Giant J. Lo Frenzy!

Tamara had things to do-a list of phone calls to return, an overdue project from work, an incomplete application to Columbia Business School-but all of that was pushed aside when Jennifer Lopez appeared on ABC’s Primetime Live with Diane Sawyer.

“I turned my ringer off, set aside my paperwork and sat glued to my TV,” said the 25-year-old project manager, gesturing with her hands to indicate a distance of eight inches from the screen, “while J. Lo spilled the dirt about her engagement to Ben. It was better than The Bachelor finale.”

To be sure, women all over the city turned off their ringers that same night in November, or the evening Making the Video: Jenny from the Block premiered on MTV, or slunk to their desks well after 10 o’clock one morning in December, unable as they were to extricate themselves from that morning’s J. Lo concert on NBC’s Today Show , live from said block. These women, it bears mentioning, know their Tariq Aziz, their Hans Blix, their Kim Jong Il, their Allison Pearson. These are otherwise smart women who simply cannot get enough news, gossip, shopping-spree summaries and office-pantry deconstructing of the incessantly publicized relationship between Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck.

Of course, ironic analysis (as well as maintaining self-aware humor about one’s own pathetic-ness) mitigates the shame of being caught in the vortex of Lopez-Affleck overexposure. Or does it? Few of the women interviewed for this story would allow their last names to be used.

Certainly, the country has seen its share of celebrity couples before, but the magnitude of this particular pairing can best be formulated by multiplying Ms. Lopez’s $10-million-a-picture salary by Mr. Affleck’s $10 million–plus salary, all to the 6.1-carat pink-diamond power. Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt’s courtship seems narcotized in comparison.

Why do otherwise sober New York women care so much about this couple? One reason is that it’s local news: Ms. Lopez and Mr. Affleck are just downtown in Tribeca; they occupy the center table at Nobu; they swing by the Castle Hill section of the Bronx. Women have observed the progress of their relationship the way they would a midtown-skyscraper construction project, with a “Jesus, that thing went up fast!” reaction-and also a “How safe can something be that went up that fast?” reaction.

The extent of New York women’s obsessions may vary, but they seem to be uniformly informed (and enabled) by Us Weekly , first and foremost, as well as People , the Post ‘s Page Six, E! and the 7 o’clock news: Entertainment Tonight , Extra and Access Hollywood .

“I buy Us every Tuesday, and if Ben and J. Lo are mentioned, cover story or not, I have to read it where I am, even before I leave the store,” Tamara said.

Women have set to memory all manner of mind-numbing, picayune facts and gossipy half-truths about Ms. Lopez and Mr. Affleck’s romance, day-to-day activities and preferences.

“I can rattle off all the presents they’ve bought for each other, and when. I know where they like to eat, and what they ate for dinner the night he proposed,” said a 29-year-old Upper East Sider who works in the entertainment industry. One 32-year-old copyeditor said, “I was stopped short when I read about how it was someone’s job on the set of the Jenny from the Block video to tweak J. Lo’s nipples so they looked properly erect.”

Elizabeth, 29, who works in the cosmetics industry, recalled that “on-set, she needs those damn $65 grapefruit candles everywhere. Tell me if it’s a lie, but I’ve heard it’s in her contract.”

Sarah, 27, a magazine editor, has heard that Ben straightens his hair. “He hates it curly,” she shrugged. She said she also knows that director Kevin Smith had a video game custom-made for them.

One 31-year-old Gramercy Park resident reported that she and her boyfriend no longer say “Hello” to each other on the phone: “We say ‘J. Lo’ instead.”

And a 31-year-old woman who did not want even her first name used said she and her husband bought In Touch magazine to read on the plane whwen they flew to L.A. for Christmas at her parents’. “We saw a picture of J. Lo and Ben getting takeout pizza from a Beverly Hills pizzeria, and on our first day there, I drove us to the place where I thought the picture was taken,” she said. “Do you see why you can’t use my name?”

