At 16, two years before she released her first album and began dating her soon-to-be ex-husband, Nick Lachey, Jessica Simpson got her own checkbook. “She bounced all the checks, so we thought it best to wait a while,” says her mother, Tina Simpson, who swiftly confiscated it. “She has not ever had one since. Funny, huh?” Now, almost a decade later—having made millions and become a household name based largely on that ditzy blond persona—Simpson is finally ready to try again.
“She asked the other day for a checkbook, and I looked at her like she was kidding,” says her assistant and friend CaCee Cobb. “When I met Jess she didn’t know how to do anything for herself, because her parents and then Nick always did everything for her.” The two proceeded to spend an afternoon debating color schemes and background patterns, and soon Simpson, like most 25-year-old women, will be able to sign checks for herself. It might seem like a small step, but for Simpson it’s a symbol of her new desire for independence.
“I just feel alive. I feel free. I feel like I can do anything and there’s nobody to answer to but myself,” says Simpson. “It’s been hard, but I’ve finally come to the realization that it’s okay to not be perfect. I really am in a comfortable place.”
Anyone who has picked up a tabloid in the last six months would be surprised to hear that. Simpson is in the midst of a messy divorce, and, week after week, her distraught face has appeared on the cover of the gossips under headlines exclaiming SPLIT! DETAILS ON JESSICA AND NICK’S LAST DAYS—AND HOW HER EGO, PARTYING, AND DAD DROVE THEM APART and NEW CHEATING BOMBSHELL! SCANDAL! SHE WAS WITH ANOTHER MAN WHILE MARRIED.
Though the two repeatedly denied the claims, the public’s interest was piqued. After all, Simpson and Lachey had become stars by allowing fans into their lives. Both had enjoyed successful enough singing careers previously, but it was their MTV reality show, Newlyweds, that catapulted them to fame. At its height, more than four million viewers tuned in each week to watch their fights over laundry, cuddle sessions on the couch and unintentionally hilarious conversations (“Is this chicken, what I have here? Or is it fish?”). Many fans came to feel they actually knew the Lacheys on a personal level, following the ups and downs of the marriage as if it were their own. And so in Hollywood, where celebrity divorces are not exactly uncommon, this breakup has attracted more than its fair share of attention. In less than three months, for example, Us Weekly has featured the split as its lead cover story seven times, beating out both Brad and Angelina’s pregnancy and Jennifer Aniston’s rocky relationship with Vince Vaughn.
“It’s totally out of control,” says Simpson, who recently rented a dozen different vehicles in a single day to evade the cameras. She’s even taken to hiding in car trunks. “I almost peed in my pants,” she says of one such incident. “We were laughing so hard because [my mom] was trying to talk to me and I’m in the trunk.”
Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that Simpson, now single for the first time in her adult life, wants to have a little fun. She’s made even more headlines by hanging out at the notoriously rowdy Chateau Marmont with the likes of Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine and serial cad Jude Law. “I feel like everybody’s always out to get me, and that’s a weird feeling,” she says of the press, which seems to link her to a new man every week. “But you can let the chaos consume you or you can stand next to the chaos and just walk along with it.” And so today, hoping to avoid what she refers to as “that spiral thing” that happens when a celebrity can no longer handle the spotlight, Simpson has temporarily relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she has rented a gated house high up in the hills.
While she is technically here to shoot Employee of the Month, an indie film starring the hot young comedians Dane Cook and Dax Shepard and produced by Andrew Panay of Wedding Crashers fame, the change of venue will also serve as a six-week hiatus from her life. “It’s, like, girl time—a healing within in a lot of ways,” says Simpson, who is sharing the house with Cobb, hairstylist Jessie Holiday and makeup artist Mary Phillips, all of whom she considers her “best friends.”
Simpson says she craves the organized routine of a film and can’t wait to spend her days laughing again. She’ll play an otherwise hot Costco cashier—”She’s, like, a nine or a 10”—whose beauty is marred by just one feature. In the grand tradition of Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose in The Hours, Simpson will sport gigantic rubber Dumbo ears.
Today, dwarfed by a masculine leather couch in her new living room and dressed in faded jeans with holes and a red turtleneck sweater with deer embroidered across her chest, Simpson looks less like a Barbie pinup than a sugary down-home girl, all smiles, “you knows” and hugs. Her four-carat engagement ring has been replaced with simple silver bands on her index fingers and thumb, and the only remnants of her vampy Jessica Rabbit persona of old are the high-heeled Miu Miu boots on her feet.
In Santa Fe, Simpson plans to regroup and, she says, “cleanse.” For the most part, this seems to involve giving up alcohol and caffeine and going for a lot of hikes. She’s also prying her fingers away from her Sidekick, primarily because she’s sick of seeing herself clutching it in photographs.
It’s not surprising that the girl needs a rest; she’s been striving for stardom since the age of 12, when she made a failed bid to join Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera on The All New Mickey Mouse Club. Five years later, Simpson signed a record deal with Sony and has released five albums to date. After the success of Newlyweds, she made the transition to the big screen, starring as Daisy Duke in the widely panned film version of The Dukes of Hazzard. It was during filming that sources began to whisper about an affair between Simpson and her costar Johnny Knoxville. “I can’t save anything from being talked about,” she says, when asked if there’s any truth to that rumor, “because then it becomes this game, and it’s not a fun game. It’s so cruel and I just try not to let it affect me, whatever everybody was thinking about me. If I did, I don’t think I’d be here right now.”
