Paula Abdul

The dancer-choreographer-singer turned judge—who reunites with Simon Cowell this month on Fox’s The X Factor—on Laker Girls, Valley condos, and Gene Kelly
Photograph by Elisabeth Caren

In case you didn’t know, I’m not that tall. I’m five feet two on a good day. Growing up here, I’ve seen a lot. I was never the right height or the right look. I was one of those kids—like on American Idol or The X Factor—who would do anything for a chance.

My first memory of being affected by a performance was seeing Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain. I was four. We lived in these condominiums in North Hollywood—just off of Coldwater, right across from the Victory Drive-In. I would gather up the kids in the courtyard of our building and was directing and choreographing musicals before I even knew how to say the words. The Tower of Power horn section lived in our building, and around the corner were the Porcaro brothers, who started Toto.

I had gone to a couple of Laker games when they were beginning to have cheerleaders. I’d taught cheerleading at dance camp with a few girls who were part of the new squad. They said, “You really should try out.” I auditioned. There were close to 1,000 girls. I was 756th. When I made it as a Laker Girl, almost immediately it became my responsibility to choreograph. My whole goal was to get rid of the pom-poms and make us a dance team.

It was Magic Johnson’s second season, and all of the greats were there. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would talk to me while he was at the free-throw line. People assumed I was married to him because of my last name. Five years ago we had this reunion with all the old Lakers, and I saw Kareem. He said, “Come here.” I sat on his lap, and he goes, “Remember when they used to think we were married? You know what I get now? People saying, ‘You must be proud of your daughter!’ ” I think he was joking.

The Jacksons were season ticket holders. They saw me at a game, and suddenly, at 22, I was choreographing reunion tours and working with Michael and restructuring the Janet Jackson campaign. I started trends. I’d go to the imports section at Tower Records and buy whatever got under my skin and choreograph routines to it. I fell in love with Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science.” No one had heard it. We performed it with the Laker Girls. And the next day Rick Dees on KIIS introduced it with “As heard on the Lakers floor.” I was taking songs and making them number one. “Freak-A-Zoid” by Midnight Star and “One Thing Leads to Another” by the Fixx. We took so many songs platinum. It was like I was in A&R without even knowing it.

I told my record company I wanted to do a video homage to Gene Kelly with the song “Opposites Attract.” We dedicated it to him, and he reached out to me. We got to know each other toward the end of his life. I’d just done a successful Diet Coke campaign with Elton John, and they asked me to do a tribute to dance. They took Frank Sinatra out of a scene, and I got to dance next to an image of Gene. And he rehearsed me for it at his house. He was like a drill sergeant. It was thrilling.

A lot of amazing things happen in Los Angeles. I think I’m on my fifth reinvention. L.A.’s a tough city, but it’s a magical city.