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Has American Idol Made Jennifer Lopez Likable?

Are you an actress with an image problem? Get thee in front of some singing teenagers. Like Gwyneth Paltrow, whose guest appearance on Glee transformed her (for one shining moment) from condescending newsletter baroness to enjoyable triple threat, Jennifer Lopez has used her judging perch on American Idol to completely dismantle the diva reputation she built for herself over the last decade — and it's working.

Who knew? At first, the hiring of Lopez made little sense: Like failed judge Ellen DeGeneres, Lopez was far too famous to jeopardize her own career by snuffing some eager kid's dreams. With Simon Cowell departing, we all assumed that Idol would need to fill his absence with judges capable of some tough talk, and Lopez didn't seem to fit the bill. But returning producer Nigel Lythgoe had the right idea: Instead of trying to recapture Cowell's nasty chemistry, he reinvigorated the show by making it kinder. With less emphasis on the freak-show auditions and more airtime given to contestants we actually wanted to root for, the interminable early weeks of Idol became unexpectedly absorbing.

Still, Lopez seemed an unlikely fit for the new, anti-bullying Idol, too — though she wasn't hard enough to dole out brutal advice to auditioning teens à la Cowell, she didn't have a reputation as an angel, either. In fact, Lopez came to fame as a diva willing to throw jabs at fellow actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow and Winona Ryder, and when TMZ reported that her Idol negotiations were held up because she was making outrageous demands, the claim seemed easy to buy based on what we knew about her.

Then the show actually began, and you know what? J.Lo flat out worked. Sympathetic in a more coherent way than Paula Abdul had been, Lopez sparkled (and it didn't hurt that she was the first person who actually looked more beautiful under the unflattering scrutiny of high-definition television). Humbled just the right amount by her willingness to do TV — and her just-like-us admission that she and Marc Anthony have never missed an episode — she was so likable that even our skeptical recapper, Paul F. Tompkins, was surprised. And while she seems to have dropped the diva attitude, she's still got plenty of star quality: When she has to say no to a contestant, it's her you feel bad for, not him.

Could there be problems to come? Sure, since we haven't seen Lopez thrown into the high-pressure cooker that are the live shows. (It's here that DeGeneres, who had been flatteringly edited in the Hollywood rounds, revealed herself to be fatally incapable of a ten-second critique.) Also, clips from upcoming installments of Idol reveal Lopez in off-kilter, Grey Gardens–inspired costumes, and we really don't need Lopez to model herself after Bravo hostesses like Padma Lakshmi and China Chow, who derive half their presence from "what were they thinking" fashion choices.

Then the show actually began, and you know what? J.Lo flat out worked. Sympathetic in a more coherent way than Paula Abdul had been, Lopez sparkled (and it didn't hurt that she was the first person who actually looked more beautiful under the unflattering scrutiny of high-definition television). Humbled just the right amount by her willingness to do TV — and her just-like-us admission that she and Marc Anthony have never missed an episode — she was so likable that even our skeptical recapper, Paul F. Tompkins, was surprised. And while she seems to have dropped the diva attitude, she's still got plenty of star quality: When she has to say no to a contestant, it's her you feel bad for, not him.

Photo: Fox