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Paula Abdul is one of the most successful female artists of all time, and her music and choreography have had an indelible influence on American culture.
However, as the "Straight Up" singer revealed at her first residency in Las Vegas, her success was never guaranteed. In fact, her position as the head choreographer for the Laker Girls, which launched her career, would never have happened were it not for a "brave, bold, and daring" move inspired by her late father.
The story of how Abdul landed her position as a cheerleader for the Los Angeles Lakers is one of several anecdotes the singer tells in Paula Abdul: Forever Your Girl, her show at the Flamingo showroom that is a dazzling display of dancing to her greatest hits interwoven with the tale of her rise to fame. It will resonate with her many LGBTQ fans, who are no strangers to facing adversity and barriers to entry in life.
As Abdul, now 57, tells it in her show, four friends from her cheerleading camp urged her to join them for the Lakers tryouts at age 18. "I don't think so, I kind of don't fit the mold," Abdul -- who at 5 feet tall stands at a height far below that of the average NBA cheerleader -- recounted telling them at the time. However, a bit of persuasion allowed her to overcome her initial fear that she did not "have the legs" for the position.
"I figured, what the hell did I have to lose?' Adbul said.
When Abdul arrived at the stadium in a carpool with her friends, she was handed the number of 742. Thousands of young women had arrived for the tryouts, necessitating auditions in large groups.
"All right, girls, we're thinning the herd. This is the first cut. Thank you for coming," the announcer told the section that Abdul and two of her friends had joined.
"I didn't even get to dance," Abdul told the crowd at the Flamingo Las Vegas with sadness. However, that did not deter Abdul, who had not expected the competition to be a walk in the park. "I brought a dance bag," she said. "I knew what I was up against."
Heading to the stadium bathroom, Abdul changed into a new leotard and tights that she had brought with her in the bag and tied her hair into a ponytail. She then reapplied to the tryouts under her middle name, Julie, as well as a misspelling of her last name as "Abbal."
In her second attempt at the tryouts, Abdul joined a section with her two remaining friends, "who are looking at me like, 'I can't believe you're doing this.' But I did it and we danced. And we all three got cut."
However, Abdul had one more trick up her sleeve, and that was one more leotard -- striped with red and white in the style of Jane Fonda -- along with blue legwarmers, a blue headband, and a scrunchie. With this one last sartorial chance in hand, she implored her friends to wait for "one more round." They in turn told her to "go take a bus" if she wanted to stay.
And stay she did. "I was like, all right! What do I have to lose?" she said. "I went into the ladies' room. I did some praying on the throne. And I swore that I'd be brave, bold, and daring. And I saved the best for last," which was the final leotard. She changed into the ensemble and entered the tryouts one last time under the name P.J. Apple -- her first and middle initials -- combined with another misspelling of her last name.
Abdul did the routine once more, front and center, in front of the judges. To her dismay, the announcer said, "Back half of the arena, come to the front. Front half, go to the back."
"I went, 'Oh, my God, they're not gonna see me. They'll forget about me,'" Abdul said. "But I said I'd be bold and daring and brave. And I ran back up to the front, in the center, and I did the routine, and the third time, I made it as a Laker girl."
The crowd burst into cheers and applause after Abdul recounted the story of how her persistence paid off. In response, she credited her late father, Harry Abdul, as having imparted to her the lessons of how to succeed against the odds.
"My dad taught me at a very young age, 'No is the beginning of a negotiation.' And I always carry that with me," Abdul said. "And Dad, I hope you're watching from above, and I hope you're proud of me."
This would be far from the last time this wisdom would help Abdul in her career. Even after she became the head choreographer with the Lakers -- which would eventually lead to her work with Janet Jackson and the rise of her own career as a name in the music industry -- Abdul had to create routines in a shared apartment that had no full-length mirrors. She recalled standing on the edge of the bathtub, holding on to the shower curtain, in order to see her footwork in the bathroom mirror.
"Out of those humble beginnings, some of my most award-winning work was created," Abdul said.
Abdul went on to release Forever Your Girl in 1988, which broke records for a string of number 1 hits like "Straight Up" and "Opposites Attract." In addition to performing these hits in Vegas, Abdul recounts the story of their making on a shoestring budget of $72,000. Money was so tight that, in the case of "Cold Hearted," Abdul once again returned to a bathroom to record it.
Be inspired to fight the odds in person at Abdul's residency, which runs until January 4 at the Flamingo Las Vegas.