Our journey through late-'90s pop stardom begins with an intervention and ends with an audition. Digressions include Willie Nelson, Ozzy Osbourne, Jane Fonda and the cast of the Mickey Mouse Club. Sarah’s English degree and exercise habits make appearances. This episode, we're sorry to say, contains descriptions of sexual abuse.
Subscribe on Patreon
Donate on Paypal
Buy cute merch
Jessica Simpson Week 1
Mike: Oh, my God. I used to love Escape to Witch Mountain.
Sarah: That is kind of our origin story actually. Because isn’t like a boy and a girl are at an orphanage and they meet and they're like, we have similar thoughts.
Sarah: Welcome to You're Wrong About the show where we cheer ourselves up from terrible stories of women being abused with medium sad stories of women being abused in less devastating ways. That is my hypothesis about what this episode is.
Mike: That's as good as it's going to get medium sad.
Sarah: I think we should have a universal trigger warning that is just like one of those stone heads and labyrinth, that is like, turn back now.
Mike: I am Michael Hobbes. I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post.
Sarah: I'm Sarah Marshall. I'm working on a book about the Satanic Panic.
Mike: We are on Patreon at patreon.com/yourewrongabout, and lots of other places. And times are tough.
Sarah: We have new art. We both took that in different directions.
Mike: I was going to do that thing when I immediately tell people not to support us after telling people how they can support us.
Sarah: Oh yeah.
Mike: Go ahead.
Sarah: Go ahead. You do that first.
Mike: Times are tough and weird, and it's chill if you don't want to support us right now.
Sarah: And also, we have a new illustration that has been made for us by a wonderful listener named Jenny Grene. And it's just nice to look at cute cartoons.
Mike: Of summer camp, yeah.
Sarah: Of summer camp. Yeah, it's a summer camp drawing.
Mike: Yes, because today we are doing our second quarantine deep dive into Jessica Simpson's, Open Book.
Sarah: So you want to stop calling it “Book Club”, because people keep being concerned that they need to be reading along with us.
Mike: Yes we have had some confusion with the Michelle Remembers Book Club, because people thought it was read the book and then listen to the episodes. But these episodes are for people who have not read the book like Sarah, people who are going in completely fresh.
Sarah: Will this also be enjoyable to people to listen to if they could not hold their horses and have read this book already?
Mike: Yeah, it's a good book. It's also very gossipy and has like a billion celebrity cameos, which are delightful. And I'm going to not skip over any of them on our way through this.
Sarah: Thank God.
Mike: So come with us if you've read it, come with us if you haven't read it.
Sarah: We'll do some stuff.
Mike: But anyway, today we're talking about a book that is much easier and much more pleasant to get through, even though it has dark parts. No babies are sacrificed.
Sarah: The sheer lack of repetitive child torture really sets it apart from its colleagues in You’re Wrong About book club so far.
Mike: So before we start with the book, do you want to talk about your sort of current understanding of Jessica Simpson as a public figure?
Sarah: I am trying to think of when I became aware of Jessica Simpson. Because I very specifically remember Britney Spears’s first album coming out. And then I feel like after Britney, there was this wave of what I saw accurately or not at the time as like many Britney's who were kind of released and marketed in the Britney Spears mold. And from my vantage point, Jessica Simpson was one of them.
What I most knew her for and what I feel like a lot of my peers knew her for because I was born in 1988 was that she was very publicly saving herself for marriage. And then she married Nick Lachey, who was in 98 Degrees. And so she was a pop star and then she and Nick Lachey were the stars of Newlyweds, which was a reality show that people just could not stop talking about or a brief slice of time. I want to say like 2002, 2003.
Mike: Yes, and which I have been watching all week and it is mind numbingly boring. I mean, it's really amazing.
Sarah: Yeah. It's interesting for being from a time when reality TV, no one really knew how to make it. And they were just trying out a whole bunch of stuff. And a lot of it really didn't work, but it was like propelled into a massive piece of the public consciousness anyway. And I, of course remember that Jessica became known during this time for on Newlyweds, as I recall, and I bet I'm wrong about something.
Mike: I know where you're going, I know where you’re going, the quote.
Sarah: So she was eating some tuna and the subject was the brand of tuna called Chicken of the Sea. And her response to Chicken of the Sea was like, “Is it chicken or is it fish?” And that was taken up as evidence of the fact that she was so stupid. And we talked about that for weeks. And I'm not totally sure of the timeline, but were we in a war at this time? Were we in two wars, you know.
Mike: It has this sort of almost like Dan Quayle, potato-like quality where it's like, it became the defining thing about her.
Sarah: Here's the thing though. It's a confusingly named brand. What are you supposed to make of that? Chicken of the Sea, I could think about that all day, and the funny thing is if I didn't have context clues telling me it was tuna, I would never think tuna is the Chicken of the Sea. It is not. They're huge, and silvery, and majestic, and they're hard to catch. I would say a sea spine is the Chicken of the Sea. I'm sorry, they did a bad job naming their product. And I am very curious about why that event became so huge, because I feel like we had other stuff to talk about.
Mike: There's also the thing that if somebody followed me around with a camera 24 hours a day, I would say something that stupid, 4 to 12 times a week.
Sarah: Oh yeah. We all walk around saying stupid things all day long.
Mike: Yeah. It's interesting that it locked in that image of her that I think still persists.
Sarah: Yeah. I also think there is a phenomenon where we kind of turn on women who became very famous. There's a way that we like to turn on them and make them pay for the attention, the positive attention they've received.
One of the things I've been thinking about is my own rejection of Britney Spears as a child and a tween who Britney Spears was being marketed to. Because I was very vocally not into Britney Spears. And when I think about my reasons for just like pushing her away and refusing to listen to her music, and I don't feel like being intentionally mean about her, but just feeling resentful of how she was being pushed at me is what the industry had decided I was going to buy and like. And I feel that is a reaction that I, and a lot of other tweens and a lot of adults, share about these figures.
