Jessica Simpson sits on the floor of a Los Angeles recording studio, golden hair tumbling, sundress hiked over honey brown knees, skin glowing in the aromatherapy candlelight. She’s the picture of corn-fed health, voluptuous yet surprisingly petite, though a shade of unrest clouds her fine features. What an enigma, this Bible Belt–raised, teen-pop-honed, reality-TV child bride. True, over three seasons of MTV’sNewlyweds, she has amassed the most astounding collection of blond sound-bites in the modern age, including three abortive attempts to pronounce Massachusetts. Yet recent reports hint at subterfuge behind the airhead seduction. Husband Nick Lachey cites her “very deep, intellectual” aspect as key to his love. Her mom once put her IQ at a genius-level 160, suggesting an anguished intelligence lurking behind the telegenic facade.
Even now, as she looks over the barbecue take-out containers lying scattered around her on the studio floor, does her face bear some trace of some existential malaise? Is she thinking: “Why do I feel such loneliness when beloved by so many?” “How can the Self ever breach the Void?” She breaks her silence: “Where’s a napkin?” Simpson says, displaying sauce-smeared fingers. “This stuff’ll smell like chicken fart.”
After all, this too is part of the Jessica gestalt—the self-described “big old dork” who charmed the nation as the petulant, bubble-headed newlywed, sharing every humanizing malaprop and gastric emission with awestruck viewers. But with Simpson, the in-person experience is far from MTV-edited “reality.” She and her best-friend/assistant, Cacee, had appeared at the studio looking like twin muses from a crunchy liberal-arts campus: flowing sandy hair, flouncy dresses. Simpson’s Vuitton bags are filled with spiral notebooks and paperbacks. She is doe-eyed and button-cute, with perfect teeth, a braid atop her head, vintage cowboy boots, and hippieish bangles. “Hiiiii!” she’d said in an apologetic tone, explained how traffic had made them late, and leaned in to hug me—a stranger—hello.
She is on her third day in the recording studio, hashing out ideas with longtime producer Cory Rooney, who, having worked with turbo divas like Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez, calls the Jessica Simpson experience “weird.” “The weird thing is that even though she’s a star, she’s so normal,” he says. “It’s very weird. And it’s been weird ever since she was younger.”
Simpson—who says if she weren’t a star she’d be a therapist, like her minister/therapist-turned-Svengali father—does show distinct signs of an interior life. In her bags today, she carries In the Company of Soldiers by Rick Atkinson; The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey; The Book of Positive Quotations; a rhyming dictionary; The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style; a paraphrased New Testament; “and then of course Nicholas Sparks,” she says, holding up True Believer. These—along with a forty-gig iPod and Atkins-approved chocolate-mint cookies—are some of the tools Simpson is using to craft the next stage of her career.
When I ask her to tell me about her outfit, she brightens. “Well, see, I’ll show you my real outfit,” she says, lifting up her turquoise hoodie to expose a low-cut aqua sundress and—whoo-POW!—the famed Simpson twins, voted “best boobs” by the readers of In Touch magazine this May. Simpson may be busy drafting the next stage of her public life—costarring in the big-screen version of TV’s redneck camp classic The Dukes of Hazzard, preparing a new purely self-determined album—but she accepts the baggage that comes with her particularly modern brand of stardom.
I ask if there are any misconceptions she’d like to refute. “No, ’cause I’m definitely ditzy, and people believe that about me,” she says. “But, I mean, I’m not dumb.”
I request a definition of terms.
“There’s the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, kinda ignore-everything-that’s-around-you, which is what I am. You know, pay attention to what you wanna pay attention to.” This, being ditzy. “And then there is the totally [she mimes staring slack-jawed into space] ‘Huh?’ ” That, being dumb. “Thinking is my hobby,” she says.
