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Photo by Michael Thompson.

Jennifer Lopez, tawny and voluptuous, luxuriates on an oversized bed as Puff Daddy looks on.

There is, however, no magnum of Veuve Clicquot chilling on the nightstand, no fireplace crackling nearby, no silk pj’s lying in a heap—only buzzing spotlights and hours-old coffee in Styrofoam cups. Nor is there any trace of the kittenish siren we’ve come to know from movies, videos, and countless tabloid stories. The three-toned mane, the glossy caramel lips, the Versace-clad bombshell bod and the stiletto heels are all taking a break for the evening. Instead, Lopez is swathed in sweats, her hair tied in a ponytail. And whatever fantasies the bed might conjure in her adult fans, it’s actually just a prop for the Nickelodeon Kids Awards, for which Lopez is arduously rehearsing an elaborate production number.

The bedroom scenario was her idea, an intro she’s tacked onto a performance of “Feelin’ So Good”—the last single to be released from her hit 1999 album, On the 6. When the camera rolls, she’ll jump up and down on the mattress until a maternal offstage voice tells her to “Pipe down!” Then she’ll crawl out a prop window and erupt onto the sprawling stage at the Hollywood Bowl in a powered-up toy car—after which she and her back-up troupe will run through the song. Fifteen thousand kids will cheer them during the show’s actual taping the following night; millions will be tuning in excitedly two nights later.

It’s after 10, and on this nippy evening in April it feels even later out in the bleachers, where members of Lopez’s entourage—including manager Benny Medina (the man who helped make stars out of Will Smith, Babyface and Puffy), ICM film agents Risa Shapiro, and Robert Newman, publicist Alan Nierob and a handful of close friends—are stifling yawns and struggling to keep warm. Puffy lends support from just offstage. After nearly six hours of rehearsal, the dancers are only just now getting their “pyro cues” (the production will include explosions), but Lopez doesn’t seem to mind. It was hard work and resolve that made her a star, and despite a double-platinum album, critical praise for her performances in Selena and Out of Sight, and a fee that reportedly goes as high as $9 million a film, Lopez’s determination is as steely as it ever was. She’s not about to relax until they have the act nailed.

In the grand scheme, a Nickelodeon special would seem to be a petty small-time gig, but Lopez isn’t doing it just for fun. “Do you have any idea what percentage of the record-buying public is kids?” Medina asks one of the film agents. Of course, teenagers make up a huge sector of the movie going market as well, and it just so happens that Lopez has three new films set to open in the next year. A dark psychological thriller, The Cell, is in theaters this month; a romantic comedy called The Wedding Planner is set for Valentine’s Day 2001, and Angel Eyes, a romance-drama, will be along shortly thereafter.

Which means that it’s Lopez’s last night with Combs for a while. While he heads off to New York for a series of meetings, she’ll make an appearance at the Amerian Latino Media Awards in L.A. “I’ve got a salmon pink Vera Wang dress picked out,” she says. “It’s a halter with a low back and little sparkles in the fabric.”

Combs looks disappointed. “I cant believe I'm not gonna be there,” he says. “That dress will look so pretty.”

Of course, there will be more dresses and more awards shows for Lopez. But first, more work—lots of it. On breaks from the Angel Eyes shoot and promotional duties on The Cell, Lopez will be in and out of recording studios putting finishing touches on her second album, which is slated for an October release. That means cranking out a handful videos to go with it. A spring tour is also in the works, and she’ll have to squeeze in interviews and photo shoots for The Wedding Planner. She’s also working on a new line of clothes aimed at girls who want to emulate her style (but cant afford Versace), and when her L’Oreal contract is up, Lopez plans to market her own cosmetics line with her friend and makeup artist Matthew VanLeeuwen. Meanwhile, her nascent film-production company recently set up shop in Los Angeles, and inevitably, there’s talk of a dot-com start-up.

It’s a safe bet that Lopez’s brand new house in L.A. will be sitting empty for a while.

“It’s a gypsy’s life,” she says. “And I’ve been doing it for 10 years. But hey—one of these days, I’m going to sit down and have kids. So I’ve got to do all of this while I can.”

Her latest endeavor, The Cell, came about after New Line executive Mike DeLuca invited her to check out the projects they had in development; a script that had been languishing on the shelf caught her eye. “It had a good role for a woman,” she says. “It was the kind of role I hadn’t played before.” The scenes in which Lopez’s character enters the mind of a serial killer (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) resemble Grand Guignol as envisioned by Ken Russell and H.R. Giger—after a few too many tequila shots.

