Treat Me Like The Gift I Am Case File #35: Hey Paula
My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s twice-monthly survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that flopped financially, were critical failures, and lack a substantial cult following.
Paula Abdul has accomplished a staggering amount for a woman generally perceived—in recent years, at least—as a tipsy, pill-addled flake. While still in college, Abdul became a cheerleader for the L.A. Lakers and quickly moved up to become head choreographer. From there, she became one of the most sought-after choreographers in the world. She won an Emmy for choreographing The Tracey Ullman Show, she choreographed the legendary dance across the giant keyboard in Big, and she played a significant role in shaping Janet Jackson’s tomboy aesthetic as her early choreographer.
Having conquered the world of cheerleading and dance, Abdul moved on to an even more demanding field when she leveraged her music-world connections and passable-enough squeak of a singing voice into a new career as a dance-music diva. This time, Abdul was even more spectacularly successful, scoring six No. 1 hits and becoming one of the biggest pop stars of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
After a long period in the show-business wilderness, Abdul roared back into the spotlight as the nice judge on American Idol, an old-fashioned yet newfangled television talent show that quickly became a national phenomenon, a factory for producing pop stars and the most popular television show in the country. In part because of Idol’s ubiquity, Abdul’s persona as America’s favorite slightly drunk but overwhelmingly supportive fun aunt completely usurped her earlier image as a multiplatinum pop star and world-class choreographer. To a pop-culture world perpetually addled by Attention Deficit Disorder, Abdul’s extraordinary earlier successes were merely the preamble to her ultimate destiny as a bleary-eyed walking punchline.
Celebrities, more than most, fear being misunderstood. This is particularly true of Abdul, who has loudly and repeatedly protested that she’s never been drunk a single time in her life, let alone the wine-guzzling partier the tabloid press, detractors, and, let’s face it, her public appearances, make her out to be. For Abdul, there is an exasperating gulf between how she sees herself—as a sober, hardworking, driven, delightful professional—and how the world sees her. Abdul believes herself victim of a massive existential frame-up, as someone being terminally misunderstood and underappreciated.
So in a bid to correct the public record, extend her brand, and let the public see the real Abdul, she signed on as executive producer and star of her very own Bravo reality show, Hey Paula, in 2007. Sure enough, Hey Paula indelibly established that Abdul wasn’t the amiable, endlessly positive space cadet of the public’s imagination. No, she wasn’t a tipsy, pill-addled flake, but something far worse: Paula Abdul was an eternally exhausted, loopy egomaniac lurching semi-coherently from one public-relations disaster to another while screaming nonsensically at the battery of assistants, stylists, and hangers-on she seems to see as the bane of her existence, even as they devote their lives to attending to her every capricious whim.
Hey Paula doesn’t suggest a reality show so much as a nonfiction entry in the horror genre starring a compelling monster of id and ego, a deeply deluded villain with a persecution complex worthy of a mad scientist from an old comic book. Abdul may be a world-famous multi-millionaire surrounded by flunkies, but she sees herself as relentlessly victimized and mistreated, abused and taken for granted. When it comes to suffering nobly for humanity’s sins, Abdul seems to think she’s got both Nelson Mandela and Jesus beat.
In this trainwreck of a reality show’s signature line of dialogue, the perpetually embattled reality-show judge hisses, “I’m tired of people not treating me like the gift that I am.” This kitschy, instantly quotable line—one that begs to be delivered for maximum drama by a drag queen done up as Abdul—speaks volumes about how Abdul sees herself in relation to other people: not as an equal, not as a collaborator, not as a friend, but as a blessing from the heavens they should get down on their hands and knees and thank the Lord for.
Throughout the series, which lasted a mere seven episodes—the last of which is a hastily thrown together collection of outtakes and deleted scenes—Abdul looks directly at the camera in a perfect replication of the “Can you believe these incompetent idiots I have to deal with?” pose perfected by Martin Freeman and John Krasinski in their respective versions of The Office. Only in this instance, the effect is reversed: Every time Abdul looks exasperatedly at the camera, the vibe she sends out is, “Can you believe how awful I’m being?”
