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Like a polite schoolgirl, Paula Abdul sits demurely on the edge of a sofa in an executive suite at Warner Brothers, while two producers waft names of potential co-stars under her nose. Eastwood...Costner...Hoffman...Aykroyd...but the singer is strangely unallured. The men search her hazel eyes for clues. They hang on her every word. "I want to start small," she says. I'm not looking to jump into the movies and make mine a short career. I really want it to last." The producers nod. When she mentions that someday she might like to star in a musical, they inch closer. "We're in," they promise her. "Whatever it is, we're in. Where do we sign?"

Outside, the unusually reserved Abdul suddenly exudes enthusiasm from all of her 62 dynamic inches, from her thick chestnut hair to her size 7 shoes. "Oh, my God!" she exclaims. "All my dreams from childhood are becoming possible." Only two years ago, the 27-year-old was a respected if strictly behind-the-scenes choreographer for the likes of Janet Jackson and George Michael. But since the June 1988 release of her debut album, Forever Your Girl, the former L.A. Laker cheerleader has undergone a kind of whiplash career shock and emerged, thanks in part to the power of her saucy, sexy and sometimes salacious videos, as the hottest female performer since Madonna. She has had four No. 1 singles. Her album went No. 1. She won an Emmy for her choreography on The Tracey Ullman Show, four MTV Awards, two American Music Awards and a Grammy nomination as Best Female Pop Vocalist. If she didn't get an Oscar nomination, that's only because she has not yet had a chance to prove that she can be the Ginger Rogers of the rock era. She is choreographing the dance routines for the Academy Awards' March 26 telecast.

But enough about mantelpiece-ware. The truest test of Abdul's Hollywood status is that she has rank where it really counts—at restaurants. On a Wednesday evening visit to Spago, superagent Mike Ovitz, who has never discouraged speculation that he is the Most Powerful Man in Hollywood, wanders over to introduce himself. "Finally we get to meet," he says. He takes her to say hi to Kevin Costner (she choreographed a bar scene in his film Bull Durham), who gives her a big hug. The next day, while lunching at the Ivy, another celeb rookery, recording mogul David Geffen greets her with a friendly pat on the shoulder. Grammy-winning singer Michael Bolton—who, trivia buffs, baby-sat Abdul when she was a Valley Child—waves from a nearby table. Next, Tom Hanks, whom she helped on the Dragnet video, spies her. "Paula," he says, "my biggest claim to fame is that you once choreographed me."

What is perhaps most remarkable is that this Syrian-Brazilian-French-Canadian-Jewish-American star hasn't let the fuss trip her up and has remained, by all accounts, disarmingly, charmingly, even alarmingly... nice. "Always nice, always friendly," says Marlon Jackson, who met her in 1984 when she choreographed the Jacksons' "Torture" video. "Paula is a fighter," adds his brother Jackie. "She gets what she wants, but somehow, she's managed to stay one of the world's sweetest people." Says Tracey Ullman executive producer James Brooks: "Paula is as great as everyone says." The 17 dancers she hired for the American Music Awards would probably agree. When Abdul couldn't get them into the post-show party at the Shriner Auditorium, she took them all to the Chaya Brasserie and treated them to dinner.

Still, as Abdul is gradually discovering, niceness isn't proof against gossip. Although the stories that pop up about her on the grapevine are mostly innocent, she nonetheless marvels at their existence. "The other day my makeup artist told me that he'd heard I'd gotten collagen injections in my lips," says Abdul. "He also told me that he'd heard I'd gotten a boob job. It was funny to me, but also upsetting. Then he said, 'Honey, all this means is that you've arrived.' "

But wait, there's more. "I heard the one where I was supposed to be living in the Gloved One's mansion," she says, laughing. "Michael [Jackson] supposedly said that everything he owned was mine. But then I heard that Prince had stolen me away. I've never been alone in a room with Prince in my life. Just meetings." (They've discussed possible future collaborations.)

Then there's the constant speculation about her relationship with TV talkmaster Arsenio Hall. "Arsenio and I are close friends, and I have an extreme fondness for him," says Abdul, who has denied the romance dozens of times. "But there's nothing, absolutely nothing intimate going on."

Her mother, Lorraine, stands by her daughter. "Arsenio is a nice guy," says Lorraine. "But for God's sake, can't a girl have a close friend without people making more of it than is really there?"

Perhaps Abdul will get a break from the Arsenio rumors now that she has been spotted out on the town with actor John Stamos of ABC's Full House. "I don't want to make too much out of it," says Abdul, who took Stamos to the Grammys and a recent Virgin Records party in her honor. She adds, "It's been just a couple dates, that's it." Stamos, 26, notes that they do have several traits in common. "We both go to bed early, and we both have horrible allergies," he says. "I think we discovered we're both a couple of geeks."

On the whole, Paula admits that her love life does not move as quickly as her feet. Before the recent outings with Stamos, she says, "The last date I went on was two months ago. I had lunch with someone my sister fixed me up with. Between my managers and friends, all I hear is, 'God, Paula, there are so many guys who would love to take you out. They're just too intimidated or they think you must already have a boyfriend.' Or they tell me that it's the girl's responsibility to take the initiative." But at the moment, Abdul says she's too busy to concentrate on romance.

Luckily, her mother is more than happy to help. "I'd love to see Paula marry and have children," says Lorraine. "Do you know anybody nice?"