A German scientist predicted the extinction of blondes, putting the date at around 2200. For now, other theorists see a blond troika controlling popular culture, an axis of evil whose three points are Paris Hilton, Ann Coulter, and Jessica Simpson. Each attained fame their own respective marketing tools—fellatio, fascism, premarital virginity, respectively—and each has parlayed her gimmick into media ubiquity.
While “Newlyweds” made Simpson a cultural icon, it was not as a singer but as a real-life version of the bare-midriff pioneer in “I Dream of Jeannie” (whose cinematic remake she briefly considered): a childlike domestic sprite of teasingly bodacious wholesomeness. But shortly after the show debuted in August 2003, she released her album In This Skin, then rereleased it as a collector’s edition seven months later; it has sold 2.5 million copies. The campaign continued with QVC appearances, in which she hocked her crypto-pornographic “edible body product” line, Dessert; a Christmas album sold exclusively at 7-Eleven; and an exercise video in the works. She and her husband have also hosted musical-variety specials, updating kitsch pairings like Sonny and Cher, and Donny and Marie, without any particular ironic distance. Edible body products aside, Simpson’s a big, frothy, G-rated dollop of heartland-American whipped cream.
But glance behind the media blitz and she looks a little more human; compared with, say, Paris Hilton, who cites Donald Trump as a hero and frankly rhapsodizes about “branding,” she’s Joan of Arc. Born in Abilene, Texas, Simpson began her career as a 13-year-old church singer who was forbidden to sing solos, she remembers, “because my boobs were too big and they said it would make men lust.” After labels pronounced her too sexy for Christian music, Simpson’s manager dad, Joe, steered her down more secular avenues: teen pop, then reality TV. Now Simpson is 24—35 in MTV years—and ready to wrest her soul from that remorseless merchandising machine.
Not that she’s wresting too hard. Simpson remains canny about her market. Her first power move has been to step into the most famous cutoffs in history to play Daisy Duke in The Dukes of Hazzard, being brought to the multiplex by director Jay Chandrasekhar—”I still can’t pronounce his last name,” says Simpson—and starring erstwhile Jackass Johnny Knoxville and rubber-faced American Pie alum Sean William Scott.
Fighting for, and playing, the role forced Simpson to connect with her inner warrior. Initially, Chandrasekhar resisted casting her: “He watched a couple of episodes of “Newlyweds” and thought I was that dumb blond that everyone else in the world thought I was,” she says. But his mind was changed after two hard-won screen tests in which Simpson channeled Daisy’s spunk. “She is a strong, powerful woman who is sexy as hell, but when she smiles it never comes across provocative or demeaning,” Simpson says. “She gave me a lot of confidence to find something in my soul that needed to come out.”
While Simpson clearly rose to the challenge of Daisy, she’s quick to downplay the role’s demands. “Some acting coaches write all over your script and break it down like it’s an English class,” she says, then pauses. “Daisy Duke ain’t deep.” She laughs. “She just needs to talk with an accent, smile, and show some cleavage. With a southern accent, you can make anything sound good. You can just say”—she bats her eyes, looks softy and deeply into mine, and oos—” ‘Ah laahk you….’ ” Which, I’m not proud to say, truly works.
The choice of Daisy makes sense for Simpson, since she herself is such a throwback to retrograde ideals of wholesome red-state femininity. Typical of this persona is to serve as U.S. Envoy of Perkiness. Simpson paid one of the more celebrated visits to Afghanistan in 2002, when she undertook the classic Bob Hope–style USO tour and choppered from battleship to aircraft carrier in a Santa Claus suit bearing tidings of comfort and ta-tas. This year, her efforts took her to a much hotter sphere of conflict.
When we meet, Simpson is just back from Iraq, where she and Lachey filmed the two-hour ABC special “Nick & Jessica’s Tour of Duty”—in which America’s sweethearts don flak jackets, board Black Hawks, and bring smiles to our troops overseas. “I think after “Newlyweds,'” which ended its run last April, “I’m ready to show a different side of myself that people don’t really know,” she explains, legs curled under her on a sofa. “The side that actually is a giver and not…just a taker.” She laughs. “A side of me that wants to experience the world. What people know of me is that I want to have everybody do things for me.”