And the problem is that our frustration at that model and our resentment at being pandered to doesn't tend to go to the like invisible figures of the businessmen who were deciding to market these girls and to focus group them and to dictate all of their actions. Our resentment is directed at the girls.
Mike: Yeah. For being sellouts, for being fake, for having a bad voice.
Sarah: For not deserving, the like insane amount of fame that they're given. And there's also the implication that they have all this power. And it's like, not really, they are the focus of attention, but they don't seem to get to decide what they do. And I think it's hard for us to conceptualize, and this relates to the Marie Antoinette episode, having that much power. But passive power, you have it, but you don't, you can't really use it actively. It's very strange, it's very hard to wrap your head around, especially when you're a tween.
Mike: It's also funny that you bring up Britney Spears immediately after you hear the name, Jessica Simpson, because this is something that follows her throughout her life. And she has been in the shadow of Britney Spears at every single stage of her career.
Sarah: Sorry, Jessica.
Mike: And we will get to it, but it is like from the time she was literally 13, she was being compared to Britney Spears.
Sarah: Really! Oh my God.
Mike: And not favorably, in a way that Brittany gets everything that she wanted, essentially.
Sarah: She even got the bigger meltdown and like public redemption.
Mike: I know, but yeah, let's dive in.
Sarah: Great, okay. Tell me the Jessica Simpson story.
Mike: So we start with the prologue. The opening sentence of the book is February 19th, the kids are asleep, my husband is reading in the other room, so it is just you and me.
Sarah: Ah, it is just us and Jessica.
Mike: And she does a lot of these kinds of meta-comments throughout the book of like, I'm telling you, or this is the kind of book where, you know, she does, she's very sort of self-aware, which is actually very charming.
Sarah: Oh, that's really good.
Mike: In the prologue, we meet her husband, Eric Johnson, who is a former tight end for the San Francisco 49ers, which I had to look up. He is also hot as breakfast in kind of a lumberjack-y way. And she describes him as this amazing blend of athlete and hippie, a pro football player who did yoga on the sidelines at Yale while everyone else ran sprints.
We also meet her kids, Ace, who is a boy who was born in 2013 and Maxwell, who is a girl who's born in 2012. The reason she's writing this book, she tells us, this was supposed to be a very different book. Five years ago, I was approached to write a motivational manual, telling you how to live your best life. The Jessica Simpson collection had become the top selling celebrity fashion line. The first earned $1 billion in annual sales.
Sarah: Good Lord.
Mike: I delivered the keynote at the Forbes Power Women's Summit and Women's Wear Daily was talking about how smart I was to make clothes that flatter all silhouettes. The deal was set, it was a lot of money and I walked away, nobody understood why. The truth is that I don't want to lie to you. I wouldn't be honest with you if I wasn't honest with myself first. And then she gets into the fact that sort of, for the last couple of years, she's been struggling with addiction.
She's been struggling with her history of being abused as a child. She's been abusing prescription medications and alcohol, and she's basically made bad choices. She says with men over and over again, she calls herself a feelings addict. And she says for years, I occupied my time trying and failing to be the woman that the men in my life wanted me to be, which I think is a very common thing.
Sarah: I feel like that is a common celebrity memoir theme too. I wonder if the sort of mechanisms of fame, especially from a young age, kind of exacerbate the experience of lacking a solid sense of self.
Mike: Well, I mean, so much of becoming a celebrity when you are 17, as she did is like you become this product, that is being marketed in a way that it's very difficult to separate who you actually are. From the person that your parents who are her business managers are her parents for years are selling to the world.
Sarah: Yeah. And also, your teenage years of years, when you are kind of experimenting and figuring out who you are, it's nice to be able to do that without a ton of attention focused on you. And they just have weird phases that nobody knows about.
Mike: That is our little hint of kind of where the book is going. The first chapter of the book takes place in Halloween of 2017, which is basically her like rock bottom. So she starts the chapter, it's Halloween day. There's some sort of concert at her kid's school and so she has to be there early. And so she describes waking up at 7:30 in the morning and basically reaching straight for what she calls her ‘glitter cup’, which is this like glittery sort of, you know, plastic cup or whatever that she fills with vodka and flavored Perrier, and just sort of has it with her all day and starts drinking as soon as she gets up. And she says, “By then, I didn't care what it tasted like. I just needed a drink every morning because I had the shakes.” She arrives at the parking lot of the school to go in and watch this concert that her kids are going to be a part of and then she runs into her dad in the parking lot.
And she talks about how it is awkward because her dad was her business manager for essentially her entire career. Her parents split up in 2012 and she fired him as her business manager. I feel like everybody has one person that they never quite get closure on, that is the central relationship that they're trying to process as adults. And for her, it's her dad.
So, throughout the book, her relationship with her dad is sort of like the thing that she needs to resolve. And so she talks about her history with her dad that one of the things he used to tease her about when she was a kid, was that she was an accident.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Mike: And he would like joke that, oh, she's a busted condom, but he spins it as, so that's how we knew that like God had a purpose for her is because we didn't intend her to be there, but it's one of those things. That is like “a funny story”, but it's also not that funny.
Sarah: I think there are a lot of families where like the parents decide what is allegedly funny and then the kids have to kind of grow up and leave the household before one day, they're like, wait, I don't find that funny. I find that hurtful.
Mike: Yeah. And so she talks about how apparently in sex ed. As a kid, they were talking about how, condoms are only 99% effective. And I guess she stands up in class and says, I'm the 1% and it can happen to you so make sure you're abstinent.
Sarah: Wow. That's such an earnest thing to do.
