Opposites Attract." After a hesitant start, her debut album, "Forever Your Girl," has sold 6.4 million copies; it's been ranked on Billboard's pop charts for the past 88 weeks -- the last nine weeks as the No. 1 pop album in the country. In an industry that tabulates statistics as obsessively as major league baseball, this means she has had the longest-running debut album since Whitney Houston's first album in 1986 logged 14 weeks at the No. 1 spot.
"When an album snowballs, it just takes on a life of its own," says Billboard columnist and industry observer Paul Grein. "People become curious. ... Once it hits the 2 to 3 million mark, you break down and buy it. You want to feel part of the popular culture."
But the laws of pop music are such that Paula Abdul's moment cannot last forever.
"Every artist who hits this big is in danger of being overexposed," notes Grein. "Cyndi Lauper is a good example. She was on so many awards shows and so many talk shows. She flamed out years before she should have. The Betty Boop voice and image didn't change and people got tired of her." Says Paula Abdul's manager: "We're at a stage right now with Paula where if we have one problem, it's overexposure."
Still, not bad for a onetime valley girl cheerleader.
She looks dramatically different from her days at Van Nuys High School. Gone is the round-faced cherub with a dark curtain of hair. Now she has a hairdresser and a make-up artist who take 2 1/2 hours to transform her into Paula Abdul, the public figure. She showed up at the Grammys in a glittery Bob Mackie gown, her hair pulled up into the modified Pebbles Flintstone do that she currently favors.
Since her Studio City condo was broken into the night of the American Music Awards, she divides her time between her mother's home and her older sister's, and only occasionally returns to her own place. Meanwhile, renovations are underway at her new Hollywood Hills home.
She's got a manager, a publicist, an attorney, a business manager, a personal assistant, assorted professional agents and a stylist. (For events, "she never likes to wear the same thing twice," her manager says.)
And she's rich. "Yeah, we've made her a multimillionaire," confirms Jeff Ayeroff, co-manager of Virgin Records. What's most interesting about Paula Abdul is not her ascendancy to pop fame, but why the deck was even loaded in her favor to begin with: She can dance.
Whether she sings well is a matter of individual taste -- and questionable importance. But since Michael Jackson changed the profile of pop singers with his "Thriller" album and with the entrenched influence of music videos, pop singers must be showmen too. "Used to be you just needed to sing and girls around you could dance," says one record company executive about Michael Jackson. "Now, he was the guy singing and dancing."
"What Paula represents is the massive popularity of dance-pop," says a record company executive who marvels that the market is voracious enough to accommodate both Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, who share similar music, videos and even physical types: "They have the same hairdo, the same chunky bodies ... they're both selling millions."
But the image of Abdul also includes a sweet personality, a warm smile, an accessible attractiveness. She's been deemed a hard worker by everyone from a former math teacher to the producer of the Oscars. "If she gets upset about something, she cries," says one industry person. "She's a girl."
"To me," says Ayeroff, "Paula is an entertainer. ... She can sing a little, she can dance a little, she can act a little. She's not controversial. She doesn't have nude pictures around, she doesn't have a sordid past."
"She's like Madonna with class," says Grein. Indeed, it does seem unlikely one will ever read about Paula Abdul starting belching contests in restaurants, as was recently written about Madonna.
A certain ethnic vagueness in an age of frequent crossover hits doesn't hurt her either. Her mother is white, her father is of Syrian and Brazilian descent, but Abdul's dark features, skin tone and hip urban sound create at least a first impression that she might conceivably be black.
"Paula has never said what she was, never said what she wasn't," says Ayeroff. "She's half Jewish, half Arab, a quarter Brazilian, I don't know. ... It's all synergy that sort of works to her benefit. I think a lot of people don't believe that she's white because she dances so well. She has that sort of exotic look of mixed breeding. She's definitely Caucasian -- but she's not a WASP-y Caucasian."
How does she rate as a pop singer? Most people in the industry answer tautologically -- if she's popular, she's a good pop singer.
"A lot of times when I hear a song, I know it's a hit if I'm humming something from it -- and that's the way it was with 'Knocked Out,' " says Donnie Simpson of Washington station WKYS-FM.
"Some people lump her in with Milli Vanilli and New Kids on the Block as an example of a fallow period in music," says Billboard's Grein. "I think that's unfair to her and to New Kids. If you're 12, New Kids is great. ... I think she crosses a lot of lines age-wise and demographically."
Critics consider her music slight, lacking the relative heft of even a Madonna. At best, it's breezy, fun, catchy. "Paula is a very visual act," says Simpson . In fact, the difference between listening to her and watching a video is dramatic. The hint of impishness, the strength of her dancing, all reinforced by videos that course with energy, combine to create a charisma not conveyed by sound alone.
