Getting in Sync
12/15/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
FABRICE MORVAN STANDS UNDER A spotlight at the hip Viper Room in Los Angeles, tightly gripping a microphone before an attentive audience of about 100. "It was the wrong way to be," he croons from his autobiographical song "Tables Turn." "It was the wrong way to go...I took back my life...Things aren't easy but you can make it..."Though it was just seven years ago that he was gazing out upon sold-out arenas crammed with frenzied fans, nothing pleases Morvan more these days than the respectful applause of an intimate crowd like this one. After all, this time around, Morvan—half of the infamous former duo Milli Vanilli—is getting recognition for actually singing. "I'm a lucky bastard," says Morvan, 31. "They called me back for an encore."
How times have changed. In November 1990, eight months after winning a Best New Artist Grammy for the song "Girl You Know It's True," Morvan and partner Rob Pilatus were exposed as lip-synching frauds and forced to return the award. The spandex-clad duo, says Morvan, quickly became "the joke of the entire planet. We were dropped by everyone—our agent, publicist, managers, friends." Pilatus made a well-publicized suicide attempt in 1991 and staggered in and out of rehab for drug abuse before being arrested in 1996 for drunkenly threatening his L.A. neighbors. "We have no relationship at this point," says Morvan. "I got sober. I am going my own way now."
Though he has yet to land a record contract, Morvan has surprised more than a few people who never realized he had a decent voice. "This is the first time I have ever heard him sing," admits Todd Headlee, a comanager of Milli Vanilli during their heyday. "He reminds me of a male Tracy Chapman." Even Chuck Philips, the Los Angeles Times reporter who exposed the pair, offers praise. "Fabrice has talent," says Philips. "I can't imagine that he couldn't make it as an actor or singer or entertainer."
But Morvan's return to music hasn't been all harmony and grace notes. At first he tried to ignore the scandal and, he says, "zombied" out on video games all day. Settling $30 million in class-action lawsuits filed by disgruntled fans all but wiped him out financially. To save his peace of mind as well as what was left of his bank account, he gave up such pricey habits as cocaine and marijuana. Desperate to prove himself, he took to singing on street corners and, in an effort at anonymity, traded Fab, his Milli Vanilli moniker, for Fabrice. "Up until about two weeks ago some of my new friends didn't even know my history," he says proudly. "I put all of that behind. I was just Joe Blow."
Two years ago he took a job teaching his native French at L.A.'s Berlitz School of Language. "It was really cool," he says. "I never worked in my life. It was my first job." In class, he says, he met people who had little money but "were really happy and fulfilled. I learned that money wasn't really the key to happiness."
For most of his life, Morvan had believed it was. Raised in Paris by Hughes Morvan, an air conditioner repairman, and Myrella Yeye, a pharmacist, he headed to Germany at age 18 to make the' party scene. Because police would oust homeless people caught sleeping on the ground in local train stations, the virtually broke Morvan says he "learned how to sleep standing up." In Munich he became fast friends with Pilatus, whom he met in a club. "We were like brothers," he says. "We starved together." The two formed a soul and rock band and, in 1988, producer Frank Farian offered them a record deal. Morvan insists they believed it was legitimate and, by the time Farian told them he wanted them only to lip-synch, they "felt trapped," Morvan says, "because we couldn't pay back the money."
Now that he has moved from singing on the street to clubs, Morvan, who shares a two-bedroom L.A. townhouse with his guitarist Kenny Empie, says he is "the happiest I have ever been." But he can't fully shake his past. Farian, still one of Germany's top record producers, says he has plans to release a Best of Milli Vanilli album next year and wants to bring Morvan and Pilatus together for a promotional "goodwill tour." Morvan is not tempted. "I sold myself to the devil, and the devil is coming back again," he says. "For all the money in the world, I would never subject myself to that life."
VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Angeles and ROY KAMMERER in Berlin