Tom Sinclair
January 07, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

For flamboyant rapper Sean ”Puffy” Combs and his diva girlfriend, Jennifer Lopez, the Y2K disaster arrived a few days early.

The much-publicized meltdown — in which Combs, 30, and Lopez, 29, fled the scene of a Manhattan nightclub shooting — left the ubiquitous Bad Boy Entertainment CEO facing weapons charges and Lopez badly shaken after a night in police custody, during which time she reportedly shed copious tears. While neither star was implicated in the Club New York shootings, which left three people injured (police charged Bad Boy artist Jamal ”Shyne” Barrow with attempted murder and reckless endangerment), both were forced to vehemently defend their public image.

”I do not own a gun, nor did I have possession of a gun that night,” said Combs, reading from a statement at a press conference Dec. 28. That denial echoed a statement from Lopez’s attorney, Lawrence Ruggiero: ”Jennifer Lopez does not own a firearm nor does she condone the use of firearms.”

Just what does this latest legal quagmire mean for Combs, other than another court date (scheduled for Feb. 14)? A series of blows in the past year has considerably tarnished his golden-boy-about-town image. First was his widely publicized arrest last spring in the beating of record exec Steve Stoute. (Combs and Stoute settled the dispute, and Combs underwent anger-management training.) Then came the disappointment of seeing his highly hyped sophomore album, Forever, slide out of Billboard’s top 10 in two weeks, and the prospect that his benefactor Clive Davis (whose Arista Records owns half of Bad Boy) may be put out to pasture — perhaps partly due to Forever’s poor performance. Factor in the arrest of Barrow — who, under the nom de rap Shyne, was being groomed by Combs for Notorious B.I.G.-level superstardom—and it’s mo’ money, mo’ problems, times two.

Some believe Combs will weather this latest storm with the same phlegmatic ease he’s demonstrated with past difficulties. ”If anything,” says Andy Shane, assistant program and music director at New York’s WKTU, ”Puffy will keep his bad-boy image, and people are fine with that.” Adds Bill Adler, head of the rap-oriented Mouth Almighty Publicity: ”He’s the Teflon rapper. His fans aren’t sitting around shuddering with moral revulsion at what they read about him.”

Still, as Combs’ roughneck image grows, his fan base is dwindling. Forever continues to slip down the charts, and Combs’ rap-industry relevance is beginning to be eclipsed by hardcore turks like Jay-Z, DMX, and Juvenile. Some think the latest mess could damage the hip-hop honcho’s business clout. Says Allan Mayer of Sitrick and Co., a firm specializing in crisis management: ”The downside for him is that companies are often less tolerant of bad behavior [among execs] than among their artists.”

Whatever the fallout, Combs is an old hand at riding out scandals. But what about the squeaky-clean Lopez? The Latinista has seen her two careers blossom in 1999: Her debut album, On the 6, is multiplatinum, and she scored her biggest Hollywood payday yet — $8 million to $9 million — for the upcoming romance The Wedding Planner. Last summer, Warner Bros. reportedly was pursuing the actress to star with Will Smith in a remake of A Star Is Born—apropos, perhaps, given Lopez’s and Combs’ divergent career trajectories. Will the club incident slow her upward momentum?

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