Abdul’s assistants treat her like a wild animal that might either purr appreciatively in their laps or attack them depending on her mood. And these concerns are well-founded: Abdul is never more than a heartbeat away from a complete nervous breakdown. It takes almost nothing to reduce her to a puddle of tears and panic. In the first episode, she comes close to clawing her assistant’s eyes out when she neglects to pack “a nice pair of sweatpants” for a redeye flight to a QVC studio in Philadelphia.
For Abdul, the perfect assistant possesses an impressive combination of skills. He or she must be smart, intuitive, hardworking, inexhaustible, and most important of all, possess the ability to read Abdul’s mind and anticipate her needs before she verbalizes them. In Hey Paula, those needs are never-ending and as urgent as life or death.
Hey Paula opens with “This Is My Life,” an episode where Abdul runs herself—and more pointedly, her staff—ragged in a grueling two-day stint that takes her from the Grammys in Los Angeles to QVC in Philadelphia without scoring any sleep in the process. Abdul’s underlings and the good folks over at QVC wear plastic smiles when they interact with her, while bracing themselves for the next inevitable verbal assault. Sure enough, Abdul is mortified that the jewelry she’s selling via home shopping isn’t up to her high standards, and she bitches out the company’s employees.
Later, Abdul cheerfully informs viewers, “I am producing a live-action feature based on the Bratz dolls. And I hand-designed the wardrobe and jewelry for the film.” Though she is chagrined because the producers have stopped returning her calls and emails months ago. It quickly becomes clear that Abdul is patently unable to differentiate between stupid, ephemeral bullshit and matters of profound substance and significance. If something upsets her, then it is a travesty, an insult that must be immediately corrected. So while the rest of the world might see her connection with a sketchy, low-budget exploitation movie based on a controversial line of provocatively dressed dolls as the stupidest kind of ephemeral bullshit, to Paula Abdul, it’s a matter of profound significance, a passion project/labor of love worth going to war over.
In fact, she was so passionate about the movie that she created all the clothes using her own vast fortune. Abdul really fucking cares about Bratz: The Movie, more than any sane human being should, especially if that human being is an adult. “I know this movie. I know these girls. And I know this project. And to be screwed over: I’ve already had it! It’s not okay, and I’ve already been hurt by this!” she announces to the heavens dramatically once it becomes apparent that Abdul is such a nightmare to work with that even the bottom-feeders behind Bratz: The Movie want nothing to do with her, despite her close affiliation with the most popular show on television. And it’s not as if Abdul would be writing or directing Bratz; she’d be performing one task that she’s exceedingly overqualified for, choreographer, and another that is often merely ceremonial, executive producer—which can be anything from the guy who put up the money to a bigwig who made a single important call to a studio or star. Bratz: The Movie had almost nothing to lose and a substantial amount to gain by joining forces with Abdul, but still chose not to have anything to do with her.
Deep into her battle with the malevolent forces of Bratz: The Movie, Abdul steels herself for total war and seethes, “They fired their wardrobe person. And I’ve had all of this stuff designed and ready to go with them already for almost two months. This is what happens. They get me to a point where I don’t care anymore. Not wanting to go through it. They beat me down. But I’m a warrior.”
The Bratz: The Movie situation vexes Abdul to the point where she calls to the heavens themselves and bellows, “Where’s God when you need him, because this does not make any sense!” How dare the Judases of Bratz: The Movie betray her so sadistically?
Warrior or not, it’s unclear whether Abdul’s all-important, career-transforming gig as choreographer/costume designer/executive producer on Bratz: The Movie is real or if this position exists only in her feverish, paranoid imagination. I wanted desperately for one of Abdul’s “people” to very gently ask her, “Now Paula, was this commission for Bratz: The Movie something that actually happened, or is it something that happened only in Paula’s Fantasy Land? Is it something where you signed a contract and sent it to your manager, or is it like when you told everyone that the rainbow sprites elected you their princess and you had to travel to their volcano kingdom immediately?”