Mike: Yeah. And it's also her as like a God warrior from like the earliest days that she's the only safe way to do this is to not have sex.
Sarah: Yeah, I shouldn't exist, don't do it.
Mike: So, you know, she bumps into her dad in the parking lot. They're chatting a little bit and as they're making small talk, she can see his face kind of change to this look of pity, and she can see that he can smell the vodka on her breath. She talks about how it how she deals with her dad. Because he's like this natural born salesman, natural born talker, he's a preacher, he's very extroverted. The way that she sort of deals with these awkward moments with her dad is just like, get him talking.
She says, “I got dad talking about the new car and his photography hobby, and business, which he could talk about for hours. It was how I negotiated a lot of conversations with people at that time. I listened to every word, but only chimed in now and again, to keep them going.”
It's a way of sort of making herself invisible in the conversations, which I think is another sign of like depression and anxiety of a way of you just don't want to be seen by anybody, even when you're talking to them.
Sarah: Oh yeah. And relying on people to just fill any empty space with a lot of people will reliably do for you.
Mike: She goes to the concert. It goes, well, she comes back home. We learn in the first random celebrity detail we get that she lives in Ozzy Osbourne's house, which I think is probably the house where they filmed like that Osbourne's reality show.
Sarah: The Osbourne’s, which was also huge, and I remember having discussions about that with my freshman year history teacher.
Mike: She mentioned that it was like, oh, we had to redecorate cause his decoration is different than ours.
Sarah: Too many headless bats, not my style. I like something more of a Chip and Joanna vibe.
Mike: The scene here is basically what sets up her intervention and sort of hitting rock bottom. She's been working on all these songs for months. Her father has not heard them. He comes over to the house because they're having a Halloween party later that day. And so she's got all these people coming over to the house. And so, she wants her dad to come over, to listen to a couple of her songs before everybody else arrives. She invites him over and apparently a lot of the songs on this album are about him because she has been dealing with like firing him and with the divorce and everything else. And so she plays in the song called Practice What You Preach, which is basically just like a distract about her dad essentially. It just like everything that she's mad about
Sarah: So this is like her rumors.
Mike: These are I looked at the lyrics online. “It says you taught me how to love somebody, just like you. You taught me how to leave somebody and it's hard to do. You said, keep my shit together when the world unravels and put a brave face on, in the heat of battle. So that's what I did.” So, it's not as like, mean to him, it is sort of, she makes it sound in the text, but it's very clearly like about him, but it seems he sort of doesn't pick up on it because he listens to it and he's like, that's really good. That's great, I’m glad you're recording this.
Sarah: That's like if Stevie Nicks played Dreams to Lindsey Buckingham and he was like, nice chord progressions, this is good work.
Mike: He just says, “I'm really proud of it. I'm sad that I can't be the one going out there promoting it, but I'm really proud of you and really happy for you.” And it’s just like this outpouring of support and she's just like, okay. And for whatever reason this kind of triggers a breakdown.
Sarah: I totally get that. If you are like trying to communicate to someone, please see me. Please see how I feel and are using like the best of your abilities, the most of your artistic abilities, putting your heart and soul into your work and then you offer it to them and they're like, oh, good job honey. I can see myself going on, like a cookie punching rampage, all a bridesmaid.
Mike: Yeah. Because I think it's like, you want it to be this cathartic moment and he's just like, good song tiger, good stuff.
Sarah: Yeah, it's tough. It's like if you expect to have some kind of emotional catharsis and then it's just suddenly not there, that can be kind of a claustrophobic experience.
Mike: And so he leaves, and she just immediately starts crying and kind of curls up into a ball on the porch. And this begins one of the trends we're going to see throughout this book, which is very interesting. And I don't think she's all that aware of that all of her friends are like people who work for her.
Sarah: That seems like a common celebrity problem.
Mike: Oh yeah. In a way that I think is invisible to them too. I think it just becomes normal after a while, but so she's crying out on the porch. She hears somebody say, are you okay? And she says it was our house manager, Randy. He was my dad's best friend when I was a kid, his wife, Beth was my dance teacher in fifth grade, then my choreographer on tour, and now she runs my clothing line.
Sarah: Wow. So not just her friends, but like people from her parents’ friends.
Mike: Yes. It's like this mixture of like family and business and friendship. She constantly blurs these lines with people in her life.
Sarah: But also you can't fire a guy you've known since fifth grade.
Mike: Totally. And so this guy Randy asked if she's okay and she's like, “I'm not okay.” It's kind of all hitting her at once, the drinking. She is not sleeping. She's been taking prescription stimulants and then taking ambient to sleep.
Sarah: Oh, she is a little Judy Garland.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, she just kind of trying to keep her anxiety at bay and just kind of getting through the next day, basically. And also, I love as we've discussed before the strange comedy that reality provides in the middle of tragic events. As she's having this breakdown as like she's going through the rest of the day, just feeling like absolute shit and just like completely breaking down on the inside for much of this scene, she is dressed like Willie Nelson.
Sarah: What? Oh, because it was her costume.
Mike: Yes, because it's Halloween. We also get her, and Willie Nelson were in a movie together, they were in….
Sarah: Wait, wait, wait… The Dukes of Hazzard. Sorry, I wanted to say it before you said it to demonstrate my knowledge.
Mike: She says we still call each other by our character names, Daisy and Uncle Jesse. He and his wife are my role models for marriage. My own marriage was collapsing during that time and onset, I hung out in his trailer, let him see through the happy face I put on for people. Now and then through the years, just when I needed it, he would text me a simple, I love you Daisy, love Uncle Jesse. It is like, ahh, Willie Nelson.
Sarah: That's really wonderful. That's really wonderful.
