Jessica Simpson: Portrait of a Living Doll

Could America's favorite blonde be as ditzy as she is on TV, or is she taking us all for a ride?

Jessica Simpson signs Her New CD 'In This Skin' at FYE in New York City on November 21st, 2003. Credit: Debra L Rothenberg/FilmMagic/Getty

WHEN THERE ARE FIVE OR SIX PEOPLE CRAMMED into your relatively small hotel room, it's common to pick up your underpants off the floor. But in the bathroom of this burgundy junior suite in midtown Manhattan, a pair of blue lace panties are crumpled almost under the heel of Jessica Simpson. Simpson, who is being tended to by fawning stylists, publicists and hair-extension experts, flicks a French-manicured nail over a fleck of mascara on her temple, the only blemish on a disturbingly perfect face. Then, in her drowsy, cat-in-the-sun-like way, she turns and looks for — well, who she always looks for.

"Nick," she coos, training her coffee-colored eyes on her husband, Nick Lachey, who is intent on a ballgame and exhibits no sign that he has heard his name. "Nick, baby?" says Simpson. "Will you iron mah new shirt?"

"No," answers Lachey, in a typical knee-jerk bit of sarcasm, but just a minute later — whipped mofo that he is — he rises from the couch to retrieve the iron from a closet. As he walks to the bedroom, the cord slithers behind him and retracts with a sudden shump.

"That's a nifty little iron," says Simpson, smiling.

"All irons do that," declares Lachey. "It's not a new feature, my dear." He takes Simpson's new Gucci shirt, a black button-down, off its Jessica Simpson hanger. A price tag dangles from the collar.

"Two hundred and thirty-eight dollars!" exclaims Lachey.

"Just steam it," says Simpson.

"It's a fucking shirt!" he yells.

"I didn't buy it with your credit card!" cries Simpson. "I had budget, so why not? Record company gives you money for clothes, why not take it?"

"Mmm," grumbles Lachey. "They don't give me money."

With a relationship that is uncannily similar in real life to what you see on Newlyweds, their hit reality show on MTV, Simpson, 23, and Lachey, 29, seem alternately like a girl and her dad, a young couple working out the kinks and two people who should never have gotten married — and probably wouldn't have, except that Simpson wouldn't have sex with Lachey until they did. Part of the reason that the show is a hit — despite the fact that MTV did not have high expectations for it initially — is because it's so hard to figure out whether Simpson is the most annoying person in the world and Lachey a saint for putting up with her or if Simpson is too much of a sweetheart for her own good and Lachey a hostile bastard who likes making fun of his wife. Then there's the schadenfreude of Simpson's nearly constant gaffes. Like, most famously, when she thought that Chicken of the Sea tuna is not tuna but, rather, chicken.

"My confusion there was that I hate fish," says Simpson. "But I love tuna, and there was a half of a second there where I thought maybe it could be chicken. 'Cause I liked it, and I don't like fish. Unless it's from Long John Silver's and deep-fried."

Tonight Simpson and Lachey are going on Larry King Live, the event for which the Gucci shirt was purchased. But now, though, they are late, and Simpson is no longer sure about the shirt. "Should I wear different clothes?" she asks anxiously.

"You look beautiful, baby," says Lachey. "But should I wear different shoes?" asks Simpson, stamping a rhinestone Jimmy Choo. "I don't like my outfit!"

"C'mon, you're gorgeous," says Lachey. The publicists and stylists let loose with a flurry of accolades: "You're too beautiful for words," "What an outfit," "Who's prettier than you, Jessica?"

"I might smell bad," says Simpson.

"And this is different from other days how?" says Lachey, laughing.

"Nick!" exclaims Simpson. Then she throws her arms around his neck. "You know you think I smell scrumptious," she whispers, drawing him close. He puts a hand on her cheek, softly, and gives her a light kiss.

BEFORE THE PREMIERE OF 'NEWLYWEDS,' in mid-August, Jessica Simpson was primarily known as the teen-pop star who was a virgin and wasn't Britney Spears, though she kind of looked like her. Four years ago, she sold almost a million units of her first single, "I Wanna Love You Forever," but it has been a downward slide since then. Though her first album, Sweet Kisses (1999), sold close to 2 million copies, her next efforts, Irresistible (2001) and In This Skin (2003) — all a similar-sounding mix of passionate love ballads and junior-prom dance rock — haven't done nearly as well.