“I mean, it’s dark and surreal,” she says. “One day, I was chained to the bed in their really weird half-geisha, half-freaky outfit, and Vince Vaughn was nearby dressed up like a cowboy, and we both looked at each other and wondered, ‘Is this gonna work?’ I haven’t seen it yet. You never know what will happen. All you can know is that you gave 100 percent.”

It’s two in the afternoon a few days later, and Lopez is just emerging from the bedroom of her New York hotel suite. She apologizes for being groggy. “I was in the studio ‘til late last night,” she says, “and I had to get some z’s.”

“Some z’s” for Lopez means four or five hours of sleep, as much as she ever gets. “Last week during Nickelodeon, I got a cough,” she adds. “I hate being sick!”

Dressed in off-white sweatpants and sweater, with bare feet and her hair tied into a ballerina knot, Lopez looks surprisingly casual. But on closer inspection, one notices that the pants are cashmere, the modest-looking jewelry is dripping with small diamonds, the clear, fine skin bears the glow of expert facials, and the fingers and toes have identical perfect French finishes.

“Funny,” she says, examining them. “The toes don’t chip as much as he fingers. This polish chips easily, which I don't like.” Suddenly, those reports that Lopez sent one of New York’s Finest out in search of cuticle ream on the night she spent in jail (when Puffy was held for possible gun possession after a New York club shooting) don’t seem so farfetched after all. This is a woman so concerned with her grooming that she often keeps a manicurist on the payroll.

Indeed, reports of divalike behavior have dogged Lopez for years, ever since she showed up an hour late for a scheduled appearance on “today.” Trashing Cameron Diaz, Gwyneth Paltrow and even her role model, Madonna, in a now-infamous Movieline interview didn’t help. At the CFDA Awards, host Sandra Bernhard dubbed Lopez “the baddest bitch in Hollywood”—a comment that, while clearly intended as a joke, was taken by some as a none-too-subtle dig. And after Lopez’s co-stars dropped out of two upcoming film projects—Brendan Fraser departed The Wedding Planner (he was replaced by Matthew McConaughey), and Aaron Eckhart bailed on Angel Eyes just a month before shooting was to start – the question of Lopez’s reputation took on new life. “The studio was actually afraid to tell me the last one,” Lopez laughs. “I think they thought I would freak out. But I’ve learned too much about the politics of movies to get caught up in stuff. I just said, ‘Give me a list of other actors who are right for this part.’ And we got our first choice, Jim Caviezel.”

The fact is, almost every female performer who earns herself a position of power in Hollywood gets the same rap: she’s a bitch, she’s narcissistic, overbearing, difficult. And it’s not hard to see how Lopez’s single-minded ambition might be mistaken for self-absorption. “At first, I admit it was odd,” says the muscular, shaven-headed Median of his client’s nervy, authoritative manner. “I hadn’t managed many women, and I realized that a woman empowered, telling me what to do, was kind of new. It put me off. I now understand why somebody wants to call somebody a diva or a bitch and make them out to be demanding. I’ve learned about the double standard. Luckily Jen was sharp enough to ask me, ‘Why are you reacting that way?’”

“The real Jen’s all about her work,” says Wedding Planner director Adam Shankman. “When I met her, she’d just gotten a divorce, and all she wanted was to succeed. So she likes nice stuff, a big trailer—who doesn’t? she has no fear of asking for what she wants. I admire that.” Although Wedding Planner was on a tight budget, Shankman says, “She got an 18-wheel gym. It seemed like a big perk for her, but then she opened it up to the whole crew. She’s actually really generous.”

“She doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve anymore,” adds Van Leeuwen. “Jennifer’s become a little mysterious. She’s not overly forthcoming. And people form polarized opinions about people who remain mysterious. She’s learned what you have to deal with if you’re going to be a star. She knows a lot of people hate her, are nice to her face, then tear her to shreds.”

For her part, Lopez laughs off the talk. “Everybody thinks I’m so tough,” she says. “I guess that’s because of where I’m from. Or who I’ve played. Maybe I just give off that vibe.”

And while that vibe may be off-putting to some in Hollywood, it’s also what makes her one of the most exciting—and attractive—female stars currently working there. “Being sexy comes from being confident,” Lopez says matter-of-factly. “People who are okay with themselves are the sexiest. You see the girl on the beach in Miami all the guys are drooling over? All the other girls can’t figure it out. They’re all, ‘Her tits are droopin’, her butt’s too big, her thighs have cellulite!’ But she’ll be walkin’ in such a way, the guys are dyin’. She’s okay with herself.”

