Jessica Simpson: “My Power Is In My Vulnerability”

Returning to music and taking over her company, Jessica Simpson is finally in control. Now, she opens up about the challenges of buying herself back.

Written by Mickey Rapkin
Originally Published: 

It’s early June and Jessica Simpson is in the emergency room. She woke up with “a sharp pain” in her stomach, she says, and she was “freaked out.” She was right to be concerned. The doctors discovered a twist in her colon — painful, problematic, yet fixable. But two days later she was back in the ER. It was scary; she had three kids at home and no answers.

“I get an MRI,” she tells me, “I’m lying there, waiting for the results.” Then she pauses for dramatic effect: “Basically they said, I’m full of shit. My diagnosis is, I’m full of shit!”

A bowel movement opener over enchiladas at a Mexican restaurant in the valley? Frankly, that’s on brand for Jessica Simpson. Or at least the Jessica Simpson we fell in love with on MTV’s Newlyweds, the seminal early aughts reality series that documented her first marriage to Nick Lachey. Over three seasons, Jessica was a neo-Goldie Hawn, a caricature of a dumb blonde who was (probably) in on the joke, and she’s in fine form today, telling a journalist she thought she was dying when she essentially needed a bowel movement. Or in this case three.

“They gave me all these drinks,” Jessica says of her hospital stay, “and they were like, ‘OK, if you shit three times you can leave.’ And I’m pounding these things so I can get out of there to get home to put my kids to bed.”

Norma Kamali coat, talent’s own jewelry

That radical honesty was what made her bestselling memoir, 2020’s Open Book, an early pandemic must-read — a frank and funny tell-all in which she revealed a 20-year diet pill habit forced on her by an unforgiving music industry, her battle with alcohol addiction, and the sexual abuse she experienced as a child at the hands of a trusted family friend. The book wasn’t just a monster hit, selling 500,000 copies in its first 14 weeks alone, it reframed Jessica’s journey from pop star and national punchline (“Is Chicken of the Sea tuna or chicken?”) to fake-it-till-you-make-it mogul behind her own billion-dollar retail empire.

So it’s surprising — or then again, maybe not — to watch the cycle of public opinion she chronicled so poignantly in Open Book start back up again, beginning with the perennial interest in her weight. After a sponsored post for Pottery Barn Kids went viral for the wrong reasons late last year, fans flooded the comments. Jessica was too skinny, she was taking Ozempic—

“Oh Lord. I mean, it is not” — Ozempic, she means — “it’s willpower. I’m like, do people want me to be drinking again? Because that’s when I was heavier. Or they want me to be having another baby? My body can’t do it.”

Having bared her soul in Open Book — truly sharing the most traumatic moments of her origin story — is it painful to put herself back out there, opening herself up to scrutiny? She admits “it hurts,” adding: “Am I going to let the negativity derail me? No, I’m too old for that. I am too connected to myself right now to let that derail me. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt.”

She sees her weight changes, and the life experiences behind them — hormonal changes, alcohol abuse, side effects from psychiatric medications — as an asset. “I am fortunate to have been every size,” she says. “For [my] brand, understanding the women [who buy our products], and for my psyche.”

Norma Kamali coat, talent’s own jewelry
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In a weird way, it’s the perfect time to talk to Jessica Simpson. At 42, she isn’t promoting a new jewelry line (at least not just yet). She doesn’t have fresh music to share or even some athleisure collaboration with her husband, retired NFL star Eric Johnson. But she is undeniably having a moment.

In 2021, Jessica bought back her namesake company, which she had sold for $117 million in 2015. This more recent decision went against the advice of her own business manager. Kids on TikTok, meanwhile, have recently rediscovered Newlyweds, and they’re correctly fingering Nick Lachey as having been the villain all along. (More on that soon.) A clip of Jessica scream-singing “Take My Breath Away” in 2004 has become a meme on TikTok too, applied to everything from the Gwyneth Paltrow ski trial to the effect a new version of Sims has on an old computer.

SIR. dress, Alexis Bittar earrings, talent’s own jewelry

She basically hasn’t had an acting gig since playing herself in a 2010 episode of Entourage. But Page Six still breathlessly reports on her most mundane activities with headlines like, “Jessica Simpson Gifts Daughter Maxwell $3K Louis Vuitton bag for 11th birthday.” And as the nation’s fascination with early aughts nostalgia rages on, the original reality show pioneer is finding herself — of all things — an icon. “It boggles my mind that I’ve stayed relevant and that people are curious,” she says, “because I have not entertained. I have not entertained at all.”

