Abdul was born in San Fernando, California, to Jewish parents. Abdul's father, Harry Abdul, was born into the Syrian Jewish community in Aleppo, Syria; was raised in Brazil; and subsequently immigrated to the United States; her mother, the concert pianist Lorraine M. (née Rykiss), grew up in one of two Jewish families in Minnedosa, Manitoba in Canada, with ancestors from the Ashkenazi Jewish minority in Russia and Ukraine, and Abdul derives Canadian citizenship through her. She has a sister named Wendy, who is seven years her senior. In 1978, she graduated from Van Nuys High School and was voted girl with the funniest laugh.
An avid dancer, Abdul was inspired towards a show business career by Gene Kelly in the classic film Singin' in the Rain as well as Debbie Allen, Fred Astaire, and Bob Fosse.
Abdul began taking dance lessons at an early age in ballet, Jazz, and Tap. She attended Van Nuys High School, where she was a cheerleader and an honor student. At 15, she received a scholarship to a dance camp near Palm Springs, and in 1980 appeared in a low-budget Independent musical film, Junior High School.
Abdul studied broadcasting at the California State University at Northridge. During her freshman year, she was selected from a pool of 700 candidates for the cheerleading squad of the Los Angeles Lakers NBA basketball team the famed Laker Girls. Within a year, she became head choreographer. Six months later, she left the university to focus on her choreography and dancing career.