Jessica Simpson: ‘I’ve been sexually abused, bullied, heartbroken, manipulated’
The singer and fashion mogul had it all. Then she vanished. What happened in the lost years?
Jessica Simpson in Encino, California. The singer and fashion mogul is ready to talk about addiction, sexual abuse, John Mayer and everything else. Photograph: Ryan James Caruthers/The New York Times
On a top shelf of a built-in bookcase in a dark and donnish study of a home here sit several copies – some first editions – of a story about chasing stardom. It’s also a story about love versus obsession. Or maybe, most simply, it’s a rags-to-riches tale about a country kid who becomes famous in the big city.
Great Expectations is Jessica Simpson’s favourite book, but she hadn’t thought that her life story shares similar themes.
“Well, I’m glad I’m not Miss Dinsmoor” – the name of the rich but jilted spinster living in a rundown mansion in the 1998 movie – she said, “or Miss Havisham!” the name of the same character in the book.
I asked Simpson who had great expectations for her. “In your case, you, for sure,” said Lauren Auslander, Simpson’s publicist and close friend who hovered during my interview with her client.
“Yeah, 100 per cent,” Simpson said softly, pulling on the drawstrings of her dark teal sweatsuit.
We made chit-chat as we walked toward her cavernous study in the house once made famous by Ozzy Osbourne and his family
When Jessica Simpson walks into a room, you’re surprised by three things. The first, and they warn you about this – they say all celebrities are, but trust me, you can’t really wrap your brain around it until you are staring down at a strip of white scalp, bending a mile to give a perfunctory hug hello – is that she is very short. Google says she is 160cm (5ft 3in), her publicist says 163cm (5ft 4in), my eyeballs estimate she’s maybe 157cm (5ft 2in).
She is also very beautiful. I remember reading in Amy Poehler’s book, Yes Please, that Jessica Simpson was one of the prettiest people Poehler had seen without makeup, and that tracks.
Two, she has a warmth to her. It could be the natural nest builder of a 39-year-old mother of three – two daughters, Maxwell Drew Johnson (7) and Birdie Mae Johnson (10 months) and one son, Ace Knute Johnson (6). It could be that she spent more than half her life earning fans and knows how to turn it on. It could be the small-town Texan-ness she wears like a badge of honour. Or it could be the fleshy, raw glow of something recently defrosted.
And three, she’s a talker.
You remember Simpson: a preacher’s daughter from Abilene, Texas, who became a singer, frequently ranked third behind her fellow early-2000s pop stars Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera – “No. 3’s good enough, by the way, and I feel that now,” says Simpson – married Nick Lachey of 98 Degrees; starred in MTV’s Newlyweds – “Is this chicken or is this fish?”; was Daisy Duke in The Dukes of Hazzard reboot; divorced Nick Lachey; dated John Mayer; “cursed” the Dallas Cowboys; became a billion-dollar fashion mogul; was wearer of the “mom jeans” that spurred a million headlines about her weight; made pregnancy announcements and wed a new husband; and was then, poof, gone. She fell out of the everyday spotlight.
Her memoir, Open Book, which was published on February 4th, explains what happened through all of it, including the poof.
We made chit-chat as we walked toward her cavernous study in the house once made famous by Ozzy Osbourne and his family. She had the flu last week and was feeling better now, but, dang, was it rough; birth order is fascinating; if you want to start your own business, you just ... should.
She shuffled there in her fuzzy designer slippers (a woman at ease, but maybe a little tired), and as we sat down I congratulated her on her book, which is surprisingly honest, giving any early 2000s pop culture fan a lot of very, very fun gossip in which to take a long, leisurely bath.
Before I could lob an easy question to break the ice (such as, “Why did you decide to write this book?”), Simpson began a 120-minute thought journey that was as impossible to lasso as it was impressive to witness.
“Here, world, this is who I am,” she said, mimicking handing over a tome. “This is what I’ve gone through. This is what I was going through in the 10 years that I’ve been silent about my divorce or anything that anybody had questions about.”
And believe her when she says the book answers any questions you had about her life. It’s more than 400 pages.
Simpson’s reliance on alcohol to calm her nerves started while she was dating singer-songwriter John Mayer in 2006. She writes that she felt wholly insecure around him, like she was never smart enough for him, needing pinot grigio or scotch to help her just relax.
Eventually, she writes in her memoir, she knew she had a problem. Having a vodka and flavoured Perrier before 7.30 in the morning is not a sign of a healthy relationship with alcohol. But she wasn’t ready to confront it until late 2017 – and that was 2 ½ years after her doctor told her she needed to stop the drinking and the pills (diet pills among them) immediately because she could die.
She had brief stretches of sobriety before committing fully.
“When I got my liver levels and all that stuff, it was very scary,” she said. “I was very shocked because I didn’t know how much self-destruction I was causing.”
Mayer comes up in the memoir a lot (a lot, a lot). Simpson wrote that her therapist at one point suggested that Mayer probably never loved her, he was just obsessed with her.
