“Sexing is an art, not a science,” Nicole Richie tells me, deoadpan, before bursting into laughter. Sitting in her Burbank office, the 36-year-old mogul-author-actress is skimming through the photos on her iPhone, trying to put a picture to the ridiculous story she’s in the midst of telling. The setup goes something like this: Two mornings ago, Richie discovered a rooster in her backyard chicken coop. “I woke up to this thing crowing and I’m like, ‘What the fuck?’” she says as she shows me a pic of the chicken in question—a flashy black-and-white bantam named “Mo”—who she bought a few months ago thinking he was a she. “He was in full drag,” she says with an exasperated laugh. “But I wanted an obnoxiously gorgeous chicken, so I guess that’s what I get.”
The irony of Richie’s urban farming fiasco is lost on no one. Fourteen years ago, Richie made her television debut in a similarly hilarious setup on The Simple Life. The show, which ran from 2003 to 2007, followed Nicole and her then-BFF Paris Hilton as they traveled the country doing odd jobs and attempting to shed their spoiled rich kid roots. The first season memorably featured the girls living and working on a dairy farm in Altus, Arkansas.
Like the many (many) reality TV stars that came after her, the line between Richie’s public and private persona quickly blurred into nonexistence after the show took off. The adopted daughter of Lionel Richie and Brenda Harvey, Nicole says she was always an outgoing kid. But after The Simple Life, her social life—from partying and dating to friendships and diets—became fodder for endless gossip rag speculation and scrutiny. In the process, she and Hilton became the ringleaders of a growing set of mid-’00s models, actresses, and socialites looking for their 15 minutes.
Since then, Richie has blossomed into a fearless—though much more private—woman, branching out in about a million different professional directions. There was her book, 2005’s The Truth About Diamonds; her fashion line, House of Harlow 1960; and then there was a second novel and her own TV series for VH1 called Candidly Nicole, which she produced and starred in. All this while raising two small kids with her partner of 11 years, husband and Good Charlotte frontman Joel Madden.
Recently, though, Richie’s return to network television has generated headlines. Last year, she was cast as anchorwoman Portia Scott-Griffin on NBC’s Great News, Tracy Wigfield’s critically lauded sitcom about the inner workings of a local TV news show. While it’s technically Richie’s first scripted series gig, you’d never know it watching her. As Portia, she expertly plays up the character traits she’s been toying with since she was young, toeing the line between vain ditz and loveable diva like only she can. Thanks in part to Wigfield and executive producer Tina Fey’s rhythmic writing style, the show has also proven to be the ideal vehicle for Richie’s innate sense of comedic timing.
On a recent afternoon, I sat down with Richie to talk acting, parenting, body image issues, and how last year’s election impacted Great News, for better or worse.
VICE: How did you get involved with Great News**?** Nicole Richie: My manager called me and said, “I have this script, I think you should read it. It’s a Tina Fey show. It’s really funny.” I’m a big 30 Rock fan, and the moment I opened the script I heard that rhythm. Then I came up with about 35 reasons why I couldn’t audition, all rooted in me thinking that it wasn’t going to happen. But I went and auditioned three times and I got it. They had already shot the pilot, so I was shooting four days later.
You shot the first season before the election, right?
Yeah, we started shooting in August of last year, finished in October, and aired in April. It was probably the first thing on all of our minds, moreso when the season came out. Like everyone, we thought the outcome would be very different. We had some Hillary lines in there that were cut, but there’s no mention of any political figures on the show, which I think is incredibly cool of Tracy. Her and Tina are such smart, elegant women, and the beauty of great comedy is when you’re able to keep aligned with who you are while making jokes too. The second season is a good representation of that.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a ballerina. When I was 16, I got real bold and I wanted to be Britney Spears’s backup dancer.
Did you always have aspirations to act?
I always knew I wanted to perform. When I was in high school, I wanted to do musical theater. I wanted to move to New York and go to college there, but my birthday’s in September, so I graduated at 17. My parents saw the look in my eye and were like, “You’re not going to the East Coast. We need to keep you here.” So I went to college in Arizona for two years—maybe two classes, but I had the time of my life.
Then, when I was done, The Simple Life just happened. At the time, there was no other show to compare it to. It was pitched to me like, “Do you want to take 30 days out of your life and go with your best friend to some city—but we’re not going to tell you where it is—and get paid for it?” And I was like, "Yeah, why not?" I did it, and it was so much fun, but it lasted for five seasons. I didn’t plan on that, my life just went in a completely different direction.
