The Grammy curse: Milli Vanilli’s Fab Morvan and other best new artist winners look back

Winning the breakthrough award is an honour for many, but a curse for others. In the lead-up to this month’s ceremony, past winners open up about their experience taking home to the accolade

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 January, 2018, 8:31pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 January, 2018, 8:30pm

Winning the Grammy award for best new artist is a goal for most breakthrough performers, but for some of its recipients, it can create pressure to match previous success or surpass it.

That’s why some feel that winning the award is something of a curse.

The Recording Academy has been known for picking the wrong best new artist winner over the years. Some of the world’s greatest musicians have missed out on taking home the accolade, such as Elton John, Elvis Costello and the Dixie Chicks. Taylor Swift lost, too, though it was to Amy Winehouse. But other choices might surprise you – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis not only beat Kendrick Lamar, but also Ed Sheeran.

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But sometimes the Grammys do get it right: The Beatles, Bette Midler, Mariah Carey, John Legend and Adele are some of the superstars who have picked up the honour, and have followed up their wins with impressive work.

In the lead-up to the 2018 Grammys on January 28, we take a look at four acts who won best new artist in the past and what life was like afterwards.

Milli Vanilli

Fab Morvan of infamous lip-synching duo Milli Vanilli says that even before the Grammys asked the duo to return their award for best new artist, the group planned to give it back.

Winning the award definitely made us a major target. It pissed people off.
Fab Morvan, Milli Vanilli

“We didn’t sing on the record … so we wanted to give it back. It was the right thing to do,” he says. “To this day it got twisted [and people thought] the Grammys wanted it back, when in fact we were the first to say, ‘We want to give it back’.”

Milli Vanilli, who won the honour at the 1990 Grammys, had to famously return the award after the public learned Morvan and Rob Pilatus didn’t sing on the duo’s 1989 US debut, Girl You Know It’s True.

Morvan says despite that, it was still an honour to be nominated and that he and Pilatus, who died in 1998, still put in a lot of work. “We were the heart and soul of Milli Vanilli,” he says. “We worked hard. We worked our butts off. We entertained people.”

Milli Vanilli beat acts including Indigo Girls, Soul II Soul, Neneh Cherry and Tone Loc for the honour. In some ways, Morvan feels winning the Grammy actually hurt the group.

“We were a target, an easy target at that. So, you know, winning the award definitely made us a major target. It pissed people off,” he recalls.

Jody Watley

Winning best new artist for Jody Watley was vindication in its finest form.

“I remember reading at the time when I quit Shalamar in 1983, ‘Jody Watley’s future will probably be the most in doubt’,” she recalls with a laugh. “Pretty much everyone made sure that I knew that they thought I would fail. Everyone said that it would be the biggest mistake of my life, that I would live to regret it. And so … getting nominated and winning it is one of the greatest moments of my life.”

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Watley had previously been nominated for a Grammy with R&B group Shalamar, so being a nominee for best new artist surprised some people. She won the honour at the 1988 show, beating Swing Out Sister, Cutting Crew, Terence Trent D’Arby and Breakfast Club.

I shut a lot of people up,” she says.

Watley says she knows that the conversation around winning best new artist “sometimes … has a negative connotation,” but she wants to remind people that she’s “a great success story”.

Arrested Development

Arrested Development made history when they won best new artist in 1993, becoming the first rap act to do so. It opened doors for hip-hop performers such as Lauryn Hill, Chance the Rapper and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis to win the same honour.

If I had a chance to do it over again, I would have just taken more time on the second album, regardless of how it sells.

“People who had never explored [hip hop] and didn’t totally get it really got what we were bringing out,” says Speech, the lead vocalist and co-founder of the progressive rap group. “It made me proud that we were sort of like introducing hip hop to a large audience.”

Arrested Development’s 1992 debut, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of …, was a departure from the gangster rap that had dominated radio at the time. The album had three top 10 pop hits, including Mr. Wendal, People Everyday and Tennessee, which won the group another Grammy.

But following their debut album wasn’t an easy task, Speech says. “For our second album, the label was more in a business model thinking about quarters and when can they make the biggest impact from a first- to fourth-quarter standpoint, and things that have less to do with the heart [of making music],” Speech recalls.

“If I had a chance to do it over again, I would have just taken more time on the second album, regardless of how it sells. It’s not even because it didn’t sell as well as the first, but just because that’s what the art deserves.”

Debby Boone

Being named best new artist in 1978 was an “out of body experience” for Debby Boone, who had a huge hit with the song, You Light Up My Life. But following up the win was a challenge.

“It did create pressure. And I think it added to the discouragement,” she says.

Though Boone didn’t match the achievements of her debut album and single, she still released music that charted successfully and won more Grammy Awards.

But she admits she has “mixed feelings about” how things took off after her best new artist win.

“I thought everybody knew more than me. So even when I didn’t particularly like the choices that were being made on my behalf, I would tell myself, ‘These are the experts. These guys know. I don’t like this song, but I’m going to give it my best shot’.

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“And now I’m old enough to realise, first of all, I don’t want to spend my life doing things that I don’t believe in, or love, or feel passionate about,” the 61-year-old adds. “I think the healthiest attitude at this stage of my life, and even 20 years ago, is to say, ‘It is what happened’.

“And though I haven’t had a string of hit records, basically on the strength of that hit record, I have, for 40 years, had a very full life of performing and recording,” she says. “And I’m nothing but grateful.”