Simpson’s father, Joe—who always seems altogether too comfortable discussing his daughter’s sex life and ample bust size—continues to orchestrate her career, including serving as a producer on Employee of the Month, but for most of her stay in Santa Fe, he and Jessica’s mother, Tina, will be nowhere in sight. “Now that they’re busy with managing Ashlee too,” Cobb says, referring to Simpson’s younger sister, “Jess isn’t the focus of everything.” Though Simpson insists that “my family is my life and I’ll never lose that,” she says she wants to spend more time alone, concentrating on “the stuff that I never really got a chance to focus on.” Still, her conversations continually drift to her relationship with Lachey. She claims she talks to him every few days and that he’s “absolutely” one of her best friends. One week later, however, when asked about news reports that Lachey plans to seek spousal support from Simpson, who far outearns him, she decides she doesn’t want to talk about the divorce anymore.
Even in Santa Fe, before the latest round of rumors, she is vague about why, if the two are on such good terms, she walked away from the marriage. She makes her decision sound like the first step toward growing up and taking charge of her own life. “I don’t know what happened to me,” she says. “It’s so strange. I’m just proud of allowing myself to think and to act and to be.
“I never wanted to let anybody down,” she continues, hugging a pillow. “I didn’t want to let my fans down, my family down. But then you just have to realize that if you’re not happy, you can’t make anybody else happy. When you walk away from something and there’s no gravitational pull, then you know you’re doing the right thing.”
Her mother, a devout Christian who has often extolled the sanctity of marriage, actually seems proud of her daughter for leaving the relationship. “It took a lot of strength to know what she wanted to do and divorce Nick,” says Tina. “For any person, it’s a difficult thing to do. But I always tell my girls to trust their instincts because women have an innate sense of things.”
On her own, Simpson is learning to take care of herself, which has many of her intimates breathing a sigh of relief. “It worried me because she was this naive little wife who never went to college and didn’t have any friends and only knew her parents,” says Cobb. (Despite stories of the two being childhood friends, Cobb only got to know Simpson two years ago when she was working at Sony.) “But she’s growing up. Now she’s a woman.”
And a one-woman empire, at that. Simpson made a reported $35 million last year. This spring she will continue to expand her Jessica Simpson Collection clothing and accessories line as well as her beauty brand, Dessert. But those require minimal involvement on her part, and she sounds less ambitious than she used to when discussing other areas of her career. She may do another film, but she’s not interested in being the lead. “I’m not ready to carry the weight of a movie,” she says. “That’s like going out on a huge tour when you’re a new artist and having the pressure to sell the tickets. That’s why we all start out as opening acts.”
And, though contractually she owes Sony at least three more records, she’s even less committed to recording another album. In fact, she sounds ready to walk away from the industry altogether. “Music will always be my No. 1 passion, but I don’t have to be doing it professionally,” she says. “It’s not really about that for me anymore. I feel like I don’t have to look at it as a career. I can just rest in it and just be.”
According to Cobb, this laid-back attitude is what has allowed Simpson to withstand the pressures of stardom. “She never gets overwhelmed,” Cobb says. “The house could be burning down and Jess would just say, ‘Well, where do we go now?’”
What interests Simpson most these days is, believe it or not, writing poetry. “I know that I’m good at it,” she says. Since age 11, she’s been keeping a diary and feels that the time is right to publish her innermost thoughts, favorite quotes and musings on life. “It’s a piece of my heart that I want to share with my fans,” she says. The fact that revealing her private diary is precisely the sort of public intrusion that Simpson says she disliked most about doing Newlyweds—”I always felt like I had to share everything with everybody”—seems to be lost on her.
At least for the time being, her new home is her focus. Just weeks after filing for divorce, Simpson signed the contract on a $3 million estate in Beverly Hills. She refers to it as her “Hansel and Gretel house” because of its gingerbread style. “I love this house so much, and I think it loves me too,” she says. “I used to be a scaredy-cat. If Nick was out of town, I’d always go stay at a friend’s house or my parents’. I never wanted to be alone. But now I crave being alone. No matter how much money I make, I want to be in this house for the rest of my life.”
She’s left most of her furniture behind at the house she shared with Lachey in Calabasas, California, which was featured on Newlyweds and has since been sold. As opposed to the Simpson of a year ago, who would have called a decorator and said she needed the place done in four weeks—sight unseen—the new, self-possessed Jessica is determined to decorate her home herself. So far, she’s got a rocking chair and a flower box made out of a white picket fence, both of which she found in January when she rented a bus and spent eight days antiquing on the Northern California coast. Simpson brought along a few friends, including hairdresser Ken Paves and her sweater-wearing Maltipoo, Daisy. “I’ve realized,” she says, “that if it doesn’t have heart, it’s not worth having.”
Hair by Luigi Murenu for Kérastase Paris; makeup by Lucia Pieroni for Clé de Peau Beauté; manicure by Jin Soon Choi for Jin Soon Natural Hand and Foot Spa. Fashion assistant: Brooke Hagaman.