The glittering frenzy of the Paula Abdul Road Show moves swiftly through the lobby of the Universal Hilton, trailing publicists, managers, assistants and a miniature dog.
At the center of the promotional sideshow -- a flashy and inescapable satellite component of the relentless publicity machine behind Fox's "American Idol" behemoth -- is Abdul, smiling as she listens closely to her minders, who whisk her from one hurried appointment to another.
It's a familiar sight. Much of the hoopla around "American Idol" and its annual splashdown on the pop culture sea revolves around Abdul -- and her supposed unpredictable and erratic behavior, which last year included media speculation about possible drug and alcohol use (Abdul has denied this). And each season seems to bring a new controversy.
As "Idol" returns, there are questions about Abdul, her relationship with new judge Kara DioGuardi and the death of an alleged stalker outside her home last year. (On Tuesday, a Los Angeles coroner ruled that the death of Paula Goodspeed, who had auditioned on "Idol," was a suicide by prescription drug overdose.) Last week, at a news conference at the hotel, Abdul, DioGuardi and producers fielded a flurry of aggressive inquiries from news-hungry television reporters: Is she leaving the show? Is she threatened by DioGuardi? How was the alleged stalker allowed on the show? Did she warn producers about the woman and is she fighting with them over that incident?
Abdul was responsive and upbeat during the session, held during the semiannual gathering of the nation's television critics. "I'm very happy at where things are now," Abdul said as she relaxed after the session. "I don't let any of this stuff get to me. I rise like a phoenix, like a stealth warrior. I have stood the test of time."
Abdul is quick to remind anyone who will listen that there's more in her life than "Idol." The former Lakers cheerleader is ecstatic about "Rah! Paula Abdul's Cheerleading Bowl," a competition that aired in early January on MTV and is scheduled to return at some point. She wants to do more music. And last month's debut of her Forever Your Girl jewelry and handbag line sold out on HSN.
And she was even able to chuckle when told about the daylong marathon in December of "Hey Paula," the reality series that frequently showed her in an unflattering light -- belittling assistants, throwing tantrums and consumed by emotional fits, crying uncontrollably about how the media had targeted her.
But it's her seat among the "Idol" judges that has led her to become, as she puts it, "the most misunderstood person." She's continually astonished by the scrutiny aimed at her each season.
"The producers must be so happy that I can create controversy," she said. "They must think I'm doing something to create controversy when it's me just minding my own business."
And she pins most of the blame on fellow judge Simon Cowell, whom she maintains has done his best to make her look bad on one of America's most popular shows. "All of this stuff happens because people want to hold on to something," she said. "Simon got a kick out of making me seem like I was crazy, like I was out of it. Now it's gotten to the point where it has to simmer down."
But things have only heated up with the arrival of "Idol's" fourth judge. Abdul laughs off rumors that the younger songwriter -- who is a friend and once lived with Abdul for about a month -- has been introduced as a possible replacement.
"She's my partner in crime," Abdul said, adding she hopes DioGuardi will counteract Cowell's withering criticism "and bring dignity to the kids out there. It's a tough job."
Executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz said Abdul does seem invigorated this season: "Paula's as good as she's ever been. She's very happy with the audition episodes. Having Kara come on board has given her a friend. She's often felt like she was the only girl against this boys' club."
Despite all the rumors and tempests, Abdul is happy and committed to her "Idol."
"I do feel like the luckiest girl in the world, to be on a show that will go down as the biggest in TV history," she said. "I'm proud to be the heart of that show, the wizard behind the curtain that makes it a family show. With Randy [Jackson] and Simon, that heart's not there. The kids look at me when they sing, because they know I will give them support. It's a great experience for me. I don't know how long it will last, but I hope it lasts forever."