Let’s get this out of the way: How does she look? Like herself. That gaunt visage that riled fans a few months ago is gone; she’s healthy, lucid, clear-eyed, and funny, wearing a pile of gold jewelry, tight pants, and leather platform boots with a 6-inch heel. Are those boots from the Jessica Simpson Collection?

She laughs: “They’re Versace.”

Guest In Residence tank top, Elissa Poppy briefs, talent’s own bracelets, Jessica Simpson shoes

The conversation flows easily, with Simpson barely pausing to breathe — eager, it seems, to set the record straight. Of her brief stint in the ER, she says, “I don’t know if it was the travel or the stress,” explaining she’s been back and forth to Nashville three times in the last month. She’s considering a move there, she says, to reboot her music career.

“I’m doing this as a mother now, as a wife. I was a wife last time, but this is a very different marriage. And they’ve never seen me do this.” Perform, you mean? She nods. “I have my daughter taking a private plane with North West” — yes, that North West — “to go see Katy Perry in Vegas. And inside I’m like, She was supposed to see me first. Then I’m like, This is not competitive, Jessica. Let your daughter enjoy Katy Perry. But there’s moments that make me want to do it — for them to see that color of me.”

Very quickly a theme emerges: The contentment that Simpson has found in marriage, motherhood, and telling her story has fueled a new desire, to revisit the pursuits she undertook as a younger, less confident woman. She wants to do it all again, on her own terms.

Take the decision to buy back her namesake brand from Sequential Brands, the conglomerate that also owned Joe’s Jeans and Avia. It was both a no-brainer for her and extremely fraught. She parted ways with a business manager of more than two decades over the move. I mention that people generally pay financial advisers to keep them from making emotional investments like this, which she freely acknowledges. But how could it be anything but emotional? It’s her name. She said to the manager: “You don’t believe in me.”

Guest In Residence cardigan, Elisa Poppy bra, talent’s own jewelry
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Simpson was a pioneer in celebrity licensing; what started as a small collaboration with Vince Camuto in 2005 grew to encompass 40 categories, including maternity and lingerie. And Sequential talked a big game during the courtship. But then the company had something like three CEOs in five years, she says, and as she tells it, they reneged on a promise to invest in e-commerce and take the brand global while (among other things) pushing her to front a “miracle bra.”

“I’m like, ‘But we have a lingerie license. That competes against myself. That makes no sense.’”

The straw that broke the camel coat came during the pandemic. For all its sales, the Jessica Simpson Collection team is made up of a small team that includes Jessica, her mother, Tina, and eight other women. Sequential wanted to furlough all but three staff members, according to Jessica and Tina. “For me that was disrespectful,” Jessica says.

Tina tells me she saw the writing on the wall. “[Sequential was] headed to bankruptcy. I wanted to make sure we did not get caught up in all that,” she says. “We had plenty of other people that came to us and wanted to buy [the brand] from Sequential. There were also going to be bidders against us at the bankruptcy court.”

Says Jessica: “I talked to my mom in-depth about it and I was like, I think it’s time for us to do this on our own. We either sink with the ship, or we jump and hope to find a lifesaver. And really that lifesaver was ourselves.”

Jessica and Tina had retained 37% of the company; they bought the rest back for $54 million in the summer of 2021, with Jessica putting her own home up as collateral. She also liquidated her stock portfolio (which she’s still paying taxes on). In May 2022, the company closed on a $67.5 million loan from Second Avenue Capital Partners — which gives mother and daughter room to reinvest in the brand as opposed to just paying down the debt. With that cash, Tina says, they’ll launch a line of hair care products in 2024 — not a licensing deal, their own product.

“One of the great things about owning your own business is that you can choose categories like hair care and skin care and makeup. And water,” says Tina, giving a hint of what’s to come.

“I’m still that person. Honestly, if Eric told me I had to do all the laundry, I would still throw it over the banister and throw a hissy fit.”

I ask Jessica if she ever regretted buying back the company. “No,” she says, admitting, “I did have to ask my mother for money not too long ago.” She isn’t kidding.