“Ooh, that broke me in half!” she said of the realisation. “And that’s years into being married and having kids. And it was, like, ‘Wow. I did this all for obsession? This was his way of loving me?’ I think that it just never clicked until it was just blatantly said to me: That’s not love.”
She didn’t tell him about the book – “I don’t think he’ll be shocked; he knows these stories” – but what if he tries to use this spotlight to his advantage?
“I don’t care.” This is one of the most definitive, and shortest, sentences she said. (A request for comment was pit to Mayer, but his representatives did not respond.)
A lot of wounds
Through keeping a journal, and then through therapy, and then through writing the book, and then through reading the book aloud for the audio version and writing and recording new songs – which are included free with the audiobook (they’re okay) – Simpson discovered she had a lot of wounds, not just the Mayer-size one, that never healed.
“Even though I have been so open about things that I’ve gone through in my life, I’ve never been open about them in an emotional way,” she said.
She wrote that for six years, starting when she was six years old, she was sexually abused by a daughter of a family friend
“You know” – and here she started rattling off nightmares like she was listing off what to pack for a holiday – “I’ve been sexually abused, bullied, heartbroken, manipulated,” adding divorce – her parents’ and her own – and her father’s cancer to the mix. (Joe Simpson, 61, is also her former manager; after a remission, his cancer recently returned.)
She wrote that for six years, starting when she was six years old, she was sexually abused by a daughter of a family friend (who, Simpson later found out, was being molested by an older boy). They shared a bed when the Simpsons visited, which was about three times a year. When Simpson told her parents what was happening, they never returned.
“It took me until I was 13 years old to know that if I wasn’t put in that situation anymore, it could stop,” she said. “That’s why I opened up about it in the book, because I really want people to know at a young age, if they are going through that, just speak up earlier because it could have stopped for me so much earlier.”
Sobriety has helped her start to process it all. “I was like, ‘If this is a crutch that’s keeping me from being my best self’ [referring to alcohol], ‘I have to get rid of it and find what’s keeping me from being myself. Why can’t I present myself to the world? Why am I nervous to give myself over to the world when it’s always been so easy?’
“Even with horrible headlines and fat shaming and you name it, I’ve always been comfortable being open.”
Yes, 39 may be a little young to publish a memoir, but her fan base is also about 39 now
When I told her that Billie Eilish has said she wears baggy clothes so that no one can comment on her body, Simpson said: “I’m so happy that there’s somebody out there that talks about that and can do that. I think that is why people gravitate toward her. She’s unique and something new and something fresh and something honest to people. Music’s just not the same as it was when I was in it.”
Simpson didn’t join a programme to treat her alcohol addiction because she “would take care of everybody else first and then forget about why I was even there in the first place”. But she relates to the need for community around sobriety. Her husband of 5½ years, former NFL player Eric Johnson, stopped drinking the day she did.
For better or for worse, it has never been Simpson’s music that has made her dear to us, although songs (and videos) like I Wanna Love You Forever and With You had their charms.
It’s not her clothing line, either. Well, it’s partly the clothing line. There’s something distinctly inspiring about how quietly successful she has been with it. At one point, the Jessica Simpson Collection cleared $1 billion in sales in a single year, according to the memoir. The business isn’t currently growing, she told me, but that may be because she hasn’t promoted it in a long time.
The last time she did was on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in late May of 2017. It’s hard to watch. In her memoir, she apologises to DeGeneres and to viewers. She drank before going on-air. It was after this appearance that Auslander (39) put together an intervention plan.
She and Simpson’s best friend, CaCee Cobb, were nervous to confront Simpson; they thought she would get upset and cut them out of her life.
The four of us, including Simpson, talked in the in-home recording studio, which is decorated like an Anthropologie dressing room meets VH1’s Storytellers.
Cobb, whom you may remember as Simpson’s best friend and former assistant on Newlyweds, said: “We’ve been together for 20 years, you know what I mean? I know her better than I know anybody. And I knew that would happen out of her defence mechanism, but I was more afraid that if I was cut out and Lauren was, there would be nobody left to take care of her, to get her help.”
Of Simpson’s drinking, Cobb (42) said: “She wasn’t mean. She wasn’t one of those alcoholics that lashed out at people. It was still this” – she motioned to the invisible but very real tether she and Simpson have between them – “just ...”
“Sad,” Simpson said, completing the sentence.
In early November 2017, Cobb sensed that Simpson was ready to address her problem after a particularly drunk Halloween. The intervention ended up being impromptu, while Simpson was getting her hair dyed.
“It wasn’t planned that day,” Cobb said. Things “just got crazy, I saw a window, and it just happened.”
Simpson has good instincts. They led her to break through the crowded blond pop star landscape with a reality show; they led her to create a clothing line that her fans could afford (she told me she knows her fans have to save up to buy a pair of boots, so “if you price them at $500, that’s hard”); and they led her to write this book.
Yes, 39 may be a little young to publish a memoir, but her fan base is also about 39 now, and frankly, it just feels nice that one of the pop stars from my teendom has delivered on the 20-year-old promise that they’re just like us . . . only richer and prettier and with great, but maybe not greater, expectations. We still need something to aspire to, I suppose. – New York Times