VH1.com caught up with pop legend and American Idol judge Paula Abdul to speak about her new song and video (see it here), “Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow,” off of Randy Jackson’s Music Club, Vol. 1 We’ll be breaking down Abdul’s comments over the next week in a variety posts. In today’s installment, she talks about her plane crash, injuries and the painful road to recovery.
Paula Abdul on her long absence from the music industry:
I wish they had [a way for me to show what was going on] behind the scenes. Because when [I was at my peak in the '90s], I had a plane crash. That’s something I quietly made go away — no paparazzi or tabloid stuff. I took care of that. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me or to count me out. The truth of the matter is that when I got into a plane crash, it was on my birthday. [I was flying from] St. Louis to Denver. I had a day off in Denver.
A month prior to the crash, an agent at CAA, Kevin Huvane, threw me into the mix with the late, super-famous casting director Howard Feuer for a job [the 1993 film Fearless]. The director was Academy Award-winning director Stephen Frears. They were intrigued by having a pop star possibly be in this film. I read for the casting director and he loved it. He had me read with other actors and actresses in the business, which scared the shit out of me. Then he screen-tested me. I got the call-back. They wanted me to come back to L.A. and screen-test in front of Stephen Frears. I did, and then Stephen Frears wanted me to screen-test with Jeff Bridges. So I screen-tested with Jeff Bridges . . . and then it was down to two actors, me and Rosie Perez.
It was known that if Stephen Frears directs you, you will be automatically nominated — he brings the best out of people. So this was really exciting for me. So I get in a plane crash, by the way, when I’m on my way to Denver to take a day off. Stephen Frears and Howard Feuer really wanted me, but the studio was skeptical because I didn’t have anything under my belt. So I get into a plane crash and I’m like, “Shit! I’m getting this job! I know more than anyone else what it’s like to experience a frickin’ plane crash! [the subject of Fearless] It’s going to happen! It’s going to happen!” I remember saying this while I had a cartoon [sized] bump on my head, like three golf balls piled up on top of each other. I was like, “I’m OK. It hurts, but I’m OK.” The other seven people on the plane, they all had gashes here and there. My hair and makeup guy had a gash over his eyebrow. They were all very minor injuries. Well, I broke my seatbelt and hit the top of the plane with my head. I was in a lot of pain.
I ended up not getting the role. I was so bummed. At the time, I was like, “This makes no sense at all. Why do I have to work so hard and even experience a plane crash, and not get the role?” It was really heartbreaking. I kept really quiet. There was very little press, but we went down in flames in a cornfield in Iowa. It was terrifying. Afterward I was quietly experiencing a lot of pain. It got so bad that I was paralyzed on my whole right side, from head to toe. That started my five-year journey of fourteen cervical spinal surgeries. Everyone thought that I’d up and quit the business.
It was right at the time that my next album release was very much anticipated. At the same time, EMI bought Virgin. Everyone I knew and grew up with and had such great rapport with was no longer there. My album that I worked really hard on, EMI kind of went in the direction of [anti-radio promotion]. They tried to set a precedent, and [wouldn’t promote my record on the radio even if I was] the pope. Coming off of close to thirty million in sales, EMI didn’t stand behind [my new record]. It was a tough time for me. I went straight into having surgery after surgery after surgery, and my sister developed breast cancer. Being a celebrity, one of the greatest things is to be able to be fearless and call people. I got my sister into surgery the next day. All the while, no one knows what’s going on with me because there’s nothing definitive you can say . . . I was scraping bone on bone, with no discs. I had spinal cord damage and nerve damage. After every surgery they’d ask me if they’d fixed it, and I’d go, “Yeah,” but the truth was that I was in excruciating pain. The nerve surgeons, they don’t want to know you. And they especially don’t want to know you if you’re famous. So you start to slip between the cracks.
It was the same story every single surgery. It went on and on. They kept entering from the front, and on the twelfth surgery, my vocal cords got damaged. I didn’t have a speaking voice for almost two years. I worked with speech pathologists, but even still I was at my most creative. People don’t know that I know how to read and write music, and that I play woodwind instruments. I was first-chair flute all throughout high school. The last semester of high school, Janet Wolf took over first chair and I was so bummed, so I moved over to piccolo and oboe. The thing is that my mother is a virtuoso, an award-winning pianist in Canada. She played in all the philharmonics and on the radio. My mom has perfect pitch. I love when she comes to American Idol, because I’ll just look over to her [and check her reaction]. I have perfect pitch. I can’t always sing with perfect pitch, but my ear hears it. I know when I go off. I can clearly hear when the kids go off. I’ll look over to my mom, and she’ll be smiling at the stage — with one eye closed. [Laughs] Anyway, during that time, I wrote [some of my] best songs because I knew one day I’d be able to sing again. I worked very hard.
When you have severe complicated pain disorder, it starts messing with you. No one knows what to do. I developed RSD [Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy]. If you’ve ever had a sciatic nerve flare up . . . well, imagine that, only having your whole body flare up. There’s no cure for it. I became a guinea pig for trials. I barely weighed a hundred pounds when this all started, and I dropped down to like eighty-two pounds. It was horrible. But through it all I remained calm and I fought the fight. If I can get through it, I’ll help anyone else get through it, too. I’m very empathetic to people who suffer pain. Being a dancer, my threshold for pain is extremely high. I mean, being eight years old and in toe shoes, cramming your feet into metal and having blood blisters that form on top of blood blisters . . . it’s painful. So my threshold for pain is really high. When you’re a cheerleader being thrown all over the place, and being dropped . . . that’s where [my chronic pain] started. But it was a car accident and the plane crash that put the nail into the coffin.
When I had my fourteenth surgery, EMI convinced me to start selling my songs. I’d never done that before. When I got out of the hospital, I got a call [from a guy at EMI] telling me that there was this girl who came up behind me, selling gobs and gobs of records in Europe and the U.K. She had one hit here and was on a soap opera, and I knew it was Kylie Minogue. He told me that she hasn’t even been able to be arrested here for seven years. I’m all for the underdog. She wanted the first song I’d written, which was post-divorce. It was a retro-disco type of dance record . . . I demoed the songs I’d written . . . and by the way, [EMI] dropped me when I disappeared. No one knew my name, and it was the first time that I’d felt how crappy this business is and how much inner strength you need to prevail. Even though I was gone for five and a half years, my brand, my likeness, never went away. My catalogue sales were still bigger than the Spice Girls on Virgin now.