As a result of just that mindset, Lopez—whose posterior has garnered almost as much press as her other attributes put together—has become a sort of poster child for women who are well endowed and proud of it. But she admits that the longer the spotlight is trained on her, the harder it has become to remain nonchalant about her appearance. “I started feeling like, ‘Lord! I better keep on my game! Everyone’s watching me,’” she says. ''A little bit of jiggly is okay if that's what your boyfriend likes. But when that doesn't work for you, you've got to change it. I just don't feel good these days if! feel flabby – so I'll go and I'll run every morning."

Medina, for one, has noted a thorough transformation in Lopez since her days as a hip-hop dancer on the comedy show "In Living Color." "If you look back at the photos of the Fly Girls," he says, "she was attractive but not nearly as much as she is now. No one could've predicted that this flower would bloom."

Nobody, perhaps, except Lopez herself, who has dreamed of stardom since she was a kid growing up in the Bronx, watching movie musicals with her mom (a kindergarten teacher), dad (a computer specialist, now separated from her mom), grandmother and sisters. Her idols back then were Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand and, most of all, Rita Moreno.

"That's why I took voice and dance classes, as well as acting," she says. "To me, singing and dancing and acting were one thing: That's what stars did. I idolized Rita Moreno, because she was Puerto Rican, and she was the only woman who's ever won a Grammy, an Oscar, a Tony and an Emmy. And she was Anita in West Side Story – my favorite role in my favorite movie! I so wanted to be Bernardo's girlfriend."

Ah-hah.

"He was the leader of the gang, and she was just cool enough, you know?" says Lopez, seeming perfectly aware of how her words reflect on her current relationship. "She was confident, man. Cool and in control. Maria was helpless-help­lessly in love. There's a difference. I wanted to be independent and in control and supportive of my man – like her."

Still, rumblings persist that Lopez's association with Puffy may be damaging to her career. But Medina, who until recently managed Combs – and is still an investor in his Sean John line of clothes - doesn't buy it ''What hurts a career is bad work," he says. "Think about it: When Frank Sinatra was messing with Ava Gardner, the problem was that he was making bad records. Puffy is a very important person in Jennifer's life. She's always been loyal, and so's he."

"One of the great things about being with who I'm with right now," Lopez says, "is that he and I do understand each other's business. We've both separately built something from nothing. So he is my equal in that sense. It's hard for me, or any woman in this business, to find somebody who understands what makes me tick.

"You know, people who know me have always said that the only place I’m vulnerable is in my love life,'' she continues, her voice growing softer. "I've always operated from my heart. That's what inspires me to sing and dance or act or get up in the morning. It all comes from love of my family and love of my significant other. Anyone who had to describe me would say that. That's who I am. Therein lies my vulnerability." Nevertheless, Lopez admits that the media attention is "definitely taking a toll on me. Because it's become an invasion. At one point, it was so nice that people were interested in us. Now we can't go out of the house. We have to think things through before we go out together."

Of course, Lopez has courted some of that attention herself It's an extreme version of the classic dance of celebrity: One day, you're ducking out of a court­house pursued by a herd of paparazzi; the next, you' re appearing at the Grammys in the dress ogled round the world. But Lopez insists that she had no idea her plunge-neck Versace scarf-dress would be a sensation.

"Like I planned that!" she says, shaking her head. "Hey-I liked the dress, I wore it, I went out. I'd already seen it on Donatella at the Met Costume Ball, so I didn't think it was a big deal. Underneath, it's like a bathing suit-green, with a full panty. There was no danger of the dress falling off, believe me. I couldn't believe it was such a big deal."

Her parents, however, weren't quite so sanguine. "They were freaking out," she recalls. "First my father called and said, 'Oh, Jen, no!' Now he's saying, 'Hey, it's the biggest thing ever.'"

To judge by the grin on her face, the opinions of Lopez's parents mean a lot to her. And in many ways, despite her success, she's still surprisingly girlish and innocent, still the kid bouncing on the mattress long after bedtime. While that may not jibe with the glamour-girl image, friends insist she's no partier. In fact, Lopez says, she hardly ever even takes a drink.

"She gets intoxicated vicariously," explains Medina. "Occasionally, if she's feeling really wild, she and her girlfriends will order something called a Buttery Nipple - it's like chocolate milk She'll have one sip, and that's her idea of losing it."

True to form, though, Lopez is willing to make an exception when work is involved. "For The Wedding Planner, I had to do a drunk scene," she recalls. "I'm freaking, 'cause I've never been drunk!" Her solution, she says, was to begin knocking back shots of straight vodka. ''After six," Lopez says, "I admit, I felt a little warm and woozy."

It worked, though – they got the scene. But this time, Lopez's drive almost got the better of her, so director Adam Shankman finally stepped in.

Lopez smiles. "He told me, 'Jennifer, you can stop now.'”