In some ways, Simpson is as daft as she seems on the show, but she's also far savvier about her career and the nature of the record industry than one would think. "Everyone was always like, 'Who's Jessica Simpson?' 'Oh, she's like Britney and Christina,' " says Simpson. "It was so hard on me. Plus, I never had my own thing happening, so I felt like I had to do what they did, like, I had to show my stomach and dance. But that's not me. My dream is to be like Jewel, to sit on a chair in my bluejeans and sing my heart out."

What mostly differentiated Simpson from the teen-pop pack was her pledge of abstinence, made at a time when Britney Spears was saying the same thing but no one quite believed her. Simpson sold it, though. After all, she was a minister's daughter, a poor kid who moved seven times before she was eight as her father, Joe, sought work as a youth minister and therapist for abused kids in Baptist parishes around Dallas.

The Simpson home was open to any needy child in the neighborhood, so that in addition to Simpson and her younger sister Ashlee (who now plays Cecilia on the WB's 7th Heaven and recently began recording a rock album for Geffen Records), there were often other kids at the table — an at-risk adolescent, a pregnant teen. Jessica herself, raised in this gospel of giving, says she loved nothing more than performing selfless acts of devotion — as a child, she kept twenty-odd photos of missing children under her pillow, praying for them each night. When she was sixteen she tried to adopt a Mexican baby found in a Dumpster. (It's unclear, however, when she stopped picking up her towels from the floor.) Even today, Simpson remains involved in charity as international ambassador for Operation Smile, a reconstructive-surgery nonprofit. "With all the heartache in life, it changes a life to smile," she says. "And they don't even know it, because they don't know what we have."

At any rate, holding off from sex until marriage was just how Simpson was raised. On her twelfth birthday, her father gave her a purity ring, a silver band -with a cross, to be replaced on her wedding day. "I told her that I would try my best to be the man in her life," says Joe Simpson, in a cadence eerily similar to a marriage vow. "That I would be her support and her security, that I would encourage her and worship her and fill her up until she found the man of her dreams."

What Simpson's father didn't specify was what role he would play once she found that man, namely Lachey, whom Simpson started dating when she was eighteen and married last fall. ("Nick was the first person to touch my body," says Simpson, gesturing from her neck downward, then making a swirling motion around her pelvic region. "Swear.") He was twenty-five, and she was, obviously, a very innocent eighteen, but they bonded over their third-class status in the music business: His group 98 Degrees found itself playing catch-up to the Backstreet Boys and 'NSync (the band is currently on hiatus; Lachey will release his first solo album, SoulO, in November). "So Nick and I really are a match made in heaven, because we understand each other," says Simpson.

But even after marriage, Simpson's life, which has been almost inhumanely sheltered, remains tightly interwoven with her parents'. Her father is her manager (he also has final cut on every episode of Newlyweds), and her mother, Tina, is her "best friend" and stylist. In their midforties, neither is the conventional church type — Simpson's mom even talked her dad into getting an earring a couple of years back, and his hair is lightened to the same vibrant blond as Jessica's. One of them travels with her often, since she is afraid to get on a plane alone. When Lachey is not at home, she bunks at her parents', in Los Angeles' Studio City, forty minutes away.

"We're Southern, and we're spiritual, and we're really close," says Joe, who didn't even have a problem commenting on Simpson and Lachey's sex life on Newlyweds.

"I think it's weird," says Lachey.

WHENEVER SIMPSON IS IN New York, she gets her hair colored at a small salon on the Upper East Side so exclusive that there's no sign on the door. Simpson sits in the back, a Caesar salad spread out on the counter, her Louis Vuitton bag sitting pertly on the floor. Simpson's road manager, Cacee Cobb, a giggly twenty-five-year-old Texan, is having her hair shampooed at the next station. Though Cobb has a sisterly relationship with Simpson, it's also a lot of work taking care of this very special girl, and today Cobb's burden is heavy. As we learned on the last episode of Newlyweds, Simpson has somehow misplaced her passport, and now, three months later, it is a problem. Lachey and Simpson are supposed to fly to Jamaica tomorrow at 6 a.m. for a golf benefit and an Access Hollywood spot, and Cobb has been on the phone all day with the passport office and the notary and Simpson's mom to get a copy of her birth certificate. While this is going on, Simpson's only contribution is to periodically chime in with "I can't believe someone stole my damn passport."

