October 16, 2006 12:00 PM

Before becoming Dancing with the Stars’ most outspoken judge, the 38-year-old Hawaii-born ex-dancer toured with Madonna, boogied with Jennifer Lopez and was once a top pop singer in Japan. She also moonlights as a choreographer on American Idol. In between Pilates classes and hanging with her new boyfriend (a fellow L.A. dancer), Inaba spoke with PEOPLE’s Monica Rizzo.

• Telling it like it is: The Dancing contestants may call her the “mean” judge, but “if they listen carefully, I’m really helping all of them,” claims Inaba. “I get frustrated when they fight me. Okay, we can battle, but I am the judge—you’re not going to win.”

• Big in Japan: After winning a talent show in Hawaii in 1986, Inaba, then 18, was groomed to be a pop star in Japan. Though her first single made the Top 50, “I was singing lyrics phonetically from a lyric sheet,” she recalls. “It was horrifying. Being there I realized it has nothing to do with how artistic you are. Your face becomes a logo they sell.”

• The J.Lo-down: The part Chinese, part Japanese and part Irish Inaba made her dancing breakthrough as a Flygirl alongside Jennifer Lopez on the 1990s comedy/variety show In Living Color. “Five multicultural girls were going for their dreams and not afraid,” she says of her fellow dancers. “I felt so at home.”

• The bald truth: In 1993, a touring Madonna hired Inaba as a backup dancer, but the gig came with a price: Madonna wanted Inaba to cut off her hair. “I thought twice about it,” says Inaba. “But I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is Madonna!'”

• Taylor made: Despite being in charge of the Idols’ booty-shaking, Inaba takes no credit for Taylor Hicks‘s signature gyrations. “It’s not put on, it’s not fake, it’s just an expression and that’s why I love it,” she says. As for the others? “Elliott [Yamin] was resistant. Katherine McPhee can move.”

To get the scoop on the show, go to WWW.PEOPLE.COM/DANCING

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