"American Idol" viewers are accustomed to seeing the show's "nice judge" Paula Abdul grapple for just the right words to deliver her verdicts. But on Monday afternoon in a Burbank rehearsal space, she strutted boldly across the floor, directing six strapping backup dancers, who careened and kneeled in her wake, then lifted her to a platform about 15 feet high. There, she paused for the merest second at the edge, and then dropped face first toward the floor -- her petite frame rescued midplunge by the arms of her dancers.
"I'm fearless," she said a few minutes later in her dressing room. "The dancers were more afraid than I am. I was like, 'Guys, I know you're going to catch me. You're not going to drop me on my head.' "
There will be more daring plunges in coming weeks as Abdul finds herself at a critical career crossroads. With a new album due out (fans will get a sample of the single on tonight's "Idol"), she prepares to reintroduce herself as a singer to the generations that have come of age since her monster hits of the '80s. She's in the midst of contract negotiations with Fox about another season of "Idol" amid lingering questions about whether she'll return.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, May 07, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
Paula Abdul: An article in Wednesday's Calendar on Paula Abdul summarized a recent Ladies' Home Journal cover story by saying that Abdul went to a spa for detox treatment for her painkiller addiction. The exact wording in the Ladies' Home Journal story read that "determined to overcome her habit, she checked into the La Costa Resort and Spa, in Carlsbad, California, to wean herself off her medications in one fell swoop."
And she'll be doing it sober: After years of denying that she had any drug or alcohol dependencies, in a June cover story in Ladies' Home Journal, Abdul said that over Thanksgiving she went to a spa for detox treatment for her painkiller addiction. The revelation, after saying it wasn't true so many times, seems to be a part of an effort to get the judge-in-all-her-facets out before the public, beyond the often flummoxed face behind the desk.
Although it has been widely -- and wildly -- speculated that the show's producers would use this season's addition of the fourth judge, Kara DioGuardi, to squeeze out Abdul, sources close to Abdul and the network confirmed that Fox has begun negotiations to renew her contract and seem hopeful an agreement can be reached before it expires at season's end.
Fox had no official comment for this story, saying it does not speak about contract negotiations, but the network has publicly expressed hope that Abdul will be back for the show's ninth season.
If there is a hangup, it is likely to be the reportedly vast disparity in the stars' salaries. Last year, former "Idol" executive producer Nigel Lythgoe told Australia's Courier Mail that the show's trademark tough judge, Simon Cowell, earns $36 million each season (not including income from his involvement with "Idol" grads' records). Cowell's contract expires after next season, and he has been making noise that he might move on.
Sources close to the show say Abdul earns a fraction of Cowell's figure, pegging it at around $2 million.
While the numbers are haggled over, Abdul has new music to introduce. Tonight, she will cross over the judges' desk and take the stage to perform on the results show. Abdul called the song -- "I'm Just Here for the Music" -- a "dance anthem." It is the title track of her album to be released this fall. Abdul gushed that the work is a return to the heights of "Forever Your Girl," her 1988 debut, which sold 12 million copies worldwide.
"It's got that magic feeling to it, and when that happens, you know it," Abdul said of the new opus. "There's no demographic, it really just spans the extent of who I am. This album is about my life right now."
(In a review of the single, Entertainment Weekly called Abdul's voice "an electronic squeak," but the critic wrote that he "thoroughly enjoyed tilting my head backward and pouring every last worthless crumb down my gullet.")
Eight years into Abdul's second act as an "Idol" judge, her life right now seems full. Her recent activities include not only her album but a line of jewelry, handbags and accessories (with cosmetics soon to follow) and perhaps the most important of modern triumphs -- a Twitter feed (@PaulaAbdul) that has just passed 100,000 followers.
In her dressing room, preparing to run through her number again, the fearless Abdul of the dance floor again became the more tentative, shy presence known to tens of millions of "Idol" viewers, carefully searching for the right words to channel her fonts of energy.
Asked whether the many avenues she is pursuing now are the first steps to a post-"Idol" life, Abdul offered an equivocal answer: