From pop stardom to pop disgrace in a very short space of time, Milli Vanilli are the first band you think of when anybody says ‘miming’. Or ‘Give us back that Grammy.’
It was early 1988 when German songwriter and record producer Frank Farian (who also sang vocals for Boney M
) created Milli Vanilli; a group originally made up of assorted vocalists and backing vocalists including Jodie and Linda Rocco, John Davis, Charles Shaw and Brad Howell. Unfortunately (and this must have been fairly disheartening for the singers to hear) there was nobody amongst them who Farian felt could be the public face of the band.
Models Fabrice Morvan and Robert Pilatus were at the time dancing in a club in Munich; Fabian decided that their looks were much more marketable (handsome, dreadlocks and very tight trousers), and he hired them to be the face of Milli Vanilla.
The album "All or Nothing" was given an European release in the middle of 1988. Fab and Rob’s photos were emblazoned on both the front and inside of the record cover, but nowhere did it state explicitly who was singing the tracks. It did well, and Arista Records took an interest in what they felt were major new talents, signing them to their label. A new release of the album was scheduled for the US market at the beginning of 1989; Arista added some new songs (including "Blame It on the Rain"), remixed some others and changed the record’s name to that of Milli Vanilli’s best-remembered tune, "Girl You Know It’s True". (The UK was treated to both albums released together.)
With the singing subterfuge still under wraps, the boys’ debut went six times platinum, and "Girl…" went to number two on the U.S.’s Hot 100. During the next year "Baby, Don’t Forget My Number", "Girl I’m Gonna Miss You" (there was starting to be a pattern for generic terms of endearment in the song names; were they trying to corner the market in people with really bad memories?) and "Blame It on the Rain" all went to number one. Fifth single "All or Nothing" got into the top five in the first months of 1990; a remixed version sampling "Keep on Moving" from the funky Soul II Soul
This speedy conquering of the U.S. music chart gave Milli Vanilli their one and only award; but it was a pretty impressive one, a 1990 Grammy for Best New Artist.
The downside to this accolade however was a greater media scrutiny of Morvan and Pilatus. Whilst the boys had learnt to lip-synch Fabian hadn’t bothered to get them to improve their English, and an MTV interview started rumours flying. Had this German duo been faking? A live show broadcast on the station where a technical hitch left the record stuck repeating the same bit of a song over and over again gave them their first public embarrassment as it became blatantly obvious they weren’t singing live.
It started snowballing. Although the European release of their album hadn’t stated the names of the real singers on the sleeve, it also hadn’t credited Fab or Rob either. The U.S. version did exactly that; stating to the world that the vocals they were hearing were courtesy of the hair-swinging boys. Understandably this had angered one of the real singers, Charles Shaw and at the end of 1989 he had given an interview to New York Newsday stating that Morvan and Pilatus were merely the pretty front of the band, not the true singers. Fabian allegedly tried to sweep this under the carpet by bribing Shaw with $150,000 to take it all back, but the snowball was getting much too big to stop. More questions were asked, and that, combined with the fact that Morvan and Pilatus actually wanted to sing on the next album, forced Fabian to admit to the fact that the public image of the award-winning duo was a false one on November 12th 1990. The Grammy was taken back from the Milli Vanilli mantelpiece on the 16th. A ton of slightly petty lawsuits followed, with disgruntled customers wanting their money back; meaning Arista could potentially have faced forking out for 10 million record-buyer and concert-goer refunds.
Much later Morvan and Milli’s former manager Kin Marlowe spoke of this time as a manipulation by Fabian; saying that the pair were given a large advance on signing, then told months later that they either had to lip-sync to the other singers’ voices, or pay the advance back, as stated in their contract. As the money had largely been spent by then, Morvan and Pilatus felt trapped into doing what was being asked; although if it was in their contract surely Marlowe was most at fault for not reading the small print?
Fabian didn’t plan to lose out during all this ‘not really singing’ business however. The second album "Keep on Running" had been on course to be released in the autumn of 1990, and the title track had hit the airwaves just before ‘the confession’. Showing an astounding lack of embarrassment about the whole affair Fabian kept steamrollering the project forward, and in fact used the controversy to gain more publicity for the album. He simply changed the name of the band (to The Real Milli Vanilli) and the name of the album (to "The Moment of Truth") and released it in Europe in 1991. A new vocalist, Ray Horton (looking eerily similar to both Morvan and Pilatus) sang on four tracks, and appeared on the cover. Artwork depicting the rest of the true singers appeared throughout.
So what happened to the Fabulous Fakin’ Boys? Sadly it doesn’t end well for them. They followed up their notorious debut with an album of their own vocals, "Rob & Fab". They were on a hiding to nothing as the company they had signed to, the Joss Entertainment Group, had no money to spend on them and were unable to really publicise or distribute the album very well. And they could only afford to release it in the U.S., who obviously weren’t the most receptive to Morvan and Pilatus’ (albeit this time real) charms.
Possibly by now feeling the faint twangs of guilt, Farian decided that he’d help Rob and Fab out by producing a new album of their own vocals, "Back and In Attack" in 1998. Amazingly, some of the studio singers who appeared behind the scenes on "All or Nothing" got involved to support them. Unfortunately it was not to be. Whether it was the strain of all that had gone before or something else more personal, Pilatus’ life quickly spiralled out of control. Crime, drugs and prison time were followed by six months of rehab, with the costs covered by Fabian. Rehab didn’t work for Pilatus; in April 1998, the day before the band were supposed to start a tour to promote Back and In Attack, he was found dead from a suspected prescription drug and overdose in a hotel room in Frankfurt.
Morvan continued working in a variety of roles: as a public speaker, a session musician and a DJ. At the same time he pushed on with music; appearing at festivals and in clubs, and going on tour in 2001. He also released a solo album, "Love Revolution", in 2003 - using an online music store and his own website to publicise and sell it – and a single, "Anytime", via iTunes in 2011. His hair is much shorter nowadays, and his trousers not quite so tight.