Alex Tresniowski
January 01, 2000 12:00 PM

It was the kind of gritty scene that Jennifer Lopez, A-list actress, would normally kill to play: Two days after Christmas, a beautiful young woman gets hauled into a Manhattan police precinct in the dead of night, where she is grilled by cops and handcuffed to a bench. She is also fingerprinted and detained for hours. Shaken, she sobs uncontrollably, her makeup smeared by tears.

Unfortunately for the 29-year-old superstar, this wasn’t a script, and her Dec. 27 trauma was painfully real. The film and recording sensation—pop culture’s reigning It Girl and a driving force behind the boom in Latin entertainers—was arrested along with her boyfriend, rap impresario Sean “Puffy” Combs, 30, after a shooting at the packed city hot spot Club New York, in which three people—a bouncer and two bystanders—were wounded, none critically. Lopez and Combs, along with his chauffeur Wardel Fenderson, 41, and bodyguard Anthony Jones, 34, both of whom were also arrested, fled the midtown club in a gray 1999 Lincoln Navigator and according to police ran at least 11 red lights before they were finally pulled over. Cops spotted a 9-mm pistol, later found to be loaded and stolen, on the floor next to the passenger seat. “The cops were saying, ‘Why didn’t you stop?’ and she said, ‘I didn’t know they were trying to pull us over,’ ” says a police source about Lopez’s long and contentious interrogation. “They said, ‘We know why you didn’t want to stop—you knew the gun [was in the car].’ She kept saying, ‘I didn’t know, I never saw it before.’ ” Police eventually cuffed Lopez to a bench outside the holding cell because male prisoners were then in the cell. “Once they stopped talking to her and cuffed her, she cried for hours,” says the police source. “At first she was mad at the cops. Then she turned from angry to crying.”

Following 14 very unmerry hours, Lopez was cleared of any involvement; she was released that afternoon. Combs wasn’t as lucky; his two gun-possession charges stuck. (Released on $10,000 bail the same day, he faces up to 15 years in jail if convicted. He’s due back in court on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day.) The rapper is no stranger to run-ins with the law. Most recently, he was nabbed for reportedly attacking a record executive with a champagne bottle in April. Last week he again found himself in the wrong place. According to a police report, witnesses say that an unidentified man at Club New York threw a wad of cash at Combs, prompting aspiring rapper Jamal “Shyne” Barrow, 21, Puffy’s protégé and part of his 30-strong entourage that night, to pull out a semiautomatic pistol and fire several shots. Barrow allegedly hit three victims, two of whom were hospitalized with shoulder and face injuries. At least one witness told police Combs pulled out a gun as well, though Combs denied all. “Under no circumstances whatsoever did I have anything to do with a shooting,” he insisted at a Dec. 28 press conference. “I do not own a gun nor did I have possession of a gun that night.”

After both he and Lopez were released by police, the exhausted couple holed up at Manhattan’s posh Peninsula hotel, where they comforted each other and called attorneys. Says a close friend of Combs’s: “Puffy’s not a shooter. He’s a bright guy and a workaholic. He’s a guy who has gotten caught up in the image of what a street hip-hop guy should be, and it’s not really him. It’s an immaturity.” He also doesn’t want to look like a bad guy. “He has lots of friends from when he was a nobody, and many are bad guys and he won’t get rid of them,” adds his pal. “The question is, when does loyalty end and stupidity begin?”

The ugly incident has prompted many Lopez fans to ask another question: What’s a nice girl like her doing with a bad boy like Puffy? On the cusp of full-blown superstardom and already one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood (she earned $5 million for her next film, The Cell, costarring Vince Vaughn), Lopez is on a white-hot streak, dazzling critics with her flirty performance opposite George Clooney in the 1998 crime caper Out of Sight and stunning the music industry with a double-platinum-selling debut collection of dance songs, On the 6, last year. She is also under a lucrative contract to be the face of L’Oréal cosmetics.

Yet her reputation might not stay as unblemished as that celebrated face, thanks to the shooting. “This kind of drama will cross people’s minds” when casting her, says public relations expert Terrie Williams, who has handled Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock in her 12-year career. “There could be some producers that Jennifer might want to work with who may have issues with Sean.” And while it’s true that the tough-talking, Bronx-born Lopez is hardly the beauty to Puffy’s beast—she hit an early career snag after trashing actresses Winona Ryder and Gwyneth Paltrow in a 1998 interview—this scandal suggests her roller-coaster relationship with Combs is at odds with the mainstream success she craves. “I feel really bad for Jen because she’s not part of that hardcore scene,” says Louis Canales, a Miami Beach nightclub fixture who has known Lopez for years. “But she’s in love with the man.”

It sounds like a segment on The Jerry Springer Show: “Help, My Boyfriend Is a Thug.” In many ways, though, Combs, the self-proclaimed “black Sinatra,” and Lopez, who dressed up as Marilyn Monroe to warble “Happy Birthday” to her beau last November, are not such an unlikely match. Friends for years (he produced a track for On the 6), they have been a rumored item since 1998. That was around the time Lopez divorced her husband, club manager Ojani Noa, now 25, after less than two years of marriage. Since then, Combs and Lopez have become regulars on the party circuit. With a flamboyant flair they made a splash in matching white outfits at Puff’s elaborate Labor Day party at his mansion in East Hampton, N.Y., where he has been embraced by such tony Hamptonites as Martha Stewart. The couple also openly bussed at the MTV Video Music Awards show afterparty last September. “I’ve never had anyone love me the way [Jennifer] loves me,” Combs said at his birthday bash at Manhattan’s trendy Oriont. “I love her, and hopefully one day I’ll be able to marry her.”