How would you compare doing Candidly Nicole to doing The Simple Life**?** They were so different. Candidly Nicole I produced, and we had outlines for every show… by the third season of The Simple Life, we had outlines and our own lives and all of that, but in the beginning we weren’t even allowed to have phones. That concept alone wouldn’t fly now, which is so crazy because it doesn’t seem like that long ago. I was cut off from the world. I don’t think the show could exist now for that reason, but that was the whole point. The concept of just leaving your life just isn’t a thing. It was just a whole different time.
Your comedic chops on Great News have garnered praise. Where do you think your sense of timing and humor come from?
My dad is a jokester. He loves to laugh—and if he has to be the butt of a joke to create that laugh, he’s up for it, and I feel like I’m the same way. It’s definitely my goal to cry from laughter every single day. To lose myself in laughter—I love it in such a real way. It feels like going on a ride.
Do you see that in your kids, too?
My son, yes. My daughter is much more shy, but Sparrow is a joker. He wants to laugh, he wants to have a good time. He’s also a Virgo like me, so he wants to stay home all the time. I love his vibe.
You definitely seem like you’re a Virgo.
I do. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy checking the Virgo box at every moment. It’s a badge of honor. When I listen to Joel talk about his day and how he’s so stressed and doesn’t know how he’s going to do it, I sit there and think to myself, Man, I could make this so much easier for you. I would be an amazing personal assistant. I love a list, I love to be on time, I love to make things [ _makes checkmark in the air_] tight.
You’ve parlayed a very public life into a pretty private one in the past few years. How much effort did that take on your part?
I definitely made a conscious effort. For me, when I became a parent, there was no question as to what I had to do. Joel and I have the same instinct to protect our kids and let them be kids, because you’re only a kid once. That’s their life, and my life is not their life. They need to have their own world.
I recently re-read your 2006 feature in Vanity Fair where they interview your nutritionist about your weight. It blew my mind, both for how invasive it was and how far we’ve come since then in regards to body acceptance.
Right? I haven’t yet gone back and re-read it—that’s too weird for me—but I have thought about it. I remember they pitched a photo of me standing on a scale, to make a joke out of it or something. I think about the people I was working with who thought that was what I should do. But I agreed to go and do that, so it’s hard for me to be angry when I didn’t necessarily have my own boundaries back then. It was also a different time. When you’re 22 and Vanity Fair wants to do a piece on you, you put yourself in that position of, “OK, I’ll do whatever they want.” Obviously now in 2017, I would hope that wouldn’t be the vibe with anybody.
How did being under that kind of public scrutiny affect your outlook on life?
My perspective at the time was that it was all kind of put upon me—that I was reacting to this attention that was put upon me. I know now that that’s not necessarily true. We all have to own our role, though, and that’s something I still have to work on. It takes effort to sit in your own power and decide for yourself that you’re actually going to guide your life and not just merely exist.
I don’t think most 20-somethings have that level of self-awareness.
I feel like maybe they have it a little more than I did. [ Laughs_] Some people are born with it, and that’s really cool. I have some friends—one of my best friends is 27 and she’s killing it at work and she’s such a stand-up person and she’s not doing anything that she should be ashamed of, all the while I’m thinking, _That’s so cool. I didn’t do that.
What has motherhood taught you?
Lots of things. [Laughs_] First of all, there’s no way to describe how you’re gonna feel about somebody until they’re here. I’ve said to people, "It’s almost unfair to use the word ‘love’ as a description of how you feel about your child, but also how you feel about Starbucks." It’s not fair to use that same word because it’s such a different feeling. You’re connected to these people—you feel like an animal. There’s instincts. For a woman, just physically what you go through and how you heal, and how your body reacts to them crying—you really think, _Wow. I am so dope. It’s crazy. Even knowing that your breast milk can heal cuts like Neosporin—the whole thing is insane. Tracey Wigfield is about to have a baby and I told her that you have to know going into it that you’re gonna feel like, ‘What way is up and what way is down?’ You need a timeline. Everything happens and it takes over your entire life and then all of a sudden it’s gone and you move to something else. It just keeps evolving.
What’s one thing you still want to accomplish?
I want to be Britney Spears’s backup dancer.
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