On March 7, 1989, German R&B duo Milli Vanilli released their debut American album — Girl You Know It’s True — and remained on top of the charts for weeks, quickly making them one of the most popular acts of the time.
But less than a year after Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus brandished their best new artist Grammys on national television in 1990, the world found out it wasn’t true after all — the pair never sang a note on their record and in concert.
The first public sign that the pair had been lip-syncing came during a Bristol, Connecticut performance that was broadcast live on MTV in July 1989. While performing the single, “Girl You Know It’s True,” the recording of the track jammed and skipped, repeatedly playing the partial lyric “Girl you know it’s…” over and over again. They continued to pretend to sing and dance for a few moments before rushing offstage.
Then in December 1989, singer Charles Shaw revealed that he was one of the three real vocalists behind Milli Vanilli’s tracks. The group’s German record producer, Frank Farian, reportedly paid Shaw over $150,000 to retract his statements, but it didn’t stop the public from criticizing the duo.
After Morvan and Farian demanded to sing live, Farian outed them during a press conference held on Nov. 14, 1990 and revealed to reporters that they did not actually sing any songs on their album (which was originally titled All or Nothing when it was released in Europe). Farian said he originally hired the two unemployed male models in 1987 to appear in promotional videos lip-syncing songs he’d already recorded with vocals by three studio musicians.
As a result, Morvan and Pilatus were forced to return their Grammys days later, making them the first artists to ever have to do so. Their label, Arista, dropped them and deleted their album from its catalog.
The duo also faced class-action lawsuits filed by disgruntled fans and a settlement was approved to refund those who attended Milli Vanilli concerts, along with those who bought their recordings. Additionally, singer-songwriter David Clayton-Thomas sued Milli Vanilli for copyright infringement in 1990, asserting that they used the melody of his song “Spinning Wheel” on Girl You Know It’s True.
“I feel very sad about my fans,” Pilatus told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “I know it’s going to be hard for the kids to stand behind us. But I hope they understand that we are just two human guys who were so hungry for success that we allowed ourselves to be manipulated. We wanted to get on the top. We apologize and hope they’ll give us a second chance.”
“We’ve always wanted to sing,” Morvan added. “We made the mistake ourselves, but it’s true, we let our fans down. For them we are idols and they loved our videos and bought the records and we let them down. It’s very hard, I know. I just hope they will forgive us.”
They recorded a new album under the name Rob & Fab in 1993, but it failed to achieve any chart success. For Pilatus, the scandal led to a sad slide into substance abuse, attempted suicide and arrests. Despite 10 stints in rehab, Pilatus couldn’t kick his habits.
In 1998, Pilatus was found dead in his hotel in Germany of a suspected alcohol and drug overdose. He was 32.
“Rob didn’t have the strength to start over,” Morvan told PEOPLE in 2010.
Morvan, now 52, forged on and put out his first solo album, Love Revolution, in 2003.
“I want ‘Milli Vanilli’ to mean when you fall, you stand up and go forward,” Morvan said in 2010. “And no one can take that away from you.”
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