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Finding His Own Voice--After Milli Vanilli

Comebacks: Fabrice Morvan's world crashed after the lip-syncing hoax. But he quietly regrouped and now is back at the mic--all by himself.

September 25, 1997|CARLA RIVERA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the tiny space of a Hollywood cantina where he has come to perform, Fabrice Morvan executes a bouncy spin that looks familiar.

But where there once were famously false long braids, now there are natural waves. The stylized costume he used to wear has been replaced by a casual shirt and baggy pants, and the relentlessly orchestrated production that was a trademark has been stripped to the basics: an acoustic guitar and a voice.

Against mid-tempo chords, the song speaks of life's vagaries:

Tables turn. You can be up or you can be down

so when you're up, don't take it for granted

but appreciate it. You never know when it's gonna stop.

As one half of Milli Vanilli, Morvan used to dazzle thousands during a concert. Tonight, the crowd numbers maybe 20. But that's just fine, Morvan insists.

"I'm not even looking at becoming big," he says. The applause at the end of his late-night set is loud and prolonged, and "the only recognition that I want," he says, "is to be respected as a singer and songwriter. What comes afterwards, I don't know."

In 1989, Morvan and partner Rob Pilatus caused just about the biggest ruckus in the history of the Grammys. They had to forfeit their award as best new artists of the year when it was revealed that they sang not a note on "Girl You Know It's True," a Milli Vanilli album that had sold 10 million copies.

They'd been one of the hottest touring acts of the day--until they admitted that they had lip-synced their way across three continents.

Milli Vanilli became the butt of a long-running national joke. Now--with a dozen new songs mixing soul-inflected rock 'n' roll, and rhythm and blues iced with reggae--Morvan has launched a career of his own, and his timing seems to be judicious.

There seems to be a wave of nostalgia for all things Milli Vanilli. A TV special recently shown on VH1 told of the duo's rise and fall, portraying Morvan and Pilatus in a mostly sympathetic light as the young, albeit ambitious, pawns of a greedy record industry.

Now, Morvan's manager and best friend Kim Marlowe has signed him for a gig Sunday night at the Viper Room, the hottest nightspot of the moment. And there is talk of movie deals, autobiographies, even a greatest hits album.

It may be a lot of hollow clatter. But Morvan maintains that he is trying to find his own voice, both literally and figuratively.

*

No matter who one blames for the Milli Vanilli fiasco--German record producer Frank Farian for initiating the hoax, or Morvan and Pilatus for perpetuating it--Morvan has managed to weather a very public humiliation relatively unscathed.

Pilatus became addicted to drugs, attempted suicide and had run-ins with the law. But the French-born Morvan retreated to the background, studied English by reading sci-fi magazines and history books, wrote songs, and worked quietly on improving his voice.

Ask him how he managed to remain so undisturbed, and you get maddening banalities: "Life is a learning process;" "I dwell on the present, not the past." But he seems to open up when he speaks of his family.

"My mom said, 'Look, Fabrice, you're my son; you'll always be my son. Do whatever you have to do. I trust you; I have faith in you.' My father--it was different. I have a close relationship with my mom. My dad is like. . . . He laughed when it all happened. When we really talked about it, he laughed. It was like, 'ha, ha, ha, I knew it anyway, so what's he going to do now?' So I said I'm going to continue. This is what I want to do."

But he also got a real job, working for the Berlitz language school, teaching French to students in their homes and to groups (including a stint at the Los Angeles Times, where he went unrecognized).

"Teaching has been a good thing for me," he says, "because it allowed me to teach my language, my heritage, but it's helped me a lot, because . . . I'm a very, very shy person, and it helped me overcome that." Indeed, these days Morvan offstage is much like he is onstage: an appealing bashful quality mixed with a spunky edge.

During Milli Vanilli, he says, "I lived a very sheltered life, and I never stayed close to people because I didn't want it to come out and I had to protect myself."

"It," of course, was the hoax.

He says it hasn't been easy to get back up in front of an audience. His first outings came about a year ago, on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade before whoever would listen. The acoustic setting--which leaves no doubts about who is singing--was carefully planned, and Morvan says he now feels confident that people can listen to him without prejudice.

He tries hard not to be defensive about his voice. But it is a subject that hardly can be avoided.

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