Mike: This is also the first time we get another pattern that happened throughout this book where she says something that is deeply relatable and deeply unrelatable at the same time. In this day where she is like basically having this emotional breakdown, panic attack, she's been drinking, she feels terrible, she's just like, I'm not okay, something is deeply wrong with me. It's Halloween and she has to get ready for this party. They are doing like social media pictures, where she has to smile.
She's got like hair and makeup people helping her with this, like Willie Nelson wig. She says, as I turned to go inside, Eric announced we were all going trick or treating. All the kids at the party, yelled and excitement, and I shrank, I forgot this had been the plan. We had rented golf carts to take everyone around the gated community, where we lived. Eric, I can't I whispered, what do you mean you can't he said. He had been shouldering much of the party hosting on his own that day, there was frustration in his voice. We got like 20 golf carts. I can't just, just get on the golf cart, he said, we're going to go trick or treating. I am just going to sit down for a while.
So it's one of those things where it's like not wanting to go through with a plan that you made is deeply relatable. I can't do this thing that I've already committed to, but then the fact that what she can't do is ride around on golf carts throughout their gated community trick or treat, another example of this unrelatable and relatable thing that I highlighted from another chapter is that she's talking about how sort of singing has always been something kind of separate from her family.
It's a little thing that she does they're not really like in that part of her life. And so, she says, my kids had never even seen me perform, the only time Eric had seen me sing in front of an audience was when I was promoting my second Christmas album in 2010. But that had been on a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float surrounded by dancing muffins and gingerbread men.
Sarah: Ah, dancing muffins.
Mike: So again, it's like, there's this part of your life that your family doesn't get this weird hobby that you have, but then also it's like, her actual example of that is, oh, I was singing on the float at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Sarah: Yeah, but what you take away is like, oh right, this doesn't seem super amazing to you because you just are used to performing at huge American institutions. So, it was the float, it wasn't, you know, super voice oriented.
Mike: Right. But so, she is having this breakdown, she's got all these people coming over to her house. She basically just checks out; she takes two Ambien. She goes to sleep, I think maybe in a guest house or an upstairs bedroom or something like the logistics are not clear, but she basically just doesn't show up to her own party and just goes to sleep.
And then she says here, I would like to tell you that I got up early the next day and got my kids to school, I did not. I slept in afraid to see them and hoping Eric would tell them I wasn't feeling well. She is basically, she's having like a sort of depression episode where she basically just can't get out of bed.
And so this is the day that she has like a weekly get together with her three best friends. I'm going to read you her three best friends, this is really interesting. The first is her publicist Lauren, the second is her friend, CaCee, who she met when she signed with Columbia Records in 1997, and third is Coco her personal assistant. She is also flying in a hair colorist.
So she's planning on sort of multitasking, and she wants to get her hair colored, but she also wants to hang out with her friends. So she's just like having everybody over at once. And basically, as these four people are all there, she basically says like, just bleach my hair, I don't give a fuck anymore. And so they can sort of see that she's like breaking down. And so CaCee, one of her friends says, “Jessica why do you think you drink so much?” I mean, according to her she was never hiding this, this thing with the glitter cup. Everyone could see it and they basically tell her that we have been planning for this for six months.
Like we have seen how bad the drinking is and they've called a doctor who I guess specializes in like celebrity rehabs, where you can't go to a rehab clinic because then the paparazzi will find out. So, like they do sort of inpatient rehab, but it's in your house and so, again, this is all very strange because they're having this really deep conversation as this person is coloring her hair. And then as they are getting sort of deeper into like the logistics of this intervention and her quitting drinking and what it's going to look like, her extensionist come to put in her hair extensions. There's now like nine people in this room.
Sarah: It's like a Fellini film, more and more hair professionals keep coming in this like clown car of a salon while you're having this, like your life bust open and you accept what's coming out.
Mike: Yeah. And so eventually the doctor gets there, everyone's crying. There is all these people in the house everyone's sort of being very supportive and her husband says, well, I'm going to quit drinking too. And so the therapist finally gets there, and they sit down in this sort of alcove in their house, like just the two of them. And the doctor says, so let's talk about what brought you to this point.
Sarah: Ah, yeah. That is the other chapter.
Mike: And then we rewind to June of 1982.
Sarah: Yeah. I'm so excited.
Mike: So we smash cut back to 1982. She says she's two years old, but this scenario seems like she would be older. She is in the car with her mom, she's in the back seat, her mom is driving. She's kind of bored and she stands up in the back seat and she sort of tries to hug her mom from the back and ends up, covering her eyes accidentally and sort of like moving her arms and her mom in response, kind of jerks her hand and ends up driving the car into the oncoming lane and has a head on collision with another car.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Mike: And they are both flung from the vehicle, the injuries are really grizzly. She ends up in the hospital for a week. And so after she gets out of the hospital, apparently she has a stutter. There's some sort of head injury, brain damage. And she says the feeling of stuttering is like all the words want to come out at once. And her Aunt Connie happens to be a speech therapist and her Aunt Connie says, well, if you can't get something out by talking, why don't you try singing?
Sarah: Oh, like in A Fish Called Wanda.
Mike: Yes. And so, for the next two years, she starts singing whenever she wants to get something out and this is how she finds her interest in songs.
Sarah: Wow. That's really, that's such an origin story, that's really great.
Mike: Right. And so, as this is happening, she is a really shy kid, she's also got the stutter, her family, she says moves 18 times before the fifth grade.
Sarah: Oh my gosh. And in the same geographic area or like all over the place?
Mike: Yeah, they start in, she's born in Fort Worth, Texas and they mostly move around in Texas. But then there is this weird thing where they end up moving to Littleton, Colorado in 1985. And then she says, I think my dad was escaping something. And she says that her dad also left the church, so they were quite poor when she was growing up. She talks about how, when she was delivered in the hospital, they could not pay the medical bill. So they gave the doctor a camera lens. It sounds like something that would happen in like the 1850s, but this would have been 1980.