"No one stole it," says Cobb. "You lost it."

"Nu-uh," says Simpson. She stares at herself in the mirror as a stylist blows out her hair. "So tired today," she says.

"Why are you so tired?" asks Cobb. "We slept late."

One of the hardest things to figure out about Simpson is if she is ever really tired — or cold or hungry or enduring any number of other afflictions she claims to be enduring. She might have chronic-fatigue syndrome, or be a hypochondriac of epic proportions, but more likely she simply enjoys the attention bitching gets her. After all, part of what makes Newlyweds so entertaining is seeing Lachey driven to the brink of insanity by Simpson's incessant whining. "I have learned, especially from the episode with the camping, that I should complain less," says Simpson mischievously. "A little less."

Even when she's not complaining per se, Simpson has an almost Tourette's-like capacity to call attention to things she's most insecure about: smelly farts, loud burps, her sex life. Boobs, in particular, is a word Simpson likes to use a lot, and hers are an issue. She is a bit embarrassed by their fullness, uncomfortable with the fact that she can't fit into clothes made for petite figures, and she has a sneaking suspicion that she is looked down upon by flat-chested women. Part of this is because she developed early, in seventh grade, and had double-D breasts by high school. She was subsequently left out of the popular girls' clique at school — the girls were "threatened," "jealous," says Joe, so her core group became the kids at church, many of whom were male and with whom she developed a siblinglike relationship, although one can imagine that they didn't feel entirely brotherly toward her.

"My boobs are just too much — people look," she says. "But when I was on the Atkins diet, they got really small, like, a B size, which was crazy. I wasn't used to it. I have D's now. I think C is right."

These kinds of feelings are the ones that Simpson puts in her journal, in which she writes almost every day — she has forty of them now, all different sizes and colors. Sometimes when she's thinking something really bad about herself and she feels better about it a week or so later, she'll just put that journal away and never write in it again, even if it's half full. "I have so much stuff in my journal that I can't believe I've said about myself," she says. "Nick has had a huge influence on my self-confidence, because he doesn't think there's physically one thing wrong with me. Now I try to look through his eyes rather than my own, because when you look through your own, you have so many thoughts in your head that make you want to think the worst about yourself. But when you look through someone else's eyes, you trust their thoughts; it's much easier to love yourself and stand on your own."

THOUGH SHE MAY STAND ON HER own from time to time, Simpson cries, or talks about crying, all the time, and, in fact, her story of stardom, to hear her tell it, is a walk down a stony path of tears. "My whole story is about being the underdog, about being defeated but rising above it," she says.

It all started at church camp in sixth grade, when a minister told the campers that God had told him one of them was going to become a famous musician who "would use her voice to touch the world." Simpson knew the minister was talking about her.

A year later, when she was twelve, a teacher at Simpson's after-school dance club took the girls to the Dallas auditions for the Mickey Mouse Club. With an a cappella rendition of "Amazing Grace" and a dance routine to "Ice Ice Baby," Simpson won the local competition and headed to Orlando for the finals, where she competed with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and Ryan Gosling for the open spots on the show. But in the end, she choked.

"All I can remember is watching Christina on the TV in the greenroom," says Simpson. "I mean, I was a shoo-in. But she sounded like Mariah Carey, and it intimidated the hell out of me. I got up there, and I couldn't do nothing — I couldn't remember the words to my monologue, I forgot all the lines to my Amy Grant song. I cried for months."

Back in Dallas, Simpson — and her dad — vowed to make her dream of a singing career a reality. A local gospel label signed her, and she recorded her first album, Jessica, but then the label folded. Her grandmother paid $10,000 to master the unmixed record, and father and daughter went on the Christian-youth-conference circuit in hopes of securing a more solvent patron. But the Christian labels passed, claiming they were uncomfortable with Simpson's sexy looks, which would "make the men lust," she says.

