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Paula Abdul on her 'Coming to America' wedding choreography: 'One of the things I’m most proud of'

Lyndsey Parker
Editor-in-Chief, Music

Eddie Murphy and Paula Abdul are both having a moment right now. Murphy is earning raves for his performance in Dolemite Is My Name and generating excitement for the forthcoming sequel to his 1988 smash comedy Coming to America; Abdul was the breakout star of the recent Billboard Music Awards with her gravity-defying performance, and this week she’s launching her new residency, Forever Your Girl, at the Flamingo Las Vegas. So this seems like the perfect time to revisit Abdul’s groundbreaking African choreography in Coming to America’s famous wedding scene. “To this day, a lot of people don't know that I choreographed Coming to America,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment.

Abdul was still a Laker Girl and choreographing for the Lakers and Janet Jackson when she got the call from director John Landis. She already knew Murphy and his Coming to America sidekick Arsenio Hall (whom she would later date) because they were Laker game season ticket holders — but Murphy and Hall didn’t know Abdul was vying for the job. Another secret Abdul kept was her true age.

“John Landis wanted to meet with the girl who choreographed Janet Jackson,” Abdul recalls. “And I just remember coming in very businesslike with a briefcase that all I had in it was my taped Laker Girl routines and Janet Jackson's — a couple of her videos, that was it. But I remember [thinking], ‘This could be really exciting.’

“I remember John Landis coming out to the waiting area, opening up the door and going, ‘What are ya, 17?’ And I went, ‘19.’ I was turning 18. ... I had to prove myself, because he thought I was going to be someone older and more experienced.”

Abdul somehow convinced Landis to give her a shot. “I always have been one of those people that, you know, what do I have to lose? I'm going to prove myself. And I offered to work with dancers, workshop them, and ‘I'll come up with something and you take a look at it, and you tell me if you want to hire me.’ And that's what I did.”

Abdul, having grown up in the L.A. suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, knew she needed to study up before she created a credible African dance routine worthy of the big screen. “It’s funny to me, because when you think about it back then, there was no internet, of course — so no YouTube. There's nothing that I could make reference and look up. So I'd go to the library and look up periodicals. … I created my own style of what I thought should be right for the movie, and John Landis loved it. I worked with Nile Rodgers on the music and we came up with a drum loop. There were lots of intensive rehearsals, and it was hardcore; it was a lot of work. It was not an easy thing to accomplish, but it’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”

Abdul, a seven-time Emmy Awards nominee who won an Outstanding Choreography Emmy for her work on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1989, has many achievements of which she can be proud. “I remember working with Prince and working with George Michael during his Faith tour, and putting that together and choreographing the Academy Awards, and Aretha Franklin, and ZZ Top, and so many people. I've had so many wonderful iterations of career,” she reminisces. But she says it’s always been on her “bucket list” to have a residency in Las Vegas, and she describes her Forever Your Girl revue as a “celebration of the many facets of my career for the past few decades. I talk about my humble beginnings. I do storytelling with me talking and also storytelling visually through dance. It's just very unique and it's really fun.”

Abdul’s youthful appearance on the red carpet and during her show-stopping routine at the 2019 BBMAs caused a stir, and as she preps eight to 10 hours a day for her residency, the 57-year-old comeback pop star credits the InMode aesthetic treatment FaceTite and BodyTite and an alkaline diet for keeping her looking practically how she did when she walked into Landis’s office at age 18. “I had have long talks with body, asking my legs and feet not to fail me,” she says of her overall self-care routine. “A lot of physical training goes into putting a show together, especially one of this nature: Pilates, paying attention to my body, really warming up, and not taking my body for granted.”

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