Sarah: I can see that happening.
Mike: And her dad it is interesting. Her dad is like a preacher, but then he sort of goes in and out of preaching, depending on the job market.
Sarah: Huh? He is a fair-weather preacher or a foul weather preacher, maybe who knows. And then like what denomination are they and stuff like that?
Mike: Baptist, like born again. But then, you know, he is selling at one point, like choir implements, he's selling postal scales. I don't know if that's like door to door, but it sort of seems like something you would sell door to door because it's not something people need, but times are so bad. They actually ended up declaring bankruptcy when she's five or six and they ended up moving back to Fort Worth because her dad gets a job in a church. And this is when, once her dad starts working at the church, her mom starts doing exercise tapes.
Sarah: Oh, wow.
Mike: This is like peak Jane Fonda times.
Sarah: Oh yeah, like 80, what 84?
Mike: 85, 86. Yeah.
Sarah: Yeah, because Jane Fonda brought the VCR into the consumer market because she released an exercise tape and suddenly it was like this incredibly expensive VCR is going to amortize out really well when I do my Jane Fonda workout every day. I grew up doing that workout with my mom and it is a good workout. The advanced workout is grueling.
Mike: Do you want to guess what Jessica Simpson's mom calls her exercise company?
Sarah: Moves with Christ?
Mike: Close. Heavenly Bodies. That's pretty good.
Sarah: That's so weird, I love it. I appreciate the Christians who are like really into kind of puns and bad tastes as expressions of their faith. It's like, you're having fun with it. I appreciate that.
Mike: It is also very smart marketing because her class is called Jump for Jesus. Right, and all of those in the program is like Christian music, so it's like Amy Grant.
Sarah: It's also a good idea because like, honestly, when you're doing the cardio portion of an exercise tape, like I imagine if I were inspired to do difficult things for Jesus, generally, Jesus could inspire me to do more jumping jacks.
Mike: Yeah. There's also a lot of reaching for the sky in exercise.
Sarah: And going for the burn, which could integrate well into a Catholic workout tape, but I haven't heard of those as a thing.
Mike: And it's also very candy marketing because when they go to like conferences or when they visit other churches, she'll take a stack of videotapes with her and sell these workout tapes. So it becomes like an extra source of income for them when her dad is not making that much as a preacher.
Sarah: So is he aspiring to be to have a large congregation and to be a known entity and stuff like that?
Mike: Both her mom and her dad are very ambitious. So eventually he becomes a preacher at a megachurch.
Sarah: Oh wow.
Mike: And also, this is a really interesting aspect of this that she says with the same fervor that my mom now flips houses, my parents fixed people throughout my childhood. We took in people who were sick or neglected and it wasn't always fun. Sometimes it was a chore to share my parents with others. And as a fellow preacher's kid, this is a thing that like preachers do. As a preacher, you're this very well-known member of this large community. And so, she talks about how, when people would get pregnant and get kicked out from their parents, they would come and live at Jessica Simpson's house.
Or like when people were going through drug stuff, they would come to their house and detox. And so this idea of just having like kind of random people around is something that like characterizes her childhood. And I've heard a lot from other preacher's kids too, that it's just like, you're sort of expected to be this kind of savior figure.
Sarah: Right. That also reminds me of the way Louisa May Alcott grew up because her father was a transcendentalist. And so, she was raised in this ethos of, we must give up little pleasures for ourselves because they don't really matter. And they don't feel as good as doing nice things for other people. And you can see, you know, in her writing the kind of tension between like yeah, you know, that's true. And we should try and emulate that, but I wanted that little cake I had to give away when I was a kid.
Mike: Yeah. I think there is something interesting of like how much responsibility these preachers end up taking on.
Sarah: Yeah. And what kind of a safety net they become, culture that has a lack of other safety nets, especially I can imagine in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the eighties.
Mike: I mean, she does say like in the South, there are so many secrets. And my parents were there to give people a safe place. And so a lot of the kind of shame and banishment that comes along with these traditional mores, it's like her parents are the dustpan for all that. They have to clean that up and like try to make people whole, I mean, they talk about a girl who lives with them for six weeks who has postpartum depression. She is like a teenager who just had a kid and she's totally not functional after she had this kid. And they just nurse her back to health in their house for six weeks and take care of her baby, when she is five, six years old.
Sarah: Right. It's very interesting to think about being a child, the first things that come to mind for me thinking about my own, like five-year-old self. Is A not knowing what the kind of emotional tone of the house will be from day to day. And also not knowing how much of your parents' attention you're going to be able to get.
Mike: Yeah. And also, it's crazy to me that her, she mentions her dad's salary at this time is $25,000 a year.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Mike: There's been inflation since then, but not that much inflation, that is not a great salary.
Sarah: And also how many children do they have total?
Mike: At this point they have two because her sister was born in 1984. So, there's also, this part's really cringy, but I do not want to cut it out. We have to talk about it.
Sarah: We have to experience people as they are.
Mike: I know this part is just, it is like Jessica.
Sarah: Can I guess, is this like cringy and like a race relation related way?
Mike: Yes, yes.
Sarah: How did I know?
Mike: Yeah, I think you can tell from my voice, I think I have like a specific, white people doing race stuff.
Sarah: I can tell the different flavors of your cringing voice.
Mike: It's just like, so this is where, I don't know why she puts it at this particular part of the book, but she talks about how her great grandmother, people in the family call her a quote unquote, full blooded Indian. But the tribe has never mentioned, it never gets more specific than that. I've looked into this, other people have looked at their family tree, the public records that are available and all of her great-grandparents are Caucasian. But it is basically that her great grandmother was, she did tarot cards.
Sarah: You know like native Americans do.
