According to the Chinese zodiac, 2020 is the Year of the Rat, a time of wealth and abundance. It’s also shaping up to be a time of redemption and retrospection for North Texas megastar Jessica Simpson, who joins power blondes Taylor Swift and Paris Hilton in setting their demure (dare we say dumb blonde?) characters on fire and leaving the ashes of the past buried in the past.
In January, Swift dropped her emotionally candid Netflix documentary, Miss Americana. Simpson debuted her tell-all memoir, Open Book, while Hilton announced her own documentary, attracting attention after she revealed that she was “playing a character” on reality TV.
On the surface, these three celebrities don’t have much in common: After a somewhat tepid singing career, at least in comparison to counterparts Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, Simpson morphed into the media’s favorite punchline. Hilton’s star slowly faded after she starred in a slew of trashy reality TV shows. And despite some critics’ overblown disdain for Swift, the singer-songwriter stills reigns as America’s sweetheart.
Yet all three women now admit that they felt pressured to hide their true selves from the camera’s stare. Or rather, they intentionally exaggerated certain qualities to please their audience. Their cartoonish qualities inevitably made for good TV, but it also transformed them into two-dimensional caricatures during every on-screen appearance.
Now, Swift, Simpson and Hilton are singing the same tune: The media is a cruel master, and they’re tired of obeying its commands. And, as it turns out in a post #metoo era, disingenuousness, acting up “female” qualities like excessive agreeableness (as in Swift’s case), charming naivete and sexy airhead-ness are no longer in vogue.
In Miss Americana, Swift revealed that she’s long struggled with her body image. Starting in her late teens, rag mags constantly criticized her appearance and her weight, so she whittled herself down to a size 00 via an overzealous exercise routine and an overly stringent diet.
“I became the person everyone wanted me to be,” she says in the film.
It wasn’t just her physical appearance that Swift consciously tailored; she also had to muzzle herself when it came to her political views. As a country music darling with a broad conservative fan base, she didn’t dare speak her mind. She had seen what happened to the Dixie Chicks after they criticized former President George W. Bush: They went from being revered to reviled in the blink of an eye.
“Every time I didn’t speak up about politics as a young person, I was applauded for it,” Swift recently told Variety.
Swift went from avoiding the subject to embracing it after the 2016 presidential election. Citing a need to be on the “right side of history,” she endorsed a Democratic candidate for a Tennessee U.S. Senate seat during the 2018 midterms. Swift even started penning politically charged pop songs. “Only the Young” is an attempt to console young liberal voters who felt dejected after the midterm elections.
After spending many years trying her best to please the dissatisfied masses, Swift now says she’s determined to embrace her authentic self no matter what.
She’s not the only celebrity to make that leap. In Open Book, Jessica Simpson reveals past sexual abuse traumas and describes her battle with alcoholism as a young mother plus a cycle of emotional and spiritual discord.
Like Swift, Simpson pushed herself to lose weight at the beginning of her career. She writes that a record executive demanded she lose 15 pounds when she was only 17. That moment sparked a wicked diet pill addiction, which she struggled with over the next 20 years.
In the early-aughts, Simpson had released a couple of notable pop hits like “Irresistible” and “With You.” But the singer was truly catapulted to superstardom after the premiere of her 2003 reality TV show, MTV’s Newlyweds, with then-husband Nick Lachey.
And it was tough pretending to be the picture-perfect example of marital bliss in front of cameras all the time. “We really got crushed by the media and by ourselves,” Simpson wrote in her book. “I couldn’t lie to our fans and I couldn’t give somebody hope that we were this perfect golden couple.” The golden couple divorced in 2005 after the show’s third season.
While filming Newlyweds, Simpson writes that she was “in on the joke” the whole time. She leaned into the dumb blonde persona because it was empowering to help craft her own narrative. Rather than destroying her singing career, Simpson says acting like the ultimate ditz gave her music more “credibility.”
Still, pretending to be someone else eventually started to wear on her, too.
“I felt like I was being a phony, and I didn’t want to continue on with that,” she said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “It wasn’t real anymore. It wasn’t reality.”
Simpson was also criticized as an anti-feminist villain, for perpetuating conservative values while flaunting a sparkling virginity and a sexed-up image. She was a pre-MeToo ideal: A hot housewife who acted just dumb enough to be entertaining but not be a threat. It was a time when girls’ (even the successful ones) still dreamed of landing on Maxim‘s Hot 100 list.
It seemed that Simpson’s walking punchline act was taking women back 10 steps. The book helps us understand the fascinating arc in the Richardson native’s career. Simpson has been, seemingly, every kind of star: pop star, reality TV star, sex symbol, movie star, and a fashion and business icon.
Yet we best remember her as exemplifying the standard artifact of early 2000s kitsch.
The year 2003 was big for reality TV; that was the same year Paris Hilton debuted in E!’s The Simple Life with friend and fellow debutante Nicole Richie. After the show ended four years later, Hilton more or less faded into the background while Richie went on to make a respectable name for herself as a fashion mogul, as did — incidentally — Simpson.
Hilton’s returning to the limelight to promote her new documentary, This Is Paris. She says the film, which is scheduled to premier in May, will introduce her fans to who she really is.
“I’ve been judged based on a character that I created in the beginning of my career,” Hilton said recently at a TV Critics Association Press Tour event.
The hotel heiress added that she doesn’t regret the time she spent pretending to be someone else; that persona helped build a personal brand for her varying business ventures. (And hey, a little criticism must be pretty easy to shrug off when you’re worth $300 million.)
But this tidbit isn’t exactly breaking news; Hilton has long maintained that she was performing a character on TV. In 2013, she told the U.K.-based Metro that The Simple Life producers consistently encouraged her to go bigger and blonder.
“I’d never been on camera in my life. I didn’t really know what to do,” she said. “The producers told Nicole and I, ‘Nicole you be the troublemaker and Paris you be the ditzy blonde rich girl.’”
Hilton and Simpson were reality TV pioneers in a pre-social media world. Along with Swift, they embellished their personalities and altered their appearances to squeeze into the narrow narrative the media had constructed for them.
Yes, it’s easy to malign beautiful, shiny celebrities for being inauthentic. But who are we to judge, really? We might alter our voices when we speak on the phone, depending who’s on the other line. We’ll retake a selfie until it’s perfect, playing up or toning down certain features to quell our insecurities. We may even meticulously plan a picture while posing like it’s a candid snapshot.
So before casting judgment on easy celebrity targets, take a good hard look at yourself in your black mirror. We all pretend, to some degree, while pretending that we don’t. But, with that being said, of all the features women feel pressured to tone down, intelligence and character should be the last of them. The fact that bimbo-hood is no longer celebrated is what’s worthy of celebration; good for Simpson for figuring that out.