When the German duo Milli Vanilli hit the mainstream music scene in the late 1980s, they were an instant hit, winning the hearts of audiences all over the world so quickly that one might chalk it up to magic (seemingly overnight, they became one of the biggest acts in the world — like Pharrell “Happy” level big). But their fairytale success story was short-lived once the public discovered their deepest darkest secret: they had been lip-syncing the entire time, and it wasn’t even their voices on the songs they were claiming. More than 30 years after the reveal that cost them everything, a new Paramount+ documentary pulls back the veil of the controversy that cast Milli Vanilli into darkness, highlighting a predatory culture of exploitation built on the backs of Black artists.
Fabrice Morvan and Robert Pilatus first met as young twenty-somethings in Munich, Germany, where they connected over their love for dancing and music. Before long, they became somewhat famous locally for throwing dance parties and performing, and they caught the attention of music producer Frank Farian. Farian, a music executive who had famously discovered and produced German funk group Boney M. (the earworm “Rasputin” was their biggest hit), promised the young friends fortune and fame under the shady condition that their vocals would never be used. Initially, Morvan and Pilatus chafed at the idea of building their careers on a lie, but after seeing the overnight success that Farian’s crooked concept brought them — including sold-out shows, thousands of dollars, and global recognition — they began to settle more comfortably into the deception. Milli Vanilli didn’t have to sing their own songs, the stars surmised; they were a movement unto themselves.
The beginning of the end came when the pop duo bafflingly won their first Grammy in 1990, beating out the likes of Indigo Girls and Soul II Soul in the Best New Artist category and drawing the ire of the music community. Their new status as Grammy winners got to their heads, and instead of laying low so that their secret could remain undetected, Milli Vanilli began boasting that they were better musicians than superstars like The Beatles and Bob Dylan. Morvan and Pilatus also wanted to take more creative control and start making their own music, a development that quickly soured their relationship with Farian. The more they pushed for artistic independence, the angrier Farian became, until he decided to sink the ship once and for all. In November 1990, Farian called a press conference and revealed that Morvan and Pilatus were just the faces of the pop phenoms. There, he introduced Charles Shaw and John Davis, two undiscovered Black singers, as the legitimate vocalists of Milli Vanilli. (Later, Farian would try to make even more money off Shaw and Davis by debuting The Real Milli Vanilli.)
The fallout was swift. Milli Vanilli’s fanbase felt bamboozled to the point of suing the musicians for fraud and racketeering, and the media crucified Milli Vanilli daily, with coverage of the reveal ranging from hypercritical to flat-out mocking. The general consensus was that any blame should lay solely on the pair. Meanwhile, the forces fueling and making millions of dollars off of Milli Vanilli’s ruse got off scot-free, namely Farian, the supervillain-level mastermind behind it all. Despite admitting with his own mouth that he was responsible for the lie that was Milli Vanilli (and famously having done the same with Boney M. just years before), there wasn’t any real vitriol pointed at Farian in all of the mayhem that resulted from his admission. He didn’t feel any shame for having created Milli Vanilli and contractually forcing them to lip sync. In fact, Farian laughed it off, seeing “no problem” in what he had done. And he was right — he didn’t have a problem. Morvan and Pilatus, the two Black men who were the face of one of the industry’s biggest cons, did.
“Milli Vanilli, to be clear, had a largely white audience,” explains writer and culture critic Hanif Willis-Abdurraqibin of the backlash in the documentary. “So a part of that betrayal that was felt was, I can’t believe I listened to these Black guys that were singing these songs, and it wasn’t really them.”
The documentary doesn’t shy away from the fact that the level of immediate consequences that Morvan and Pilatus faced was absolutely connected to their multi-layered identities as young Black men who were also immigrants operating in an industry that was run almost exclusively by older white men, and trying to appeal to an audience that was also mainly white. Even at the height of their careers, they didn’t have real power; Farian and the other music executives who had helped build Milli Vanilli’s careers were the puppet masters controlling their look and their sound every step of the way. Though bigwigs like Clive Davis, founder of Arista Records, vehemently denied any knowledge of the ruse, there was no way that Milli Vanilli could have existed and flourished without everyone involved behind the scenes being on the same page.
“You have to understand: we were seduced, we were abused, and we were feeling very guilty,” Milli Vanilli shows Pilatus trying to explain during a heated press conference. “We don’t understand why it’s us, the two little guys from Germany — the victims! — who have to suddenly play the crooks of a trial when we are not.”
No matter how famous they get, many Black musicians often find themselves at the mercy of music executives whose bottom line is the almighty dollar, even at the expense of their own artists.
The toll of shouldering the blame for a collective coverup weighed heavily on both Morvan and Pilatus in the years that followed. They tried to make another musical debut with their own voices as Rob & Fab but inevitably flopped, and the failure sent Pilatus into a spiral of depression and heavy drug abuse. His professional and personal relationship with Morvan also suffered as a consequence, severing their close tie; the friends were once like brothers. Their paths diverged drastically — Morvan went on to write and perform original music as a solo artist, and Pilatus, still struggling with the shameful loss of his career, suffered with intense drug addiction and a bevy of legal issues — and in 1998, Pilatus was found dead of suspected alcohol and prescription drug overdose in a Frankfurt hotel room.
Milli and Vanilli’s story is outrageous and tragic, but it’s not singular; the music industry has a depressingly storied history of exploiting Black artists. Rock powerhouse Little Richard was famously ripped off and underpaid by his record label Specialty Records, earning only half a cent for every copy of his chart topper “Tutti Frutti.” Chuck D of Public Enemy also sued Universal Records for $100 million in unpaid royalties in 2011. Sometimes, the career abuse happens within our own community; we can’t forget the many accusations against Diddy’s Bad Boy Records, Lil Wayne’s beef with Birdman and Cash Money Records, or Megan thee Stallion’s just-wrapped legal battle with 1501 Certified Entertainment. No matter how famous they get, many Black musicians often find themselves at the mercy of music executives whose bottom line is the almighty dollar, even at the expense of their own artists. Black professionals within the space are trying to raise awareness about and actively fight this corruption via organizations like the Black Music Action Coalition, but with exploitation so embedded into the very fiber of music culture, it can feel impossible to reform it.
But giving artists a platform to speak their truths might be a start. The Milli Vanilli documentary offers a vantage point of the drama that, at its height, was never considered. It gives Morvan the opportunity to tell his side of the story for the first time in years. In his own words, he recalls the myriad of emotions that he and the late Pilatus experienced throughout Milli Vanilli’s short but impactful career — excitement, anxiety, pride, fear, pain. In all of the discourse about the scandal at the time, the focus was directed solely towards Morvan and Pilatus, villainizing them for their role in the deceit, but they never had the opportunity to defend themselves. From the group’s inception to its untimely demise, they were silenced and bled dry until they were no longer profitable. The documentary might be arriving decades too late, but in painting a full picture of Morvan and Pilatus’ fall from grace, the world now knows who’s really to blame: the corporate machine.
Milli Vanilli is now streaming, only on Paramount+.