Whispers of an imminent wedding—some predicted millennium weekend—should come as no surprise to the couple’s friends. “They’ve always had a deep-rooted respect for one another,” says Jason Binn, publisher of Florida’s Ocean Drive magazine and a Puffy pal since 1994. “They’ve watched each other grow.” Indeed, Combs and Lopez come from similar humble, Catholic backgrounds. Lopez, who is Puerto Rican, was born in a working-class Bronx neighborhood, the second oldest of three daughters of David, a computer specialist, now 58, and Lupe, 54, a kindergarten teacher. (Her parents are divorced.) Combs, a former altar boy who grew up in Harlem and later in suburban Mt. Vernon, N.Y., was raised by his mother, Janice, now 59 and a former schoolteacher. Sean’s father, Melvin, a drug dealer, was killed when Combs was 3. “I’ve been with them when everyone in the room was born rich,” friend and well-known rap mogul Russell Simmons recently said. “They have a different kind of privileged attitude. They both struggled for what they got.”

The couple are also known for their extraordinary drive. Combs was a business administration student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., when he landed an internship at the R&B label Uptown Records in 1990. By age 23 he launched Bad Boy Records and went on to produce bestselling albums by hip-hop artists Mase and the late Biggie Smalls as well as his own hit 1997 CD No Way Out. (The two-time Grammy winner earned a reported $54 million in 1998.) Lopez, meanwhile, turned a 1990 gig as a dancing Fly Girl on the FOX comedy show In Living Color into a breakthrough role as the late Latina singing sensation Selena in the 1997 movie of the same name. “She had ambition written all over her,” actor Brian Kerwin, her costar in 1996’s Jack, once said. “She looked like a person who intended to make the most of her talents.”

That ambition, Lopez has said, can get in the way of romance. “For some men,” she told London’s The Sunday Times in October, “it’s hard to handle the fact that work can come first.” Similarly, Combs told PEOPLE last year that his hectic schedule makes having a normal relationship “really not possible…. And I can understand now why sometimes entertainers get together with each other.” Christy Haubegger, president and publisher of Latina magazine, believes the two megastars are suited to each other. “I don’t think people say, ‘What’s she doing with him?’ ” she says. “Who else is qualified to date her? It’s a fairly short list.”

Perhaps their most common bond is a shared interest in livin’ la vida loca. “I fire up very easily,” Lopez told The Sunday Times. “I like excitement. I don’t drink or do drugs or even smoke, but I’m still the one who will get up on a table and dance…. I definitely have a wild side.” Still, she is hardly any match for her honey Combs. “I’m not afraid of anything,” he told PEOPLE. “I don’t fear dying, I don’t fear living, I don’t fear pain.” He certainly doesn’t fear the inside of a police station, as his history of transgressions suggests. Combs first tipped the scandal meter in 1991 when a concert he cohosted in New York City resulted in a stampede that killed nine people (no charges were brought against him). In 1996 he was convicted of attempted criminal mischief after an altercation with a photographer.

Then, last April, Combs, upset over a music video he appeared in, stormed into the Manhattan office of Interscope Records executive Steven Stoute and, along with two bodyguards, allegedly bashed him with a champagne bottle, chair and telephone. He was charged with second degree assault but later pleaded guilty to harassment and was ordered to take an anger-management class. “I handled myself inappropriately,” Combs later admitted. “I made the wrong decision.” Yet Combs, who reportedly dotes on his two kids, Justin, 6, and Christopher, 20 months, by two different former girlfriends, and who founded the Harlem-based Daddy’s House, a charity for underprivileged kids, has a softer side. He has admitted to crying for three hours after watching Love Story and also aspires to be a role model—something that won’t be any easier for him after this latest incident. “He’s trying very hard to do that,” Arista records president and friend Clive Davis said last year, “to the extent he admits he’s capable of making mistakes.”

Many wonder if he’ll keep making them. “It seems like there’s been a whole lot of wrong times and wrong places in Puffy’s life,” says Alan Light, editor-in-chief of Spin magazine. “At a certain point you have to learn to be smart about that sort of thing.” Some might offer Lopez the same advice. “I know her parents always tell her to watch her back,” says Ojani Noa. “Her father thinks [Puffy] seems like a nice guy, but he knows what is in the media.” Others aren’t worried that the incident—or her association with Combs—will tarnish Lopez’s shining star. “She’s dating a bad boy, she’s got a tough image, and that’s actually part of her appeal,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Company, a box office tracking firm. “She isn’t necessarily Miss Goody Two-shoes.”

How she is perceived might be the. least of her concerns right now. “She feels fortunate that she’s out of this mess,” a close associate says of Lopez, who by last Tuesday had retreated to the protection of family and friends. “Terrified, I think, is the most appropriate adjective. I think she’s just happy to be alive right now.”

Alex Tresniowski

Natasha Stoynoff, Maria Eftimiades, Sophfronia Scott Gregory, Ivory Clinton, Joseph V. Tirella, Cynthia Wang and Sue Miller in New York City Michael Fleeman and Michelle Caruso in Los Angeles and Grace Lim in Miami

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