Mike: This is why it's so cringy is because she talks about how she's like mystical and intuitive.
Sarah: Tarot cards for the record were invented, I believe in 17 century Italy, but anyway.
Mike: This is the worst passage of this cringiness. She says I would stare in the mirror and my brown eyes and high cheekbones convinced I was native American. More than that, we Simpson girls, my mother included all seemed a little witchy. She talks about how she is like intuitive and she has a good sense of people.
Sarah: Which is what every girl thinks about herself. And I feel like to me, the problem with this sort of Jessica Simpson spin on it and this very common spin on it that I can most readily identify as like, that's nice does that for you emotionally. But you can just watch Teen Witch.
Mike: Yeah. Yes, exactly.
Sarah: And be like, maybe I'm like the Teen Witch girl and I made special by this special part of my heritage that doesn't involve me appropriating or projecting my own internal narratives and emotional needs onto a culture that I have probably nothing to do with and know nothing about.
Mike: It's one of those things where, you know, you accept the stories about your family that you're told. But it's interesting in a book published in 2019.
Sarah: Yeah. It's a thought fantasy that is unfortunate. Cause there's other ways to make that thought feel real for yourself and to tell yourself that you are special, that don't infringe on other people's culture.
Mike: And like misrepresent them as witchy rather than like having specific beliefs that are not just like fortune telling, that is not right.
Sarah: Right. Like general vague new agedness, which is like, yeah. The point is, I think it is important for all of us to learn, to see ourselves as special without any kind of genie illogical justification for it.
Mike: Yeah, I am into that.
Sarah: Yeah, let's do that.
Mike: So now we get to the abuse.
Sarah: Oh great.
Mike: The abuse is actually really interesting in a way that we're not very well set up as a society to talk about. So do you remember in the sex offender’s episode, how I mentioned that a significant percentage, I think it's one third of children who are sexually abused before they hit puberty. So very young children are abused by other children.
Sarah: Yeah, I do remember you saying that.
Mike: So apparently there's a family that they hang out with family friends. They live in a different city, it is some hours long drive to go see them. They only see them three, four times a year. This female friend is seven, Jessica is six. Whenever they visit this family, they always sleep over. And so when she is six, this girl starts abusing her. This is what Jessica says, “After lights out, I would feel her hands on me. It would start with tickling my back and then going into things that were extremely uncomfortable. Freezing became my defense mechanism. To this day, when I panic, I freeze. The second time she abused me, it was during the spring visit. And Ashley, my sister also shared the bed. I laid between them fiercely protecting my sister from this monster. I didn't want her to feel as disgusting as I felt.” And so this happens for six years.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Mike: And she talks about trying to protect her sister from it that she would sort of let it happen to her as a way of keeping it from happening to her sister.
Sarah: Which I feel like is also a dynamic that happens a lot.
Mike: Yeah. She says, “She continued to try to sleep next to my little sister and I would scooch Ashley over and get between them whenever she did. I never let her near Ashley, but I also never screamed or told her to stop. I was confused, wondering if it was something that I wanted to keep going, why am I not telling anyone? I would ask myself, is it because it feels good? The irony is that I was protecting my abuser. I thought if I named what she was doing, she would feel the shame I felt. And I would not have wished that on anybody.”
I mean, when this is happening, this is when she basically can't sleep. She talks about how, from this point on, she basically never has a good night's sleep. She says, even at home, in my own bed, there was a feeling that I had to stay up to keep watch. I stopped waiting for Ashley to come to my room and started sleeping in her bed.
I remember the humiliation of saying to my baby sister, four years younger than me, Ashley, can I share your room? Even then I would lie awake, waiting for my brain to shut off. And so she starts taking sleeping pills when she's 12 or 13 to get to sleep, and this is a pattern that continues throughout her life.
And one of the things, I mean, another thing we mentioned in that episode was that the vast, vast, vast majority of children who abused other children are themselves being abused. So this girl talks about how there's an older boy. We don't know the circumstances who's molesting her and so she'll tell Jessica about this and then abuse Jessica.
And so, ah, it's just complicated. It's just one of these things we're very uncomfortable talking about these things unless there's like someone we can punish.
Sarah: And unless there's a very clear binary between victim and villain. And that is something that we become deprived of in real life situations. And, you know, and this is the appeal of Michelle not to drag us back into that dungeon again. But right, I mean, the idea that, you know, who would abuse a child, well, Satan.
Mike: Right, right.
Sarah: You know, it's not complicated. It's not a situation where we have to contemplate the damage that another traumatized child is capable of carrying out and being like, well, how do we address this? We can't put her on a registry and decide that she's a sex criminal. I mean, this is why trauma studies is so important and why I think it's acceptance into any kind of a legal framework is so delayed because if you look at trauma as an experience that begets difficult and potentially traumatizing behaviors, then suddenly everything is much more complicated and takes a lot longer.
And you have to think about how we help a child to heal from the experience of being abused in a way that will make them safe for other children to be around, as opposed to just assuming that they're going to get better. If we punish their abusers, in some zombie lore, you can turn zombies back to humans by like killing the original zombie or the same thing with vampires. Wouldn’t that work so, but I don't think it is.
Mike: So, what I mean, to her great credit, Jessica grapples with this a little bit. She says I cannot play armchair psychiatrist and guess what her motives were for abusing me, but I can feel her pain and mine at the same time. And that is actually a pretty good summary of this that it's like, there's just enough pain to go around here.
It just sucks, it's just a sucky situation. Jessica also says I came to understand sex and my body solely in terms of power or in this case, lack of power. I was just going to let her do whatever it was she wanted to do, because I didn't want to hurt her feelings, which is devastating. I mean like, ah, I dunno. It just, it hurts to read that out loud. And so, after this goes on for six years, she tells her parents. So they have a thing where her dad buys lotto tickets and Jessica and Ashley are like his lucky little girls, so he always lets them scratch off the lotto tickets.
