On Tuesday’s episode of RuPaul’s new talk show, RuPaul (which kicked off a three-week trial run Monday on selected Fox affiliates), consummate survivor and savior of this year’s Billboard Music Awards show, Paula Abdul, took to Ru’s pink couch to promote her upcoming Las Vegas residency. In the process, she told a story she’s previously told several times about surviving a plane crash during her Under My Spell Tour, which ran from 1991-92. She said:
“During the end of my world tour, the Spellbound tour, when I was traveling from one city to the next, in a small seven-seater plane, one of the engines blew up and the right wing caught on fire, and we crash-landed. I didn’t have my seatbelt on and I hit my head on the top of the plane and that went on to... I withstood 15 cervical spinal surgeries and I had to take seven years off. And then I reappeared on American Idol.”
There are several remarkable things about this oft-repeated account that generally go unremarked. One is that this went entirely unreported at the time—a search of Nexis archives yields no news stories from the ‘90s about Abdul, who was at one point a bonafide superstar, surviving a plane crash (or even being in a plane that required an emergency landing). Ditto that on a search of Google Books. The earliest mention of Abdul surviving a plane crash that I could find was the May 20, 2003, episode of Dateline. As she did on RuPaul, Abdul has consistently told this story to explain the chronic pain that led to a series of surgeries and explain her absence from the spotlight in the late ‘90s, though her account as to whether this led to an dependency on painkillers has varied through the years (in 2005 she told PEOPLE, “No drug ever worked for me,” while a 2009 Ladies’ Home Journal profile said, “For the first time in 12 years Abdul says she’s no longer dependent on medication”).
Another remarkable thing is that none of the plane crashes in the National Transportation Safety Board’s database remotely fits Abdul’s description, given the possible dates when such a crash allegedly took place.
Abdul wasn’t so specific on RuPaul, but in previous tellings, she has pinpointed the date of the accident as occurring between the St. Louis and Denver stops on the tour. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch story that ran June 21, 1992, placed the date of her St. Louis performance at June 19, 1992, Abdul’s 30th birthday. An Entertainment Weekly report about the summer of 1992's tours mentioned a June 22 Abdul concert at Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre in Englewood, Colorado, which is six miles outside of Denver. In a 2014 Hudson Union Society interview, Abdul said she had “just finished onstage” when she boarded the flight.
Then, 30 to 40 minutes into the flight (the time has varied in her repeated accounts), there was trouble. “About 40 minutes into the flight, an engine [caught fire],” Abdul told People magazine in a May 2005 story.
“Thirty-five minutes into the air leaving St. Louis, going to Denver, an engine blew up, right wing caught on fire at the other end, and crash landed in flames in a cornfield,” she said on the May 19, 2006, episode of Larry King Live, according to a transcript.
“The whole plane was in flames,” is how she described it to the Hudson Union Society.
Abdul told King there were no fatalities. Her account of banging her head against the plane’s ceiling has been consistent.
Where the plane landed is another odd matter. When she has specified it, as she did to VH1 in 2008 and in a 2009 interview with Twin Cities radio station KDWB’s show Dave Ryan in the Morning (now The Dave Ryan Show), she’s said that the plane landed in a cornfield in Iowa. But at its closest point, Iowa is about 200 miles away from St. Louis and well north of the straight shot from that city to Denver. The flight in total should have taken some two hours and 15 minutes in total, according to Flight Sphere.
In the aforementioned KDWB interview, Abdul confused several dates. She said that the crash happened when she was “on tour at the end of ’93. It was on my birthday, too.” (As previously mentioned, the Under My Spell tour wrapped in 1992, and Abdul’s birthday is June 19.) She also said that she was 27 at the time (she would have been 31 at the end of 1993) and that she “broke through” her seatbelt during the crash. Dave Ryan in the Morning provided the audio from that interview for Jezebel to post:
(Credit where it’s due: It was KDWB’s in-house conspiracy-theorizing after the interview that inspired me to write this post.)
