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Abdul co-produced the 2001 pilot for Skirts, an MTV television series about a high school cheerleading squad; Abdul was also set to appear as the head coach. In 2002, she began appearing as one of three judges on the Fox reality competition series American Idol, where she won praise as a sympathetic and compassionate judge and mentor.
She seemed especially kind compared to fellow judge Simon Cowell, who was often blunt in his appraisals of the contestants' performances.
Although she was a skilled dancer and choreographer, Abdul was a relatively untrained singer, and worked with various coaches and record producers to develop her vocal ability, with her vocal range defined as mezzo-soprano.
Ayeroff recalled signing Abdul to a recording contract years later, stating: "She said, 'I can sing, you know. Here's someone with a personality and she's gorgeous, and she can dance. So she went into the studio and cut a demo record and she could sing." Her debut studio album, Forever Your Girl (1988), would become the most successful debut album in history at that time, reaching number one on the Billboard 200 chart after 64 weeks (where it would spend 10 weeks at number one), and set a record for the most singles from a debut album to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the United States. A remix album, Shut Up and Dance: Mixes, was also released and reached number seven in the United States, becoming one of the most successful remix albums to date.
In 1991, singer Yvette Marine filed a lawsuit against Abdul and the Virgin label, alleging that it was her vocals that were used on several tracks from Forever Your Girl, most notably "Opposites Attract".
Abdul saw continued success with her second studio album Spellbound (1991), which saw two additional number-one singles: "Rush Rush" and "The Promise of a New Day".
Spellbound retained the dance-pop sound from Forever Your Girl and introduced elements of R&B, and sold 7 million copies worldwide.
She has received five MTV Video Music Award nominations, winning twice, as well as receiving the Grammy Award for Best Music Video for "Opposites Attract" in 1991.
She received the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Choreography twice for her work on The Tracey Ullman Show, and her own performance at the American Music Awards in 1990.