It's often said that celebrities are America's royalty -- we love them when they're up, yet relish the moments when they're down. This being a democracy, we reserve the right to identify with our chosen heroes -- in part because we want to sustain our adolescent illusion that we, too, might still be famous one day. But we also need constant reminding that stars are only human after all. Thus the endless parade of celebrity fallibility, whether it's Janet Jackson's renegade nipple or R. Kelly's homemade porn. The cycle has become predictable: error in judgment, public lashing, and the offer of repentance, which they always accept -- publicly, dramatically and, almost without exception, profitably.
Reality TV, of course, has wreaked havoc with this equation, bringing fame, however fleeting, to the scores of average people who are willing to subject themselves to 24-hour camera crews and legally binding waivers. Real people, for better and for worse, are the celebrities of the day.
Since there are few signs this trend will abate any time soon, it was somewhat of a calculated risk for pop singer Jessica "Is it chicken or fish?" Simpson -- once considered an also-ran among the teen pop-diva triumvirate of Britney-Christina-Avril -- to turn the cameras onto her own second-tier celebrity life. Last year offered us the VH-1 reality series Newlyweds, which chronicled the quotidian struggles of Simpson and her new husband, former boy-band crooner Nick Lachey.
But how risky was it? Before the runaway success of the show, Simpson's singing career had been flagging. When her third album, In This Skin, was released last fall -- prior to the series premiere -- it quickly plunged into obscurity after a brief debut at No. 10 on the Billboard Top 40. Since then, the genuine quality of her recently re-released album, combined with her unsurpassed cross-marketing savvy, has made Simpson A-list material.
The success of The Osbournes proved that career revival by way of crass exhibitionism is now possible on an unprecedented scale, thanks to the success of reality TV. The formula for Newlyweds, on the other hand, was different: Show audiences how extravagantly even the most middling pop stars live, and then go to great lengths to convince them that they're really not so different from you and me. Really.
Surprisingly enough, the bonus DVD that accompanies the new version of In This Skin seems to confirm just how boringly normal they really are. Jessica and Nick's wedding was standard issue through and through, from the chubby bridesmaids and balding groomsmen to the seemingly genuine tears spilled during the "I Do's." Despite being deemed the Queen Mother of All Dumb Blondes, Jessica really does seem sort of average. In fact, the most interesting thing about Jessica Simpson (beyond those mad pipes) may be that she makes no apologies for who she is, as bland and dumb as that may be. And she's often reviled for it.
"I don't know whether it's from being from the South and having blonde hair and having this image growing up as a blonde, but it was just something I adapted to," Simpson has said of her own ditzy ways. "I made it part of my life, and made it part of my personality."
Indeed. Simpson has turned her brand of "dumb and proud of it" self-esteem into a franchise that now extends well beyond her singing career and includes, among other things, a self-mocking Pizza Hut commercial, a wedding guidebook, film offers and a series renewal on VH-1 -- all of which has been building the prime for her first solo concert tour, The Reality Tour, which kicks off at the New Orleans Arena on Friday, June 4.
"In This Skin was so important for me to share with my fans," Simpson told Billboard. "I was 102 pounds, and people at the record label were telling me I needed to lose weight. This song is saying I am worthy to feel beautiful in my skin. It's something that every woman experiences in one way or another."
No doubt the Everywoman experiences it a little differently, and less profitably, than Simpson does. Still, that she wants to be a positive role model for young women and demonstrates even a vague awareness of body-image issues is admirable. So why would someone who claims to have struggled with such issues herself participate so readily in perpetuating them for others? "Dessert," Simpson's new line of "kissable" cosmetics, features items such as "Hot Body Topping" and "Whipped Body Cream with Candy Sprinkles" and bears the slogan "Sexy girls have dessert ... ." All of which might well encourage girls to wear their food, but doesn't go so far as to suggest they should actually ingest it. The line has been so successful that Simpson will launch another this fall, this one to be called "Taste." Who knows, Simpson might eventually work her way up to real food -- a healthy, lo-cal, frozen entree, perhaps. And she could call it, simply, "Eat."