NEW YORK – Spending three seasons watching thousands of wannabes warble their way toward attempted singing stardom can make anyone a bit restless.
But with the fourth season of Fox's "American Idol" (search) under way (8 p.m. EST Tuesdays and Wednesdays) Paula Abdul (search) — the "nice" judge of the often brutal talent competition — is getting anxious for another reason altogether.
"I miss my art," Abdul sighs as she looks out the window, looking like a classic '50s sweetheart, right down to her flowery, flared-out dress. "The great part about who I am is, I came into this business as a facilitator. I was a world-class choreographer ... I've always been able to help mold [other people] into their greatness.
"But there is a whole other hat that I wear as a performer that I need to infuse a little bit of energy into, so I've made a conscientious decision that after this season, I have to take some time to be mindful of my own craft."
When Abdul refers to her craft, she's talking about her time as a singing sensation. More than a decade before "American Idol" became a pop-culture phenomenon, she was the real thing, segueing from a career as a top choreographer for Janet Jackson (search), the Laker Girls and the Academy Awards to one as a chart-topping entertainer. Among her No. 1 hits, mostly pop and R&B tunes, were songs such as "Straight Up" and "Forever Your Girl."
Her catchy hits, along with her fast-paced, drop-on-a-dime dance moves, made her a dazzling video artist, while her girl-next-door persona made her a media darling. She even had a celebrity marriage to Emilio Estevez (though it ended in divorce, as did a subsequent marriage).
But her time on top of the music charts was relatively short. While her two albums, "Forever Your Girl" in 1988 and 1991's "Spellbound" sold millions, by the time 1995's "Head Over Heels" came out, the music world was over Abdul.
While her singing career faded, Abdul didn't go away. The 42-year-old laughs at the idea that she wasn't up to much before "Idol": She continued to choreograph (including in movies such as the Oscar-winning "American Beauty"); she ran her own dance camps and competitions for youth; and she even wrote songs for others.
"I'm responsible for helping Kylie Minogue come back," she maintains while talking about the song "Spinning Around," which she co-wrote for the dance music star in 2000. "She couldn't get signed to a worldwide deal ... She entered for the first time ever on the U.K. charts No. 1 on a song I wrote."
Still, for many, Abdul had drifted into the "Whatever Happened to ..." category until her incarnation as part of the judging trio on "American Idol." Her "let 'em down easy" approach to the horrid tryouts became the perfect balance against the viciousness of Simon Cowell, while her motherly guidance of the show's true talent endeared her to both contestants and the audience.
"I think people knew me as a celebrity, as a pop star, as the famous choreographer. This show has done an amazing thing. It's reacquainting my fans with Paula the human being, and guess what? Everybody get over it — Paula's a nice person," she says with her smile, so broad and constant one wonders whether she could frown even if she wanted to.
Finding the good in other people has been very good for Abdul herself. She has become as popular as she was in her singing heyday. But it's singing that she craves to do more than anything, and she believes fans are waiting: "People say they miss me out there as an artist because I'm very creative."
Of course, there are plenty of critics would take issue with that statement. As a singer, Abdul's thin voice was constantly panned, and at times, her choreography drew jeers.
But Abdul smiles as she talks about the "Simons" in her own life.
"You can't be the popular people's choice and be the critics' choice," she says. "It's just the way it is in art. It's subjective, and I learned that very early on my career."
Besides, Abdul is too interested in the future to worry about what critics said about her in the past.
When she does make her grand return, fans should expect a different Paula than the one we knew way back then, she says. "I'm different as a human being. I'm much older and I have a lot more wisdom."
Except, of course, dance — that, we can count on from Abdul.
"Paula without dance would be a really dark world," she says, laughing.