“I went on a blind date last week, and the guy said he couldn’t understand why women care about J. Lo and Ben,” said the entertainment-industry worker. “I tried to explain it to him. And the great thing was, he got it. He said he felt the same way about an N.F.L. quarterback.”

“Jen and Ben feed us lots of dirt, and we crave and crave more-and it’s O.K. to crave it, because they’ve given us full permission and encouragement to do so,” Sarah said. Still, no one is naïve enough to think that mere coincidence had them getting engaged within weeks of when Ms. Lopez’s album This Is Me … Then debuted and her film Maid in Manhattan opened.

A fair number of these women also found themselves captivated by and kaffeeklatsching over The Bachelor, and they simply refocused their critical views from one stagy, forced romance to another. Moreover, this one is not limited to seven measly episodes-it’s the all-you-can-drink water-cooler conversation. It’s as though the air people breathe has been infused with Ms. Lopez. (Fitting, since $40 million worth of her new scent, Glow by J. Lo, has sold in the four months since its launch.) If in the past such a media blitz has been the effort of a studio-as it was in 1950, when MGM outfitted Elizabeth Taylor in her Father of the Bride gown when she wed Nicky Hilton a week before the actual movie opened-now it’s Ms. Lopez herself who’s working the media miracles. And even in the relentless strafe of publicity and soft news, women respect her for that. She and Mr. Affleck “position themselves as reluctant media targets, and that makes the media and the public cheer in victory when yet another of their C.I.A.-grade speculations-are they dating? are they engaged?-is confirmed,” said Sarah. “It’s pretty brilliant.”

Ms. Lopez, who is 32, has something else that’s just as potent as that brilliance: unstinting ambition.

“I noticed how different J. Lo looks from her fly-girl days,” said Sara, a 27-year-old researcher, referring to when Ms. Lopez was a dancer from 1990 to 1992 on the Fox television show In Living Color. “Her skin used to look a lot lighter, her hair looked a lot darker, even her features looked thicker. She was not the über -hot chick we know and love-slash-hate now.” Fran, a 33-year-old graphic designer who lives in Nolita, said, “Has anyone actually compared these two women in before-and-after shots? Are they the same woman? Can face-waxing and highlighting really work so well?”

Somewhere between the Clairol aisle and the Jolen cream-bleach aisle, Ms. Lopez picked up an agenda. Sara said she imagined Ms. Lopez sitting down and “scientifically plotting” her career points: “Straighten hair. Go lighter. Don’t fight the ass. Don’t fight the Latina. Wear a sheer dress to the Grammys. Date Puffy.”

Then, to distance herself from the image of being Puffy’s mamacita -and put some daylight between herself and his trial for the December 1999 nightclub shooting-she quickly married the apparently mute choreographer Cris Judd in September 2001.

“Everyone used to say Puffy was ruining her career, especially during the trial,” Elizabeth said. “She had to get rid of him.”

“J. Lo is a hot property primarily because she’s a ‘Woman in Control,’ an icon of post-feminist autonomy and old-fashioned rags-to-riches elevation,” said Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies at New York University. “It is her aura of cool mastery, as much as her great beauty and fantastic body, that makes her popular. It’s the entrepreneurial fantasy she lives that makes her such a star.”

“I think, particularly in New York, she is so captivating because she’s the ultimate alpha female,” said Janice Min, executive editor of Us Weekly . “Like a lot of women in their 30’s in New York, she’s found herself at the peak of her career after toiling all these years.”

What’s more, the career high point for her doesn’t mean advancement to management level or a window office. It means market dominance in the motion picture, music, fragrance and hootchie-mama velour-tracksuit sectors.

Ms. Min continued: “Women love J. Lo- and her critics may say this is a fault-because she has nothing but confidence. She is so not neurotic. She doesn’t worry about whether an outfit makes her butt look big, or if she should have said that, or if she should have ordered that dessert …. She seizes the world by its balls and treats her personal life like she does her business, with ruthless efficiency. She does what all women would like to do if they didn’t worry about what other people thought.”

