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It's an elimination night at American Idol and the anticipation and excitement are palpable. As Simon Cowell, Kara DioGuardi, and Randy Jackson take the stage in a studio in Los Angeles, the audience applauds enthusiastically. Then Paula Abdul emerges from the wings, poured into a fleshy pink satin dress with black lace overlay that shows off her every curve. She sashays onto the stage in skyscraper heels and black stockings, waving and smiling. The audience goes nuts.
Though the show may be famous for Simon Cowell's blistering critiques, which dash the dreams of wannabes by the thousands, it's obvious that everyone's heart belongs to Paula. Her fans have come to rely on her air kisses, dramatic arm gestures, encouraging nods, and genuine willingness to give the little guy a break. After all, how could anyone endure Simon's cringe-worthy rudeness if Paula weren't there to pick up the pieces? When it comes to Idol, she's forever our girl.
The former pop star, who turns 47 this month, has never looked better. In previous years she acted erratically, at times slurring her words or appearing disoriented. This year she's got it together. And for a reason: For the first time in 12 years Abdul says she's no longer dependent on medication. The rumors that her sometimes-bizarre behavior was fueled by drugs just may have been true. Abdul was taking heavy-duty pain killers, though she claims she never shot an Idol episode under the influence. But last Thanksgiving, determined to overcome her habit, she checked into the La Costa Resort and Spa, in Carlsbad, California, to wean herself off her medications in one fell swoop. "I could have killed myself.... Withdrawal -- it's the worst thing," she says. "I was freezing cold, then sweating hot, then chattering and in so much pain, it was excruciating. But at my very core, I did not like existing the way I had been."
When we meet at her Mediterranean-style home in the San Fernando Valley, Abdul is eager to talk about her transformative journey. Sitting at her dining-room table, cradling Bessie Moo, an aggressively affectionate white Chihuahua with chocolate-brown spots, Abdul is wistful about the past years. "I'd been working nonstop," she says. But she wasn't really living. Instead, she bought into the showbiz saying, "the show must go on." "I'm an old-school professional," she says. "Never let them see you sweat." But doing so became increasingly difficult for Abdul, who for years has suffered from chronic debilitating pain caused by an unusual series of accidents, the first of which occurred when she was a 17-year-old cheerleader.
Rather than undergo surgery back then, which she says had only a 50-50 chance of correcting her back injury, Abdul decided to learn to live with her damaged body. But after stardom came, things got worse. She broke her leg rehearsing an elaborate stage routine in 1991. She was involved in a car crash and sustained a neck injury in 1992. And then there was the 1993 airplane crash in an Iowa cornfield that left her partially paralyzed, requiring 15 spinal surgeries.
All the while Abdul's career was in high gear. Her first album, Forever Your Girl, was released in 1988 and went multiplatinum, spawning six number-one singles. Her highly choreographed dance videos for Janet Jackson set the gold standard for pop performance. As a dancer trained to accept pain and soldier on, she turned to a combination of painkillers and Chinese medicine to get her through her grueling routines. "I couldn't cancel my tour," she says. "I didn't want anyone to count me out. I tried to keep everything hush-hush." Helping her through her relentless schedule of rehearsals, recording sessions, video tapings, and performances were regular shots of lidocaine. By 2005 she was diagnosed with a chronic pain condition called reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome. The illness, which can be caused by a previous injury, resulted in disabling pain, teeth-chattering, and shingles-like lesions. Paula wore a patch that delivered a pain medication about 80 times more potent than morphine and took a nerve medication to relieve her symptoms. Sometimes she took a muscle relaxer. But the pain was so bad it often left her sleepless and she would, as she says, "get weird." It was the combination of these factors that may have led to the impression that she was high at times when she was on the air.
Her personal life appeared to bear the brunt of her secret struggles as well. In 1992 she wed Brat Packer Emilio Estevez, but the marriage only lasted two years. She said she wanted children and Estevez, who already had two kids from a previous relationship, reportedly didn't. Another marriage -- this time to sportswear designer Brad Beckerman in 1996 -- also didn't make it past the two-year mark. As her relationships unraveled, so did her career. Her '95 album Head Over Heels signaled the end of her pop diva reign.
Hope knocked on her door in 2002 when she was asked to meet about a new reality TV show. She landed the part as one of the judges who would evaluate the talent of amateur singers. From the beginning her kindness dramatically contrasted with Cowell's harsh and sarcastic style. After her first day she tried to quit seven times, but they convinced her to stay. "From day one Simon and I have had a love-hate relationship," she says. "He's like the brother I never had, or wanted." But their crazy chemistry is one of the reasons why Idol is such a hit. And on some level, this is something Abdul recognized from the start. "I always knew the show was going to be a big success," she says.
After a dip in ratings last year, Cowell brought in a fourth judge -- Kara DioGuardi, a songwriter who helped pen hits for Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Miley Cyrus. Coincidentally, she's also someone Abdul took under her wing 11 years ago. At the time DioGuardi was in New York City, dreaming of her own pop career. She gave the star her demo tape. Impressed, Abdul convinced her to move to Los Angeles to get her career started. Though Abdul had nothing to do with DioGuardi's landing the Idol judgeship, she is thrilled to have her onboard. She seems calmer with a female ally by her side. "It's a boys' club no more," she says. "Now it's a sisterhood with Kara, and we're having a blast."
A more lucid Abdul was better able to hold her own after stalker Paula Goodspeed, a rejected Idol contestant, was found dead of an apparent suicide outside her house last November. "I am deeply shocked and saddened," she has said. "My heart and prayers go out to her family." The home is now on the market. When it finally does sell -- dual spiral staircases, leopard carpeting, taffeta-trimmed doggie door and all -- it will mark the end of an era for Abdul. "I want to start fresh," she says. Thanks to her 15th surgery, the physical pain is almost gone. She still runs on only four hours of sleep because she's most creative at night. Abdul relies on faith, friends, and family, as well as yoga and spiritual workshops, to get by. She says she feels 96 percent better, mostly since she is finding balance in her life.
To that end she would like to travel this summer. "I went around the world on tour, but all I saw was the inside of my hotel rooms," she says. And despite a short-lived relationship last year with restaurateur J.T. Torregiani, more than a decade her junior, she is looking for lasting love. "I'm working on finding that guy," she says. "I'm just like every other girl who wants to find a soul mate and live happily ever after."
Back at Idol, Abdul gets up during a commercial break and gives a rejected contestant a maternal hug. He returns the embrace, visibly consoled. At the end of the day, that's Abdul's gift. After a lifetime of ups and downs, she's the patron saint of the undervalued, the one who roots for the underdog and sees promise in the unlikeliest of places. "It's been an amazing journey," says Abdul of her 20-year career. "American Idol has been a gift. Nothing makes me happier than nurturing talent and seeing them rise and take flight. It's my true calling in life."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2009.