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Jennifer Lopez: This Is Me...Now

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Jennifer Lopez has been up all night. Not that she’s nervous or anything—more like “excited,” she says with a giggle, “like when you’re in fourth grade and have a field trip the next day.” Only, the actress-singer-mogul advising a stream of passing models on boots and hats while munching M&M’s in the Manhattan headquarters of her Sweetface clothing company on Feb. 10 isn’t jazzed about a trip to the museum.

Instead, Lopez is about to show her line of glamorous urban garb—including a mink jumpsuit and jeans with a diamond button—for the high-power crowd of celebs and fashionista gathered for the fall shows beneath tents at Bryant Park. Lopez being Lopez, she wants, as she tells PEOPLE amid the chaos of assistants, executives and interns, “everything to be right.” Meaning come showtime Feb. 11, the 700 director’s chairs made in three sizes for the event will be properly placed in the tent if it takes the crew of 200 all night. (It does.) The 200 pounds of Swarovski crystals just flown in from Austria will glitter across every step of the runway. (Ditto.) And as for the model who wants to work the catwalk in shoes that don’t fit just because she likes them—well, whaddaya gonna do? “I walked all through Europe in a size 11 boot and I’m really an 8½,” confesses Lopez with conspiratorial glee. “But I’m crazy like that.”

In other ways too. Though she has spent much of the last nine months nesting, out of the public eye, with her new husband, Marc Anthony, she has hardly been keeping idle professionally. With a crazy busy career that includes a $350 million fashion and fragrance empire, 35 million CDs sold—her fifth album, Rebirth, hits stores on March 1—as well as the $12 million per picture acting gig that pairs her with Jane Fonda in the summer release Monster-in-Law, Lopez, 35, is back with a vengeance. And also a cold.

The day after her much-acclaimed $2 million extravaganza at Bryant Park, she hopped a plane to L.A., where she turned in a far less successful performance with Anthony, 36, at the Feb. 13 Grammys (see box). But it wasn’t the tepid reviews that got her down. It was the swollen glands and sore throat. The next day, on her doctor’s orders, she said, she canceled a trip to London to promote Shall We Dance with costar Richard Gere—as well as her European concert tour for Rebirth. Though she made it to Germany on Feb. 19 to perform her first single “Get Right” for the TV show Wetten, dass..? Lopez was so off her game that she stepped on one of her backup dancers. “I almost fell,” she later said. “That never happens to me.”

Indeed, the misstep was so rare that it fueled talk in the European press that she must be not sick but pregnant. Lopez wouldn’t mind. “Family is something that has always been really important to me,” says Lopez, who until now has refused to publicly acknowledge that she exchanged vows with Anthony in the backyard of her former Hollywood Hills home on June 5. With a reluctant nod, the star gives up her no-comment stand. “Yes, we’re married,” she says. “I mean, come on, everyone knows. It’s not a secret.” Nor are her hopes to be a mother. “One healthy baby would be enough for me,” she says.

For now, she is practicing for motherhood on Anthony’s three children (Arianna, 10, Cristian, 4, and Ryan, 18 months, who live with their mothers but visit frequently). Determined to be at home by 9 p.m., she watches TV (she tapes The Ellen DeGeneres Show) and sneaks in a little undisturbed time with Anthony and Lopez’s two dogs, Boots and Reina. “I don’t take phone calls after a certain time now,” she says. “Before, people could call me at 2 or 3 in the morning and I didn’t care. But it’s different now. The most important thing,” Lopez explains of her “little bit suburban” life, “is I need eight hours of sleep or else I’ll lose my mind.”

And these days, sanity is high on her list of priorities. Alternately thoughtful, cautious and playful during her interview, Lopez can’t help but divide her life into before and after, or, as she puts it, “phase 1 and phase 2.” On the one side is, of course, Bennifer—the 18-month romance with Ben Affleck that she played out in her music videos, in movies and in front of TV cameras and that came to a painful and very public end in January 2004.

“I was just living,” Lopez says of the attention she at first welcomed but ultimately found destructive. “I don’t want to complain. I take responsibility for the fact that I didn’t make adjustments. Now I’m a little more careful. I travel in a certain way. I leave at a certain time. I learned.” But it wasn’t only her personal life that was out of control. After nearly a decade of nonstop work, she says, her career felt “like a grind, like I was one of the hamsters on the wheel.”

So she took six months of downtime beginning shortly before her split with Affleck—”the first ever, ever, in six or seven years,” she says—and since then phase 2 has been marked by “balance. I learned I don’t have to be on the wheel all the time. I just jump on when I feel like it.” Her easier attitude was evident last May, when she walked into a recording studio in L.A. to begin work on Rebirth, calmer, happier and more enthusiastic than she had been in years. “I was smiling a lot more,” says Lopez. And according to producer Rodney Jerkins, who wrote songs for Rebirth as well as Lopez’s first two CDs, singing a lot better too. “Marc had a lot to do with that,” Jerkins says of Anthony, who cowrote and produced one of the tracks. “There’s a certain trust she had in him vocally, and it made the difference and brought out her strengths.”

Not just professionally. Whether on the road for work or at one of their places in L.A., Miami Beach, Manhattan or the Long Island town of Brookville, in an estate set amid winding tree-lined lanes that they now consider their primary home, they are, says a Lopez friend, “ever present in each other’s lives.” While taping a 30-second commercial for the NBA recently, says Scott Weinstock, executive creative director for the NBA, Lopez and Anthony were “together between every take. She would sit on his lap.” Endlessly collaborative, they “finish each other’s sentences,” says a Lopez pal. “They don’t always agree, but they work it out. They’re really good friends.”

Those close to Lopez see that friendship as the base of their love. “They are always looking out for one another,” says one. “They take care of each other.” To wit: The day before the Grammys, notes another source, Anthony was “very protective” of his ailing wife, whom he calls Lola. “He made sure she enjoyed quiet moments. He was specific about stopping for lunch, turning off phones and taking a real break.” Later that evening, as the two looked over a table of sunglasses at the Distinctive Assets Grammy Lounge at the Staples Center, it was he who needed help, saying, “You pick for me. You know what looks best on me.” Holding up a pair of silver-mirrored aviators, Lopez said, “Papi, try these. These would look good on the red carpet.”

And so Lola and Papi slowly shift from secretive superstars into a regular old married couple—one that is no longer “trying to hide” and is “much more comfortable with the idea of letting people see them,” says her friend. He paints around the house, she zips over to Starbucks, and if the spirit moves her, heads over to a nearby Long Island university to use the gym or track—though she is not “fanatical” about exercise as she once was, she says. “I do it when I have to, when I have to buckle down. But when I don’t, I’m more lackadaisical.” Which doesn’t mean she neglects her body. “These days I’m eating a lot of salads,” she says. “I’m a big meat-eater, which I bring from my childhood. I don’t smoke, and I drink very little soda. Those things wreak havoc on your skin. And the sleep thing is very important.” Eventually, she hopes, caring for a baby will interrupt those eight hours. But, as she says, “I’m not on a timetable.” Her life, concludes Lopez, “is more normal than it’s ever been.” A rebirth indeed.

By Karen S. Schneider. Todd Gold, K.C. Baker, Lisa Ingrassia, Caroline Howard and Samantha McIntyre in New York City, Brenda Rodriguez and Kwala Mandel in Los Angeles, Karen Nickel Anhalt in Berlin and Linda Trischitta in Miami