There’s also been some speculation that Ms. Lopez and Mr. Affleck have strategically coupled up to broaden their individual appeal and to cross class barriers: She makes him street; he makes her white.

One writer in her 30’s said, “What many Park Avenue women politely whisper about J. Lo and Ben is ‘chambermaid syndrome,’ which is ironic given her new movie. They can’t abide that he would choose J. Lo over Gwyneth, the jewel-in-the-crown of the sophisticated, chic, pretty young things.”

It should be noted that Mr. Affleck and Ms. Paltrow broke up four years ago-or, in Lopez time, two husbands ago (she split from Ojani Noa, waiter-turned-restaurant-manager, in 1998). The writer continued, “The way women whisper about J. Lo, you would think she was Sally Hemings.”

Which would liken Mr. Affleck to Thomas Jefferson-a bit of a reach, even before taking into account how many women think that he’s the one who’s dating up.

“I feel like he’s really the lucky one in this arrangement, obviously,” said Stephanie, a 28-year-old landscape architect from Park Slope. The entertainment-industry worker stressed, “There’s no way he would have been People ‘s sexiest man alive this year if he wasn’t dating her.”

“Ben Affleck is not an A-list glamour-puss like she is,” said N.Y.U.’s Mr. Miller. “He’s more of an actor than a star. Handsome, certainly, but not unearthly in his looks. She, on the other hand, is silver-screen material.” When the couple appear together in Gigli , which will open in the spring, Mr. Miller predicted that “she’ll wipe him off the screen, much as Greta Garbo wiped out Melvyn Douglas in Ninotchka .”

Ms. Lopez the screen siren, it turns out, is as much a contradiction as the Manolo Blahnik Timberland-style boots she wears in the Jenny from the Block video. Despite all the mad bling, she’s real, she’s real and, oh yeah, one other thing: She’s real.

“Everything you hear about her is like, ‘You can’t look her in the eye, she’s so demanding, she needs white roses and white scented candles in her dressing room, she bathes in Evian,’- she’s everywhere, every guy you know wants to have sex with her, and you get the feeling that she’s a grade-A bitch,” Sara said. “But then you find yourself watching Revealed with Jules Asner, or sitting through Maid in Manhattan , and smiling and nodding along and thinking, ‘Gosh, I like J. Lo.’ Call it charisma or old-school movie moxie or Madonna-like ambition, but she does it. You can’t take your eyes off her.”

“Even though I know I shouldn’t give a shit, I can’t help but watch, rapt, anytime there’s an interview with her,” said Stephanie. “I’m helpless against her charms. And that adorable giggle.”

A 34-year old magazine editor said, “Everything about her is extreme-the clothes, the furs, the pink ring. And her enormous ass, which I can’t stop looking at, especially in the Jenny from the Block video, when he sort of slaps it.”

“He’s Hooked On Her”

Mr. Affleck, in stark contrast, inspires more derision than admiration. Fran, the graphic designer, could muster only one word about the 30-year-old actor: “Snore.”

“He dips dangerously into Derek Zoolander territory, with that no-smile, squinty-eyed, serious face that he affects whenever he’s being photographed,” said Sarah. “He did it for the ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ cover. He must practice it in the mirror-maybe while he’s straightening his hair.”

Amy, 31, who works in subsidiary rights, readily admitted her ideal outcome for the Lopez and Affleck relationship. “I want her to destroy that milquetoast frat daddy, vagina dentata style,” she said. “If Ben Affleck can be left a brittle shell of a man, then J. Lo will not have shaken that ass in vain.”

