October 23, 2006 12:00 PM

Ask Mario Lopez about the Dancing with the Stars judges and he talks about nuns. When the actor was scolded during the first few weeks of the competition for lifting his partner, Karina Smirnoff, and then again for breaking contact with her—verboten in the tango—” I thought I was back in Catholic school,” says Lopez, “and Sister Theresa was busting out the paddle!”

Luckily, the only paddles Lopez has received more recently bear scores of 9 and 10, advancing him and Smirnoff to the next round of the reality dance-off. Dubbed “Super Mario” for his hip-swiveling moves by Dancing judge Bruno Tonioli, Lopez is “very sexy, very spicy,” says judge Carrie Ann Inaba. “He’s really tapped into his athleticism and sensuality.”

The muscle-flaunting costumes don’t hurt either. Combined with a steamy au naturel shower scene on Nip/Tuck, Lopez’s recent—ahem—body of work has made fans swoon. The former Saved by the Bell heartthrob credits his impressive physique to his daily seven-hour dance rehearsals for the show, on top of hours of running and jumping rope. Still, Lopez, 33, insists that he finds all the buzz about his body “kind of embarrassing.”

Other ripples in his life haven’t been so flattering. At the height of his Saved by the Bell fame in 1993, Lopez was accused by two women of sexual assault. Though charges for both cases were never filed due to a lack of evidence, “it was hurtful,” says Lopez. Then in 2004 Lopez wed his girlfriend of six years, actress Ali Landry, only to have the union annulled six weeks later. The tabloids reported that Lopez had cheated on his bride at his bachelor party, but “that definitely was not the case,” Lopez says. “There’s no hard feelings. It turned out we were better as friends.”

Many of his best friends, in fact, are female. “I was raised around a lot of women,” says the San Diego native. “I was so close to my mom, my sister, a lot of female cousins.” And he counts among his best pals Desperate Housewives’ Eva Longoria, who turned up in the Dancing audience Oct. 3 sporting a homemade, bedazzled “Vote for Mario” shirt. “That morning we got a call from the producers saying there were no more T-shirts allowed in the audience,” he says. “So I called her and she said, ‘Forget that!’ She was a little rule breaker that night.”

While Lopez is adamant that his relationship with Longoria is entirely platonic, he’s a little more coy about his TV dance partner, with whom he’s been seen cuddling at L.A. hot spots. “She’s a special lady,” is all he will say about Smirnoff. For now, “I’m not trying to find Miss Right,” says Lopez. “I’m working on becoming Mr. Right and letting it all happen.”

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