What a Difference a Year Makes

updated 08/04/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/04/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Forget bling-bling. Or even badda-boom. When Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck walked into the Virgin Megastore in downtown Vancouver on the night of June 22, she was in sweats and he wore a T-shirt and baseball cap. Affleck, in town filming the John Woo thriller Paycheck, burrowed into the film selection while his fiancée wandered the aisles. "She would look at the magazines, then come over and give her two cents on the movies," says a Virgin employee. Some 20 minutes later, after buying 10 or so DVDs including Old School and The Pianist, the couple made a quiet exit. "Afterwards," says the clerk, "some of the people in line behind them were like, 'Was that Ben and J.Lo?' "

Hard to believe, huh? A year ago on July 24, Affleck, 30, kicked off the most extravagant courtship Hollywood has seen since Liz Taylor and Richard Burton when he offered his girlfriend of three weeks a Harry Winston bracelet of white and yellow diamonds for her 33rd birthday. Wooing Jenny to his side of the block, the brainy boy from Cambridge, Mass., found ever more exciting ways of flaunting his affection and his fortune (he earned an estimated $36 million last year): $100,000 in cash for a couple of Rolexes, thousands on Gucci shopping sprees and $200 valet tips. Then there's the 6.1-carat custom-made Harry Winston pink-diamond engagement ring he offered when he asked her to marry him at his childhood home last fall. Though wedding bells are yet to ring, their mutual admiration—and influence on each other—is clear. He's urged her to renovate her own business empire, which spans movies, music, clothing, perfume and a restaurant, and she's urged him to, well, shave and use a little hair gel.

"I take on the 'woman' roles in certain things," the Bronx-born Lopez told Dateline NBC during an interview in the waterfront North Vancouver home Affleck has rented until August while filming Paycheck. Filming the drama An Unfinished Life a few hundred miles away in the Canadian town of Kamloops through early July, J.Lo hopped a plane "every time she had two days free," says Life director Lasse Hallstrom, to be with him. In April she cooked an Easter turkey dinner for their visiting families (a break from her favorite food, fried chicken), and hit Sears in Vancouver for dishes to serve it on. "I'm a caregiver," she said. "I like to make sure he has things."

Words that would warm the heart of her future mother-in-law, Chris Affleck, who considers Lopez a "great match" for her son. "She's very warm, very loyal, very passionate," says Chris, 60, a fifth-grade teacher in Boston. "She has a lot of love in her for her family." Still, the Domestic Goddess routine took her fiancé by surprise. "She's much more traditional than I anticipated she'd be," Affleck told Dateline. Nor did she anticipate he'd be so stubborn—a fact that pops up when the couple discuss the grandchildren Ben's mom says she is "nagging him" for: Will they be Red Sox or Yankee fans? "I can't be involved in any family that's not a Red Sox family," Affleck insisted. Still, sports squabbles aside, Lopez's photographer friend Tony Duran says, "There's no pressure between them, that someone has to 'up' somebody else or do better. They're both successful, powerful people so they are enjoying each other."

And tinkering with each other. A health nut who never drinks or smokes, she's helped him trade in his cigarettes for Nicorette gum and—especially important to friends—stay sober (he checked into rehab for alcohol abuse in 2001). "I give Jennifer a lot of credit," says Affleck's longtime pal, producer Chris Moore, adding, "He's really energized and psyched and clear." And in touch with his inner sex symbol. According to Duran, it was Lopez who urged the actor to loosen up for the impromptu 30-minute photo shoot that led to PEOPLE's Sexiest Man Alive cover last year; he trusted Duran, "because she said to." Affleck, meanwhile, is by many accounts the phantom force behind the wholesale changes to Lopez's business team, including the ouster of Benny Medina, her longtime manager who is credited with her rise to superstardom. According to The New York Times, Affleck was irked not only that she was paying out too much money but that her handlers failed to keep her out of the tabloids.

Lopez, however, does not always share her lover's extravagance—like the $5,000 chip he threw to dealers as a tip (and that she replaced with three $100 chips) at a Las Vegas casino early this year. Though known herself for dazzling purchases (like her $9.5 million Miami Beach mansion) and pampered lifestyle (trailers stocked with white flowers and room temperature Evian), she has not forgotten her humble beginnings. At a Payless ShoeSource in Kamloops, shoppers were stunned to see the star going through children's clearance shoe boxes, according to a store clerk. Accompanied by her teacher mother, Guadalupe, 57, her sister, Leslie, 35, and Leslie's two young children, J.Lo chided her niece and nephew when they became restless. "Shhh. That's enough," she said, before snagging 12 pairs of kids' shoes and a pink backpack for about $80.

If Lopez startles strangers with her mall moments, Affleck is surprising old associates with a new reserve.

On the Chicago set of Surviving Christmas this winter, he took on the off-camera role of big brother to his costar Josh Zuckerman, 18, urging him to put college before his acting career. But he rarely chatted with the cast and crew, as he used to. Sources on the Paycheck set said he passed time between takes with Lopez—or in a chair on the set doing the Vancouver Sun crossword puzzle.

Why the change? His mentor back home, Boston University political science Professor Emeritus Howard Zinn, suggests that Affleck is fighting "a constant internal battle" between his old self—the guy who a few years back organized a rally in Cambridge in support of a pay hike for Harvard janitors—and "the glitz, the glamor, the money, the demands of Hollywood." Mike Castilloux, owner of Vancouver's Executive Lifestyles workout studio, recalls watching Ben and J.Lo work out together. At first Affleck was his usual quiet self, until Lopez started "slapping his butt," says Castilloux. "She was just all over him, like a little girl. She got him to be playful."

It is a role, for which she is richly compensated. At a recent dinner, her photographer friend Gilles Bensimon was pleased to see that Affleck "was very attentive, very respectful." And a bit puzzled to see that Lopez "seemed somehow different than before." No riddle to her hairstylist pal Oribe. "She always lets you think she is happy," he explains. "But I believe she truly is happy now."

Karen S. Schneider
Elizabeth Leonard in Los Angeles, Brenda Rodriguez, Alexis Chiu and Jason Bane in Vancouver, Diane Herbst and Joanne Fowler in New York City and Lauren Comander in Chicago

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