And so, as they're driving home from this family, it's like some number of hours’ drive. They stop at a gas station, get a bunch of lotto tickets they are in the back seat, Jessica and Ashley, Ashley has her headphones on, so she can't hear what anybody's talking about. And Jessica has these lotto tickets in her hands, and she just tells her parents.
She says, if you don't know what's been going on, she's been touching me for years and it makes me really uncomfortable, and I don't ever want to go back there. My mother slapped my father's arm at the back of her hand. I told you something was happening, she yelled at him, neither turned to look at me.
And so that's the last time they talk about it. There's no further the conversation and so Jessica's expecting her parents to say something at one point, she's like, hello, but they're just sitting there quietly. And so she just sort of slinks back into the seat and she starts she's bored, so she starts scratching the little decals off of the lotto ticket. And then she wins, she wins $1,500 bucks, and it is like, oh my God, we won. They turn around and go back to the gas station. It becomes this thing, and it becomes a happy story that the family tells. Well, that one time that you won $1,500, but they never bring this up ever again.
Sarah: And then that also reminds me of her playing the song for her dad and him being like great work. It's just you're trying to show your parent what you really need from them and they just like choose to be distracted, maybe.
Mike: That's a good point. They're turning it into a different story than the one you want them to be hearing. So, we now cut forward to spring of 1993, it's one year later, her father is now the pastor of this mega church. He is making $60,000 a year. Her mom is still teaching aerobics. She is singing in the choir. Her parents start entering her in singing competitions, not quite Star Search, but I think like regional variations on Star Search. And she always sings Christian songs, they're making more money, but they're not like, by any means rich, her mom does this thing where she'll buy her outfits for these singing competitions and then leave the tags on and then return them the next day. And so, she is 13 years old, she reads in the newspaper about an audition for the Mickey Mouse Club in Dallas.
Sarah: I feel like Mickey Mouse Club was like the incubator for every big pop star of the late nineties.
Mike: Everyone. So the big stars at this point are Keri Russell and JC Chasez.
Sarah: JC from something, something. He will be in the Backstreet Boys or N’SYNC or something later.
Mike: N’SYNC I think.
Mike: So apparently 50,000 kids show up to this open call audition in Dallas. Apparently, what they do for the audition is you sing a song, and you can pick a song and you sing the song. That is part of the test and then they make you do freestyle dance. So, like you just have to dance to a song, it's not choreographed, it is just you are dancing around.
Sarah: I bet that is when they cut the single largest number of kids.
Mike: Yes. I know, because that sounds, that is like a dream I have had, dance for me and then they blast all, that's a nightmare.
Sarah: If I had done that as a child, I would have probably done a service, a little job singing a song, and then I would have just danced, like Crispin Glover in Friday the 13th, it would not look good.
Mike: So apparently, she sings Amazing Grace. She does great and then they make her dance to Ice, Ice Baby. And she dances to it and I guess impresses because out of these 50,000 kids, they only call 10 back and she is one of them. And so, she comes back the next day, there is more audition stuff that does, she gets through. The last stage of the audition is like a boot camp sort of thing in Orlando. So the last stage is you sent her to Orlando for two weeks. There is going to be a big performance at the end of it and that's like the audition.
Sarah: Wow. Okay, so question, is she, or do we know if she is like, mom, dad, can I audition for the Mickey Mouse Club please? Or what?
Mike: It is interesting, it's not clear. She sort of writes around to what extent she is driving this versus her parents driving this. I think it's actually an interesting thing of like, can you really tell what a kid wants for themselves when they're 13 years old or versus what their parents want?
Sarah: Or like, if you, as their parent wants something for them, can you reliably tell if they truly individually wanted or if they are to some significant degree humoring you and feeling worried about how you would feel if they didn’t do the thing, they understand you want them to do so.
Mike: Yes. So, at these sort of extra auditions in Dallas, they tell her, “Look, you're invited to Orlando, we're really excited about you, but you really need to work on your acting. You're acting is not great. So, we are going to send you to”, I'm not making this up, the Chuck Norris acting school.
Sarah: That's amazing.
Mike: Apparently, they filmed Walker Texas Ranger in Dallas-Fort Worth and he had an acting school there.
Sarah: I also feel like Chuck Norris makes sense to me as a person who teaches people to act enough because he is a martial arts guy then went into acting. So, I feel like he's a good first one for knowing, this is how you do a movie. It's not rocket science, this is what acting is basically, we don't have to try and climb Mount Everest today. We can take a nice little hike up acting mountain.
Mike: This is literally exactly what he does. Do you want to hear what his acting advice is?
Sarah: Yes. A thousand times, yes.
Mike: The first day Chuck did not say much to me, but the next time I went, he had some notes. He stopped me in the middle of my one-on-one. Do you know who the most powerful actor in the world is?
Sarah: Greta Garbo?
Mike: Not where he's going with this. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to say Chuck Norris. Denzel Washington, he said.
Sarah: Oh yeah, Denzel is a very subtle face actor.
Mike: Oh, I said, every person in the room, nodding in agreement, which is what other people did whenever Chuck spoke. And then Chuck Norris says, do you know why, this time, he didn't wait for me to answer. He just turned and grabbed a green roll of scotch tape. Denzel can say anything without moving his eyebrows, he said. So, Jessica, I'd like you to try something, and so apparently, they do the same scene. But he tapes her fucking eyebrows onto her face, so she can't move them while she's acting. And she says this worked, that is all Chuck Norris was doing for his entire career was just deliberately not moving his eyebrows during scenes.
Sarah: I feel like that relates to gender expectations though. When I wonder if Chuck Norris is aware of that.
