The past six months have flown by for Paula Abdul as she raced to get her new show, "Live to Dance," on its feet.
The morning before this dance competition's Tuesday premiere (8 p.m. EST on CBS), Abdul is calmly sipping tea at her Manhattan hotel as she confronts a final whirlwind of publicity. Meanwhile, across the country, the first episode of "Live to Dance" is still being tweaked.
"I've been on the phone to L.A. already five times, making sure it's OK," she reports. Back at the start of the series' gestation, "They probably didn't know what to expect when I said, 'No, seriously, I really AM going to be an active executive producer. No, seriously, I am!'"
The two-hour premiere will highlight early auditions. Then, when the show settles into its regular time slot (Wednesday at 8 p.m. EST), more contestants will be chosen to round out the cast of 18 dance acts that will travel to Los Angeles for subsequent, live broadcasts.
The winning act will get a grand prize of $500,000.
But the question persists: What sets "Live to Dance" apart?
"As my parents say, 'You always pick the hardest jobs, Paula! Why a dance show coming behind five OTHER dance shows? How are you going to make it different?' But that's where my juices get flowing. I love rising to the challenge of that, especially since I have so much vocabulary in dance that I want to explore, and I also do things aesthetically that haven't been seen before."
What she means is, she's rooting for a robust fusion of dance styles from contestants.
"It's no longer that you're just hip-hop or just ballet," she says. "You're ballet and hip-hop and contemporary, and you should know how to do a little bit of gymnastics. So it's, 'Bring me something I haven't seen!'"
The contest invites dancers of all backgrounds and ages, either solo or as a group.
"A show that allowed for amateurs of any age — I loved that!" she says.
Abdul will evaluate their performances, with choreographer Travis Payne and singer-dancer Kimberly Wyatt joining her on the panel.
As everybody knows, Abdul has done this before. She reigned for eight seasons on "American Idol" as the nice, if sometimes dizzy-seeming, judge who often clashed with bullyboy Simon Cowell. They were a potent, crowd-pleasing pair. "I choose the word 'kind' over 'nice,'" Abdul says, recalling the bare-knuckle advice she got from dance great Gene Kelly: "Fail to prepare, and prepare to fail." So please don't call her "nice."
"'Nice' is often linked with being a pushover, naive," she says. "I'm kind — and I think that's powerful."
On "Live to Dance," she will serve not as a judge, but, with her two fellow panelists, in the title of "expert." This suggests her new show will strike a more supportive tone.
"I became a famous judge on 'American Idol,' but I'd always be, 'Who am I to judge?'" Abdul says. "I never looked at myself as a judge. I represented hope and keeping your dream alive. (Cowell) represented the intensity of how difficult and hard this business is. You have to have both."
And she expects to redouble her efforts as "a mentor and coach and perpetual cheerleader."
But will a certain Simon-esque counterbalance be missing?
"Not at all," declares Abdul. "Watch the show. I'll let the show speak for itself. People will get to see me in a different element, an element that is very natural for me."
The 48-year-old Abdul notes that in her quarter-century career as a dancer, choreographer, recording artist and TV personality, she has regularly drawn on her Inner Drill Sergeant, and insists on it from others.
"We didn't have people coming in who were quote-unquote embarrassing ones who were delusional and just wanted to get on television," she says, though acknowledging, "a couple snuck through, charming ones that deserved to let their passion be seen."