Simpson and her husband also boarded a C-130 with fresh troops deploying to Iraq. “And when we landed, it was so surreal and so…badass,” she says, eyes wide as she shakes her head. “I mean, these men and women are the most spectacular people. They’re just rugged and rough and, you know”—she gestures with a clenched fist—”out there for freedom.”
The trip had real dangers, with one base getting shelled hard enough to prompt an evacuation of pop’s first couple. But Simpson says the most haunting visit came before Iraq, at an army hospital in Germany. “These guys—just kids,” she says softly of the wounded. “It just blew my mind. Twenty years old. Sent into Iraq two days prior, and they were in suicide bombings or attacked in Humvees. And it’s like…you just try to hold yourself together.”
In addition to the human wreckage, Simpson and her husband had to soldier through the less-than-chivalrous comments from the heavily medicated wounded. “Well, it had been a while since they’d seen…a girl in some tight jeans,” Simpson explains. “But Nick was a great husband to take it all in stride.”
Take what in stride? What’d they say?
“Oh, that they wanted to… Oh, they just made…comments. But they were on drugs, though. I can’t even really say what they said because it makes me sound… I don’t wanna say it because… Just they were…very forward in their…liking of…a woman. But that’s why I’m there! To bring smiles, even if I have to show a little cleavage.”
Simpson is well in step with a generation of girl entertainers who mix chaste sound bites with eye-popping wardrobe and near pornish vocalisms. She plays me a mix of her country-hip-hop remake of “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” from the Hazzard soundtrack—her breathy, moaning phone-sex soul voice flooding the room. “Can I get a handclap/For the way I work my back?” goes the breakdown, punctuated with yes, y’alls from Hazzard costar Willie Nelson.
But maybe some erotic cognitive dissonance is to be expected, given her early lessons in sexual realpolitik. “Honestly, it really popped the bubble I was living in,” Simpson says of having been banned from the choir loft due to bustiness. “But my father was also a little secular for the Bible world. He wanted to bring young people in, so he’d take everybody paintballing, take everybody to dances; girls could wear bikinis at summer camp or whatever. He believed in treating teens as they should be treated. I grew up sitting outside of my dad’s office after school and watching pregnant teenagers and 12-year-old heroin addicts go in, and I was definitely the opposite of whatever most people think a preacher’s daughter is, the wild child. Because I grew up with my dad as a preacher and a therapist.”
According to Simpson, her dad’s avid multitasking explains a father-daughter relationship that has confused some and creeped out many. If Joe’s gleeful marketing of his daughter’s, er, charms—”She’s got double D’s!” he crowed in these pages earlier this year—isn’t sufficiently jarring, there are his reported plans to take in other young charges to raise under his roof and sculpt for stardom, in a kind of teen-pop stem-cell-research project.
But their relationship is healthy, she says. “I know that if I’m feeling deeply about something, I would go to my dad to talk about it, because he will give me advice where it would not necessarily be as a father, it would be as a therapist. Our family has done that since day one. ‘Cause we all work together—it’s a family company, what we run—from manager to clothing lines to everything that’s happening in my life, even going to my mom to talk about my sex life. I don’t really talk to my dad about my sex life; that would be kinda weird.”
Yes, it would. I ask for the first swearword she ever heard. “Piss,” she says, naming more of a gateway cuss, which she first heard in fifth grade. As an impromptu prude test, I ask when she first heard fuck.
“I don’t remember the first time I heard…that word.”
Obviously, Simpson isn’t the sort of pop diva who’ll grab her boyfriend’s junk for the paparazzi (à la Britney) or cut herself into the proceeds from her home sex video (à la Paris). Yet there’s something about her image that’s absolute catnip to the tabloids; maybe it was inevitable she’d briefly be linked to that go-to tarnisher of maidens’ reps, Fred Durst. (“Poor Fred,” she says, when I bring up his sole public role now.) In fact, in this lull between “Newlyweds” and her upcoming triple play of TV special, film, and album, Simpson’s been portrayed as the straying young wife, given too long a leash by her semi-clueless husband and falling prey to VIP-party Babylon.
