Robert “Rob” Pilatus was a German singer, dancer, and model, who performed as one half of the pop music duo Milli Vanilli. Interested in the show business from an early age, he began his career in the entertainment industry as a model and break dancer. Pilatus was briefly part of a group called Wind before music producer Frank Farian spotted him and created Milli Vanilli with him and Fab Morvan. In the initial years, the duo was a massive international success; their album was certified Platinum and they even won a Grammy. However, in 1990, it was revealed that they did not perform any of their songs and that they were simply the public faces for the real singers, Charles Shaw and Brad Howell. The reaction was swift. The group’s Grammy Award was withdrawn and their record label not only dismissed their contract, but also omitted the album and songs from their catalogue. In 1993, Pilatus and Morvan tried to make an unsuccessful comeback by repackaging themselves in a new group, Rob & Fab. In the following years, Pilatus struggled with substance abuse and suicide attempts and later was incarcerated for three months. He passed away in April 1998. At the time, he and Morvan were planning another comeback and had already completed a new album.
Childhood & Early Life
Born on June 8, 1965 in New York City, US, Rob Pilatus was the biological son of an American soldier and a German stripper. Soon after his birth, his parents gave him up and he grew up in an orphanage in Munich, Germany. He was adopted by a German family and was raised alongside his adoptive sister, Carmine.
He began performing rather early. In Germany, he worked as a model and break dancer. When he was 22 years old, he participated in the 1987 Eurovision Song Contest in Brussels as a member of a group named Wind.
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In 1988, Rob Pilatus met Farian who signed him and Morvan for his planned musical act. The name of the group, Milli Vanilli, reportedly came from an advertising slogan that the duo came across in Turkey, where they went for a short trip at the time. Despite the fact that both of them had thick accents, Farian did not see any need to refine their voices. Instead, Charles Shaw and Brad Howell, who Farian felt were musically talented but lacked the necessary charisma to succeed as performers, were made to sing the tracks.
In a 2011 interview, Morvan revealed that at the time of signing the contract, Farian had given them a small advance, which they spent in buying clothes and styling their hair. Several months later, they were informed that they would be lip-syncing to the songs and not actually be singing them. If they didn't wish to do that, they had to pay back the advance they had gotten in full. According to Morvan, “We were not hired. We were trapped.”
Milli Vanilli’s debut album, ‘All or Nothing’ was released only in Europe via Hansa label in November 1988. A year later it was released in the United States under the name ‘Girl You Know It's True’ with several original songs replaced and/or remixed. Interestingly, while ‘All or Nothing’ is generally considered by many as one of the worst albums of all time, Girl You Know It’s True’ was certified Platinum and the duo received the Grammy Award for the Best New Artist in 1990.
The speculations that they were not actually singing had been around for a long while. A former MTV executive named Beth McCarthy-Miller has stated that during the duo’s first interview with the channel, there were doubts among those present as to whether they were the real singers due to Pilatus and Morvan’s broken English. In a conversation with a reporter, Shaw revealed the truth but retracted his statement when Farian gave him $150,000.
Both Pilatus and Morvan wanted to sing themselves on their next album. On November 15, 1990, Farian spoke to reporters, admitting to what they had been doing. Four days later, Milli Vanilli’s Grammy was rescinded. Their record label, Arista Records, terminated their contract and removed the album and all of their songs from their portfolio.
In early 1991, Farian released a new album titled ‘The Moment of Truth’, with Shaw and Howell this time. However, it was only released in Europe and got a lukewarm response from the fans.
Pilatus and Morvan, in an effort to reinvent themselves, moved to Los Angeles, and under the name of ‘Rob & Fab’, released a self-titled album. Financed by Taj Records, it only sold 2000 copies. Taj declared bankruptcy soon after and the duo stopped speaking to each other.
Later Years & Death
After the collapse of Milli Vanilli, Rob Pilatus developed a substance abuse problem. He even tried committing suicide multiple times. In 1996, he spent three months in prison for assault, vandalism, and attempted robbery. When he was released, Morvan funded his six-month stay at a rehabilitation centre. Subsequently, Pilatus moved back to Germany.
In 1998, the duo finished a new album, ‘Back and in Attack’, and were about to go on a promotional tour. On 2 April, Pilatus’ body was discovered in a hotel room in Friedrichsdorf, a town about 20 km north of Frankfurt. He was 32. The death allegedly occurred from alcohol and drug overdose, with the authorities concluding it being accidental. Pilatus was buried in the Waldfriedhof cemetery. He was survived by a son from a previous relationship and his sister Carmine.
While ‘Back and in Attack’ was never released, the album ‘Milli Vanilli Greatest Hits’ was put out on March 26, 2007.