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Nicole Richie interview: from Ballerina Girl to Fashion Star

It wasn’t so long ago that Nicole Richie – daughter of Lionel and alumna of reality TV – was to be found falling out of clubs and into prison cells and rehab. So what’s changed? Oh, everything.

Nicole Richie arrives in a wide-brimmed black hat that dwarfs her. Her big, Bambi eyes peer out from its shade – vulnerable, and a little bit scared.

The press has not always been kind to her. She sits down in the hip Los Angeles restaurant she chose for our meeting, perched on the edge of her seat as if ready for a quick getaway.

‘Thank you very much,’ she says quite suddenly. Without a waiter or a compliment in sight, it’s not clear precisely what she’s saying thank you for.

I wonder if this strange, excessive courtesy is indicative of an eagerness to please. When you’re the daughter of Lionel Richie and the godchild of Michael Jackson, perhaps you have to try very hard not to seem spoilt.

Perhaps, with that kind of background, you also can’t help wanting to be famous.

Ten years ago Richie got her first taste of fame in The Simple Life, an irresistible train-wreck of a reality television show that removed Richie and her best friend Paris Hilton from their pampered Bel Air existences and transplanted them to manual jobs and suburban homes.

Unsurprisingly, they were fired from every job they did.

The show’s success propelled Richie to the front pages of gossip magazines. It’s hard to know if this was the attention she was after. ‘It was fun,’ is all she says on the subject today.

Small acting projects followed, along with a ghosted rags-to-riches novel, a few advertising campaigns and the launch of a Nicole Richie perfume.

But now, at the age of 31, she appears really to have found her métier, as a fashion designer.

And by all accounts, she’s good at it. Her fashion line, House of Harlow 1960, is sold all over the world, including Britain.

It is successful enough to have made her a mentor on the prime-time American television show Fashion Star, in which unknown designers compete to have their pieces bought by major retailers.

‘I feel truly blessed to do what I love for a living,’ she says with a smile. Her teeth are so impressively white I can’t help but stare.

‘I had no formal training, but designing was something I always gravitated to. When I was little, I used to be a competitive figure skater, and I used to design my own costumes with my father’s costume designer.

‘I have a very good team that I work with now, but I design everything myself. This is not something that I just put my name to.’

Richie speaks quickly, trotting out the lines like an accomplished actress. She gives the impression of someone who has learnt to be cautious about how much she gives away.

Fashion is safe conversation. ‘This summer’s collection is all about prints and chiffons,’ she says, with measured enthusiasm. ‘I am very inspired by the late 1960s and 1970s.’

Besides the hat, which stays firmly put, Richie is wearing Lanvin boots, a velvet and chiffon wrap that she rearranges constantly as it slips down off her shoulders, a sleeveless black top and jeans. She is without make-up and looks beautiful.

The model in this season’s advertising campaign is 23-year-old Sasha Spielberg, daughter of the director Steven. How did that come about? ‘Sasha’s a friend, and I knew I wanted her to be part of this season with me,’ she says, bristling slightly.

‘You have to remember that everyone is the wife or daughter of someone famous in Los Angeles. It’s not a big deal here at all.’

In a city of more than nine million people, that’s perhaps a skewed view. It is a testament to the rarefied sphere in which Richie lives.

At three years old, Richie was fostered by Brenda and Lionel Richie, the multimillionaire soul singer who dominated the charts in the 1980s with songs such as Hello and Ballerina Girl (a song he wrote for Nicole).

Her biological father was a drummer who worked with Lionel, her biological mother a backstage assistant. They were unable to support her.

Nicole was formally adopted by the Richies when she was nine – and then promptly found herself in the middle of a bitter, and very public, divorce. (Lionel has since remarried and Nicole has two half-sisters.)

‘My childhood was my childhood. I don’t have another one to compare it to,’ she says pragmatically.

‘My dad has said before that he doesn’t think he was a good dad.’ Lionel toured constantly during her childhood, so he was often absent for long periods.

‘But I’ve never felt like that. He’s being too harsh on himself. Looking back, I think I had a wonderful childhood.’

She remembers being taken to premières wearing matching dresses with her mother.