In addition to the scurrilous claim that she used a butt double to play Daisy Duke, tabloids reported an on-set romance with her disturbingly dashing Hazzard costar Johnny Knoxville. “Oh, we both laughed about that,” she says of the reports. “I really adore Johnny Knoxville, I think he’s great. If people wanna make that romantic, they can. But I’m married, and my husband is my romance.”
Instead, Simpson says her time on the set in Baton Rouge provided a kind of rebirth. “It brought a lot of the South back in me,” she says. “Being in Hollywood, it’s very easy to become that Barbie-dollfigure. And in Louisiana—you know, the down-home dirty South,” she says with a deep twang—”it gave me a lot of confidence.” She credits that confidence with inspiring her to write and record her upcoming album herself—a legitimately bold move for such a heretofore packaged star. “My husband only visited at the very end. My dad visited only three times. My mom, who usually does my wardrobe for everything I do, she only visited for six hours and never spent the night.”
Time away from handlers would be significant for Simpson, whose father gave her a “purity ring” when she was 12 with which she pledged chastity until marriage. “I met Nick at 18 and went straight from my dad to him,” she explains, in slightly disquieting terms. “So I called Baton Rouge my college life. I really found a lot of growing-up time. I got to just do something on my own.”
With 100-point headlines on every newsstand declaiming the details of her supposedly crumbling marriage, I feel compelled to ask how recently Simpson has seen her husband. “Today,” she says blithely. “He’s at a golf lesson now.” And as we step back into the lounge of the recording studio, lo and behold, there’s Mr. Nick Lachey, stretched out on a sofa—frat-boy resplendent in shorts, polo tee, and Miller Lite ball cap, watching Giacomo take the Kentucky Derby on TV—and I wonder if he’s there for my benefit.
“Hi, baby,” he says as she enters, receiving a kiss on the mouth. They briefly discuss going out to buy Cacee an AC. “I got an hour acting lesson, but let’s do that first,” Lachey says. They decide to hit Home Depot and have Lachey install the unit later. “Nick does all the manual labor,” Simpson explains.
I ask Lachey, who saw Hazzard last night, if there was anything surprising about watching his wife play a T&A legend. “No, I mean, she looked hot as hell,” he says. “But I’m not surprised about it. I was more just proud of her.”
“Hey, he’s seen me without the bathing suit,” Simpson interjects.
They chat and canoodle a bit before Lachey makes to leave. He bids me adieu, kisses Jess, and steps out the door. Which is the moment when I realize I’m a walk-on in aNewlyweds episode.
Simpson became a famous, beloved multimillionaire largely by clipping on a fanny mike and serving up her young marriage as entertainment. “They started shooting three months after the wedding,” she says, once Lachey leaves. “The idea was to do a six-episode documentary on a newlywed couple. That’s all we thought it was going to be.” Instead, she’s become part of a social experiment, vanguard of a new kind of mass-media storytelling project with very fuzzy boundaries. I ask what she regrets about this inarguably Faustian deal.
“There’s nothing I regret about it,” she says, shrugging. “I mean, there are moments in all our lives that aren’t being aired that we wish didn’t happen. So I can’t really pick out one. ‘Cause at the end of the day, a lot of them have made me some money, so…” Simpson laughs.
Funnily enough, neither she nor her husband watches reality TV these days, preferring that spectacle of balls-out marital discord, “Desperate Housewives.” “Nah,” Simpson says of shows that traffic in supposedly pivotal, private moments. “I don’t buy it.” She shakes her head and smiles enigmatically, knowing, as always, more than she lets on. “They should call it ‘half-reality.'”
© 2005 by Chris Norris