"She doesn't sing like Aretha Franklin," Ayeroff says. "She's a good song stylist. If you judge her by other big voices -- well, can Sammy Davis sing like Placido Domingo? Who cares? ... Whitney Houston does have a big voice. But she can't dance."
Abdul's fans believe likewise: "She's not a great singer -- she's good but not like Whitney Houston or something," says 18-year-old Alex Amidi, a junior at Abdul's alma mater. "She's a great dancer."
Abdul has said that she wanted to be an entertainer since she first watched "Singin' in the Rain" as a little girl. She spent years taking dance classes, was a cheerleader all through high school and taught at cheerleading camps. During the three years she was enrolled at -- but never graduated from -- California State University, Northridge, she signed up for choreography classes, dance classes, acting classes. Van Nuys High School, one of the oldest schools in the San Fernando Valley, already boasts an impressive list of alumni (Robert Redford, Natalie Wood, Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe "attended"). But few don't know the name of their newest celebrity alumna.
"They know she came from the valley, and it's very easy for them to identify with her," says Linda Coleman, who teaches English as a second language and also sponsors the cheerleading squad. "A local girl who made good."
Today, the cheerleading squad is half boys, half girls -- as well as black, white and Asian -- and they practice for over three hours each school day. "We have a lot of street dancing in our moves, and that's definitely Paula's influence," Coleman says.
Her first break came when she was plucked from the corps de Lakers Girls -- the 12 cheerleaders who perform at L.A. Lakers basketball games -- first by the Lakers Girls themselves to choreograph their moves and then by Michael Jackson's brothers. The Jacksons (among the flock of L.A. celebrities and celebrity makers who show up at Lakers games) liked what they saw on the floor of the Forum so they engaged her to choreograph their "Torture" video. Then another Lakers fan -- and record executive -- asked her to choreograph for Janet Jackson. The resulting videos boosted both their careers, establishing Jackson as a vibrant dance act and Abdul as a sought-after video choreographer who went on to create moves for a now familiar roster of music performers -- ZZ Top, the Pointer Sisters, Duran Duran -- as well as actors like Eddie Murphy in "Coming to America" and Tom Hanks in his "Dragnet" video. She won an Emmy for her choreography on the Tracey Ullmann show.
Abdul managed to hire several Lakers Girls on a number of the videos she choreographed, and she, herself, is visible briefly in Janet Jackson's videos. But it wasn't until she had a meeting with Jeff Ayeroff and Jordan Harris, co-managing directors at Virgin Records, that she announced her own intentions. Both men knew her video work, and Ayeroff, a former art director, had made videos at Warner Bros.
"She said, 'I can sing, you know. I want to do an album,' " Ayeroff recalls. "Paula's in our industry. Here's someone with a personality and she's gorgeous, and she can dance. If she can sing, she could be a star. So she went into the studio and cut a demo record and she could sing."
From then on, she had hit-making machinery behind her. L.A. Reid and Babyface, who produced hit records for Bobby Brown and Babyface himself, were among the producers who worked on her album. David Fincher, who had worked with Madonna, directed the videos. Abdul's pal, Arsenio Hall, makes a high-profile appearance in the "Straight Up" video.
It was "Straight Up," the third song from the album to get a lot of airplay, that lifted her to the top of the charts. Ayeroff credits a San Francisco pop radio station with starting to play it. But MTV played a part in her rise by showing her videos -- in the words of one MTV staffer -- "incessantly."
Says one music industry source familiar with Abdul's career, "I think Jeff allowed her to make a record even though he wasn't sure she could sing, because he knew he could make great videos with her."
Last year, Abdul toured 14 cities with several other groups as part of the Club MTV tour. But Larry Tollin says they've declined offers from television sitcoms "to do a five minute stand-in as herself." And she vetoed an offer to license some of her songs for a made-for-television movie about the Laker Girls. Tollin also says his client has already nixed six-figure offers to perform one-night shows on the road. "The whole album right now is 40 minutes long, if you played every song," Tollin says. "Even if you talked between songs, it would be a thin hour. You really need 75 to 90 minutes to have a good show." After the Oscars, she'll do a publicity tour of Europe followed by one in Australia and then get to work on a new album.
Tollin says Abdul has considered acting lessons with an eye toward film roles. "What she's looking for now is a secondary character role with a strong director and other stars who can carry the film, so that there won't be that pressure on her," Tollin says. "And we wouldn't publicize it a lot."
But Abdul still dreams about her own "Singin' in the Rain." "Ultimately, Paula wants to do a gigantic musical," Tollin says, "but it will be later."