As they dined at the trendy Japanese eatery Nobu in Manhattan on Feb. 5, it seemed like Jennifer Lopez and her boyfriend Sean “Puffy” Combs had been hit by their own personal tsunami. “You could tell something was wrong,” says an observer. “She was crying.”
And in no mood to eat. The singer-actress had her $90 portion of Kobe beef wrapped to go. Whatever triggered the tears, nine days later, on Valentine’s Day, Combs, 31, took time out from his trial on weapon possession and bribery charges to release a statement announcing that their tumultuous romance—long rumored to be on the rocks—had indeed come to an end. “He was very much in love with her,” says a close friend. “He’s brokenhearted.”
By all accounts it was Lopez, 31, who called an end to the affair, though not before Combs put up a fight by pouring on the romance. On Jan. 26, when they were reportedly already having troubles, the music mogul had 100 white doves and 100 pink balloons released outside her L.A. home to celebrate the opening of her movie The Wedding Planner. Twelve days later he surprised her at a Manhattan recording studio by having his pal Luther Vandross serenade her. “They’d been trying to work it out the last few weeks,” says a source close to Puffy, “but he recognized it wasn’t going to happen.”
Some saw it coming much sooner. Published reports have linked Lopez with Cris Judd, 31, an L.A. dancer who toured with her and appeared in the video for her hit “Love Don’t Cost a Thing.” But a source close to the singer says Judd was not the cause of the split: “There is not a third person involved. This breakup was just between the two of them.”
Given that they are headed in such different directions, there seems no need for a third party. Lopez, who boasted America’s top-grossing film (the $47 million hit Wedding Planner) and album (J.Lo, which has sold over 500,000 copies) for a period earlier this year, is a superstar on the rise. Combs, despite two Grammys and a business empire reportedly worth $250 million, is an accused felon facing up to 15 years in prison on charges stemming from a Dec. 27, 1999, shootout at a Manhattan nightclub in which three people were wounded. Not exactly an ideal beau for pop culture’s reigning ‘It’ girl. “They’ve always been on-again, off-again,” says an insider, who adds that Lopez’s family never warmed to Combs. “Now that he is in hot water, it’s easier for her to get out.”
But she may not be able to avoid testifying. That night Lopez was taken into custody along with Combs, his security guard Anthony Jones, 34, and driver Wardel Fenderson, 42, after police accused them of fleeing the midtown hot spot Club New York in Combs’s gray Lincoln Navigator. Lopez was later released without being charged. Still, witnesses have testified about what she did and said that night, including that she allegedly shouted in the backseat of the Navigator that Puffy’s protégé, rapper Jamal “Shyne” Barrow, 22 (who was apprehended outside the club), had “busted off,” or fired a gun.
The day after Combs announced the split, Fenderson told the jury that the star had tucked a 9-mm gun into his waistband before entering the club and later offered Fenderson $50,000 to tell police the gun was his. (Combs was not charged with actually firing a gun.) The next day, while Puffy professed his innocence to reporters outside the court, Lopez was promoting her film The Cell in Tokyo, where she faced a mild crowd. At a packed press conference, not one reporter mentioned Combs or their split.
Back home, some who had missed the signs were left wondering what went wrong. “They seemed,” says hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, “like they were doing really well.” Certainly the pair, who have been friends at least since Puffy produced a track for Lopez’s first album, On the 6, had plenty in common at the start. Lopez was born in the Bronx, the second of three daughters of David, 59, a computer specialist, and Lupe, 55, a kindergarten teacher (the two are now divorced). Combs was a child of Harlem, an erstwhile altar boy who was raised by his mother, Janice, now 60, a former school teacher, after his father, Melvin, a drug dealer, was killed when Sean was 3.
By the time they came out as a couple in September 1999, it was clear they also shared a common drive. Combs, who launched Bad Boy Records at age 23, had produced several hit albums and seen his own 1997 release No Way Out sell 7 million copies. His new ladylove, who had been married to club manager Ojani Noa, 26, for over a year, divorcing in 1998, had risen from the ranks of the Fly Girl dancers on the early ’90s FOX series In Living Color to become a bona fide leading lady, starring in 1997’s Selena and acting opposite George Clooney in 1998’s Out of Sight.
Initially, though, the rap star was cautious. “Almost every girlfriend I had has been the one to leave me,” Combs told PEOPLE in 1999. “It’s impossible to give the time a relationship really needs…when you’re so engulfed in your work.”
Good thing play figured highly in their relationship. The hosts of lavish parties at Manhattan clubs and his $2.45 million home in the Hamptons, they most recently whooped it up in November in Miami, where Lopez threw a three-day bash for Puffy’s birthday. Friends and family flew in on a rented jet for the affair, which began with dinner for 70 at South Beach’s Joia restaurant on a Friday night and ended with a party for 2,000 at the Miami club 320. “They were inseparable throughout the entire evening—holding hands, always side by side,” says the club’s co-owner Michael Capponi.
Now that the party’s over, friends say Combs will concentrate on beating the charges against him, while Lopez will likely throw herself into her blossoming career, which is unlikely to be affected by the split. Says one industry heavyweight, Artemis Records chairman Danny Goldberg: “She is at the pinnacle of success. She’ll be part of the culture for many, many years to come.”
Sharon Cotliar and Bob Meadows in New York City, Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles and Denise Sypesteyn in Miami Beach