Nicole Richie: Glam Punk

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There is no whir of helicopters or roar of black SUVs in pursuit when I meet Nicole Richie on a sultry winter day in the lounge of the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. The room is marked by stillness; when Richie walks in, understated, unadorned and unaccompanied, the only eyebrow she raises is that of comedian Richard Lewis, who is camped out at a nearby table. “He’s always here,” says Richie, and she should know. The Chateau Marmont serves as an adjunct living room to her own home, in the nearby Hollywood Hills. (See our full Nicole Richie fashion gallery.) She comes here often for the same reasons anyone sticks with a favorite haunt. “It’s private, the people are nice—and the food is good.”

Splashed, freeze-framed, wondered about and scrutinized for her style, Nicole Richie is an object of fascination, and for good reason. At 27, she is an icon of fashion, of pop and of the type of fame that spins like an acid-green carousel. The kind of struggles that other young women deal with in the privacy of their dorm rooms or first cheap apartments were, for her, scratched across the sky by the voyeuristic lenses of the paparazzi: breakups, make-ups, run-ins with the law and that famous time in which, her thin frame looked a whole lot thinner. But even as her life grows steady and her boat makes it past the pounding of the surf, we don’t turn away.

Her demeanor today matches her look—both are as sweet in intent as a face painter at Woodstock. It seems impossible that this is the same person who squealed in mock-disgust across five seasons of The Simple Life, the reality series that launched her career and then sent her orbiting the unfathomable known as Planet Hollywood. Wearing faded jeans, a long, soft gray cardigan and a casually wrapped multicolor scarf, Richie could be one of her beloved ’60s rock idols, like Joni, Janis or Jimi. Her blond hair is cut into charming straight bangs that she ruffles with her fingers as she talks.

It’s a far cry from the role she plays in the photos accompanying this story. Wearing fluorescent candy colors and a long wig, evoking the look of ’80s transgender model and Stephen Sprouse muse Teri Toye, Richie reveled in her glam punk transformation. As BlackBook’s muse, she not only resembled Toye, but through the magic of makeup, light and fashion — metallics, shoulder silhouettes, nods to Mugler and Alaïa — she immersed herself in an otherworldly character. “It’s something I could never get away with in real life,” Richie says, “so it’s fun to go on these shoots and really experiment.”

Clearly, Richie’s range of expression goes a lot closer to the cutting edge than she’s been given credit for in the past. “Entertaining is something that I wanted to do since I was 3 years old,” says Richie. She is talking about the job she dropped out of the University of Arizona for, at the age of 20, on a lark. Her best friend, someone called Paris Something, called her up and asked her. Why not? And so, we got to know Nicole and Nicole got to know us, as we thrilled in the weekly vision of two precious babes from Beverly Hills knee-deep in manure, Velveeta and yokels. But like professional wrestling, The Simple Life wasn’t real life. “Listen,” says Richie. “I watch television. I know that things have to be entertaining or else people aren’t going to watch it. The producers were very clear about the characters they wanted us to be. We were fine with it.” And so were we. More prissiness please! Aren’t we about ready for a tantrum?

Off-camera, her relationship with Good Charlotte frontman Joel Madden is reassuringly solid. They adore their baby, one-year-old Harlow. And what ignites her most are her new jewelry line, the charities she and Joel are creating and her acting, which she works at the way everyone else does: one class and one audition at a time.

At the moment, though, there is no way to tell the larger story of her life without acknowledging the acreage of print dedicated to that other Nicole, the one displayed with dizzying frequency across the covers of publications like Star. When asked about how she deals with the waves of headlines, Richie displays no rancor. “We don’t allow tabloids in our house, so we really don’t know about anything unless it is serious.”

So, to address those checkout-line–inspired burning questions about Nicole Richie, in no particular order: Are she and Paris Hilton still friends? “Yes. We’re friends. We’ve known each other since we were little.” Are she and Joel Madden married or engaged? “I’ve never been engaged.” Richie tells the story of the time one of her best friends read that Richie and Madden were planning a wedding and knew this to be false when the article stated that Nicole had decided upon a “Pretty in Pink” bachelorette party: “I hate pink!” And what about that Star cover last December? Is she pregnant? Richie deflects the question, shaking her head and laughing. While she certainly doesn’t appear to be in the family way, two weeks after this interview, Richie confirmed that she and Madden are expecting their second child.

Today, she is slender, with the fine bones and delicate carriage of a dancer. Her complexion blooms with health, a sign that the palaver over Richie’s weight may now be fading into the past. Can Richie, say, finally go to the beach? She smiles. “The beach is probably a place I stay away from. I hate to say that because it sounds like I’m complaining and I’m really not. It’s not like I’m needing a beach. I’m fine.”

