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The House That Nicole Richie Built

The Not-So-Simple Life
It was back in the Paleolithic era of reality television, or 2003, when audiences discovered Nicole Richie, the snarky, curvy, mischievous party girl who stepped outside a bubble of wealth and privilege with her glamorous bestie, and became famous for simply being herself. They followed her through an awkward middle period, where fame and ill-considered (and not entirely legal) personal choices collided, resulting in a near-perfect storm of self-destruction. Today, after a bumpy road trip through a landscape littered with reality stars whose clocks stopped ticking after their 15th minute of fame, Nicole Richie stands poised, finally the master of her own celebrity, a businesswoman with two fast-growing fashion lines. She’s returned to the unscripted airwaves, too, as a mentor on NBC’s Fashion Star, where she gives start-up and fashion advice to up-and-coming designers.

The ride has been a wild one for the adopted daughter of pop superstar Lionel Richie and his now-ex-wife Brenda, who took her in at age three after the personal troubles of some family friends overwhelmed their ability to care for the child (Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson were named her godfathers). Richie, 30, first embarked on Fox’s early entry into reality television with The Simple Life near the beginning of the current, instant-celeb-centric millennium, which sent her and childhood pal/hotel heiress Paris Hilton on an excursion into a decidedly un-posh America.

During her first several years on the public radar, her triumphs and travails were a tabloid editor’s dream that included romances with other Hollywood scenesters and celeb-spawn, feuds with on-again, off-again frenemies, a dramatic slim-down that sparked much speculation, and brushes with the law involving drugs and alcohol that led to an 82-minute stint behind bars.

But after all that came redemption, also in headline-friendly bytes, as Richie settled into a more mature adulthood after her arrest, which coincided with her meeting—and later marrying—Good Charlotte singer and musician Joel Madden. “I did not wake up one day and say, ‘OK, I’m going to change,’” says Richie, as she looks back on her journey from not-so-promising role of celebutante with a rap sheet, to wife, mom, and mogul. “I do constantly remind people that it has been almost 10 years [since The Simple Life debuted].”

She credits the relationship with Madden as a crucial factor in shaking her from self-destructive habits and a once-escalating friction with her parents. “Joel and I are complete polar opposites,” she says. “He’s from southern Maryland. He’s very family-oriented. He grew up with four brothers and sisters. When we met, I was definitely going through a difficult time with my family, and having him have such a strong foundation really opened the doors and brought both of our families together.”

Getting Real
In between occasional acting gigs (in stunt-cast stints on middling sitcoms, a twice-recurring role on Chuck, and on the big screen in the little-seen indie high school comedy Kids in America), and a pair of seemingly, and tellingly, semi-autobiographical novels (the first stars a Hollywood club-hopping, chemically altered rich rock star-adopted protagonist, the second a wealthy young woman who loses everything but rebounds in post-Katrina New Orleans), Richie’s dramatic reinvention played out slowly but steadily over the past half-dozen years. She and Madden became the parents of two children, Harlow, four, and Sparrow, two. She saw potential to build on an uncontroversial element of her celebrity—as a boho-chic style icon (crafted in conjunction with stylist—and eventual ex-BFF—Rachel Zoe). Richie started first with a jewelry and accessories line, House of Harlow 1960, partnering with noted jeweler Pascal Mouawad, whose company, Glamhouse, specializes in springboarding celebrity collections. Then came women’s ready-to-wear line Winter Kate, reflective of Richie’s vintage ’60s and ’70s aesthetic updated with a modern spin.

Where many reality stars’ products line the aisles at Wal-Mart, Richie’s labels are carried by high-end department stores like Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, and Bergdorf Goodman, and a thousand retail outlets in more than 40 countries across the globe. As evidence of her success as a businesswoman, she recently landed a gig as a mentor on NBC’s Fashion Star, an American Idol-style series seeking out the next hot designer.

