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Paula Abdul’s been down before, but, as her lengthy career proves, you can’t ever count her out. The American Idol
judge speaks to us candidly about her personal and professional triumphs and tragedies -- and what she hopes is still to come.

This should be Paula Abdul’s time, a chance to bask in the sweet glow of success and maybe even gloat. After she rocketed to stardom in the late 1980s, Abdul’s career suffered a lapse in the late 1990s. But today, the irrepressible former Los Angeles Lakers cheerleader with the high-wattage smile is a star on one of the most popular shows in television history, American Idol, which began its eighth season last month. Her unfailingly sweet encouragement of the show’s contestants and her verbal spats with acerbic fellow judge Simon Cowell have become so deeply embedded in popular culture that she has been spoofed on Saturday Night Live, a sure sign of stardom.

To some extent, her current success is icing on the cake of her previous achievements: two multiplatinum albums, two Grammys, two Emmys, and five MTV Video Music Awards for her music and choreography. But outdo herself she has. Last year, Forbes magazine listed her as one of the 10 highest-paid female entertainers on prime-time TV. She has not one but two publicists. And instead of the standard single Chihuahua as a fashion accessory, she has four of the feisty little dogs lording over her ridgetop home, which overlooks the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles.

Yet as Abdul, an energetic 46-year-old beauty with the lithe body of a dancer, talks about these successes, she is reflective rather than satisfied, questioning rather than self-confident. She has that classic Hollywood syndrome: a touch of insecurity that makes her worry more about what comes next than celebrate the career mountains she has already climbed. Abdul insists that American Idol, as much of a boon as it has been for her professionally, will not be the apex of her career but merely a stepping-stone. All in all, she says, sounding almost elegiac, the show has been a mixed blessing.

“I’m very grateful for the show,” says Abdul, who is prettier and more composed in person than she often comes across on television, particularly more so than she did on her 2007 reality show, Hey Paula. “Idol came along at a great time. But in some ways, I’ve become a caricature of myself, with the way [fellow judges Cowell and Randy Jackson] laugh at the way I talk. It has been a double-edged sword, and I think a lot about all the other things that are really important to me.”

Ken Warwick, one of the show’s executive producers, agrees that Abdul hasn’t had it easy, as Cowell and Jackson occasionally turn the panel into a boys’ club, with the sweet-natured Abdul taking the brunt of their barbed jibes.

“Oh yeah, the two team up against Paula. She gets overwhelmed sometimes,” says Warwick, who adds that one of the reasons producers added songwriter and record producer Kara DioGuardi as a fourth judge for the eighth season was to even the odds. “Now there’s more of a balance,” he says. “You need that softer side because the boys can really get going.”

Abdul admits to having had some anxiety about sharing the spotlight with another female judge, although she and DioGuardi are old friends. The two met years ago and cowrote the song “Spinning Around,” which Kylie Minogue turned into a hit in 2000. But whatever nervousness Abdul may have felt, she’s so busy planning her future that she hardly seems to have dwelled on it. She is entering a new phase of her life: The pop diva is growing up.