Paula Abdul, Straight Up

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A Fresh Start

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.


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