So despite the odds, Richie transcended the typical reality-star paradigm, and evolved from “famous for being famous” to “still famous because she actually demonstrated a considerable creative talent.” She learned to take control of her notoriety rather than let it control her. The only person not surprised at the outcome was Richie. “You have to remember that I was 20 years old,” she says of her earlier, wilder days. “I don’t know anybody who can look back at who they were at 20 and say, ‘I’m the exact same person.’ It’s all about evolving and growing. Who we are in our 30s is obviously very different than who we are in our 20s…. Also, keep in mind that my life didn’t start in shooting The Simple Life. For the public, obviously, that was the first time they saw me, but this,” she says, during a break from a shoot of her fashion wares, “has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl.”

She’s also quick to explain that her early days in the public eye were, by and large, kind of a blast. “I have very fond memories of that time,” she admits. “I was 20, 21 years old and I was doing a show with my best friend, and we didn’t really have to do much. We were just being ourselves—and playing it up for the cameras, obviously—but that show was very safe for me to do, in the sense that cameras were never in my home. They were never shooting my family. It was more about us stepping into other people’s realities, as opposed to the cameras coming into our realities,” says Richie.

While Richie was a leading figure in the vanguard of reality TV, and among the first handful to sustain fame beyond their series’ initial run, she confesses she had no career master plan. “I think I was maybe 19 when I signed on to do it, and [the producers] said, ‘You’re being offered this amount of money to do this for 30 days.’ I was like, ‘Sure! Why not?’ Never in my wildest dreams did I think there would even be a second season, much less a third or fifth one. I really was just going along with it.”

Even the subsequent gossipy reporting and speculation about her personal ups and downs didn’t phase Richie much, at least while they were happening. “It’s definitely hard to look back and remember what I was thinking at the time,” she confesses. “At that point, I didn’t really care as much, was much more accepting of it. I could tolerate a lot more. That probably wouldn’t be the situation if I was doing it now.” She knows well that every public misstep remains preserved in a pop-cultural amber that will always comprise a portion of her backstory. “The mistakes my parents made in their 20s weren’t documented, and the mistakes that I made in my 20s were,” she explains. “So that’s the only kind of bummer: that I was growing and figuring out who I was in the public eye. I’m not going to complain about it—I chose that—but a lot of people can just take their pictures and put them in a box and say, ‘All right, we’re going to forget that ever happened.’ And I can’t always do that.”

Funneling her creative energy into fashion also brought a new focus. “I’ve been getting ready for this since I was 16 years old,” Richie says. “When I actually met with my partners, [clothing manufacturers] Rick and Brian Cytrynbaum, and they asked for ideas, I said, ‘I have plenty!’ I had two huge folders of inspiration tears to show where I saw the line going, what I wanted to start with first, and where I wanted to take it eventually. This has been in my head for a very long time.” Richie’s vision resulted in a burgeoning fashion line aimed at multitasking women who aren’t afraid to take fashion risks, but, she insists, it will grow only at the pace she sets. “With Winter Kate, we started out so small,” she says. “It’s taken me four seasons even to expand into doing leathers, laser cuts, furs. I have goals for House of Harlow and for Winter Kate: Ultimately, this will be a lifestyle brand. I’m going to do home furnishings and flatware, everything. [But] right now, my focus is my family, and everything comes second to that.” What broadens her smile more than talking fashion is talking kids. “My daughter looks exactly like me, and she has Joel’s personality. She’s very careful. She doesn’t make a move without fully thinking about what the consequences would be and what that means. Sparrow looks exactly like Joel and has my personality. He’s just wild. I’m in for a ride. He’s two, and we’ve had broken fingers, we’ve been to the hospital. You cannot take your eye off of him for a second. He is just a full, free spirit.”

Knowing the pitfalls celebrity offspring face, Richie admits she hasn’t “gone there,” speculating on how her own children might fare with second-hand fame. For now, she’s enjoying the wonders of watching her kids reveal themselves in her family’s private world. “It’s very interesting to see who they are, and I’m all about encouraging them to just be themselves,” she says. “I’m not at a place yet where I’m trying to work on who they are. I’m all about them just developing exactly what they want to be, and enjoying everything about that.” Appropriate words, it seems, from someone who’s learned firsthand about the power of enjoying the journey, and making sure it took her somewhere. 

Mar 01, 2012 – Ocean Drive – Scott Huver