Paula Abdul, Straight Up
What Fans Don't Know
It's an elimination night at American Idol and the anticipation and excitement are palpable. As Simon Cowell, Kara DioGuardi, and Randy Jackson take the stage in a studio in Los Angeles, the audience applauds enthusiastically. Then Paula Abdul emerges from the wings, poured into a fleshy pink satin dress with black lace overlay that shows off her every curve. She sashays onto the stage in skyscraper heels and black stockings, waving and smiling. The audience goes nuts.
Though the show may be famous for Simon Cowell's blistering critiques, which dash the dreams of wannabes by the thousands, it's obvious that everyone's heart belongs to Paula. Her fans have come to rely on her air kisses, dramatic arm gestures, encouraging nods, and genuine willingness to give the little guy a break. After all, how could anyone endure Simon's cringe-worthy rudeness if Paula weren't there to pick up the pieces? When it comes to Idol, she's forever our girl.
The former pop star, who turns 47 this month, has never looked better. In previous years she acted erratically, at times slurring her words or appearing disoriented. This year she's got it together. And for a reason: For the first time in 12 years Abdul says she's no longer dependent on medication. The rumors that her sometimes-bizarre behavior was fueled by drugs just may have been true. Abdul was taking heavy-duty pain killers, though she claims she never shot an Idol episode under the influence. But last Thanksgiving, determined to overcome her habit, she checked into the La Costa Resort and Spa, in Carlsbad, California, to wean herself off her medications in one fell swoop. "I could have killed myself.... Withdrawal -- it's the worst thing," she says. "I was freezing cold, then sweating hot, then chattering and in so much pain, it was excruciating. But at my very core, I did not like existing the way I had been."
When we meet at her Mediterranean-style home in the San Fernando Valley, Abdul is eager to talk about her transformative journey. Sitting at her dining-room table, cradling Bessie Moo, an aggressively affectionate white Chihuahua with chocolate-brown spots, Abdul is wistful about the past years. "I'd been working nonstop," she says. But she wasn't really living. Instead, she bought into the showbiz saying, "the show must go on." "I'm an old-school professional," she says. "Never let them see you sweat." But doing so became increasingly difficult for Abdul, who for years has suffered from chronic debilitating pain caused by an unusual series of accidents, the first of which occurred when she was a 17-year-old cheerleader.
Rather than undergo surgery back then, which she says had only a 50-50 chance of correcting her back injury, Abdul decided to learn to live with her damaged body. But after stardom came, things got worse. She broke her leg rehearsing an elaborate stage routine in 1991. She was involved in a car crash and sustained a neck injury in 1992. And then there was the 1993 airplane crash in an Iowa cornfield that left her partially paralyzed, requiring 15 spinal surgeries.
All the while Abdul's career was in high gear. Her first album, Forever Your Girl, was released in 1988 and went multiplatinum, spawning six number-one singles. Her highly choreographed dance videos for Janet Jackson set the gold standard for pop performance. As a dancer trained to accept pain and soldier on, she turned to a combination of painkillers and Chinese medicine to get her through her grueling routines. "I couldn't cancel my tour," she says. "I didn't want anyone to count me out. I tried to keep everything hush-hush." Helping her through her relentless schedule of rehearsals, recording sessions, video tapings, and performances were regular shots of lidocaine. By 2005 she was diagnosed with a chronic pain condition called reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome. The illness, which can be caused by a previous injury, resulted in disabling pain, teeth-chattering, and shingles-like lesions. Paula wore a patch that delivered a pain medication about 80 times more potent than morphine and took a nerve medication to relieve her symptoms. Sometimes she took a muscle relaxer. But the pain was so bad it often left her sleepless and she would, as she says, "get weird." It was the combination of these factors that may have led to the impression that she was high at times when she was on the air.