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Paula Abdul accuses 'American Idol' producer of sexual assault

Updated December 30, 2023 at 8:17 PM ET

Television star Paula Abdul filed a civil lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Friday accusing American Idol executive producer and So You Think You Can Dance judge Nigel Lythgoe of sexual assault and gender-based violence against her.

Lythgoe has denied the allegations.

According to court filings shared with NPR by Abdul's legal representation, the Beverly Hills-based law firm Johnson & Johnson LLP, the multipart complaint describes long-term harassment of the American Grammy- and Emmy Award-winning singer, dancer and actor by executives and others involved in the production of American Idol.

"She was the target of constant taunts, bullying, humiliation, and harassment from several executives, agents, employees, and/or representatives of Defendants," the filing alleges.

Allegations of direct physical attacks

But the main focus of the lawsuit is a pair of direct physical attacks Abdul, 61, allegedly experienced at the hands of the 74-year-old British TV executive, director and choreographer.

The first occurred during her tenure as a host on American Idol in the early 2000s, during one of the show's initial seasons. The complaint states Lythgoe and Abdul were on the road for Idol's regional auditions when Lythgoe allegedly groped and kissed Abdul in a hotel elevator.

"Abdul attempted to push Lythgoe away from her and let him know that his behavior was not acceptable. When the doors to the elevator for her floor opened, Abdul ran out of the elevator and to her hotel room," the complaint states. "In tears, Abdul quickly called one of her representatives to inform them of the assault, but ultimately decided not to take action for fear that Lythgoe would have her fired from American Idol."

The second alleged instance of sexual assault occurred long after Abdul's tenure on American Idol. In 2015, shortly after Abdul agreed to be a judge on So You Think You Can Dance, Lythgoe invited Abdul to dinner, where he allegedly assaulted her again. "As with the earlier incident, Abdul feared she would be retaliated against or blackballed if she spoke out about the incident," Abdul's lawyers said in the complaint.

Lythgoe said in a statement to NPR that he was "shocked and saddened" by the allegations. "For more than two decades, Paula and I have interacted as dear — and entirely platonic — friends and colleagues. Yesterday, however, out of the blue, I learned of these claims in the press and I want to be clear: not only are they false, they are deeply offensive to me and to everything I stand for."

Lythgoe added: "While Paula's history of erratic behavior is well known, I can't pretend to understand exactly why she would file a lawsuit that she must know is untrue. But I can promise that I will fight this appalling smear with everything I have."

Abdul's lawsuit said she did not come forward with the allegations years ago because of a "fear of speaking out against one of the most well-known producers of television competition shows who could easily break her career as a television personality."

Abdul's lawyers said that Abdul signed contracts that prohibited her from publicly discussing details about the two shows and the people who worked on them that might be viewed as "derogatory."

In addition to Lythgoe, the complaint accuses co-defendents American Idol Productions, Dance Nation Productions, 19 Entertainment and Fremantlemedia North America of being aware of Lythgoe's behavior and doing nothing about it.

Abdul's lawyer Douglas Johnson said in a statement: "Ms. Abdul knows that she stands both in the shoes and on the shoulders of many other similarly situated survivors, and she is determined to see that justice is done."

Abdul made a name for herself in the late 1980s with chart-topping hits including "Straight Up," "Cold Hearted" and "Opposites Attract." She went on to find success as a judge on reality show competitions in the early 2000s. Lythgoe, meanwhile, rose to fame as a choreographer before similarly finding a home on contest-based TV.

A string of cases

Abdul's allegations are the latest in a string of high-profile California lawsuits filed ahead of the expiration, on Sunday, of part of the state's Sexual Abuse and Cover Up Accountability Act.

The law, which was enacted Jan. 1, 2023, contains a one-year revival window for plaintiffs to file claims that would otherwise be barred by the statute of limitations against entities that covered up sexual abuse.

Other filings involving celebrities over the past couple of weeks include a case brought against Jackson 5 member Jermaine Jackson by Rita Barrett, a professional acquaintance, accusing the pop artist of sexually assaulting her in 1988; and a case filed by an unnamed woman against Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee, relating to an alleged assault that took place in a helicopter in 2003.

And the cases aren't just happening in California.

A similar law in New York, the Adult Survivors Act, led to a rash of high-profile sexual assault cases against the likes of Sean "Diddy" Combs, and music industry executives Neil Portnow and L.A. Reid in November, ahead of the expiration of the filing window toward the end of that month.

Giving victims more opportunity to speak out

Other states including Louisiana, Arkansas and Colorado have opened windows for sexual assault filings, according to Jennifer Simmons Kaleba, vice president of communications at the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), one of the largest anti-sexual violence organizations in the U.S.

"The primary reason why states are starting to enact these look-back windows is that we are in fact starting to evolve in what we understand about the time it takes to either process what has happened to one as a survivor and indeed how the justice system works," said Kaleba in an interview with NPR.

"I would consider them advances in how we are treating survivors and the issues of sexual assault, because the idea that sexual assault and then the recovery journey is some linear journey that can be bound by numbers and dates is just fundamentally flawed. It's not a linear journey, and the ability for survivors to have this opportunity and come forward is very important."

RAINN's free and confidential National Sexual Assault Hotline can be reached at 1-800-656-HOPE, or online at RAINN.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.