It's 1983. Armed with reams of national publicity spawned by his much-imitated "Men of Arizona State" beefcake calendar, ASU grad Todd Headlee floats into Hollywood and almost immediately sells his tale to the movies. The opportunity of a lifetime? Not for Headlee, who, despite "associate producer" billing, is banned from Tempe location shooting of the calendar-based flop comedy Campus Man. It's 1989. While working as an assistant in a Hollywood management agency, Headlee is asked to give two clients a ride. The clients take a shine to him and, almost immediately, insist that Headlee manage their career. The second opportunity of a lifetime?
That depends on how you feel about Milli Vanilli. "It's been a nightmare--but an exciting nightmare," says the 32-year-old Headlee, who can't seem to win for losing.
Speaking recently from the Los Angeles press conference where Milli micro-phonies Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan have just apologized for accepting a Grammy for an album on which they hadn't sung a note, the duo's former manager chuckles malevolently.
"The secret was bound to come out sooner or later," Headlee insists. "Rob and Fab have this knack for burning just about every bridge they cross." Then, with an indeterminate amount of sincerity, he adds, "It's quite unfortunate. If these guys hadn't stepped on so many people on the way up, these same people might not be biting their asses on the way down."
Although he hasn't represented Milli Vanilli since September, Headlee had his own reasons for personally wanting to see the boys stripped of their 1989 Best New Artist Grammy award. The ceremony provided a tidy final chapter to Adventures With a Pop Star, a mud-slinging expose that Headlee is still writing.
While Headlee is no stranger to fluke celebrityhood, nothing surrounding his calendar fame had prepared him for Milli Vanilli. When he went to work for a Hollywood talent management agency in the summer of 1989, he knew little about the up-and-coming pop act. "They had a record on the radio at the time--`Girl You Know It's True,'" says Headlee, then working as an assistant at Gallin, Morey & Associates, a firm that also handles Dolly Parton, Whoopi Goldberg, and Michael Jackson. "People were beginning to know who they were, but weren't yet what you'd call famous."
As such, Headlee wasn't particularly bowled over when, two months later, the duo's manager asked him to drive the pair to the dentist. "I picked them up in my Jeep," Headlee recalls, "and the first thing they said was `We have to have one of these.' So after the dentist we went to buy a Jeep. Then they saw a tennis racket in my back seat so they wanted to play tennis for sushi. I beat the pants off 'em, so we went for sushi. I guess we just really hit it off really well."
Or so Headlee's boss soon discovered. The next day, the Milli boys demanded that the agency replace their manager with Headlee. "My boss couldn't believe what he was hearing," recalls the erstwhile Milli helper. "He said, `Todd is not equipped to manage you. He's never worked in the music business and he's never been a manager.'"
"That's okay," came the reported reply. "We'll learn together. We've never been pop stars, either."
That happened on Wednesday. "On Monday, I was on a plane to Germany with Rob, Fab, a makeup artist, the band, the whole bit," says Headlee. "And me, an inexperienced amateur."
So green, in fact, that Headlee claims he initially had no inkling he was witnessing "the biggest snow job" ever to rock the music biz--even though the pair lip-synched their way through every song in their show. "It's really not that uncommon," Headlee insists. Pointing out that many acts now use prerecorded vocals while performing strenuous dance sequences during live shows, Headlee says he simply chalked up Milli's total dependence on tape to new technology. But two weeks into the tour, when the dreadheads spilled the beans, Headlee had a brainstorm. "When they confided in me and told me the truth, I immediately began keeping journals," says Headlee. "I thought, `Wait a second--I see another Campus Man coming up!' This was better than anything I could ever make up. If they could make a movie about a stupid thing like a calendar, think what they could do with this."
In Headlee's version of the story, the ruse began when the Franco-German team, a pair of struggling musicians living in Munich, agreed to lip-synch in a video version of "Girl You Know It's True," a track put out by German record producer Frank Farian. In return, Farian supposedly promised his pseudo singers a recording contract. Although a recording date never materialized, plenty of video work did. "Things just sort of snowballed from there," says Headlee.
Asked why Farian didn't cast the actual vocalists (since identified as Johnny Davis, Brad Howell, and Charles Shaw) in the video, Headlee laughs. "Did you see Shaw on TV after this story broke?" he asks. "Enough said. No offense, but he just doesn't have it. We're living in the video age where image is everything. Rob and Fab have image plus." What they didn't have was singing talent--a fact that didn't stop them from demonstrating a couple of remarkably mundane voices at last week's press conference. "Who could have guessed that this song was going to become an international smash?" asks Headlee. "By the time the tour was over and we came back to America, Rob and Fab were bigger than ever."
Especially their heads, claims Headlee. "As time went by, they became increasingly difficult to work with," he claims. He characterizes his clients as "little monsters" who were "about as trustworthy as Freddy Krueger." "They began believing their own hype, and they didn't have any respect for anyone." Between keeping the performers happy and the rumor-sniffing press at bay (some music critics wondered how the pair's heavy accents mysteriously vanished on vinyl), Headlee claims he earned every cent of his surprisingly low $650-a-week paycheck. "They always had to have their sushi," he recalls. "We were in Podunk, Missouri, and they're screaming, `Where's our sushi?'"
When not beating the bushes for raw seafood, Headlee spent a lot of time convincing Milli Vanilli to clam up. "They considered themselves talented singers and performers," claims Headlee. "Every time they threatened to go public with the truth, they had to be talked out of it. It was my job to support them, so I had to lie all the time."
Last September, still smarting after being overlooked by a Playgirl magazine "sexiest men of rock" layout, the putative popsters gave Headlee the heave-ho. "They were upset about a lot of things," says Headlee, "but primarily because we weren't able to convince Farian to let them sing on the next record."
Suddenly out of a job, Headlee cranked out a press release in October announcing plans to expose the boys in his forthcoming book. Late last month, USA Today printed a story about Headlee's allegations, but did not specifically mention the album scam. Headlee speculates the blurb may well have forced Arista Records to come clean. "I think the record company panicked, Frank Farian panicked and everyone thought, `If Todd comes out with the truth, we're all going to be caught with our pants down.' Instead, I think they decided to jump the gun. Myself, I was thrilled that they came forth with the truth because for the producer to come out with the truth had a much greater impact than had I done it."
Oddly enough, Headlee predicts the damning disclosures in recent weeks will do nothing to muffle Milli Vanilli. "What this has done is to open a new window to artists," he says. "Now, not only can people enter the music business with music, but Milli Vanilli has proven you can enter it through video as well. I think it's a wild notion today, but five years from now we're going to look back and realize they were pioneers. I really believe that Rob and Fab have blazed a trail into the Nineties with what is quite possibly a whole new art form."
Rob and Fab were "about as trustworthy as Freddy Krueger."
When not beating the bushes for raw seafood, Headlee spent a lot of time convincing Milli Vanilli to clam up.