‘So silly!’ she says, exasperation in her voice. ‘I don’t even remember the occasions, but the outfits! I have to live with the photos. I was my mum’s little doll and so I was dressed the same as her.’

Her teenage years were destructive and wild, culminating in an arrest in 2003, for heroin possession. She was 21. She doesn’t know what made her turn to drugs.

‘I was so young, it’s hard to say really.’ But she’s clearer about what made her snap out of it.

‘I got tired of it. A few arrests helped. A few hours in jail will do that to you…’ she laughs briefly for the first time. ‘Once you see the consequences are real.’

It was shortly after a spell in rehab that she was offered The Simple Life, which brought a mixed bag of salvation. Richie was wittier than Hilton, and the five-year series certainly brought her celebrity status.

But her whole life became subject to public speculation – particularly around her weight.

By the final series she was so thin rumours of anorexia filled the gossip magazines. Was she hurt by it?

‘I would never judge the way anybody else looks, and I don’t expect anybody to do the same to me,’ she says flatly. She doesn’t look anorexic now, but she does look uncomfortable with the subject.

By the fourth series Richie had fallen out with Paris Hilton so badly that they were filmed without coming into contact with each other.

‘Getting into a fight with a girlfriend when you’re 23 is really the most normal thing,’ she says, adding a little impatiently, ‘Look, I try not to focus on the past. I like to look forward.’

And to her credit she seems to be doing just that. Recent tweets (to her four million followers) and her online television show for AOL, #CandidlyNicole, revealed her desire to be rid of the nine tattoos that adorn her skin.

‘I had my last tattoo when I was 21, and they’re indicative of a misspent youth,’ she says. ‘I’ve moved on now. I’m not proud of them at all.’

Her marriage to Joel Madden, the lead singer of the rock band Good Charlotte, was another step forward.

Although the couple married only two years ago, they have been together for seven and have two children, Harlow Winter Kate, five, and Sparrow, three.

She says their home life is the antithesis of her past.

‘Joel and I both grew up in what other people would call an unstable home. We both come from divorced parents and did a lot of moving around, so it’s very important to us to create a stable environment for our kids… or at least try to.’

To do that, she is adamant about unplugging her phone, and devoting Sundays exclusively to family. ‘I am not available to anybody but family, and we’re at the house all day, cooking and hanging out,’ she says.

Her family focus has also encouraged her parents to become friends again.

‘My mum and dad both live 10 minutes away from us. And suddenly my parents are hanging out together again, at my house, because they’ve come to see their grandkids.

‘It’s the first time in my life that I’ve had lots of family around me, because I grew up kind of hopping from my mum to my dad, and Joel did the same.’

She speaks warmly of both parents. ‘My mum’s your typical grandma. She doesn’t listen to anything I say, and buys the kids anything they want, while I want them to work for it. My dad’s that silly guy who comes and sings songs to the kids.’

Has she ever tried to contact her birth parents? ‘Yes, but this is something that involves a bunch of people’s lives, so I don’t really feel comfortable talking about it,’ she says.

She smiles – those teeth are really dazzlingly white – and for the first time sits back in her seat. She seems less nervous, and more human suddenly – especially when the conversation turns to motherhood.

She had her first child when she was 25 and has said in the past that having Harlow saved her life. ‘Having her was the first time that I’ve ever really felt that I had to answer to somebody,’ she explains.

She wouldn’t mind more children. ‘We’ll see. Joel and I are not big planners. We’ve always been a go-with-the-flow family,’ she says.

‘Our whole relationship has been about not planning anything and letting the universe do whatever it needs to do. We never felt any pressure to get married. Everyone kept asking, “Well, when?”

‘But we like doing things in our time, and when we did get married it was right. It was really nice to have both my children walk down the aisle with me.’

But she enjoys her designing venture, too. She has a studio in her home where she works, and offices in the garment district of Downtown Los Angeles.

‘It’s all about finding a balance,’ she says, a statement that followers of The Simple Life could never have imagined coming from her.

A man suddenly spots Richie from across the restaurant and comes over to our table. There are apologies for the interruption and social niceties observed.

They are business acquaintances, it seems – he works for the French fashion house Lanvin. It’s all a long way from The Simple Life.

Jun 03, 2013 – Telegraph – Written by Lucy Broadbent