People Staff
August 01, 2002 12:30 PM

Her 33rd birthday was almost over — but Jennifer Lopez had one more surprise coming. As the clock ticked toward midnight on July 24, the actress left her trailer and strolled to the steps of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, ready to run through a scene for the romantic comedy The Chambermaid. Instead she found the cast and crew of 200 gathered on the steps, serenading her with “Happy Birthday to You.” “I love you guys!” yelled Lopez. She then grabbed two slices of birthday cake and trotted back to her trailer. J.Lo, closet glutton? Not exactly. Ben Affleck was waiting inside — and even a guy dating a sex symbol has gotta eat.

Those who raise their eyebrows at the two stars taking their romance public before the ink dries on Lopez’s divorce papers? Let them eat cake too. “When she wants to do something, she doesn’t wait,” says Lopez’s friend Gilles Bensimon, a fashion photographer. “She wants it now.” On July 22, three days before she and her second husband, dancer Cris Judd, 32, filed for divorce, she was already introducing Affleck, 29, as “my new boyfriend” to pals over dinner at the chic Manhattan restaurant Nobu. “She couldn’t move forward when things were unresolved,” says a source close to Lopez. “She likes everything clear.”

And for the moment at least, everything Ben. “She thinks he’s really smart and really funny,” says her friend. The Bronx-born Lopez befriended the Boston-bred Affleck on the set of their crime comedy Gigli last winter. In March Affleck took out an ad in the trade paper The Hollywood Reporter lauding Lopez’s “graciousness of spirit, beauty in courage, great empathy, astonishing talent, real poise and true grace.” Lopez was just as taken with Affleck. “We both really kind of surprised each other,” she told Oprah Winfrey in May. “I just thought, you know, he was one of these Hollywood guys, (but) he was just, like, a really down-to-earth, charming, sweet, affectionate person.”

Rumors of an on-set fling were later denied by both. So were reports of an early summer hookup. But Affleck — who joined Lopez at the opening of her restaurant Madre’s in April and dined with her July 13 at another L.A. eatery — was clearly smitten, says one source: “He’s been following her around a little.” Both sides insist things didn’t turn romantic until Sunday, July 21 — a few days after Lopez and Judd agreed to terms to end their 10-month marriage — when Affleck flew from L.A. to see Lopez at her $75,000-a-weekend rental spread in the Hamptons town of Wainscott, where they were seen kissing on the beach.

Thus began a weeklong whirlwind in which the couple played peek-a-boo with the press. For example, on Monday they sat and smooched at a center table at Nobu (the same place where a teary Lopez dined with hip-hop mogul Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs, 32, last year just before breaking off their romance).

Two days later Affleck squired the birthday girl from the set of The Chambermaid (which stars Lopez as a hotel maid who catches the eye of a wealthy Ralph Fiennes) to the Park restaurant, where 30 friends surprised her for a celebratory lunch. “They were affectionate, sitting together and whispering,” says a bartender. Affleck had his own surprise: a Harry Winston bracelet of yellow and white diamonds. When paparazzi converged, the two made a point of slipping out separate entrances. For the next three nights, as Lopez worked from 5 p.m to 5:30 a.m. shooting Chambermaid at the Met, Affleck hung out in her trailer. They ordered takeout and often left in separate chauffeured SUVs, with Affleck later hopping out to join Lopez. (In a thoughtful Felliniesque touch, there was even an Affleck lookalike walking around the set to fool photographers.) On the final day of shooting, in Yonkers, N.Y., last Friday, Lopez and Affleck snuggled for a set photographer. “They must have been kissing for 15 minutes,” says an observer. “She looked so happy.”

And ready to move. On Saturday the pair jetted to Lopez’s recently purchased $9.5 million, 11-bedroom Miami Beach mansion, where she was planning a housewarming party. Instead, despite weeks of renovations (Bee Gee Robin Gibb was among neighbors complaining about the noise), the sound system wasn’t working. “She was upset,” says a staffer, “so she canceled all but having a few people in for dinner.” Including Affleck, who was spotted smooching Lopez on her balcony before both headed to L.A. for business two days later, with Affleck due on the set of his superhero saga Daredevil.

Lopez should have plenty of dough left to tweak her speakers, although the divorce settlement with Judd — which includes a strict confidentiality agreement — probably cost her. (A source close to the proceedings says reports of a $6 million to $15 million settlement are “just wrong.”) As for the emotional fallout, Judd is “doing better and better,” says friend Chuck Gibson. He recently filmed a role as Mr. Right in the video for Irish pop singer Samantha Mumba’s “I’m Right Here.”

Lopez and her Mr. Right Now share more than eight-figure salaries and fat gossip-column scrapbooks. Both grew up far from wealthy (Lopez the daughter of now-divorced computer specialist David, 60, and kindergarten teacher Guadelupe, 56; Affleck the son of now-divorced rehab counselor Tim and elementary school teacher Chris, both 59), dropped out of college to pursue acting and dated high school sweethearts while climbing the ladder to success. Then their love lives got complicated. After her 13-month marriage to then waiter Ojani Noa, now 27, Lopez embarked on a tumultuous three-year romance with Combs. She got engaged to Judd three months after that split.

No slouch as a Casanova, Affleck has stepped out with Pamela Anderson, Courtney Love, Shoshanna Lonstein and Famke Janssen since his split with Gwyneth Paltrow in 1999 — even with a three-week time-out last summer for alcohol rehab. “I wasn’t happy with my life,” the actor told Details in April. “Drinking wasn’t making anything better. It was just a distraction.”

Now it seems Lopez — with whom Affleck is set to costar as a married couple with a young daughter in the parenthood comedy Jersey Girl, which starts shooting in Philadelphia in mid-August — is distraction enough. “Jennifer doesn’t smoke or drink, and Ben is celebrating almost a year of sobriety, so it would make sense that being with her makes it easier for him,” says a source. Just don’t expect wedding invitations. “They’re dating today, but who knows about tomorrow?” says Lopez’s close friend. “She wants the freedom to live her life.”


Photo Gallery: J.Lo in Love

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