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The Right Puff

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When you’re as rich as Sean “Puffy” Combs, you soon learn that the simple things matter—like having a fresh pair of shorts. On a recent afternoon the hip-hop impresario, wearing only a white towel around his waist and dripping water on the hardwood floors of his midtown Manhattan recording studio and apartment, is trying to get dressed. But the apartment, where Combs has holed up while his ex-girlfriend Kim Porter moves out of their Park Avenue place, is lacking certain necessities. “Hey, Jason!” he calls out to an assistant. “We got any clean socks and underwear around?”

Maybe he should ask Jennifer Lopez. Though he insists they’re just “great friends,” Combs, 29, has for at least the past six months been joined at the lips with the white-hot singer-actress, 30, frolicking in swimming pools and dancing hot-and-heavy at private parties. She’s the latest trophy in the rap mogul’s reported $250 million empire. The proud owner of a powder-blue Bentley he bought for $375,000 and a $2.5 million Easthampton, N.Y., estate, where he has thrown lavish parties for Donald Trump, Martha Stewart, Kevin Costner and other friends, Combs amassed his wealth by bottling hip hop for the masses. He stylized Mary J. Blige, Jodeci and the Notorious B.I.G. into top mainstream artists, then turned the magic on himself to produce his own hit album, 1997’s No Way Out, which sold 6 million copies. “He brought a rock and roll edge to hip hop and made it very glamorous,” says Vibe editor-in-chief Emil Wilbekin. Though sales on his latest CD, Forever, are sluggish, Combs’s sideline ventures, such as Sean John clothing, Notorious magazine, Bad Boy Film and Television, and Justin’s Restaurants (named for his 5-year-old son by ex-flame Misa Hylton; he and Porter have a 1-year-old son, Christian), are doing well enough to keep Combs in his favorite Versace furs, Prada shoes and diamond earrings. How has he done so well? “He’s got vision,” says fellow mogul Trump. “There are very few people who [do], and he’s got it in abundance.”

But like so many masters of the universe, Combs suffers from image problems. In April he was charged with assault when, irate because Interscope Records executive Steven Stoute didn’t cut Puffy’s cameo from a video Combs considered offensive (it depicted him and rapper Nas as crucified), Combs allegedly burst into Stoute’s office and attacked him. “I had no right to lose my cool and touch him or anything, but I did,” says Combs. “At that moment I wanted to fight. I really embarrassed myself.” Combs apologized to Stoute. In September the charges were reduced to a minor violation, and a judge ordered Combs to take an anger-management course.

Then there was the reported rivalry between Combs’s label, Bad Boy, and Death Row Records that culminated in the unsolved murders in 1996 of Death Row rapper Tupac Shakur and, in 1997, Combs’s best friend, Christopher Wallace, better known as the Notorious B.I.G., who was shot in Combs’s presence at an L.A. party. He blames his bad rep on bad press. “Sensationalized stuff that never happened,” says Combs. And the record-label feud, he claims, “is a bunch of media propaganda.”

One thing the tabloids got right was Combs’s steamy connection with Lopez, for whose Top 10 CD On the 6 he produced and wrote a track. Rumors about the pair intensified in September, when Lopez appeared scantily clad on the cover of Combs’s Notorious. They eventually went public at September’s MTV Music Awards, holding hands for the cameras.

But a few of Combs’s friends are wary of the romance. “I just feel it’s something they jumped into too soon,” says rapper and friend Lil’ Kim. Fellow hip-hop magnate Russell Simmons, however, believes he and Lopez are perfectly matched. “They seem happy,” he says. “They are both from the same kind of humble beginnings.”

Combs’s roots are in Harlem, where he was born to Janice, a model and teacher, and Melvin, a drug dealer who was shot and killed when their son was 3. His mother moved with Sean and his sister Keisha to suburban Mount Vernon and told the children their father had died in a car accident. Puffy (who got his nickname because of his habit of puffing his cheeks in and out when angry) seemed to adjust well. Still, “I could always sense a bit of sadness behind those large, shining dark eyes,” says Susan Taylor, editor-in-chief of Essence magazine and a longtime friend of the family. “I always believed that he was grieving.” At 17, digging into old newspaper clips, Combs learned the truth about his father’s death. “[Melvin] was a drug dealer, a street hustler,” he says. “But he was a good street hustler. He was a successful street hustler.”

His son was into a different sort of hustle. After classes at Howard University, Combs started dancing in videos. One day on the set he was impressed, he says, by “a couple of guys who came in with their suits and cell phones and got out of their limo. And I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know what they do, but I want to do that!’ ” He began by landing an unpaid internship with Andre Harrell, then head of Uptown Records in New York City. “He was always up under you, always taking notes,” recalls their mutual friend Simmons. Combs quit school to work full-time at Uptown, rising from gofer to vice-president in just two years. By 1993 he had acquired his own label, Bad Boy Records—as well as a bad-boy reputation at Uptown, which fired him that year for insubordination. Combs, at Harrell’s suggestion, moved Bad Boy to Arista Records in a reported $15 million deal, taking with him the Notorious B.I.G., whom he’d discovered.

Nowadays, Combs spends the bulk of his time with a cell phone glued to his ear, brokering deals and overseeing his artists’ work down to the most cosmetic detail. “Puffy thinks he can do my hair,” says Lil’ Kim, giggling. “He’ll come in and put it the way he likes it.” Yet on four hours sleep a night he also finds time to work out with a personal trainer and take acting lessons. “I’m all over the place, but I’m always totally in control,” Combs says. Well, not always. Though he’s a doting dad to sons Christian and Justin, whom he sees two to three times a week, even a mogul can’t control the bathroom habits of his children. “I change diapers with the doo-doo in it and everything,” says Combs. “I wish they were potty trained from the get-go. But it ain’t like that.”

Sophfronia Scott Gregory

Sue Miller and Natasha Stoynoff in New York City