A former assistant to the director Billy Wilder, Lorraine has always looked out for her daughter, especially since she was divorced from Paula's father, Harry, a livestock trader who now owns a sand and gravel business, when Paula was 7. Raised with her older sister, Wendy, now 34, in a middle-class condo in the San Fernando Valley community of North Hollywood, Paula was mesmerized by musicals like Singin' in the Rain and began taking dance lessons when she was 8. "That was a fluke," says Lorraine. "She was supposed to go to a friend's house. The mother called me and said she forgot her daughter had a dance lesson and wanted to know if she could take Paula. I said sure. I picked them up, and all I heard on the way home was, 'I have to take dancing.' " Soon, Paula was studying ballet, tap and modern. "She could never miss a class," says Lorraine. "It could be pouring, the brakes on my car shot, and Paula was in the car with tears, afraid she was going to be late. Never mind that Mother is drowning and driving without brakes."

At Van Nuys High School, Paula was elected head of her cheerleading squad. "She used to have the girls come over in the backyard and work, work, work," says Lorraine. "Everything always had to look great." She was also senior class president and a member of the speech, debate and science teams. Graduating with a 3.85 GPA, she enrolled at Cal State-Northridge, majoring in TV and radio. "I always knew that I wanted to be in show business, but I wanted to have something to fall back on," she explains. "So I thought I'd go into sports broadcasting and become the next Jayne Kennedy." It was her mother who kept warning her how tough a dancing career would be, particularly for a girl who was only 5'2". "Even though she'd out-dance everyone," says Lorraine, "Paula never fit anyone's idea of a tall, leggy dancer. She went through lots of rejection, but she had the drive and determination."

During Paula's freshman year, a friend persuaded her to try out for the Laker Girls, the razzle-dazzle cheerleading squad that performs during L.A. Laker basketball games. Strutting her stuff for only one minute, Abdul knocked the judges out. "She was such a great dancer, really slick," recalls Lon Rosen, the former Laker publicist (now Magic Johnson's manager), who hired Abdul. "Within three weeks, she became the choreographer. I think we even gave her a raise from $500 to $550 a month."

Six months later, Abdul dropped out of school to dance and choreograph full-time. She says she created some of her fanciest footwork during her three years with the Laker Girls. "I'll watch old footage and I'll see something and say, 'That's pretty cool. I can update that a bit and make it even better,' "she says. There is one routine, however, she vows never to repeat. "We were all dressed in funny fat-men outfits," she recalls. "But when we ran onto the court, one girl bumped into Magic, and a bunch of us fell over like dominoes. I laughed so hard, and, well, I have the weakest bladder. . .It was so embarrassing."

Such mishaps were few, and Abdul's innovative steps attracted the attention of courtside fans, including Arsenio Hall and Marlon and Jackie Jackson. Impressed with her Laker work, Jackie asked her to choreograph "Torture." That eventually led to Abdul's breakthrough gig with sister Janet Jackson, who owes the kinetic dance style that helped launch her career to a year of tutelage from Paula. "Janet's my prize student," says Abdul. "She worked her butt off for me. The end result is that we made each other look extremely good."

Word spread fast. Soon Abdul was creating memorably goofball footwook for ZZ Top's videos. And giving pointers to the Pointer Sisters, Debbie Gibson and George Michael. And creating the dance scenes for Eddie Murphy's Coming to America. ("Eddie was too scared to learn to dance from me," she says. Your move, Eddie.) The mo has never slowed. In November, Abdul even received a call from the man of her dreams, dance great Gene Kelly, who invited her over for dinner. "He came in, and it was one of the most special moments of my life," says Abdul. "He gave me a big hug and said, 'I feel like I already know you.' " They have since become quite chummy; he cooks homemade wontons and they talk about dance. Says Abdul: "I'm really not star struck, but he's special."

In 1987, as her music connections were burgeoning, Abdul decided to try recording an LP. "I loved choreography, but I wanted to be a performer," she says. "My idols were people who could do many things—sing, dance, act, choreograph." Though she has only "a mediocre vocal range," says one top songwriter, "she was greatly helped in the studio by her producers." Released in June 1988, Forever Your Girl initially bombed; the first two singles, "Knocked Out" and "(It's Just) The Way that You Love Me," never broke into the Top 40 on the pop charts. "All I ask from the people I work with is honesty, no matter how much it hurts," she says. "So I asked, 'Is the record a stiff or what?' And the record company said, 'Paula, it ain't happening.' " Then, six months after the LP's release, some pop stations began playing the third single, "Straight Up"—which, overnight, is where Abdul's career went.

Nowadays, the diminutive dynamo receives 5,000 pieces of fan mail a week, including countless marriage proposals, often from convicts and lonely farmers ("One guy said he serenades his cows with my music," she says). Not all the attention, however, has been pleasant. In January, returning to her Studio City condo after the American Music Awards, Abdul discovered her apartment had been burglarized. "I was heading straight for the phone machine," she says, "but when I flipped on the lights, it was gone." So were her stereo, jewelry, makeup, platinum albums, several awards and some clothing. By the time her mom came to pick her up, the crime was on the TV news. "I was even more upset by that," says Abdul. "It struck me as terribly weird that it was important for everyone to know. For the first time, I felt really scared."

Since then, she has been shuttling between her mother's and sister's houses, while her new three-bedroom home in the Hollywood Hills is being renovated. "It's one of my two major splurges," she says. The other is a convertible black Jaguar that is so messy she's embarrassed to hand the keys over to parking valets. Her lucrative contracts with Diet Coke and Reebok will allow Abdul many more splurges, but, she insists, "I'm not in this for the quick buck. My goal is long-term, quality work."

In the short term, Abdul shows no signs of easing her hectic schedule: She's currently choreographing the Oscars, helping out with director Oliver Stone's upcoming movie about the Doors, planning a follow-up album and a tour, and readying a dance studio that she and her sister will open in L.A. in late summer.

Can she handle it all? "Her ambition hasn't let her down yet," says Jim Brooks. "There's no reason to suspect she'll fail now."

—Jeannie Park, Todd Gold in Los Angeles