MTV's Nick and Jessica are good singers, but better Newlyweds — and they're not too chicken (or is it fish?) to admit it.

By Jennifer Armstrong
January 16, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
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EW
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  • TV Show
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  • MTV
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MTV’s Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica debuted on Aug. 19, 2003, and a pop culture phenomenon was born. Check out EW’s 2004 cover story with the married pair of pop stars — who split up in 2005, after three years of marriage — below.

The aisles of Madison Square Garden teem with tweenyboppers whose screeching and dancing is starting to give way to whining and fidgeting. They have, for the past two hours, endured Hilary Duff, Michelle Branch, Jason Mraz, 3 Doors Down, Kelly Clarkson, and matchbox twenty at Jingle Ball, the annual mega-concert thrown by New York radio station Z100. Now it’s creeping toward 9 p.m. — like any pop marathon show, Jingle Ball is running behind schedule — and some of the crowd is getting cranky. It is, after all, a school night.

Meanwhile, Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson are backstage preparing for separate 15-minute sets. But just before their back-to-back appearances, there’s a last-minute change: Could the couple combine their two sets into one? And maybe sing a Christmas carol? “We thought it’d be fun for us, being newly married, to sing at Madison Square Garden,” says Simpson. And it just so happens they’ve got this great a cappella version of “O Holy Night” they’ve been practicing.

Within minutes, the announcer introduces “Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey” while brief shots from MTV’s Newlyweds play on a giant video screen. Simpson makes her entrance and asks the crowd to welcome her “beautiful and amazing husband.” The duo sing his-and-hers singles (Nick’s “This I Swear” and Jessica’s “With You”) and launch into the Christmas carol, but not before Simpson tells the audience: “We worked on this next song in the shower, so it’s real good.”

Yep, it seems everyone is happier when Nick and Jessica are served up as a package deal. After years of existing on the fringe of celebrity with moderately successful pop music careers, Lachey and Simpson have finally found fame in the most unexpected place: by turning their fledgling marriage into a reality TV spectacle. Since debuting in August, Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica has supplanted The Osbournes as MTV’s most talked-about domestic-train-wreck series, thanks to a bubbly mix of opposites-attract antics (he’s neat! she’s a slob!), Simpson’s out-of-the-mouths-of-blondes brilliance (“Twenty-three is old. It’s almost 25, which is almost mid-20s”), and genuine sitcom-couple chemistry. Pulling in 2.7 million viewers a week, Newlyweds, which begins its second season Jan. 21, has also ushered in a subset of the schadenfreude-fueled reality TV genre — call it Lifestyles of the Rich and Clueless (see Ally Hilfiger, Paris Hilton, etc.).

Most importantly for Simpson and Lachey, however, the series has given them a sustained stay in the spotlight — something they’ve yet to achieve through their musical talents. Lachey, 30, will take his fame where he can get it: “What’s cool is our success on the show is from us being us.” Adds the 23-year-old Simpson: “For so long in the stupid teen-pop culture, everybody was like, ‘All your fans have to envision themselves with you and believe that they can be the one.’ Everybody from my record label to my father as my manager was like, ‘Don’t get married.’ But when I got married, my career began.”

That’s for sure. MTV has signed Lachey and Simpson for 20 more episodes, even though the cautionary tale of The Osbournes — gigantic hit-turned-overexposed ratings flameout in two seasons flat — looms large. The network “wasn’t looking to find another Osbournes,” says Lois Curren, MTV’s exec VP of series entertainment. “People still want info about Nick and Jessica, and we’re going to give it to them. At this point, we feel we’re definitely good for 20 more episodes, and after that we’ll sit down and figure it out.”

Simpson, for one, believes Newlyweds‘ appeal is more universal: “People don’t relate to the Osbournes because they’re like the Addams family. People watch our show because it’s funny to sit with the person you love and laugh about how that happened to you guys.”

Season 2 is just chockful of oh-so-relatable moments, as when the couple tries to find romance while stuck in Atlantic City for a charity event on their first anniversary, only to run into a giant Oktoberfest celebration, or when Jessica surprises Nick on his 30th birthday by jumping out of a cake while clad in lingerie. And though the 10-episode run will feature some classic domestic episodes (Nick decorates his game room; Jessica buys $1,400 sheets), it’ll be tilted far more toward Nick and Jessica’s lives as newly minted celebrities.

The irony is that lately, reality TV’s most lovable duo has spent less time being newlyweds than being Newlyweds. As much as the public enjoys Simpson and Lachey together, right now the pair are often apart. For the first three weeks of December, couple time pretty much consisted of a bevy of holiday-themed appearances, where the two often arrived and left on separate schedules. Reasons Simpson, “We’re just trying to hit it while it’s hot.”

Lachey and Simpson met at the Hollywood Christmas Parade in 1998 (he was performing with boy band 98°, she was an unknown pop tart) and started dating just as their careers were heating up. While former minister’s daughter Simpson used her chastity (and beau Lachey’s happy acceptance of said chastity) to make a minor name for herself on the blonde-glutted pop-music scene, the virginity shtick didn’t translate into sales. Their albums did okay (her Sweet Kisses sold 1.8 million copies; his 98° and Rising sold 3.5 million), but were flattened by Britney, Christina, *NSYNC, and the Backstreet Boys. Then 98° cooled with their 2000 release, Revelation. In 2001, Simpson broke up with Lachey — “She needed that time to hang out with the girls and date the guys and figure things out for herself,” Lachey says — and put forth a sexed-up-single-gal image with a new album, Irresistible, which flopped.

Shaken by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Simpson and Lachey reunited after the six-month breakup, got engaged, and then married on Oct. 26, 2002. MTV, smitten by the cutesy celebrity couple, wanted in on the marital action. “We actually witnessed the development of their love,” explains MTV’s Curren. “Our viewers were kind of falling in love with them as a couple simultaneously.”