Tina confirmed the arrangement: “Honestly, she did reach out to me to borrow money. And I said to her, ‘Yeah, let’s talk about it.’ I’m her mom first, obviously.” Were there terms for payback? “My term would be control your spending a little bit better.” Good luck. When Jessica went shopping at Louis Vuitton recently, apparently she had to stand there as the store called her mom for authorization.

Putting her money back into her own business is a change of pace for Jessica, according to Tina. After all, she’s been making and spending her own money since she was 14. “In buying the brand back, I told her, if you’re sure you want to do this, you’re just going to have to tighten up your belt a little bit. You’re going to have to not live not quite as extravagantly. Because I am on a path to pay this off. I don’t want to keep the loan on the brand. Then we own it out 100%. It’s like paying off your house.”

“It’s a real joy and also challenging to work alongside your daughter,” Tina says. “In a good way, not in a negative way. I think we do a really great job of balancing that.”

Calle Del Mar bralette and briefs, GCDS jeans, talent’s own jewelry

Learning the value of her own name and what she brings to the table has been a journey. Jessica is the daughter of a Texas minister, Joe Simpson, who became her manager as she first stormed MTV’s TRL in the early 2000s. Britney and Christina were the more successful blondes of the era, but it’s worth remembering that Jessica Simpson sold more than 20 million albums worldwide. Her 2008 pivot to country, Do You Know, opened at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 Chart, but the label dropped her anyway.

In a moment that still stings all of these years later, she recalls executives telling her: “You’ll never recoup the amount of money we’ve put into you.” She counters today: “It wasn’t my choice to have Scott Storch or all these producers that [cost] a million dollars a track. I didn’t control those budgets. We were just yes-people,” she says of her and her father. “And in saying yes to everything, I lost it all.”

Having the fashion brand gave her some freedom from the whims of radio playlists, I suggest. But she counters swiftly: “What gave me control was people seeing me vulnerable on Newlyweds. My power is in my vulnerability.” Reality shows are famously manufactured, but, when it came to Newlyweds, she says: “That’s me.”

I tell her about one clip that was recently unearthed and went viral. Jessica and Nick are in the midst of a home renovation gone wrong, and he’s just flat-out blaming her. Seemingly frustrated by his frequent anger, she mutters: “It’s always something f*cking wrong.” After he calls her a “brat,” she tries to lighten the mood but he doubles down: “You’re a spoiled brat. You’re a bratty girl.”

Jessica was generous in Open Book, writing, “I wish we were the kind of people who could divorce and stay friends. We weren’t and I regret that my actions hurt him.” But today she’s a little less forgiving. When I explain that TikTokers now discovering the show see Nick as the villain — not the long-suffering, stand-up husband he was seen as in the aughts — she offers a better-late-than-never shrug. Of the public’s initial impression of him, she says, “It’s amazing what publicity can do.”

Norma Kamali coat, talent’s own jewelry

Even Jessica sees the show in a different light now, because she’s watching it with her kids, Maxwell, age 11, Ace, age 10, and 4-year-old Birdie Mae, who find clips on YouTube. In some ways, the show offers reassuring evidence that she is who she is. “I’m still that person. Honestly, if Eric told me I had to do all the laundry, I would still throw it over the banister and throw a hissy fit.”

But the process of writing Open Book “rewired” her, she says, and after processing all that early trauma, she’s more deliberate about what she puts out there, viewing social media in particular through the lens of: “How do I want to raise my daughters?” The other day, she says, “I was going to post a photo because everybody’s down my neck, Jessica, you need to post, Jessica, you need to post. I’m like, OK. Then I go to post and I’m like, oh, but let’s go to the FaceApp [first].” She’s adjusting the photos.

“I’m like, Oh, that makes it look a little bit better. Oh, that makes it a little bit better. What has done that to me? What is that doing to my daughter? What we’re doing on social media is creating this idea of what is beautiful and setting up our lives artificially — to look good for who?”

While we’re on the topic of deciding how much to share, I have to ask about “Movie Star.” The first-person essay, published by Amazon as a follow-up to her memoir, detailed an early relationship Jessica had with a famous actor who made her feel “like a call girl.” One prominent gossip column pieced the clues together — the actor was religious and wore denim to an awards show — and surmised Mark Wahlberg was the most likely suspect.

I ask if she’s heard from Wahlberg since the story came out. She laughs — like a deafening, throw-back-your-head-and-cackle laugh — before saying she would absolutely not confirm the subject’s identity. “There’s a lot of Catholics out there,” she offers.

