The Relatable Celebreality of Ashlee Simpson

TV Features The Ashlee Simpson Show
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The Relatable Celebreality of Ashlee Simpson

If you want my auto,
Want my autobiography
Baby, just ask me
—Ashlee Simpson, “Autobiography”

On September 9, 2018, history will be made: Ashlee Simpson returns to reality TV for the first time in 13 years, for E!’s Ashlee+Evan. To the non-upper millennial set, this might not sound like cause for celebration, or even for special note. But to those of us who remember The Ashlee Simpson Show in all its early 2000s glory, this return to the genre, at the very least, gives us a reason to show off just how many of the lyrics from the younger Simpson sister’s debut album we remember. Not that we needed a reason, but now we officially have one. And, to be hyperbolic, it gives Ashlee Simpson a reason to look back to where it all went wrong.

In the summer of 2004, fresh off the runaway success of then husband-wife duo Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson’s MTV reality show Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica—which upgraded them from B-level popstars—the network doubled down on the Simpson family business with The Ashlee Simpson Show. While much of Ashlee’s brand on and off screen was “not Jessica Simpson,” when Newlyweds returned for the second half of its sophomore season that summer, it naturally served as the lead-in for The Ashlee Simpson Show. The spin-off chronicled a 19-year-old Ashlee as she moved out of her parents’ house and pursued a music career like her sister—despite her relatively successful acting career at the time, including a two-season stint on 7th Heaven.

At the same time, the sisters were completely different. Those who watched closely will tell you that, while Jessica was pop through and through, Ashlee was edgier—the rocker. Well, “pop-rocker” is more appropriate, but who are we to judge what was in Ashlee’s heart and soul? Ashlee was also friends with Jennifer Morrison before anyone knew who she was (the first season of The Ashlee Simpson Show aired a few months before the first season of House); yet we all thought singer-songwriter Ryan Cabrera, Ashlee’s on-again-off-again boyfriend with the tallest hair, was (or eventually would be) a huge deal. In fact, if a personal stroll down memory lane ever involves someone bringing up Ryan Cabrera, there’s a 98% chance that person also watched The Ashlee Simpson Show.

Though Ashlee delivered on-camera confessionals claiming she didn’t have a complex when it came to her older sister, it was clear she felt the need to prove that she was nothing like Jessica, either in terms of her look (like when she spontaneously chose to go from blonde to brunette) or her taste in music. She also decided sign a recording contract with Geffen Records, instead of her sister’s label at the time, Sony. It was under this contract and during the creation of her debut album that she collaborated with songwriters and producers who’d worked with Michelle Branch and Avril Lavigne to develop her particular sound: Whether or not you’re familiar with her work, you can probably get a sense of Ashlee’s vibe just from that.

The series was pretty clear about the fact that Ashlee wasn’t living the starving artist lifestyle, but she had her speed bumps on the way to a platinum record (which eventually went triple platinum): Like Newlyweds, The Ashlee Simpson Show regularly portrayed its star as lacking basic life skills, although Ashlee’s persona was more that of the quirky tomboy than Jessica’s ditzy bombshell. In retrospect, it’s fascinating (and a little scummy) that MTV and the girls’ father and manager, Joe, made hit TV series out of the lives of two young women who were clearly so sheltered by their parents, especially with said parents constantly around to highlight their daughters’ lapses in judgment and professional behavior.

The second season of The Ashlee Simpson Show picks up at the beginning of the end for Ashlee’s successful—in terms of being taken somewhat seriously—music career, as it came after her Saturday Night Live embarrassment. (About to perform her second song “Autobiography” as a musical guest in 2004, the backing track from her first song, “Pieces of Me,” played—revealing that she had lip-synced the first performance and would’ve done the same had things not gone awry. The moment is perhaps best remembered for the awkward jig Ashlee did as it happened, before just walking off the stage.) It didn’t even help that the season premiere and subsequent episode of The Ashlee Simpson Show vindicated her excuse for lip-syncing in the first place—acid reflux disease, which became a punchline after the incident but was introduced as a major vocal hurdle for Ashlee in the first season. As she said after the incident: “I’ve worked so hard for what I have and because of one silly moment, it might be over. That’s scary.” And while the rest of the season continued to mostly show successes for Ashlee—except for the Orange Bowl, where she was savagely booed for her live performance—there was no more onward and upwards for her after this. Even though her 2005 sophomore album, I Am Me, also peaked at #1 and went platinum, it simply didn’t reach the same heights as Autobiography. Her third album, Bittersweet World, came out three years later and to a much weaker debut than either album before.

What’s most surprising about re-watching The Ashlee Simpson Show is just how well its star comes off—and probably should have at the time. (This opposite is true for Newlyweds, which feels a nightmare when you revisit it.) Ashlee had her moments of naivete and over-the-top “teen girl emotions.” But as far as exploitative reality TV techniques go, either the network applied an excess subtlety or there really wasn’t all that much they could exploit. There are exceptions, but they’re far from the norm: See the pilot, for instance, in which Ashlee changes the radio station after every question she asks, with the song that plays “answering” the question. “Does Josh [Henderson, her boyfriend at the time] miss me?” she asks. To which No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” plays, clearly added in post-production. This leads to the couple’s bizarre break-up—the little we see of Henderson on the show makes him out to be pretty into Ashlee—which happens mostly off screen, and which was only recently somewhat explained by Henderson. Or, to cite another example, the morning of Ashlee’s SNL performance, where the cameras make sure to get a lot of footage of the fatty breakfast Ashlee eats, the last thing she should’ve done with her acid reflux.

The reason people still remember The Ashlee Simpson Show fondly isn’t just because of technical snafus or the presumed edginess of Hilary Duff. It’s because of how relatable Ashlee was to any of us who had a pop-rock phase, or wished they could cut their hair like Natalie Imbruglia’s circa “Torn,” or had to deal with a “perfect sibling” or passive-aggressive parents. As much as Newlyweds asked its audience to laugh at its subjects, The Ashlee Simpson Show always felt like it asked its audience to take its subject seriously. And not in an embarrassing, “We demand to be taken seriously” way, either: in a way the audience could actually connect with this person, not just this “reality TV star.” It asked for an audience to take a young woman seriously in her endeavor to discover herself and find her passion, which is something that’s still rarely treated like a priority in modern pop culture and beyond. Truly, the biggest knock against Ashlee Simpson on The Ashlee Simpson Show is a lack of depth—despite her clearly believing herself to be deep—but what else would you expect from a 19- or 20-year-old?

Now 33, Ashlee Simpson is stepping in front of the reality TV cameras again—this time with her husband, Evan Ross (the son of Diana Ross). Unlike her older sister in Newlyweds, Ashlee at least made to sure give her marriage a few years before allowing it to be the stuff of reality TV fodder.

Ashlee + Evan premieres Sunday, Sept. 9 at 10 p.m. on E!

Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.