Down with Milli Vanilli -- The real scoop on pop's most synthetic flavors-of-the-month

Just when we were getting used to the idea that it was respectable, lip-synching took a tricky new turn. With Madonna, Janet Jackson, and others openly or tacitly acknowledging that they mouth words to their own records in concerts, such musical fakery had come to seem merely a legitimate use of available technology. But on Nov. 14, German producer Frank Farian dropped a small electronic bomb: He announced that Milli Vanilli, his photogenic duo known for lip-synching in concert, had in fact not sung one note on their multimillion-selling, Grammy Award-winning debut album, Girl You Know It’s True. When the group admitted that was so, Grammy officials, for the first time ever, demanded their award back, and got it. Worse yet for rock music’s image, that explosion set off a chain reaction. Within days, it came out that Black Box had used one of the Weather Girls as a singer on ”Everybody Everybody” without giving her credit, and that the white rapper with the No. 1 song in America, Vanilla Ice, had invented a rough-and-tumble street childhood he had never lived.

The wonder in all this is that so many recording insiders knew all about these shenanigans without the public finding out. Even as Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan of Milli Vanilli were confessing, their U.S. distributor, Arista, was denying any knowledge of the ruse, despite evidence to the contrary. The truth easily might have surfaced months earlier. Last year an Arista VP caught a snatch of a live-performance tape by Milli Vanilli. ”What is this crap?” he asked. The product manager who’d worked with the group simply rolled his eyes and left the room.

”We all knew right then,” says a former Arista A&R employee, ”that there was no way in hell these guys we were listening to were the ones singing on the record.” Indeed, Pilatus, Morvan, and their former U.S. manager, Todd Headlee, claim that Arista had known, in Headlee’s words, ”from the get-go.” Pilatus and Morvan claim they told Arista president Clive Davis the truth six months before the Grammys. Plenty of others certainly knew it. ”It was just understood,” say engineers at the Manhattan studio where Girl You Know It’s True was mixed, that Pilatus and Morvan weren’t singing on the album. Such engineers usually consult an artist before tampering with vocal levels; in this case, they were emphatically told that wasn’t necessary.

Headlee, who was reportedly dumped as manager because he failed to land Milli Vanilli on Playgirl‘s list of sexiest rockers, says that Farian had ”coerced” the two into silence by promising them future projects if they’d agree to mime on the video of ”Girl You Know It’s True,” the album’s hit single. When they kept pushing to go public, Farian blew the whistle himself. But the two weren’t the only ones who wanted to come clean. Last December Houston singer Charles Shaw claimed that he’d sung Milli Vanilli’s vocals. Sources close to the group say that he was paid $150,000 by Farian to retract his claim. Despite all this, Milli Vanilli actually insisted on being part of 1989’s Club MTV Tour, which, luckily for them, included some acts that lip-synched. As fate would have it, technical difficulties forced the group to sing live — in the performance that the Arista VP would later refer to as ”crap.”

Farian says there was no bribery, that they never sang on the MTV tour, and that Rob and Fab never threatened to go public. According to Farian, he dropped Pilatus and Morvan from Milli Vanilli’s projected second album because they were insisting on really singing.

Pilatus and Morvan now claim they’re ”thrilled that they don’t have to lie to everybody,” says Headlee. ”Rob’s dad just died, and he’s still in mourning because he was never able to tell his father the truth.” But the duo didn’t exactly sound embarrassed by their stunt when they claimed in March that they were ”more talented” than Elvis or Dylan. Indeed, the two faux singers are already planning their comeback. Last Tuesday, at a press conference in L.A., they unveiled their own video version of ”Girl You Know It’s True.” The turn brought titters, but several labels are reportedly interested in signing them. ”I’d love to make a record with them,” says Don Was of Was (Not Was), one of today’s hottest record producers. ”Nobody was down on Audrey Hepburn and Marnie Nixon (who sang for Hepburn) in My Fair Lady.” On the other hand, at that time everybody knew.

Reporting by Fred Goodman and Roy Trakin