Paula Abdul in the spotlight

-- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 6:07 AM ET

PASADENA, Calif. -- At the end of the most charged session of this January 2007 press tour, there was only one question left to ask Paula Abdul: "How hard was it to come out here today?"

Abdul and fellow American Idol judges Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson, as well as host Ryan Seacrest and executive producer Ken Warwick, had just sat opposite 150 TV critics from across North America. Many in the room expected Abdul to ditch, just as she had a year earlier when the controversy over her alleged affair with contestant Corey Clark was still fresh. On that day, while she fled the hotel, Abdul's colleagues were left to shrug off a whopper of an excuse that she had a sudden eye infection.

On Saturday, five empty chairs faced critics for 20, 30 and then 40 minutes past the scheduled start of Fox's American Idol press conference. Bloggers were already dismissing Abdul as a no-show. Critics started taking bets as to what excuse it would be this time.

42 MINUTES LATE

Finally, at 3:27 p.m. -- 42 minutes late -- rhythmic clapping brought Fox entertainment president Peter Liguori to the podium. "I feel like I'm at a Black Sabbath concert," he cracked. Then he introduced Simon, Randy, Ryan, Ken and -- gasp! -- Paula.

After a few softball questions about favourite contestants (all said Fantasia) and Dreamgirls scene stealer Jennifer Hudson ("That girl came into the room. I went 'Oscar,'" joked non-believer Cowell), somebody finally asked about the long delay. "It was my fault," said Cowell. "I flew in late from London, so I apologize."

Later in the session, after the judges insisted that Cowell was no meaner this year than any other year, reporters turned their attention to Abdul. A recent Internet posting of a satellite interview, since taken down, seemed to show the petite pop star slurring her words. Rosie O'Donnell, shifting targets from Trump for a minute, goofed on Abdul on Friday's The View.

Abdul tried to explain that it was a technical mishap; after three hours of interviews, an overload of signals left her with "two different cities in my ear."

Cowell than gallantly came to her defence, saying that last year's "moths and melons" meltdown was entirely his fault; he had planted the phrase which made her sound so nuts.

'SHE'S DRUGGED'

The confession earned a hug and a kiss from Abdul, who said all she heard for a year-and-a-half was, "What's wrong with Paula? She's drunk. She's drugged. Oh, she's not making sense."

And on it went. High drama, low comedy, enormous ratings. A record 37 million plus Americans tuned in to last week's debut. Other network heads refereed to Idol all week as the "Death Star" (although CBS executives insisted that their older-skewing NCIS was "Idol resistant," retaining 90% of its audience against Fox's mega hit).

After the session, reporters rushed the stage. Abdul, listed at 5-foot-1, had a ring of metal recorders thrust within inches of her face.

She held her ground, at one point waving off a protective intervention from a publicist. Those in the room who doubted she'd show had to admit she'd showed us.

Finally I asked: "How hard was it to come out here today?" Abdul looked me in the eyes and reacted instantly. "Not hard at all because I have nothing but truth. I don't have any apologies to make. I've worked my butt off and I'm proud of what I've done and who I am.

"I've lasted in the business for 30 years," she declared with pride, "and I've not gone loco de la cabeza."


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