Raised in Bel Air with a famous singer for a dad, Nicole Richie grew up to be a celebutante and launch a fashion line. So, everyone happy? Not quite…
“I tend to dress a little more sophisticated than most women do,” says Nicole Richie, as she sits small and prim in front of me.
We are in a vibrant fuchsia and green suite in a London hotel on a muggy afternoon. Richie, tired, jet-lagged, sits in a comfy-looking chair while I am directed to a wool-covered cylinder on which I have to perch and lean precariously towards her, making me feel like a visitor at a sick person’s bedside.
Richie’s publicist, who rang me while I was in the lobby to cut our interview time in half and warn me not to ask any “personal questions”, has gone to sit behind a rail of clothes. The clack of her BlackBerry will fill the many silences to follow.
She really is very pretty though, Richie: an Egyptian princess as drawn by a Disney animator, with feline features and amber eyes. At 28 she could pass as a teenager. It is difficult to think of her as a mother of two small children.
Her ensemble of denim cut-off shorts and black tights, however, doesn’t strike me as more “sophisticated” than those of the women I stood next to on the Underground this morning, but maybe Richie’s comment was directed at those sloppy ladies of Los Angeles, the city where she has lived all her life.
Over her camisole top she is wearing a silky black jacket of her own design. Naturally, like all celebrities with a canny agent, Richie has a fashion line on the go. “I call it the smoking jacket,” she says looking down at the garment, “even though I don’t smoke.” I laugh. After a beat she laughs, too. “A-ha-ha.”
Ah, celebrities. Little more than a decade ago Nicole Richie wouldn’t even have merited the term. She would have been “the daughter of soul singer Lionel Richie”, the multi-millionaire artist who bestrode the charts in the 1980s with songs like Hello , Dancing on the Ceiling and Ballerina Girl , a song he wrote for Nicole when she was a child.
At three Nicole was fostered by the singer and his wife, Brenda. Her real father was a drummer who worked with Richie, her mother a backstage assistant. Nicole was formally adopted by the Richies when she was nine.
Sometime around the millennium, pop culture appetites changed and interest in the privileged offspring of the famous went from newspaper diary pages to the front page and magazine covers. In 2003 Richie got her own shot at fame with the scripted reality-television show The Simple Life , a vehicle for Paris Hilton, with hilarious potential. The prospect of a privileged, Bel Air-raised heiress slumming it in the countryside was too good to miss.
Richie, just out of rehab having battled drug addiction as a teenager, was the plumper, wittier sidekick to Hilton, full of droll one-liners. But there is little evidence of drollery or wit today. Maybe it’s the jet-lag.
“It was fun,” she recalls of her time on the show (the fourth series of which she filmed without coming into contact with Hilton, the pair of them having spectacularly fallen out). She flashes the brief smile of someone who has no plans to linger on the topic. “I was 21 and I got to film with my best friend. Some people backpack around Europe, we did that.” And you will probably never get as perfect a summary of Nicole Richie and her ilk as that.
But a celebrity was born and branding opportunities beckoned. Richie’s done them all – advertising campaigns for Jimmy Choo, a ghosted “rags to riches” novel called The Truth About Diamonds. She “can’t talk” about the follow-up to that project but there will be one. It won’t be a sequel, though. “When I write, I like to start fresh,” she says.
There have been small acting roles too and the golden ticket – her fashion and accessories lines. Last year it was announced that she was writing and developing a sitcom about a woman struggling with motherhood and her career. Some sort of television project is still in development but Richie says that, no, that’s not what it’s about. “I don’t know where that came from,” she says dismissively. Somehow even this is a touchy subject.
I don’t know how she does it all, I say. “I’m a Virgo and I’m really good at scheduling. And I really make it work. I get up 6.30 every day.” Do her children wake her up? Pause. “I get up before them and have some time to myself. I like to be fresh for my family.”
Today it’s Richie’s role as a designer that we are here to discuss. It is season two of her clothing line Winter Kate and the accompanying accessories range, House of Harlow. Both are named in honour of Richie’s three-year-old daughter, Harlow Winter Kate, with the rock singer Joel Madden of the band Good Charlotte. Her 11-month-old son, Sparrow, does not have a label named after him but there’s still time.
According to my-wardrobe.com , the fashion website that stocks the two lines, the first season went down very well with customers. The jewellery sold out. I quite like its boho 1970s vibe, which is reminiscent of how Richie has dressed since she ditched the Juicy Couture tracksuits of those chubbier Simple Life years, got thin and hooked up with the celebrity-stylist (turned reality-television star, author, fashion designer) Rachel Zoe.
