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WWD Special Report issue 03/28/2011

Jessica Simpson knows how to steal the show.

In a dress the color of French’s yellow mustard, she arrived at a White House Correspondents Dinner after party last year and had the likes of Donatella Versace, Scarlett Johansson and Bradley Cooper taking notice. The dress may have had something to do with it, but the flashbulbs didn’t stop as she turned to ex-boyfriend Tony Romo, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback, and met his then-girlfriend, now fiancé, Candice Crawford.

This story first appeared in the March 28, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The moment was a clear indication that the fascination with the actress and pop star is still going strong. But why? While she has had a few hit singles, the albums she’s produced since appearing on her breakout MTV reality show “Newlyweds,” which ran from 2003 to 2005, have failed to climb the charts and the documentary-style program she appeared on for VH1 last year, in which she traveled the globe to uncover unorthodox beauty rituals, got poor ratings.

Simpson’s name is behind an almost $1 billion fashion line, but the paparazzi aren’t waiting outside her door only because of that.

What Simpson has successfully managed to do is pave her own path to fame and then tweak it, when necessary. When it became clear that she would never reach the pop stardom of Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera, she came up with an alternative idea: put her marriage on TV and show that she’s not about being virginal or sexy, but she’s just like the rest of us, struggling in relationships and trying to balance it all. “She reset the bar for reality TV,” said Marie Claire editor in chief Joanna Coles. “The Kardashians and Snooki came after.”

Post “Newlyweds,” Simpson divorced Nick Lachey and the media covered her every move. She went on to star in a straight-to-DVD film, “Blonde Ambition,” but she didn’t provide much additional fodder for the tabloids, the way other starlets have, by going wild. Instead, she actually drew support, thanks to the media’s obsession with her weight.

Remember that pair of ill-fitting, high-waisted jeans she wore on stage with a leopard print belt? “She’s open and honest about her weight and body issues,” said Kristin Perrotta, executive editor of Allure. “She laughs at her own malaprops. She’s publicly suffered heartbreaks. This makes her an easy target for the press, but it’s also why the public is enamored with her.”

And when former boyfriend John Mayer referred to Simpson as “sexual napalm” in a Playboy article last year, it only made her more sympathetic, noted Laura Morgan, special projects director for Lucky, who had Simpson on the September cover (the magazine’s best seller last year). “What girl hasn’t had a jerky boyfriend say more than he should about her?” Morgan said, adding that it scored Simpson an Oprah booking. “If anything, the press is probably unfair to her only in that they underestimate how savvy she is about her image.”

Morgan noted that a lot of blonde bombshell types can alienate readers but Simpson has come to represent an aspirational yet attainable style icon. “She doesn’t promote fashion with a capital F; she isn’t about the elitist aspects of fashion that some people find alienating or inaccessible,” Morgan said.

Simpson has created the right line for the right time, thanks to the democratization of fashion with high-end designers doing capsule collections for big-box stores and retailers like H&M. She’s also one of the few celebrity designers who could make a very comfortable living off her fashion label.

Some fashion purists were surprised to see Simpson on the cover of New York magazine’s spring fashion issue. Fashion director Amy Larocca said Simpson was chosen, in part, because she is able to generate such huge interest for such small choices. “Clearly there is something about her that strikes a chord,” Larocca said, adding that the volume of coverage Simpson got simply for wearing one pair of unflattering jeans was unbelievable. “That she managed to turn such a strange incident into a reality show on MTV made me like her quite a lot,” Larocca said.

It’s anyone’s guess what’s next for Simpson, professionally. She is now engaged to former NFL player Eric Johnson and in terms of media coverage, it sounds like another magazine cover is in the works, with Lucky. Perhaps some details about her impending nuptials? “I think we will see more from her in music, movies and TV,” predicted Lucky’s Morgan. “Jessica Simpson is going to be around for a long time.”

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