Then, when she was seventeen, the Dallas A&R rep for Columbia Records sent Simpson's demo to Tommy Mottola, then chairman of Sony Music. Mottola summoned Simpson to New York. At his office, Simpson performed one ballad before he told her to sit down — she thought she had choked again and almost started to cry. Then Mottola said," 'I think your music is going to touch the world,' " she says. "It was amazing." Says Joe, "That was a cry moment for me."

Simpson started recording her first album in 1997, but it wasn't released until 1999. "I was going crazy," she says. "Britney signed a week before me, and Christina a week after. Their stuff was all over the radio, and mine was nowhere. I couldn't believe I was third again." The real waterworks came, however, after Simpson released her second album, Irresistible: Two of its singles came out just before 9/11, but after the terrorist attacks, Sony did not release any others. Irresistible ended up selling barely a third of Sweet Kisses' 1.8 million. When those planes crashed into those buildings, it destroyed more than what was in New York," says Joe gravely. "It nearly demolished our career."

Simpson says she is heavily in debt because of Irresistible's lukewarm performance — to the tune of a couple of million dollars. Despite how flush they may appear on Newlyweds, Simpson and Lachey do not live as large as one might think: Their house is punier than it looks on TV, and when the MTV cameras aren't rolling, there's no one to foot the bill for limousines or even to pay for Simpson to tour with a steady backup band. What's more, In This Skin has not performed as well as would be expected, given the popularity of the show: It's now at Sixty-seven on the Billboard charts, with 224,000 albums sold to date. According to Nielsen SoundScan, Ozzy Osbourne's album sales saw only a small bounce after the success of The Osbournes. "We don't promise a direct correlation with sales," says Brian Graden, president of entertainment at MTV, "We promise we'll increase your profile and launch you as multimedia stars, but many other things need to fall into place to sell records."

As this may be their only moment in the sun, then, Simpson and Lachey are interested in making as much money as possible. Simpson, who has been making public appearances almost daily since the show's premiere, has embarked on a small tour sponsored by Tommy Hilfiger and is planning a book of her journal entries. She is also entertaining endorsement interest from Procter & Gamble, Nokia and American Eagle, as well as any number of smaller bidders who have been calling her business manager, David Levin, with offbeat offers. "Remember that time I told you you could make $10,000 signing autographs at that bar mitzvah?" says Levin at an impromptu meeting with Simpson and Lachey in their hotel room. "Here's one that's better: Jacob the Jeweler's son is getting bar mitzvahed in November"—Jacob the Jeweler, a.k.a. Jacob Arabo, is the primary bling-bling provider to Jay-Z, Missy Elliott and P. Diddy — "and Jacob wants three songs. Twenty minutes, no autographs, no hanging out — for $100,000 worth of his jewelry."

Simpson and Lachey let out a whoop. "I'll be there tomorrow," says Simpson.

"You have to sing one Spanish song," says Levin. "I don't know why — the kid's Jewish. And there will be lots of Jacob's rich Russian Jewish friends there. You could probably book private gigs for half a million dollars."

"Whoa," says Lachey. "And please tell me I'm not the first person who thought of calling Chicken of the Sea," says Levin.

"Baby!" says Simpson, throwing her arms around Lachey's neck. "We're gonna pay off that mortgage!"

Lachey pats her on the butt. "Now we just need a raft to get to Jamaica," he says.

THE MTV CAMERAS WERE ROLLING again on October 26th, when the couple celebrated their first anniversary. They were in Atlantic City with her parents, since Simpson was taping the finale of Donald Trump's reality show, The Apprentice. Nick and Jessica had one of the nicest hotel rooms they'd ever had, at the Taj Mahal — a room Trump doesn't rent out to regular customers, instead "keeping it for -when royalty comes," as Simpson says giddily. Arm in arm, the couple wandered around the hotel before they bundled into a limo — with the cameras, and her parents — and drove to New York, where Lachey surprised Simpson with a candlelit dinner at Tavern on the Green. The bride-and-groom sugar-topper on their wedding cake was in her aunt's freezer in Texas — it's traditional to keep it until your first anniversary — so Lachey had the baker make a similar-looking one, and they ate that. Then they took a horse-and-buggy ride around Central Park, which made it pretty much one of the most romantic nights Simpson has ever had.

"I believe that Nick and I are going to last forever," she says. "And if we don't, it'll make a good reality show."