The Buddy System Let us muse for a moment on the latest celebrity friendship: Britney Spears and Natalie Portman.

The pop princess and "Star Wars" queen, who met last year at a listening party for Spears's latest album, hosted a New Year's Eve bash for 40 in the penthouse bar of New York's Hudson Hotel.

It's as surprising as Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson. One's a Louisiana girl, a Southern Baptist. The other's an Israel native who grew up on Long Island. Britney hasn't been to college. Natalie's a student at Harvard. The tall, curvy singer is as famous for her midriff as her music; the petite, waifish actress once turned down the role of Lolita because it would require sex scenes. Spears is going through a very public spat with ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake; Portman has never revealed who she's dating.

Perhaps they thought it would be an advantageous friendship -- the bookish, strait-laced vegetarian gaining a bit of an edge by association with the scandal-plagued, kittenish Spears; the singer, in turn, benefiting from friendship with an actress known for her education and class.

Expect smiling photos of the gal pals to grace the pages of People and Us.

Noelle Bush's Rehab on Track A judge yesterday praised Noelle Bush, daughter of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, for the progress she has made in drug rehab. The 25-year-old is required to appear before Judge Reginald Whitehead every two weeks to report on her progress in treatment. In the past, Whitehead had scolded the president's niece following lapses that earned her short stays behind bars. This time, though, his words were encouraging. "Everything seems to be going pretty good," Whitehead said.

Bush was ordered to attend drug treatment after she was arrested last January for allegedly trying to use a fraudulent prescription to buy the anti-anxiety drug Xanax at a pharmacy drive-through window in Tallahassee. Under a diversion program, the charges could be dropped if she completes drug treatment. Whitehead has sent her to jail twice for violating the terms of that agreement. Her parents have spoken publicly about the difficulty of recovering from drug addiction.

Ted Turner, Fanning His New Flame Ted Turner and Frederique Darragon are talking about their romance, now that they have her film to promote. "He didn't want any publicity," Darragon said of the billionaire CNN founder, "until my documentary came out. And now publicity is welcome." Her film, "The Mystery of the Towers of Eastern Tibet," is the result of five years Darragon spent trekking through remote Himalayan valleys.

"I could write a book about what I like about her," Turner told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution of Darragon. Turner divorced actress Jane Fonda in 2001 after almost 10 years of marriage.

A Meaty Investigation Monday's issue of the new weekly Federal Paper will include an intrepid comparison of government cafeterias, with the eateries at the State and Commerce departments coming out on top. Reporter Douglas Brown praised State for its "hive of food stations, with offerings for just about every palate (how diplomatic!)," while he commended Commerce for its extensive salad bar and roasted turkey. The Transportation Department cafeteria came in last: "My creamed chipped beef was mostly paste and almost no beef," writes Brown. "The few scraps of meat floating around had the texture of stale nacho chips." A Transportation spokesman had no comment, except to say the department itself does not run the cafeteria. Thank goodness!

End Notes We hear that Associated Press White House correspondent Sandra Sobieraj will start as People magazine's new Washington bureau chief at the end of this month . . . D.C. Mayor Tony Williams will host Don King, James Carville and members of the Washington Wizards in ringside seats at the D.C. Armory tonight to watch local guy DeMarcus "Chop Chop" Corley defend his WBO junior welterweight championship against former champion Randall Bailey.

-- Compiled by Barbara E. Martinez

from staff and wire reports

Fast friends Britney Spears, left, and Natalie Portman co-hosted a New Year's Eve party at the penthouse bar of a New York hotel.Noelle Bush's drug rehab "seems to be going pretty good," a Florida judge said yesterday.