Rag Time is a bi-weekly media investigation of a single celebrity story that's vastly more in-depth than you ever thought you needed. This week: Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey's eternally fascinating relationship.
Last week, America’s Sweetheart Jessica Simpson, 39, made a stunning announcement: She is writing a memoir, and it will be released in February 2020. “I have been working so hard on it,” she wrote on Instagram, alongside a picture of her posing in the HarperCollins offices. “I have opened my heart up in a way I never have before and now I can’t wait to share it with the world.”
According to the publisher, the book will cover all aspects of Simpson’s life, “from her popular television show Newlyweds, to a very public divorce, starring on the big screen and topping the Billboard charts, finding new love, raising a family, and running a successful business empire.” The tome “will be a candid, inspiring, and behind-the-scenes look at how she chose to learn from each difficult moment, evolve musically, become a more fearless businesswoman, and consistently shatter all expectations of who she was ‘supposed’ to be.”
It's unclear how much more there is to learn about Simpson’s musical evolution, but, years later, American popular culture still remains fixated on her marriage to and divorce from Nick Lachey. The pop star and former 98 Degrees frontman were among the first to make their celebrity marriage a real business, and so their breakup stands out as one of the biggest tabloid stories of the 2000s. When Simpson and Lachey announced their separation in 2005, after three years of marriage and three seasons of Newlyweds, Us Weekly dropped everything to cover every aspect of the story. The tabloid made the split the lead cover story seven times in the span of three months, even on the week Angelina Jolie announced her first pregnancy with Brad Pitt. (Readers were treated to “NICK’S SIDE OF THE STORY” instead.)
It’s commonplace now for celebrities and aspiring celebrities to monetize their marriages. (Take one look at what’s going on with YouTube sensations Tana Mongeau and Jake Paul and you can see the well-worn path behind them.) But Simpson and Lachey were the first to fully commit to this strategy, earning public adoration and contempt. With the help of Simpson’s dad/manager Joe Simpson, they built a massive promotional machine that became bigger than the relationship itself.
With so much tabloid coverage comes so many questions … and so many forgotten bit players in the MTV drama that rocked America. (Including a little-known “stylist” named Kim Kardashian.) Let’s reminisce about the most beautiful celebrity marriage of the aughts.
“Chicken of the Sea”
Simpson and Lachey started dating after meeting at the Hollywood Christmas Parade in 1998, when they were both working to rise to the top of the pop charts. They quickly started attending red-carpet events together (Teen People’s 2nd Anniversary party; the Kids’ Choice Awards) and branded themselves as a couple a la Britney and Justin. They broke up in 2001 but quickly reunited later that year. “After 9-11, I knew that I never ever wanted to be away from Nick ever for the rest of my life,” Simpson wrote on her website. Lachey proposed, and on October 26, 2002, they got married in front of 350 guests and multiple cameras at the Riverbend Church in Austin, TX.
Looking at the success of The Osbournes, Joe Simpson shopped a reality show about his daughter’s new marriage to MTV as a way to promote her third studio album, In This Skin. (Joe was heavily involved in Jessica’s life and became an executive producer on the show.)
Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica premiered on MTV on August 19, 2003, and it quickly became a hit, averaging 2.4 million viewers per episode. This was mostly thanks to the public’s fascination with Simpson’s purity vow (she remained a virgin until her wedding day, she said) and her delightful “dumb blonde” antics. (In the first episode alone, she struggled to do laundry, made an “oopsie” while trying to empty a flower vase, and, famously, expressed confusion about canned tuna.) While it was clear from the get-go that Simpson—who was 22 when she got married—and Lachey—who was 29—were not fully prepared for a lifetime commitment, they managed to hang in for three years and became household names in the process. By 2005, however, their relationship started to fizzle. “You could feel there was tension between the two of them,” a producer told Complex in 2017. “They were very different people. He was a blue collar guy—he did a lot of things himself, like he and his brother would build things. He was frugal, and she had excessive taste. In the end they weren't suited for each other.”
The final episode of Newlyweds aired on March 30, bringing in 3.4 million viewers. Tabloid rumors about an impending divorce started pretty much immediately after the finale. In May, E! News published a story online claiming that Simpson had filed for divorce in Los Angeles Superior Court, only to retract hours later. “E! deeply regrets that a draft report from E! Online, which contained some false information regarding the Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson marriage, was accidentally disseminated,” the site posted.
The Dukes of Hazzard, starring Simpson as Daisy Duke, premiered in August, and rumors circulated that she and co-star Johnny Knoxville had an affair on set. (Both parties denied the story.) That same month, Page Six’s famed gossip columnist Cindy Adams claimed that Simpson and Lachey had hired lawyers and drawn up divorce papers; Lachey denied the story during a solo appearance on Live! With Regis and Kelly.
And then, in October, a 19-year-old Ohio State student named Danielle Calo went to Star and Extra to claim that Lachey invited her to his hotel room after a high school football game in Columbus, Ohio the previous month. (Lachey, a Cincinnati native, was there because … well, that’s still a mystery.) Calo described their meeting to Star thusly: “He was a really good kisser, soft and gentle even though he was using his tongue to French kiss me. His eyes are so beautiful, too, and he kept staring at me, just like at the football game. We kissed for a long time; Nick would occasionally rub my thigh very lightly. I knew the opportunity to do more was there, but a part of me kept thinking that he's very married, so I was uncomfortable about doing anything else — and I told him so. From that point on, Nick never forced anything, and we never went into his bedroom.”