She thinks that all of that is “ridiculous,” and it is. Richie shrugs off the drama, saying, “My dad is an entertainer and he was the first person to say, Just blow it off. It’s just what happens.” Part of what protects Richie from the storm winds that blow just outside the door of her home is the environment in which she was raised: the protected space of a private school and close friends, a loving and high-profile family, and a buffer of wealth. To the charge that her success was somehow handed to her by the rarified facts of her life — she went to live with Lionel Richie and his wife, Brenda Harvey-Richie, when she was two, and was later adopted by them—Richie is sanguine. “One has nothing to do with the other. You have to work at it. If everything came easy to me then why am I not an Oscar winner, you know? Why don’t I have five Grammys, an Oscar and an American Music Award? I would skip everything else. I would have made it.”

Remove the cameras and she is very much as she would likely have been, anyway. Family is still her rock. A tight circle of lifelong friends forms her social nexus. “None of whom you would know,” says Richie. And, given what played out in the press with Paris Hilton, one is relieved to hear it.

Yes, we’ll always have Paris. At times, Richie’s relationship with Hilton, which only committed the crime of following the time-honored hilly path of close female friendships the world over, seemed like Richie’s first marriage. And we all know how well Hollywood marriages hold up under the scrutiny of the press. But that all feels so 2005. Richie’s strong connection with Madden, which may not have had the pleasure of an over-hyped, celebrity-strewn wedding, is a partnership of the truest kind, offering a firm patch of land that Richie seems to have needed.

And with her growing family, children are central to her mission, her vehicle for all the attention. Together, Richie and Madden have created the Richie-Madden Children’s Foundation, which supports a wide array of initiatives aimed at helping both children (here and abroad) and mothers in need, including new moms who need help caring for their babies. Theirs is a hands-on approach that shies away from what Richie calls “just writing a check.” For example, the Foundation has set up a baby registry for mothers in Los Angeles so that donations can target specific items a family might need, such as cribs, strollers, high chairs, diapers and more. (Hey, Octomom, you know who to contact!) Says Richie, “The moms are happy because they’re getting exactly what they want, and you are happy because you see that you have definitely helped someone.”

Not all of the past is tedious to revisit for Richie, especially not the year 1960, which she has chosen as the focus of her new line of vintage-inspired jewelry and accessories, House of Harlow 1960. “I’ve always loved fashion,” she says. “And like any girl, especially in her 20s, you change. I experiment with fashion.”

Oversize sunglasses, scarves worn as headbands, cuffs, resorty prints and dresses, sandals so flat they seem barer than bare feet, just like the slip-ons she wears today — it’s all very ’60s. And despite the hours Richie spends trawling flea markets in places as far-flung as Seattle and Phuket, Thailand, or vintage shops in Los Angeles such as Resurrection on Melrose Avenue, her drive to design is not fueled by mere artifacts. Says Richie, who works with design partner Pascal Mouawad on the line, “I have been picking up pieces of jewelry since I was younger, so I have a whole collection to work off.” When asked why she has settled her gaze on the ’60s and ’70s, Richie lights up and says, “Music is my biggest inspiration. I love the music and the lifestyle and the clothes. I just love that time and wish I’d been around back then.”

What about the ’80s, a decade she does know firsthand? She laughs, recalling the less than cutting-edge looks her own wardrobe featured back then. “I don’t have a great relationship with the ’80s. I look back on what I was wearing then and I am so embarrassed.” Oh, Nicole, you were in grade school. Yes, she nods, and adds with perfect timing, “I blame my mom!”

Pursuing an acting career, she says, has become more of a priority than ever. The girl who once spoofed the tiresomely tireless Kelly Ripa in a brilliant parody of a Pantene ad is unequivocal in her hunger for more juicy parts. “Comedy would be my first choice. I love to laugh,” says Richie. She’s on the right track. Anyone who saw her guest-starring role last fall on the international espionage comedy, Chuck, got to see a side of Nicole that must be let out of the box more often. As Heather, the high school nemesis of agent Sarah Walker, Richie ass-kicked her way into one of the most delicious chick-fights in recent screen memory. Chuck and Gossip Girl creator Josh Schwartz, late of The O.C., says of Richie’s appeal, “She interesting to watch, and has a dry wit — very acerbic. There are not a lot of girls who are pretty and funny. God doesn’t always give with both hands. Women root for her.”

It’s not for nothing that strangers hug her in public. “That’s a little intense,” she says. “I’m like, do I just hug back?” We can’t help caring about her, I explain. People know when there is a genuine heart beating under the hot sun of fame. “Whether there are cameras there or not,” Richie says with a warm press of the hand goodbye, “in my life, it is all the same.”
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