PAULA'S NEW GUY
Lonely no more? Paula Abdul gets cozy with martial artist and actor Tony Schiena

It's the promise of a new day for Paula Abdul. Mere weeks ago the American Idol judge grew teary talking to TV's Dr. Phil about the difficulty of finding true love. He promptly set her up on 10 blind dates. But that was before Tony Schiena. At the March 14 opening of the Leona Edmiston boutique in West Hollywood, Abdul, 43, turned heads when she emerged from a Jaguar with the handsome actor on her arm. Inside, the two sipped pomegranate martinis and held hands; at one point Schiena, 6′3″, stood behind the 5′2″ star and wrapped her in his arms. Sitting in the Idol audience the next night, he noted to a pal, "Hey, she looks good, huh?" Abdul and Schiena winked and waved to each other, and she even squeezed in a quick visit, prompting one Idol staffer to ask, "Who is that hottie with Paula?"

Who indeed? Schiena was named a black belt world champ by the World Traditional Karate Organization in 2001 before turning to acting. (His credits include CSI: NY and a small role in 2004's The Merchant of Venice.) Abdul's rep insists the duo are "just friends," while Schiena's rep says her client's "friendship" with Abdul started a year ago, when they met socially. And all that affection? His rep says Schiena, who's from South Africa, is "very warm. Holding hands is as normal as giving a good friend a kiss on the cheek." And whatever happened to Dr. Phil's blind dates? Abdul tells Scoop, "Let's not talk about that."

IT'S NOT OVER YET

Mounting scientific evidence suggests that, yes, breaking up is hard to do. Recently kaput couples Nicole Richie and DJ AM, Uma Thurman and André Balazs, and Hilary Swank and Chad Lowe have all been seen making nice with each other. For Richie and AM, who ended their engagement in December, it appears to be a full-on reconciliation. "They decided to try again," says a friend. "They never stopped caring about each other." Richie hasn't been wearing her engagement ring, but "they really are so happy together. ... It was only a matter of time before they got back together." Swank and Lowe, who announced their separation in January, also are "trying to work it all out," says a friend. Swank had her wedding band on at the Oscars, and the two were recently spotted at the Tra di Noi restaurant in Malibu having a late lunch. As for Thurman and Balazs, who have been seen hanging out and visiting eateries together in New York after the March 8 announcement of their split, "they remain close friends," says Thurman's rep.

SMOOTH SIMIAN

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas—unless you're surrounded by a gaggle of photographers. In town for the ShoWest theater owners convention, Natalie Portman, voted their Female Star of the Year, attracted some unexpected attention. The fan, an enthusiastic chimp named Cody, ran up and embraced the actress in the backstage press area, kissing her cheek and neck, and even touching her leg. Portman responded to the chimp's advances, cooing "I love you" and asking photographers to ease up on shooting: "You're gonna freak him out." The V for Vendetta star had high praise for her suitor. "[He was] such a gentleman," she says. "I think he's been in, like, Chimp Gentleman School."

JEN, VINCE AND THE BABY

Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn may have never talked about it, but they do have a baby in common. She's Ellie Claire Bosse, now almost 5, who shared screen time with the actors long before they got together as a couple. Ellie played an infant in Aniston's 2002's The Good Girl, and in 2003's Old School, which starred Vaughn, 36. Aniston, 37, "was great with Ellie. She would keep her after the cameras stopped rolling, playing with her. It's obvious she loves children," Ellie's mom, Debbie Bosse, tells Scoop. And Vaughn? "At first, he didn't appear very kid-friendly," says Bosse, noting that he struggled with the strap-on baby carrier. "It was like, 'Get this thing off me!' But he warmed up. He ended up knowing how to strap the contraption on by himself. And because Ellie didn't cry too much at that point, I think he liked that." At the end, "It was, 'Okay, I can do this.'"

BIG STAR, LITTLE FILM

He just won an Oscar, but that doesn't mean he's too big to play small roles. Look for Philip Seymour Hoffman to appear onscreen next in Simply Leon, a film by Tim Farmer, a senior at Fairport (N.Y.) High School. Last year Hoffman visited Fairport, his alma mater, and Farmer pitched a seven-second role in the short he was making for media class. "He gave me his all," says Farmer, 18. "He even said the F-word, which I didn't call for." The director hopes to debut Leon in L.A. this summer. As for compensation, "I asked him if I had to pay," says Farmer. "He said, 'I don't think you have to pay me for using the F-word.'"

TOMORROW ON TODAY?

If Katie Couric, 49, jumps to CBS Evening News in May, who succeeds her at Today? Published reports say it's Weekend Today host Campbell Brown, 37, substitute Today news anchor Natalie Morales, 33, or The View's Meredith Vieira, 52. People.com asked online voters to choose.

CAMPBELL BROWN 40%

NATALIE MORALES 26%

MEREDITH VIEIRA 34%

SKIN DEEP
Tori Spelling will always be the girl on Dean McDermott's arm

INK LINK
Tori, as rendered by Tim Hendricks at Spotlight Tattoo in Hollywood.

Actor Dean McDermott arrived with fiancée Tori Spelling at The Godfather: The Game premiere on March 15, sporting fresh ink. Although his "Truly Madly Deeply Tori" tattoo first appeared on his right wrist only two months ago, he has now added a portrait of Spelling on his left arm, drawn from a photo he took of her on their engagement night, and a sketch of her naked backside on his right. Says Spelling: "I love it because when I'm old and we have grandkids I can say, 'This is what your grandma used to look like.'"

BUY CLOONEY'S OSCAR SWAG BAG!

George Clooney is auctioning off his Oscar gift bag, worth about $100,000, to benefit Hurricane Katrina relief. Included: a two-night getaway in Carmel, Calif.; a vintage silk kimono; a Tahitian pearl necklace; and a handwritten thank-you note from Clooney, 44. "George does this all the time," says his rep. "Other people need it, and the money goes to a good cause." The United Way will auction the bag on its Web site (www.unitedway.org) March 22 to 28.

DR. McSPEEDY
Grey's Anatomy's Patrick Dempsey likes to get his chassis around the track—stat!

As the medico nicknamed Dr. McDreamy on Grey's Anatomy, Patrick Dempsey spends his time saving lives and making women swoon. Offscreen? It's all about racecar driving. The 40-year-old actor, who took up the sport about three years ago, was Grand Marshal at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring race on March 18 in Florida, where he competed in the Panoz Racing Series. "I passed seven people on the first lap," says Dempsey, who finished 15th out of 23 cars. "I probably would have done better if I had known the track and pushed it." How does his driving translate to the regular road? "I'm aggressively aware," he says of when he drives in either his Esperante, Porsche, BMW or Jaguar. "I like to drive quickly but within the limits. I don't want to hurt myself or anybody else."

Dempsey is so hyped about his hobby that he's trying to convert his costars into car lovers like himself. "T.R. [Knight], who plays George O'Malley, just bought a [Prius]," he says. "I keep telling him to trick it out a little bit—change the rims and tint the windows. We need to pimp his ride, I think."

Meanwhile, McDreamy fans are working on a conversion of their own: "People scream to me in airports, 'Go back to Meredith!'" he says. "I'm like, 'She's sleeping around with too many men, why should I?'"

  • Contributors:
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