For single women, Mr. Affleck offers a too-much-of-a-good-thing cautionary tale about relationships, with all his ass-kissing Tobor the Boyfriend Robot behavior. His excessive and oftentimes hackneyed expressions of adoration can make him pretty unattractive. For instance, on a November-weekend spending binge in Las Vegas, he reportedly bought Ms. Lopez’s mother an E-class Mercedes Benz. And, of course, in the Jenny from the Block video, he actually plants a big old kiss on her big old ass (after giving it a quick little polish, as though he were shining the teacher’s apple). Yes, many a single woman can tuck in all alone each night thankful that she’s not mixed up with that brand of poontang-whipped, pretty-boy shopoholic.

On the topic of -oholism, Mr. Affleck has arguably replaced his addiction to alcohol with an addiction to affection and attention. Thus his and J. Lo’s seventh-grade-dance-style public make-out sessions. Thus their cruising through the Los Angeles canyons in the convertible Bentley.

“I think he’s hooked on her and everything that comes along with her-the paparazzi, the fancy cars, jetting off to her house in Miami,” said the entertainment-industry worker.

Kitty, a 31-year-old Upper West Sider who also works in the entertainment industry, went so far as to suggest that “Ben has become a Stepford boyfriend due to his rehab back in the summer of 2001. I recently read some old interviews with him, and was struck by how candid and funny and crass he used to be. Now he’s so sappy and earnest, totally without edge.”

Indeed, old interviews with Mr. Affleck suggest that he recently took a meeting with body snatchers: In the fall of 2000, he was quoted talking about a three-month period when he burned through $40,000 (compared to the $400,000 he reportedly spent that weekend in Vegas). “That taught me to be a little more careful and ever since I’ve tried not to emulate the typical celebrity lifestyle,” he said. “I mean, I don’t need a couple of Ferraris and a marble palazzo to feel good about myself.”

So said the man who now buys his girlfriend a luxury car in the “you get me next time” way that other boyfriends buy their girlfriends cups of coffee.

For all the chatter about the indicia of their courtship-the jewelry, the gifts, the designer clothes, the Lucite-heeled stripper shoes, the candles and strewn rose pedals-very little is said or ventured about their courtship’s emotional underpinnings. Maybe admitting that they truly do desperately love each other would mean forfeiting the requisite New York City, media-savvy cynicism.

“Whenever I see them together, I just think they’re putting on a show. How can someone go from P. Diddy to a cheese-dick like Ben?” said the entertainment-industry worker. “And how can a guy go from Gwyneth to J. Lo? I think I’d believe their love more if they didn’t go around flaunting it. You’d think someone who’s had two brief, failed marriages would have a little more shame.”

Sara pointed out, “There is no reason on earth to think he’s anything but another Cris Judd.”

Elizabeth, on the other hand, conceded that “they fit a purpose in each other’s life. Do I see them growing old together? That’s a stretch.”

“Every woman wants to end up in a relationship when you paw at each other all the time because you’re so in love,” said Us Weekly ‘s Ms. Min. “Does that intensity ever last? It might evolve to a whole different level that works for them.

“They got really hot really fast,” she added, “and they’re going to have an enormous, lavish wedding, I imagine. And the only thing I can say is, I never saw her acting this way with her other two husbands.”

(Ms. Lopez did, however, act that way with P. Diddy, who was, of course, considerably higher-profile than Ojani Noa and Cris Judd.)

The true test of J. Lo and Ben’s commitment to each other, and their commitment to exposing that commitment-and women’s capacity to care endlessly about it-may come with their rumored Caribbean wedding next month. Other hyped celebrity engagements and weddings serve as measuring sticks: Even Madonna wanted to cop some privacy both times she got married. Anne, a 32-year-old who works in book publishing, said, “J. Lo’s whole shtick with Ben is the worst since Catherine Zeta-Jones sold her wedding photos.”

But Catherine Zeta-Jones’ sale of photos from her November 2000 wedding to Michael Douglas (to OK! magazine for $1.5 million) seems downright plucky-quaint, almost-compared to what Ms. Lopez and Mr. Affleck have exhibited so far. One can only assume they’ll keep it up. Until they don’t.

“They will be so embarrassed when this doesn’t work out,” the entertainment-industry worker said. “I can’t wait.”