Network execs initially wanted a making-of-the-wedding documentary, but footage went to an INSTYLE TV special. So MTV settled for filming the couple’s postwedding lives. “I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, we can show it to our kids one day,'” Simpson says. “Though we have to wait until they’re a little older, the way it’s been edited.”

That imperfect, PG-13 content was exactly the spark their lukewarm images needed. “Going into the show, we both were very clear to each other that we wanted it to be raw and natural and we weren’t going to be afraid to fight,” Lachey says. Still, he has a few regrets about making a deal with the reality TV devil. “It’s so lame when magazines talk about your marriage and whether it’ll last,” he says. “You do an interview and they bring in some expert to say how screwed you are and how crappy your life is.” (Editor’s note: EW predicts Jessica will still be stinking up Nick’s bathroom in 2038.)

This is pretty much my first day home this month,” sighs Lachey from the living room of their Spanish Colonial house in Calabasas, Calif. He opens a bottled Starbucks Vanilla Frappuccino with a week-ago expiration date, takes a sip, and sighs, “Well, it tastes okay.”

The phone rings. Lachey, sprawled on their cream-colored sofa (just feet from the site of the tuna incident), checks the caller ID and ignores it. A few minutes later, it rings again. Lachey apologizes, checks the caller ID, and picks up. “Love you too,” he says almost immediately. A few “uh-huh”s and “all right”s later, he promises to call back and hangs up. “She’s at Barneys,” he says, with the bemused exasperation of his Newlyweds persona. “Who knows what kind of damage she’s doing.”

Spend a few hours in their lives, and one thing becomes apparent: A true Newlyweds moment emerges only from a precise chemical reaction between Lachey’s in-control masculinity, Simpson’s naive femininity, and the cameras. Away from the MTV crews, they are sharp, polite, and shockingly grounded, and they share the same views on career goals (make us movie stars), having kids (someday, yes, but Lachey says, “we can’t even take care of ourselves right now”), and the fleeting nature of fame.

“I’m just embracing it, enjoying it, working my butt off no matter how tired I am,” says Simpson, who seems unfazed that she’s become known for a classic dumb-blonde image that’ll likely cling to her tighter than the Juicy Couture sweat suits she favors. “What you’re seeing is a little bit exaggerated, but it’s still me. You know, it’s okay to stick your foot in your mouth, just laugh at yourself with everybody else. I ask everything I don’t understand, so sometimes I look dumb.” Explains Lachey: “She just has blonde moments.”

The two have exploited their “I’m With Stupid” dynamic in a slew of (often awkwardly) scripted appearances, including the Billboard Awards, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, and The Tonight Show, where Simpson happily told blonde jokes (“Do you know what happened to the blonde terrorist that tried to blow up the truck? She burned her lips on the tailpipe”). She’s also milked the persona to great effect in the video for her latest track, “With You,” her fastest-rising single to date. It features shots of Simpson rolling around in laundry piles, mopping, eating tuna fish, and wearing a “plata-ma-pus” T-shirt. Says Charlie Walk, executive vice president of promotions at her label, Columbia: “It shows that she doesn’t take the jokes seriously.”

“With You” has also reignited interest in the duo’s singing careers — together, of course. Columbia and Lachey’s label, Universal, are talking about having the Newlyweds record a duet album. “The one thing we constantly hear back from radio and retail is, Put the two of them on a record together and it’s out of here,” Universal president Monte Lipman says. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had a duet act that’s had any significant success.”

Lachey, in particular, wouldn’t mind finding some bigger success as a vocalist, that being his chosen profession and all. (His first solo album, SoulO, has sold only 94,000 copies to date, peaking at No. 51 on the Billboard chart.) “Jessica’s smoking me in that regard,” he says. “But I was just a guy in a boy band before. [The show has] given me an identity, which is the foundation for whatever I want to do.”

Beyond singing, Newlyweds is taking their careers in directions that would’ve seemed preposterous six months ago. Simpson is vying for the lead in an I Dream of Jeannie movie in development at Sony, and she’ll star in a sitcom pilot slated for ABC’s fall season. She’ll play herself. Sort of. “I am Jessica Simpson, but it’s not reality,” says the singer, who has appeared on That ’70s Show. ABC Entertainment president Susan Lyne clarifies: “While there is a lot of Jessica in the character we see on Newlyweds, there is also an awareness on her part that by playing a little dumb blonde, she can get a lot of mileage out of the dramatic tension.” Translation: She’ll play a sweet ditz — likely one who’s not married, which will help avoid meta-confusion if the series airs concurrently with a third season of Newlyweds.

Inspired by his wife’s progress, Lachey has hired an additional manager, who’ll focus on landing the singer some acting jobs. No luck yet, but he’s hoping to become an action hero like his idols Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford. “But I also like to think that at some point I would have acting chops,” he says. “And like Bruce Willis eventually did Pulp Fiction, I’d do smaller, more artsy kinds of films.” And 20 years from now, Simpson would also be comfortable with lower-profile projects. “Even just singing in a jazz club,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant, I just want to be doing something I’m passionate about.”

For the moment, though, they’re in a perpetual state of Newlywedded promotional bliss. They started the year headlining the halftime show at the Orange Bowl in Florida, then headed home for some quality time with each other — and, of course, the MTV cameras. Next, they’ll fly to New York City to host Saturday Night Live Jan. 17. Sometime this winter, they’re hoping to squeeze in a ski trip as well — in part because, as Simpson explains, “I’m a really good skier and Nick isn’t. That’ll be a good episode.”

Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica

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  • TV Show
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  • In Season
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  • MTV

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