“I’m not looking for more fame or money,” Jessica Simpson is saying. “I feel very secure in those areas.” We’re in the Los Angeles showroom of Simpson’s fashion empire, which includes shoes, dresses, accessories and pretty much everything else you could put on your body. Her (attractive, young) employees buzz around us, and the more Simpson speaks, the more apparent it is that she is happy with just about all aspects of her existence—career, wealth, family, body image, love. Yes, all celebrities like to babble on about their inner peace and blah, blah, blah, but when Simpson does it, you actually believe her.
Referring to her fiancé, former NFL player Eric Johnson, she says things like: “When I met him I just felt so comfortable with myself and where I was in my life that if he didn’t want to be part of it, he didn’t have to be.” And even as rumors swirl that she may be pregnant, Simpson won’t confirm, deny or get upset about it. She just smiles, a very Zen, serene, glowy, pretty smile.
It’s a huge turnaround from the last time we met. Five years ago, when I sat down with the former teen pop star she had fired her publicist and called all the tabloids in tears to try to get them to stop writing trash about her and her family. (“My fear is that I won’t ever date anybody because he’ll think I’m going to ruin his career,” she told me back then, after being linked to musician John Mayer.) Simpson had recently finalized her divorce from Nick Lachey, her costar in the reality show Newlyweds—which had launched her fame, thanks largely to her verbal gaffes. The paparazzi were literally getting into fistfights over her. When she’d starred as Daisy Duke in The Dukes of Hazzard in 2005, Simpson was working out for two hours a day, eating next to nothing and getting smaller and smaller—and part of her, it seemed, wanted to disappear completely. “I just want peace,” she had told me.
Serenity did not come quickly. Or easily. When she started dating Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and gained some happiness weight, she was cruelly mocked by the press after she was shot in high-waisted jeans onstage at a country music concert. Simpson’s size became a newsstand seller and the subject of running jokes in tabloids and blogs: “What happened to the hot chick from Newlyweds?” But everything seemed to shift when Simpson did the unthinkable: Instead of spending six hours a day on the Exercycle and going on a juice cleanse, she ditched that celebrity ideal and said, “I like the way I look.”
And did women respond. Her fans rallied around her on Internet message boards (“No matter what size Jessica Simpson is she is gorgeous!”) and on the street: “All kinds of women started coming up to me and saying what an example I was setting by not constantly dieting,” she tells me as we sit at a conference table in her airy, high-ceilinged showroom. People stopped seeing her as the ditzy blonde with the hot body, and instead Simpson became a real person with real, familiar struggles. “Everybody fluctuates, but I’m open about my weight and I’m still confident,” Jessica says. “I didn’t cry about it too much.”
Ironically, as her waist grew larger, both her life and her fashion business, which she launched in 2005, improved dramatically. “I got so much scrutiny for putting on extra pounds, but I think that the decision not to make myself anorexic was actually great for branding,” she says. “Because when you’re really, really skinny, not everybody can relate to you.” All those supportive ladies, it seems, went out and bought what Simpson had to offer: affordable apparel in all styles. And all sizes. The Jessica Simpson Collection is now expected to bring in almost a billion dollars by the end of 2012. That is at least one zero more than most other celebrity fashion lines, and more than the GDP of Grenada.
Today, Simpson obviously enjoys her role as fashion mogul. “I love this green!” she says, touching a piece of fabric pinned to a board in her showroom. The walls are decorated with enormous, gorgeous photos of Simpson modeling the clothes she designed. Below them hang inspiration boards with photos ripped from magazines, along with actual pieces of hers—a floral-top bikini is pinned to one board, a pair of aquamarine shorts is tacked up to another, bangles sway on a third. “We should do a skirt like that,” she says, pointing to a photo of a model in a long denim skirt with a really high slit. As someone behind us takes notes, other people scurry past, opening Fed Ex shipments of fabric samples and scheduling a photo shoot involving a bathtub full of fake diamonds. Tina Simpson, Jessica’s mother, who is co–creative director of the collection, hovers in the distance. “I do the fun part,” Jessica tells me, “and I let them stress about the details.”
Simpson says her personal shopping habits have changed: “I’m more particular now because I know what things are costing the manufacturers. So I know when I’m getting ripped off!”
When I ask for specifics, she says, “Mom, what’s that itchy fabric that I hate?”
Tina, across the room, yells, “Well, you’re not a big fan of stretched satin!”
Jessica says, “Oh, gosh. But we sell so much of it!”
Tina holds up three bridesmaid-looking dresses in jewel tones. “We have a beautiful array of stretched satin,” she says. “And we sell the haboobie-joobies out of these things!” Everybody laughs.
It’s safe to say that Simpson will not be including stretched satin in her wedding plans. “I haven’t started shopping for our wedding yet,” she admits. “When I got engaged, everyone thought I would get married immediately, but I have not put a single dress on, and by the time this comes out I will not be married! We’re just enjoying being engaged right now—and that’s honest.”
And who has time for a wedding? This fall Simpson launched the sixth season of her collection and a line of tween clothes with her sister (“Ashlee has such a cool, rock-and-roll style”). She’s appearing on the new show Fashion Star with Elle Macpherson. She and aesthetician Nerida Joy recently launched BeautyMint, a website offering personalized skincare products. And then there’s music: “I might go into the studio soon and start writing a new album,” she says. “Singing is my soul and my heart.”
I cautiously ask if—baby or no baby—she’s at a point where she can consider slowing down for a while. “I feel like I do chill out, but I also want to keep this going,” Simpson answers. “If it has my name on it, I want my stamp of approval to be on it. I want to keep my customers coming back. So it’s going to be important to me in these next years to stay focused on the collection.”
When I ask what she likes about being a fashion designer, she radiates excitement. “I love that you can dream about a paisley, and then two months later, someone’s wearing it,” she says. “I really observe things now, like I can see a painting and want it to be printed on a shirt. It’s fun to always be turning things into clothes.” She pauses, then adds with a relaxed laugh that would have seemed totally alien just a few years ago, “I’m basically styling America!”