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Simon vs. Paula: It's Getting Nasty!

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“It’s like a scene out of The Exorcist sometimes,” says Simon Cowell of Paula Abdul’s dramatic outbursts, which often occur less than six inches from his face. Actually, there’ve been no swiveling heads or obscenities – yet. But Abdul has been erupting, angrily defending her turf and her opinions against the sarcastic, dismissive Brit. “You take the joy out of me having fun and showing love!” she all but howled at him during the New Orleans auditions. “You are so obnoxious.

During the Hollywood rounds, she grew so heated during a dispute with Cowell, she finally vented by calling over a producer and simply yelling – to no avail – about Simon’s opposition. It’s almost as if she’d been drinking “diva juice,” laughs one producer. Abdul isn’t laughing with him. “In terms of judging,” she says, “I’m really the force to be reckoned with. Good is always more powerful than evil.” [IMAGE “2” “left” “std” ]After nearly two months of auditions, elimination rounds and now the final 24, the fourth season promises to be the most emotionally extreme yet, “a musical version of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” says Cowell, invoking another over-the-top movie. Which means that ratings are better than ever. But Abdul’s hair-trigger confrontations with Cowell aren’t just for the camera. “Never,” says Abdul, who often gets emotional to the point of tears. “There’s nothing rehearsed. Everything is authentic.” Says Cowell: “It is not an act with Paula. If she can’t get her way, she goes nuts. The crew can get nervous around the two of us, definitely.”

One steady source of tension, to Abdul’s frustration, has been Cowell’s criticism of contestants for being overweight. “I stood up to him and said, you know, ‘Look, you’re causing eating disorders to happen.’ ” Fans applauded her for that, she says, but this season once again Cowell caused a flap when he told three blonde triplets they looked like “overweight Jessica Simpsons.” In Abdul’s opinion, “He’s just mean.” [IMAGE “3” “left” “std” ]Abdul and Cowell have always been the show-within-the-show of Idol. From the start, the 42-year-old singer-dancer-choreographer and the 45-year-old British record exec have talked up their love-hate yin-yang. (Third judge Randy Jackson, 48, usually sits out their battles, “reliable as an old sheepdog,” says Cowell.) Says Abdul: “Simon would constantly be reminding me that he’s a genius. He’s in love with himself.” Meanwhile, Cowell just loves to push her over the edge: “If I am feeling mean and I know that she’s feeling sensitive, then I can’t help myself.” He also likes to throw out suggestions that there’s a sexual spark behind the flare-ups. “I think they’re like a couple that broke up,” says JP Molfetta, 27, one half of a pair of twins who both eventually suffered rejection this season, “and once in a while they’re still sleeping together.”

But even a long-term dysfunctional relationship can take dynamic swerves: This season Abdul seems to have decided to publicly embrace her role as the judge who understands what the kids are feeling. “I’m not afraid to stand up to Simon,” she says. “I understand he represents the ugliness of this business. But he also represents questioning the dream, the American dream. Not just questioning it. Crushing it. Whereas I’m about hope.” [IMAGE “4” “left” “std” ]Cowell counters that her passion can be fickle. “Quite often,” he complains, “someone whom she fights for like mad, she has forgotten during the next round.” But Abdul insists she has a strategy. “Whether Simon wants to admit it or not, when he sees me that passionate about someone, it’s inevitable he takes notice.” The same goes for Jackson, she says: “If I don’t stand up for a contestant, Randy falls into being seduced by Simon.”

Keep in mind, too, she’s the one girl trying to make herself heard in a boys’ club. She’s shut out of the weekly Thursday-night get-togethers of Jackson, Cowell and host Ryan Seacrest. “It is like having a horrible sister who always wants to come,” says Cowell. Oddly enough, she has an ally in Cowell’s girlfriend, Extra special correspondent Terri Seymour. “They’re as thick as thieves,” says Cowell. “They go out. She’s probably more on the side of Paula than me.” [IMAGE “5” “left” “std” ]There is some kindness – once the singing stops. Cowell even acts as wise older brother, says Abdul. “When I start dating someone he tells me, ‘I’m going to give you some advice: Try not to talk too much,’ ” she laughs. But when she broke up last year with former Smith & Wesson executive Colton Melby, “Simon was very much there for me.”

So yes, concludes Cowell, “it is a strange relationship, to say the least. But I couldn’t imagine now doing the show with anybody else.” Says Abdul: “We do get along . . . as long as he’s on his side and I’m on mine.”

• Written by Tom Gliatto, Mike Lipton and Jill Smolowe. Reported by Darla Atlas, Andrea Billups, Todd Gold, Wendy Grossman, Lisa Ingrassia, Shia Kapos, Susan Mandel, Rebecca Paley, Monica Rizzo and Sandra Sobrieraj Westfall