“I was knocked out unconscious,” she recalled during the Staten Island stop on her (utterly incredible) 2018 Straight Up Paula Tour, which incorporated the plane-crash story in its narrative of Abdul’s perseverance. “And when I came to, all seven of us were holding hands. Everyone was saying prayers. But all I could think about was, ‘This isn’t right. It’s not my time to go.’ Then we crash-landed in flames in a cornfield. And I was knocked out again, only to wake up in a hospital where a microsurgeon had told me that I had crushed my entire cervical spine, which led to [inaudible] paralysis on my right side. Then I disappeared for close to seven years.”
But that’s not quite true, either. She resumed her Under My Spell tour, which according to Wikipedia, wrapped in August of that year. She released another album in 1995, Head Over Heels, which she promoted, sometimes with the kind of energetically choreographed performances that were her trademark. That album flopped, and then she disappeared for about seven years.
How she managed to go down in a flaming aircraft and get treated in a hospital without a single word leaking to the press is another mystery, albeit one Abdul has accounted for... mysteriously. “That’s something I quietly made go away—no paparazzi or tabloid stuff,” she told VH1 in 2008. “I took care of that. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me or to count me out.”
“Back then, we didn’t have tabloids like we do now,” she reportedly told journalist Allison Kugel in 2018. “We didn’t have the extent of paparazzi or the (internet), so you were able to contain some information.”
During their 2006 interview, Larry King told her he’d never heard of the plane crash, reasoning (perhaps insincerely) that it didn’t get a lot of attention. “Well, it did get some attention, but I didn’t want to make a—I worked it out publicity wise. I did not want...” said Abdul.
“Milk it?” interrupted King.
“Yes,” said Abdul.
Odder still is that the National Transportation Safety Board’s accidents database lists no record of a plane crash in Iowa at any time between Abdul’s St. Louis and Denver-area shows in 1992. There are only a handful of aircraft accidents, in fact, in the general vicinity during the timeframe between June 19, 1992, and June 22, 1992—in Meade, Kansas, in Rocky Ford, Colorado, in Brighton, Colorado, in Falcon, Colorado. None of them seem likely flyovers 30 to 40 minutes into such a trip. None of the descriptions in their accident reports remotely match Abdul’s story.
A spokesperson in the NTSB’s media relations department told me that a scenario in which such a crash occurred but was not documented by the NTSB would seem unlikely, though it could be possible if it was never reported and if wreckage was never found. Imagine Abdul and her crew... just ditching that burned-up plane.
A spokesperson in the press office of the Federal Aviation Administration wrote to me that it’s possible that such a crash would have not been investigated if it resulted in minor damage to the aircraft and minor injuries to those on board. Then it would be classified as an “incident,” as opposed to an “accident.”
(A search of other NTSB reports in Kansas around the time of the supposed Abdul crash pulled up a seemingly minor-sounding one from April 1993, in which a pilot lost control of the plane during a landing roll, resulting in the collapse of landing gear and the right wing tip digging into the ground. No injury was reported.)
Abdul’s rep did not respond to my request for clarification on this matter. Abdul has also cited car accidents and her long history as a dancer (including her famous stint as a Laker Girl) as contributing to her pain. Perhaps this supposed plane crash will remain mysterious, but like Abdul told the Hudson Union Society: “It doesn’t matter what you go through, it’s how you come out.”
Update (June 14, 2019, 8:00 am): A reader named Katie Sowder dug up a Kansas City Star article that reviews a Paula Abdul/Color Me Badd concert that it says took place at the Sandstone Amphitheater (now Providence Medical Center Amphitheater) in Bonner Springs, Kansas, on June 20, 1992. This show would have taken place between Abdul’s June 19, 1992, show in St. Louis, and her June 22, 1992, show outside of Denver, and further convolutes Abdul’s narrative.
(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)