The seven episodes of Hey Paula tend to follow a common arc: Abdul has to attend to one of the many responsibilities of being super-famous, whether that means receiving awards or doing a talk-show appearance or lavishly decorating a rented house. Abdul freaks out over some tiny imperfection or setback, screaming and weeping and gnashing her teeth and rending her garment in exasperation, and predicts doom before the episode ends. Abdul’s longtime publicist crows none too convincingly that Abdul outdid herself yet again and triumphed climactically in the face of long odds because she’s a consummate professional, despite ample evidence to the contrary.
Through it all, Abdul is overworked to the point of delirium. If nothing else, Hey Paula lends some credence to her contention that what others see as drunkenness is actually sleep deprivation by depicting Abdul perpetually in a state of bone-deep exhaustion. So if she’s snappish and flies into a rage over everything, Hey Paula suggests that’s because she’s always hungry and always operating on about an hour’s sleep. A nightcap might help her sleep, as might some sleeping pills or even tranquilizers, but as Abdul reiterates over and over again, to the point of obnoxiousness, she doesn’t drink or use drugs, preferring to be in a state of eternal sleep deprivation that looks uncannily like inebriation or being stoned.
Despite her reputation for being sunny and upbeat, Abdul seems desperately unhappy here and is eager for everyone around her to share her pain. Fame appears to be a curse more than a blessing. She’s isolated and lonely, surrounded by people paid to be nice to her, yet overflowing with anger and paranoia. Thanks to American Idol and royalties from her hit albums, Abdul makes millions, but she has to ask her assistants for a dollar to buy a candy bar at a vending machine. Hey Paula reminded me of Britney & Kevin: Chaotic, Britney Spears and Kevin Federline’s equally disastrous, counter-productive attempt to set the record straight by exposing their genuine awfulness to the viewing public. Both reality shows intentionally or unintentionally depict fame as monstrous, dehumanizing, crazy-making, and uncontrollable, something that only seems appealing in the abstract.
Hey Paula is covertly about that horrible in-between space between being really, really rich and famous, as Abdul was in 2007, and being unbelievably, mega-super rich and famous, like say, Diddy, or to cite a more germane example, Simon Cowell is. The Diddys and Simon Cowells of the world can simply jet-set in their private planes, high above the problems and limitations of the hoi polloi, but because the universe hates her, Abdul is tragically forced to fly commercial. This leads to all kinds of problems. She can’t just pick up her hairstylist and consultant in her private plane for a New York appearance; she’s forced to secure commercial plane flights for both of her little helpers like some kind of peasant.
What’s truly unfortunate about Hey Paula is that Abdul’s life is genuinely fascinating and filled with subject matter that could make for riveting, compelling television. What’s it like for someone like Abdul, whose body has been her livelihood and her instrument throughout the decades, to be reaching an age where her body begins to break down? What’s it like to go from being a major sex symbol of the early ’90s to a relatively asexual reality-show judge, a comforting maternal presence rather than an object of intense desire? Is it intensely melancholy for the American Idol judge to be presented with an endless series of fresh-faced, hard-bodied ingénues who cannot help but serve as a reminder of Abdul’s own lost youth and pop-star past? What’s it like to have choreographed so much pop-culture history and to now be occupying a mentor role? What was it like being part of one of the only Jewish families (and a Syrian Jewish family at that) in the small town in Canada where Abdul grew up?
Any of those questions could have made for a riveting show, but you won’t find the answers to any of them from the abomination Bravo aired to awful ratings and vitriolic reviews. Instead the show focuses on the most insufferable elements of Abdul’s life and personality: her grasping neediness, her cruelty to flunkies, and a bottomless need for attention and validation.
In the wake of Hey Paula’s failure, Abdul complained that the producers of the show she starred in and executive-produced selectively and misleadingly edited the footage to make her seem crazy, petty, and mean. But she made their jobs much easier by giving them so much tape of her in the midst of what appears to be the never-ending nervous breakdown that constitutes her life. At the risk of not treating the show’s star like the gift that she is, I suspect that what Abdul ultimately feared wasn’t being misunderstood so much as being properly understood as a narcissistic, demanding, mercurial egomaniac fatally out of touch with reality and a pop-culture world she once dominated, but no longer seems to understand.
Failure, fiasco, or secret success: Fiasco