Lachey adamantly denied the story, but Calo’s claims kicked off a ceaseless stream of divorce speculation in the tabloids. Us Weekly declared on its October 24 cover that Lachey and Simpson were sleeping in “separate bedrooms.” By the following week, Simpson was “SLEEPING AWAY FROM HOME.”
On November 23—the day before Thanksgiving—Simpson and Lachey officially announced they were breaking up. “After three years of marriage, and careful thought and consideration, we have decided to part ways,” they said in a statement. “This is the mutual decision of two people with an enormous amount of respect and admiration for each other. We hope that you respect our privacy during this difficult time.”
This was classic celebrity PR spin: They announced the breakup right before a holiday weekend with an anodyne statement, probably hoping the story would get buried. But having built their fame and fortune putting their marriage on television, they could not really expect “privacy” during their divorce. And maybe the timing was just coincidental—according to the tabloid reports that followed, Simpson and Lachey had a big fight the day they released their separation statement.
The Thanksgiving blowup
The week after the separation announcement, People published a cover story with a record ELEVEN bylines all about the split. Sources close to Simpson claimed that she was “fed up with her husband’s partying ways and his refusal to join her family in Texas for Thanksgiving, and that the pair decided to split after an argument the day before Thanksgiving.” Lachey’s sources, meanwhile, claimed that Simpson left him. “She said, ‘I don’t know if this is working. I want to file for divorce,’” a source told the tabloid. “He was shocked. Nick was saying, ‘There are things we can do to work on this, and isn’t this worth fixing?’ And the answer was no.” (Lachey repeated a similar story in a weepy Rolling Stone interview months later.)
As the tabloids tried to piece together what happened, the paparazzi hounded both stars, Simpson especially. According to a Celebitchy post from the time, she was spotted buying “Team Jessica” shirts from an L.A. boutique after filing for divorce in December. In April 2006, Simpson told W that she once rented a dozen different cars in one day to evade the paparazzi. (In 2017, she became a spokeswoman for Budget rental cars.)
Lachey moved on pretty quickly in the MTV dating pool, first with Laguna Beach star Kristin Cavallari, and then with VJ Vanessa Minnillo. (This is neither here nor there but: Cavallari and Minnillo both had sons within a couple weeks of each other in 2012 and both named them Camden. This did not go unnoticed by Cavallari.)
By the end of June 2006, Simpson and Lachey settled their divorce—speedy, by Hollywood standards! Especially considering the fact that the couple did not sign a prenup. Simpson was the moneymaker in the marriage, thanks to her movie roles and various brand deals that eventually coalesced into the billion-dollar retail empire she presides over today. (Currently The Jessica Simpson Collection includes shoes, clothing, luggage, and home goods; her “edible cosmetics” line, Dessert Beauty, has been discontinued.)
Simpson could have had to sign over half of her earnings during the marriage to Lachey—a reported $30 million—but Joe Simpson is said to have stepped in to negotiate. The tabloids reported that Joe first offered Lachey $1.5 million to walk away. Lachey reportedly asked for $8 million, and they settled somewhere in there. The People report about the divorce settlement noted that Malcolm in the Middle actor Justin Berfield bought the $3.75 million Calabasas home where Simpson and Lachey shot most of Newlyweds. The tabloid also reported that Lachey had been recently spotted out with “stylist Kim Kardashian.”
In 2015, Simpson appeared on CNBC to discuss her retail endeavors. When asked about her “biggest financial mistake,” she said, “For some reason, I thought of my first marriage.”
Happily ever after?
Eventually, Simpson started dating again: first John Mayer, then Tony Romo. Lachey, meanwhile, got serious with Minnillo. But Simpson and Lachey never stopped paying attention to each other, probably because the tabloids never stopped putting them together. (Us Weekly was still talking about a “SECOND CHANCE” for the ex-couple in 2009.) It turns out that a massive promotional machine built around a marriage is harder to untangle than the marriage itself.
And so in 2010, Simpson and Lachey each got engaged to new partners within days of each other. On November 4, Lachey announced his engagement to Minnillo. On November 11, Simpson congratulated him when asked about the news during a radio interview with Ryan Seacrest. "Our relationship was over a really long time ago, and it would be nice if everyone could move on with us and really just celebrate the love between him and Vanessa,” she said. “I really wish them nothing but the best."
That very same day, Simpson’s new boyfriend Eric Johnson, a football player, proposed to her. They announced the engagement a few days later on the 14th. When Us Weekly asked Lachey about Simpson’s timing, he said, "I will say the same thing I always say: I wish her the very best.”
Simpson and Lachey both got married and had children and remain with their respective partners to this day. (In fact, Lachey's wedding anniversary is this week.) But they will never fully escape their Newlyweds past—each time something significant happens in one of their lives, the tabloids mention the other. They haven’t stopped being marketable together, which is something that Simpson seems to understand better than anyone. Why not write a memoir?
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