SIR. dress, Alexis Bittar earrings, talent’s own necklaces and bracelets

Jessica was recently sitting with her 65-year-old father, Joe, who is in treatment for bone cancer but thankfully responding well. “Honey,” he said, “I really want to apologize because I feel like I made you live a lot of my dreams. And I didn’t listen to what yours were.”

“It was so beautiful,” Jessica says of the moment, “to have your father apologize. And it was also so confusing. Because it was like, ‘Wait, what are my dreams?’”

After Jessica parted ways with her father professionally in 2012, she says, “I thought, I was not going to go back into music. I could not break his heart. And I didn’t know how to do it without him.” But lately she’s realized: “I stayed in that heartbreak on purpose. And in a way I think complacency is a choice.”

Norma Kamali coat, talent’s own jewelry

She is finding her way back to music thanks to a roundabout series of events. Amazon optioned Open Book for TV in 2020; Jessica recruited Tom Kapinos, the creator of Californication (one of her favorite shows), to adapt the book, which he pitched as “Fleabag meets A Star Is Born.” Amazon shot the pilot but ultimately passed on the project earlier this year. Jessica still hopes to shop the thing around. But if it never surfaces, it has already served another purpose.

Kapinos had written a small part for Jessica — she would have played a Dolly Parton-esque mentor to the show’s young singer. And while it was just a cameo, Jessica dove in head-first, making an 11-hour playlist for her character. It started with the soundtrack to Normal People, which accidentally led her to British band called Nothing But Thieves; then she fell down a Jack White rabbit hole, eventually reaching out to White’s manager for career advice. “I keep saying to myself, rejection is redirection.”

She has more to say as an artist, she explains, but she has been “muted” by alcohol, which she gave up in 2017. “It dumbed down my creativity,” she says. “It made me more insecure. When people say it gives you liquid courage, it absolutely does not. It just makes me hold back instead of letting go.”

Although Jessica says her rock bottom was missing trick-or-treating with her kids, a creative low point came when her team had arranged a songwriting session for her with some writers from Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Jessica was asked to make a vision board for the new music, but she couldn’t see it. “I stopped drinking because I was like, I can’t even make a dream board,” she says. “For me to see it, I have to un-numb and go through therapy and unlock the light because it’s not there right now. Open Book opened me up to my child self, and I went back to all those journals and I’m reading my dream boards and everything started unfolding beautifully to where alcohol was just — I never thought about it again.”

Norma Kamali coat, talent’s own jewelry

Jessica is journaling again (always a good sign for her) and, while she’s unsure if she’s supposed to share this yet, she tells me she is about to embark on a new docuseries, a collaboration with people previously involved with Newlyweds. The series will chronicle her return to music. “We’re about to start shopping it around,” she says. Talking to the producer, she says, “I felt like it was the first conversation we ever had, because everything was always through my dad.” (What would the new music sound like? “I am genre-less,” she says.)

Jessica is finally in control of her destiny. But the financial tightrope at her company can’t be easy. Yesterday she went to Home Goods to buy garbage cans, she tells me. I ask about the jewelry she’s wearing today — and she is wearing a lot of it, rings and gold bracelets that connect to fingers. Is there a story behind any of it? “Yeah,” she says, “I might have to sell it.” She laughs, then adds: “This might be the last time I’m wearing it. I don’t have it in me to borrow money from my mother [again].”

Whether Jessica will move the family to Nashville remains to be seen. But she and Eric had their Hidden Hills house photographed in case they sell. They’re very much still deciding if it’s the right move for their kids. Jessica is thinking out loud. “If they don’t see me following my dreams and fighting for what I believe in — and fighting for who I am and my place in this world — they’ll never do it for themselves. And they’ll just be on Instagram thinking that’s what’s perfect. It’s not.”

Top Image Credits: Calle Del Mar bralette and briefs, GCDS jeans, talent’s own jewelry

Photographs by Daniella Midenge

Styling by Jan-Michael Quammie

Set Designer: Enoch Choi

Hair: Vernon Francois

Makeup: Lilly Keys

Manicure: Chaun Legend

Talent Bookings: Special Projects

Video: Samuel Miron

Associate Creative Director, Video: Samuel Schultz

Photo Director: Alex Pollack

Editor in Chief: Charlotte Owen

SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid

SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert

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