August 19, 2002 12:00 PM

Ask Paula Abdul the burning question of the day—is the sniping between her and fellow American Idol judge Simon Cowell for real?—and the pop star lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “When we first started the show,” says Abdul, “Simon was always telling me, ‘You know you want me.’ He kept talking about the sexual tension. I just thought, ‘Ha! That’s never happening.’ Then everyone on the set started gossiping, saying we were dating but not telling anyone. After a while we both thought, ‘Maybe we should hook up?’ So we did….”

She giggles. “Just kidding.” Good. On FOX’s humongous summer hit, a singing contest for pop wannabes, half the fun is watching these two, the calico cat and gingham dog of reality TV. Cowell, 42, a British recording executive, gleefully rips apart the contestants. Abdul, 40, offers only warm praise and ever-so-tactful criticism, saving her fire for Cowell: “I get p——d off at him. I answer back. Sometimes I punch him. He says he has permanent bruises.” Cowell, for his part, told PEOPLE recently, “There are days I cannot stand to be in the same room with her. She has a bit of ‘I’m the one who used to be a singer here, so I’m the only one who knows what the kids are talking about.’ ”

Abdul did sing and strut her way through some of the slickest videos of the late ’80s and early ’90s, helping shape the genre. “She came way before J.Lo or Britney,” says Idol’s third judge, record producer Randy Jackson. “She was a choreographer, a dancer and a singer.” During auditions last spring, “the kids were ecstatic to meet her,” says cohost Ryan Seacrest. “I thought, ‘Hey, they’re going to be too young.’ But they knew exactly who she was.”

This despite the fact that Abdul has been AWOL from pop music since her third album, 1995’s Head Over Heels. “Everyone thinks I haven’t done anything in years,” she says. But millions, whether they know it or not, have seen her movie choreography. She taught Mena Suvari to cheerlead in American Beauty and staged a Latin dance number for Dana Carvey’s new Master of Disguise. “She had these male dancers who have three percent body fat waiting for her orders,” says Carvey. “She’d go, ‘Roberto, show him the fling-flong and the double-half Betty step.’ ”

The Van Nuys, Calif., native knew she was destined to fling flong and more when at 5 she saw Singin’ in the Rain. “I wanted Gene Kelly to be my second dad,” she says. (The first is Harry Abdul, the retired owner of a water-bottling company, now divorced from her mother, Lorraine, a classically trained pianist.) She got her break in the early 1980s as an L.A. Laker Girls cheerleader. Spotted by Marlon and Jackie Jackson, she was hired to choreograph a video for the Jacksons’ 1984 Victory album. A meeting with sister Janet Jackson launched her reign as the Agnes de Mille of MTV, with her sexy video choreography for Janet, Duran Duran and even ZZ Top. “But,” she says, “I wanted to be a total performer.” Forever Your Girl accomplished that: Her 1988 debut sold 12 million copies, led to her own string of dance videos and made her a multimillionaire.

With a second hit album, Spellbound, came disenchantment. A romance with Full House star John Stamos was followed by marriage to actor Emilio Estevez in 1992. They split amicably two years later, in part because both were caught up in their careers.” From there she lurched again into headlines: In 1994 she checked into a eating-disorders clinic for a month to deal with the bulimia that had wracked her since 16. “But you can get past it,” she says now. She no longer weighs herself. “I’ll always have days when I feel bloated or not at my best. But I can say, ‘I exercised 40 minutes, had my three meals, a little dessert and that’s fine.’ ”

She weathered one more mess with her 1996 wedding to clothing manufacturer Brad Beckerman. Their 1998 divorce left her so bitter, “I don’t even want to say his name,” she says. The lesson: “I rely on myself,” says Abdul, who also underwent neck surgery in 2001 for an old dance-related disc injury. “Baby Paula is Adult Paula.”

Actually, babies are still on her mind. “I thought I’d be a mom by now,” says Abdul, who shares her L.A. home with three long-haired Chihuahuas. “But do I have a partner, get married, be a single mom?” Whatever option she picks, none will involve the man she’s currently linked to in the public eye. “Is there anything I like about Simon Cowell?” she asks. “Yes. I like when he goes back to London.”

Tom Gliatto

Ulrica Wihlborg in Los Angeles

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