September 19, 2011 12:00 PM

Paula Abdul is dancing to her favorite old-school tunes at a PEOPLE photo shoot. As Stevie Wonder sings, “Isn’t she lovely?” he could easily be referring to the 49-year-old, who’s looking better than ever with a svelte figure and youthful glow. “I’m working on it,” says Abdul. “It seeps out when you feel comfortable in your own skin, and I feel more comfortable today than I ever have.”

Perfect timing: Abdul is teaming up with old pal Simon Cowell, 51, as a judge and mentor for the U.S. edition of his hit U.K. singing competition show X Factor, premiering Sept. 21 on FOX. “Simon knew nurturing talent is my wheelhouse,” she says. Adds Cowell: “I missed Paula. We have similar senses of humor. She’s loopy but I can be too.” Their TV reunion is especially sweet in light of her abrupt American Idol exit in 2009, amidst reports of a salary dispute and a feud with former judge Kara DioGuardi. “Things happen for a reason; you have to let the dust settle and not have anxiety, hurt, resentment or overconfidence,” says Abdul, who helmed her own TV competition Live to Dance earlier this year. “I wouldn’t have this job I’m so passionate about if I stayed.”

Back on a high-profile show, Abdul appreciates all the attention her sleek physique is getting. But, she insists, “I’ve weighed the same for a while. People just weren’t seeing me week to week.” She tones her legs with ballet barre work and lunges (“a necessary evil,” she says) at the gym up to three times a week. She also hikes L.A.’s canyons and takes her four Chihuahuas on long walks. As for her diet, “I really don’t eat meat now,” she says, opting for veggies, fish and fresh juice smoothies.

And after getting diagnosed with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (a rare pain disorder) in 2004 and seeking help for painkiller dependency a few years later, she’s been pain-free since 2008. “A lot of it has to do with not taking on the weight of the world,” says Abdul, who sees a chiropractor and an acupuncturist. It helps that she avoids nasty blogs about her. “What does it matter what anyone says?” she says. “As I get older, I get proper perspective.”

With that wisdom comes thoughts of motherhood. “Every year I’m more open to adopting, because I’ve learned to create balance in my life,” she says. A big part of that is her relationship with Jeff Bratton, 33, who owns an experimental-pop record label. The couple met last summer, and she says simply, “I’m really happy. I hope people can see that.” Cowell agrees: “She’s the happiest I’ve seen her in a long, long time.”

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