April 23, 2009— -- Call her the unsinkable Paula Abdul. During eight seasons of "American Idol" there have been over 300 episodes filmed, thousands of ambitious contestants judged and jilted, and any number of controversies involving judge Abdul.
The award-winning choreographer and recording artist has helped make "American Idol" the number one show in the U.S., with 20 million people tuning in each week. From week one, Abdul has played the role of the "nice" judge, the person to whom contestants can turn for a kind word when the notoriously tough -- some might even say nasty -- Simon Cowell pounces.
"This is my last season under contract," she told "Nightline" in an exclusive interview. "I love the show, I do. I love what I do on the show and I'm loving it more this season than ever."
And whatever the future holds, don't count her out.
"Don't bet against me," she said, "because the most powerful kryptonite I possess is the connection with the people."
Extensive interviews with Abdul are rare, but "Nightline" was invited backstage with her before sitting down for a wide-ranging conversation.
"This is where we all congregate right before the show," Abdul said backstage at CBS Television City, where the "Idol" finals are shot. "And then the judges, we walk up behind the curtains and the doors open up ... and Simon grabs my hand and messes with me."
Cowell has played Abdul's foil, supporter and tormenter on the hit show.
"I'm not nervous," Abdul said before the show. "I'm more nervous about what he is going to try to do to mess me up. ... I've been the Raggedy Ann to his Andy."
Abdul Blindsided by Fourth 'Idol' Judge
For "Idol" fans, the on-screen antics of the judges and host Ryan Seacrest are crucial to the show's success, and the famous snipes between Abdul and Cowell are a reason, beyond the contest itself, to tune in.
"He's a bully, he's a masterful bully," Abdul said. "The first day I went to work on Season One, I quit seven times. Seven times. I couldn't believe that someone was actually getting away with crushing fragile kids."
But is the laundry list of screaming, name calling, and angry storm-outs real, or is it all just for the cameras? After all, for years, rumors have swirled that Cowell and Abdul are having a hot love affair on the side.
"Yeah, I know he started those rumors from Season One," she said. "As a girl growing up, when you're young and the boys punch you and you come home crying, 'why are they so mean?' And your parents say, 'it's 'cause he likes you?' Well then, my theory is that he's madly in love with me."
If Cowell is in love with Abdul, he certainly has a strange way of showing it. This season they brought in a new female judge: Kara DioGuardi,leading some to speculate that producers are planning to replace Abdul. Abdul said she found out about the addition of a fourth judge while en route to the first round of auditions for the current season.
"I just got out of this hospital this past August," she said. "I had three days to pack and go on the road. I found out on the way to the airport. ... Randy found out hours before me.
"I was surprised because Simon has always been against the fourth," she said. "We've had guest judges come in before and he banned that from happening anymore. I didn't understand the concept of what was happening."
Fellow judge Randy Jackson said that the four judges have a family dynamic, with "friendly camaraderie."
"Simon, Ryan, and I are best buddies, I guess we have a bit of a bro-ish-mance or something," he joked. "It's kind of like big brothers and sisters. That's what it is, it's really like brothers and sisters."
Abdul: 'Don't Ever Count Me Out'
Abdul said she already knew DioGuardi. Ironically, she helped the aspiring songwriter break into the industry.
"Well, I started her success. And I'm proud of it ... happy of it," Abdul said. "I moved a stranger from New York, told her to give two weeks notice to Billboard magazine and moved a stranger into my home in L.A."
And while that may sound odd, Abdul has also played an influential role in the careers of many others. As an Emmy-winning choreographer, she worked with stars like Eddie Murphy and Michael and Janet Jackson. She even choreographed the famous keyboard scene in Tom Hanks' classic, "Big."
When asked if she thought DioGuardi would replace her, Abdul said, "I don't think anyone [can]. First of all, Kara says, 'I could never replace you.' And I said, whenever there is change, it's not about replacing anybody. It's about possibly moving on."
Fellow judge Randy Jackson said he doesn't think there's tension between Abdul and DioGuardi.
"There's tension among all of us because we're all a very dysfunctional bunch," he said. "I often say that to be in the entertainment business you've got to be at least a little crazy."
Further indications of a strained relationship between Abdul and "Idol" producers surfaced last November when an obsessive Abdul fan -- she called the fan a stalker -- committed suicide outside her home. The woman had been mocked at an "Idol" audition by Cowell.
"It's an ongoing investigation," Abdul said. "I'm not at liberty to speak about this right now because it's still an ongoing police investigation. It's tragic. ... There will be a day when I can talk about it. I just can't do it now."
Jackson said that while Abdul has had her ups and downs, he never worries about her.
"She's a trooper, she's one of the best artists, one of the best people I know," he said. "She's stellar right now ... I think this is one of her best seasons."
"This is totally reminiscent of when I started in the biz 20 years ago," Abdul said. "I feel like it is a magical time. No one can get in my way, not even me, believe me. I just feel like it's magical. I'm making a new record. .... What really matters is don't ever count me out."