Paula Abdul straight up
The high notes and low notes of the 'Idol' judge's life come together on Bravo's new reality show 'Hey Paula'
By Frank Lovece
June 24, 2007
Give Paula Abdul credit - she's stayed in the spotlight long after the likes of Julie Brown, Downtown Julie Brown and other cute '80s celebu-girls whose names aren't either Julie or Brown. And give the choreographer-cum-"American Idol" judge extra credit for the upcoming Bravo reality series "Hey Paula," in which she forthrightly lets herself be seen in all her glory - from feisty entrepreneur to scary-whiny, self-inflated diva.
Scott Sternberg, one of the executive producers, claims, "Everything that happens is absolutely real. We did not manipulate nor script. It was what she does every single day." Given what we see in the premiere, airing Thursday at 10 p.m., that feels like the strike-me-dead truth.
So she's not sanitizing, and more power to her. The series is named for what the approachable Abdul says she hears from the fan on the street, and not, the producers swear, for Paul & Paula's 1963 No. 1 hit. It follows Abdul on her rounds of awards shows, business ventures and home life, with the premiere finding her primping for and attending the most recent Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, taking a red-eye to Philadelphia that same night, hawking her jewelry on QVC at 1 a.m., and going straight from that shopping channel's studio to her limo just before dawn for the flight home.
Don't sweat the pants
Along the way she gets caught on the street in a $12,000 Valentino gown trying to find her lost limo, becomes exasperated when her assistants don't have her sweatpants out for her to wear on her flight, and has a finger-pointing hissy fit with her publicist over a demand from a movie producer. On the other hand, we also see her getting her own luggage off the airport carousel and being nice to fans.
"She's like America's sweetheart, whom everybody loves or at least loves to talk about," says Bravo's Cori Abraham, another of the executive producers. "She's quirky, funny, has a good sense of humor, she's talented and a businesswoman - all things we look for in our 'docusoap' characters. I think America sees she's like a regular girl who happened to have success."
That could be taken a couple of different ways. Abdul, who just turned 45, has won two Emmy Awards and garnered a slew of additional nominations for her choreography, and as a pop star won a 1991 Grammy for short-form music video. And she's definitely sold a record or two, though her most recent performance piece outside of "American Idol" is the "Paula Abdul's Cardio Cheer" fitness DVD released in 2005. She's famous today as a talent-show judge, not as the working choreographer and former pop singer she was before "Idol" came along. Those weren't shabby accomplishments, straight up, but in terms of stardom, she wasn't Madonna.
Or Greta Garbo, whose celebrity silence Abdul calls to mind in her declining to do any publicity so far for her solo starring vehicle. "She's just really busy," Abraham says.
Yeah, but her solo starring vehicle ...
"She also has multiple assistants and there's been some miscommunication that we're trying to straighten out," Abraham adds. It may not matter anyway, she says. "I don't think there'll be a shortage of people writing about the show."
That's true, and that's weird. Being a talent show judge is like being a TV or movie critic - an honorable and hopefully enlightening profession, but it's not like being a director or producer. What she is above and beyond all that is a part of what journalist Joyce Millman in 2003 dubbed "celebreality."
You know what that is. Celebreality shows are built around celebrity curiosities like Danny Bonaduce or Anna Nicole Smith; or around talented burnouts like Gary Busey or Tom Sizemore; or around an eccentric celebrity raising a family ("The Osbournes" or "Hogan Knows Best"); or even around a fish-out-of-water contrivance like "Tommy Lee Goes to College" or "Armed & Famous." They have in common a reliance on recognizable folks for whom we have a residual affection, even if they haven't been doing much lately in the field for which we first liked them.
Why don't we see reality shows starring Julia Roberts or George Clooney? "There's two things to take into account," Sternberg says. "To a television viewer, are they interesting personalities? Just because Julia Roberts is the biggest name in movies, that doesn't mean she'd make for a good reality show. If she just goes home, has dinner, visits friends or goes to a movie set, you have to ask if that's enough to carry it. And second, do these people want to tell about their lives? A star has to think it through very carefully before committing."
Baring it all
And just why are celebreality subjects willing to bare themselves before millions of people who are going to see every screw-up, misstatement and embarrassing moment that are bad enough for you or me to suffer privately?
"Different reasons," Sternberg says. "It can be for promotion, or for building the next part of their career, or sometimes," he notes, "some of them have something to say and don't have a forum to say it."
As for Abdul's reasons, who knows? Maybe even she doesn't - it's not like any of us always know the reasons we do things other than, "It felt right at the time." She seems to give a hint in a later episode, during a crying jag when she chokes out between sobs, "This business is about perception, it's all about perception, so I am exhausted keeping it up."
Whether this show will provide her with the public perception she wants, who knows? Some will see her pitying wails or her complaint that, "My romantic life is a horror movie," and feel, "Wow! With all her money and fame, she's just like me!"
Others, rushing home on the LIRR from a horrible job they're lucky to have and then running through the supermarket so that they can fix the kids a hot meal before taking care of the house and collapsing into bed, may think, "Eh. I could fly first-class without complaining about sweatpants."
Either way, that's a good thing. For all the Angelina Jolies of the world who've threatened the press and tried to muzzle the First Amendment for the sake of their public personas, a show like "Hey Paula" gives a relatively unvarnished look at what it's like to be inside the bubble - and how true that old chestnut is about money not buying happiness.
Make all the jokes you want about Abdul - she's more emotionally gutsy than you or me, more honorable than the likes of Jolie and, for whatever need that's eating inside her, she's willing to use herself as a showcase to remind us that the celebrities we've turned into demigods are just as simultaneously screwed up and wonderful as any other human being, artifice and perception be damned.