The ”Hey Paula” premiere: Forever your girl?
Ever since I heard the news that Bravo was planning a new reality series following the day-to-day life of erstwhile pop star and loopy American Idol judge Paula Abdul, I’ve been tingling with curiosity. What template would Hey Paula follow? Would it be something like UPN’s wretched Britney and Kevin: Chaotic, in which the titular pop star created a self-portrait of blithe obliviousness, pointing the camera at herself and spouting inane platitudes (”They look just like boobs. But they’re not. They’re my knees!”) like some Deepak Chopra for the lobotomy set? Or would Paula more closely resemble the Whitney Houston of Being Bobby Brown, a frenzied fruitcake who either refused, or was chemically unable, to curtail her wayward impulses, waxing passionate about her colonic woes and bursting into spontaneous fits of dancing and shouting?
It turns out, neither of the above. Instead, it appears as though Hey Paula owes more to Lisa Kudrow’s brilliant but short-lived HBO sitcom The Comeback, in which a vain, washed-up sitcom star named Valerie Cherish endured humiliation on top of humiliation — just as long as the cameras stayed pointed in her direction.
Much like the fictitious universe that Kudrow and cohort Michael Patrick King concocted, the on-screen world of Paula Abdul is at times bizarre and often hilarious, but always has a throbbing undercurrent of sadness and discontent. Beneath the façade of ditzy optimism the heroines of both series project lie women who, although aware they’ve passed their career expiration dates, still feel they still have something to offer the world — and, at least to some degree, are probably right.
Take Paula’s experience as a producer of the big-screen production of Bratz, and her decision to design and produce the clothing, jewelry, and accessories for the film at her own expense. That moment when she reveals to her support staff that the film’s production team has ”stopped returning calls,” you get the sense that it’s just one in a series of career indignities that Paula has faced over the past two decades.
And then there’s the indignity of being stuck with the 1 a.m. time slot for a live QVC broadcast. Are there really so many huge stars on the home-shopping channel that Paula should be relegated to insomniac territory on the east coast?
Self-absorbed as she comes off throughout the show’s initial half-hour, though, Paula at least scores points for being able to laugh at herself. How many platinum-selling singers could flash back on one of her own Grammy performances and pinpoint an unflattering bustier as the beginning of the end of her career? True, Paula’s attempts at self-deprecating punch lines — ”the last time I had a hit record, Bill and Hillary were having sex!” — all feel too scripted by half, but you’ve got to give her points for going there in the first place.
Similarly, how many celebrities would allow themselves to be caught on camera admitting they actually care what kind of grades they’ll receive from TV Guide Channel’s skeletal harpy Joan Rivers? In an age where half of being cool is showing the world you’re not trying, Paula comes off like the chess-team dork who daydreams a little too fervently about that homecoming queen title she’s never going to win. (Lucky for Paula, her ”what doctor is your face wearing?” remark is airing in an era where Rivers is no longer employed as a red-carpet hostess.)
But there’s still a pecking order even at the bottom rungs of the popularity, as we see during Paula’s icy-eyed reprimand of incompetent assistants Kylie and Courteney (more about Paula’s horrible handlers later). Sure, if you’re paying someone to pack your suitcase for a red-eye trip to the QVC studios in Philadelphia, you’re probably expecting you won’t have to endure the flight in skin-tight jeans and high-heels, but Paula’s hissing ”it’s not okay” and ”shove it down your throat” remarks underscore why, unlike fellow Bravo reality star Kathy Griffin, you don’t get the sense that Paula’s employees consider her as a true friend — or vice versa. — Michael Slezak
NEXT PAGE: Episode 2 — ”Tired…I’m so tired”
Imagine my colleague Michael Slezak’s surprise last Saturday when, moments before leaving for a two-week vacation to Spain, he set his DVR for a series pass of Hey Paula and noticed that Bravo had slipped in a second new episode behind the premiere (which he’d already watched on an advance screener)! Not to fear, TV Watchers — your Regularly Scheduled Slezak will be covering Ms. Abdul’s reality show when he returns; in the meantime, please don’t hurt his tag-team partner (please?).
The restraint Bravo showed in its promos for Hey Paula is pretty amazing, don’tcha think? The advance clips I saw only showed Paula tripping in the street, baby-talking her bug-eyed pooches, and declaring herself a ”warrior” as her stylist reinforced a frighteningly rigid updo with more hairspray. How to know, then, that the show’s cameras actually followed Abdul through that infamous series of interviews she gave to Fox affiliates while pushing American Idol (especially the one with the Seattle station)?
Back in January, when that video was all over the place, most of us were speculating that Paula had to be under the influence of something. Was it alcohol that was causing her to speak incoherently and lurch in and out of frame? Was it drugs?
According to this episode, it was neither: Paula’s just real tired.
But let’s back up a bit. We opened with our star at the beginning of a New York trip, running late to receive a ”Fashion Icon Award” presented by undercover Abdul fanatic/silver fox Tim Gunn. ”I’ve only arrived in New York hours ago, and I’m already exhausted,” Paula said in a confessional, setting up the theme for the entire episode. She was also hungry, apparently; in the limo on the way to the ceremony, she learned from her publicist Jeff that the dinner portion of the evening was proceeding without her. So when she finally arrived to deliver her acceptance ”speech,” Paula already seemed wobbly and slurry. Watching her fumble at the lectern was a supremely awkward moment, which was punctuated by the clinking of silverware in the background and the polite laughter of the audience.
And this is the part, TV Watchers, where I go off on her handlers — Jeff and the band of mysterious men (her security team?) who, instead of taking Paula to her hotel to get some rest and some room service, drove her to Starbucks. For coffee. Now, I’m not so naïve as to think that a celebrity won’t try to get what he/she wants (in this case, a chai latte whatever), but I also know that a handler with a strong hand — someone who knows how to say no when something is in the worst interests of a client — also exists. (Remember Tom Cruise before all the couch-jumping? Credit those days to his ex-publicist, Pat Kingsley.)
The next day, Paula’s up early to check out test perfumes for her line (really, couldn’t this have been canceled/postponed?). ”Mmmmm,” she murmurs after sniffing each of them, and I feel horrible as she closes her eyes and falls dreamily back on the couch. Won’t someone let this woman sleep? Instead, we later see Kylie and Courteney with Paula in the back of a limo, looking vaguely annoyed/amused as their boss squirms like a sleepy toddler and mutters about Dunkin’ Donuts. ”Tired…I’m so tired,” she says, repeatedly. As a man (the driver?) helps Paula get out of the car, he tells her, ”I hope you feel better.” I’m glad somebody does, fella!
Finally, we’re at Day Three of the New York visit, and we see Paula head straight into the Fox junket. Suddenly, Jeff tells us, Paula has the flu (wha?) in addition to having not slept or eaten well. But on she goes anyway, and the infamous incoherence we all saw on YouTube begins. At one point the audio does seem to drop out — could this be the ”technical difficulties” that, as Jeff later told the media, explained her strange behavior?
It’s hard to tell in this episode, which, to me at least, seemed carefully edited. But if you take this episode at face value — that insomnia, hunger, and the flu combined in a perfect storm that led to Ms. Abdul’s public humiliation — it’s hard not to sympathize with her. We’ll relive the fallout next week.
But what do you think? Are you buying the exhaustion excuse? Should Paula fire all her ”people”? And…I’m starting to feel kinda bad about talking so much smack last January — are you? Post your comments below. —Dawnie Walton