At one point Richie’s weight, or lack of it, was something of an international preoccupation. She became ultra-skinny and looked fragile and unhealthy. There was speculation about whether she had an eating disorder. She denied it. Today, although very slim, she looks healthy. When I ask her later for a tip on how to look good, she just says, somewhat impatiently, “Work out, like everyone else!”
“What are your favourite pieces in the collection?” I ask, pretty sure this doesn’t count as a personal question. She cranes her neck and squints at the rail. I suggest we have a look up close. Usually designers can’t get their hands off their own garments. Richie doesn’t quite sigh as she pulls herself up from the chair. After she half-heartedly strokes a few jackets we sit again and she talks about her inspiration.
“I know that it’s a big struggle with a lot of women to dress up – especially now women have been working – because it can be uncomfortable,” she says. “So it was important to me with my role to make clothes that are slightly more dressed up but easy to wear. And that’s all in the fabric. And I realised, by the way, how easy that makes it because I packed to come here and I bought this entire rack and my personal clothes all in one suitcase.”
When did she realise she had the makings of a designer? “I’ve been making my own clothes for a while,” she says. “It’s always something that I wanted to do. But it’s a full-time job and it’s a lot of work and I really had to wait until I could put all my energy into it because it’s not just my name on a clothing line; it’s all me and all of my creations and designs. So it’s a ton of work. But the outcome is so nice.”
Of course, she must have been surrounded by spectacular clothing since she was very small. “Well, the good thing is my mom was a [US] size two and her thing was Alaïa. So I have all her Alaïa clothes and shoes. She gave them to me. Now my best friend Marsha who’s here on the trip with me, her mom wore Alaïa too, but in the nineties she was like, “I’m never going to wear this stuff again,” and she gave all her stuff away.” We exchange pitying looks for poor old Marsha.
I spy an opportunity to segue into “personal” territory. So – I beam – has being a mother made her reflect on her own childhood? “I have always had really great memories of my childhood. I had a lot of fun.” Stepford smile. Subject closed. She must have been around some amazing people? “Yeah, but I was so young I didn’t realise.” Smile. Her godfather was Michael Jackson (hell, in for a penny, in for a pound) – what are her memories of him? “I have pretty much great memories of all my childhood.” Smile. I try another tack: how do her parents like being grandparents? “They like it a lot.” The smile is now less a smile and more a soundless swear-word.
In the past Richie has opened up more. She has spoken candidly about her arrest for possession of heroin when she was 21. After the birth of her children she did “at home with” photos of the babies and her husband. And while pregnant with Harlow, Richie told the broadcaster Diane Sawyer: “This baby saved my life.” When I am permitted some extra time with Richie on the phone the following day, I ask what she meant by that comment. There is another, now familiar strained silence. “You know what? I don’t know what I meant by that.”
I ask her if she’s relieved to have put her wild teens and early twenties behind her to become a mother and a career woman. “I would say that I haven’t changed. I’m the same person.” She allows no turnaround, no transition, no change in behaviour or lifestyle. No, she hasn’t grown up or reformed. It seems an odd approach to life but I get an insight into where it comes from when she talks about the media interest in her and Hilton’s tedious adolescent rowing. ‘Both of my parents have always said, “You don’t like something? Don’t give it energy and it just won’t exist in your world,”‘ she says. ‘So none of that existed for me. It just wasn’t there.”
That night there’s a dinner at a private club for Richie and invited press. Apparently the feedback from journalists who met Richie the day before has not been positive. Halfway through dinner, as she tinkles on a glass and announces a game, I realise with a sinking feeling that Richie is about to turn on the “fun”. She instructs guests to share with the table something new they have learnt during the day. Frozen grins crystallise.
Richie kicks off with an anecdote about how if you chew each mouthful of food 40 times it’s better for your digestion. A muted expression of collective amazement greets this revelation. One poor woman from my-wardrobe.com is forced to relate an anecdote of her own, but when others aren’t keen to take up the fun baton Richie goes again, this time sharing a personal style secret.
“When you’re ready to go out and have your outfit on, you should check that everything is securely in place by dancing in the mirror,” she says.
She stands up and demonstrates, waving her arms energetically over her head and laughing. She looks happy at last but I feel unaccountably sorry for her: Ballerina Girl dancing on command.
Winter Kate and House of Harlow available from my-wardrobe.com. Prices from £150
Aug 11, 2010 – Telegraph – Written by KAte Finnigan