Mike: He 100% is not aware of them Sarah, but I think that you are correct about the gender stuff, Chuck Norris does not know that, Sarah.
Sarah: I think it is self-generate for you to assume that Chuck Norris is not thinking about gender.
Mike: I am the real sexist. I agree. So apparently, she learns to act and then she goes to Orlando, where the first night, there's a pool party at whatever hotel they're staying at, and she meets Keri Russell and JC Chasez. We also meet, she says there was one boy running around the pool completely on, he knew the audition finals had already started. He kept doing backflips into the pool, totally grabbing everyone's attention. He eventually came over to where I was standing. “Hi, I'm Justin Timberlake”, he said.
Sarah: Yeah. Why am I so excited? And is this how you feel as you get older. You are like something I remember.
Mike: There's also, right away, another boy appeared. He was there with his mom all the way from Canada. Do you want to guess who this is?
Sarah: Canada, wasn’t he in a boy band?
Mike: He is like in the opposite of a boy band.
Sarah: Do I know this?
Mike: You might not even know that he was on the Mickey Mouse Club, Ryan Gosling.
Sarah: Oh, I did know that, but like very in the way back of my mind that I might not have been able to access. Yeah. That is such a weird combination of people, Justin Timberlake and Ryan Gosling.
Mike: I know and then we also get, then there was Christina Aguilera, this timid frankly kind of mousy girl in glasses from Pittsburgh. She was so tiny that I didn't really get how she could possibly get on television.
Sarah: Wait, did Christina Aguilera use to be Thumbelina’s size and then she had a growth spurt before she had all that promo for Mulan.
Mike: I mean, as a fellow tiny person, I feel very targeted by this. There is also an extremely adorable scene where it seems like Jessica Simpson's parents are not like showbiz parents yet, but all of the other parents of these kids are like, super-duper showbiz parents. So apparently Jessica's mom is chatting with Justin Timberlake's mom. Oh, he's been singing at this competition, he has been on this commercial. He was on this stage play in this and so apparently Justin Timberlake's mom, so what has she been on? And Jessica's mom has a folder, a little portfolio with her, with Jessica's school photo and her grades. That is like all she has.
Sarah: I love that she is like the people at Disney need to know that Jessica got a B+ in Geology. That will move them.
Mike: That's literally what she says, that's in the text.
Mike: Yeah. She has a B+ in English.
Sarah: That's really, that's weak, oh wow. Kid’s stardom is just like the most poignant thing in the world. Isn't it?
Mike: I feel weird about it, she talks about how Ryan Gosling is her first crush.
Sarah: I mean, she certainly is a trail breaker in that way.
Mike: Yes. She also learns that there are 11 kids at this boot camp and 8 of them are going to be on the Mickey Mouse Club. So, like, those are good odds. At one point one of the casting directors is, look you guys should start looking for real estate in Orlando, it's difficult to find apartments. You guys should start looking cause like, come on, your kind of a lock. And then halfway through the bootcamp, they are doing all this practice. They're getting ready for their final tryouts and Jessica says, and then another girl walked into the theater.
Sarah: Oh no. From now on All About Eve.
Mike: She had these big, beautiful eyes, brown, like mine. I heard her talk, and she was Southern, like me. I heard a, “Oh my goodness” come out of her. And I knew she had to be a Baptist choir girl, too. “Hi, Britney”, said Matt, the casting director. “Hello, sir”, she said, and he laughed, and you can just hear the inception horns.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Mike: Brittany has entered the chat, immediately Jessica feels she is in her shadow. It's very clear to everyone that like Britney Spears is just a star.
Sarah: Nobody had her work ethic in the nineties, I mean no one.
Mike: And so, they get to these last day tryouts, everything comes down to this performance, they have to do singing and acting and choreography like this whole sort of package of showing the Disney people, what they can do. And very fortuitously, Jessica is scheduled right after Christina Aguilera.
Sarah: Oh, imagine singing a song after Christina, oh my God.
Mike: So Jessica is scheduled after Christina Aguilera who knocks it out of the park. And so she's just hella rattled. And then she sings an Amy Grant song, and she apparently flubs a note or two. And then she gets in her head where she is like, well, singing is the part that comes easy to me. Singing is the part that I'm supposed to be really good at and I'm fucking up the singing. So that just like totally spins her around and the rest of the audition, she forgets lines and she get her choreography wrong. And it's apparently just like an absolute disaster. Nobody claps afterwards, she blows it. This is the worst part potentially she is walking off stage and Justin Timberlake is going up next and he goes, oh, what did you do?
Mike: I know. I wrote, fuck Justin Timberlake in my little Kindle notes app. after that. And also, I mean, I consider myself a little bit of a Justin Timberlake scholar, because I also looked into him for the Janet Jackson episode.
Sarah: He is not being depicted in a flattering light so far in our show, is he?
Mike: It gets worse. On my Kindle, I wrote eww, eww, eww, eww, after this. So, she's talking about later on the next time she sees Justin Timberlake, it's like 10,000 years later.
Sarah: They're both living on the ice planet, Hoth.
Mike: She has gotten divorced from Nick Lachey, he is single. And so, they ended up hanging out, somehow they bumped into each other. Whatever they're hanging out, they're drinking, they lean in and they end up making out. And as soon as this happens, he pulls away and gets his phone out. And she's like, what? And he goes, oh, I got to call Ryan Gosling. She's like why? And he's like, we made a bet at the casting camp of who was going to kiss you first and I win.
Sarah: That's mean, that is really adolescent. I would certainly hope that if Ryan Gosling received this call, he was like, dude, what, seriously? That would mean we were 12.
Mike: Fuck off, Justin Timberlake.
Sarah: Yeah. He's like, excuse me, I'm considering which Oscar grab roles to get.
Mike: I also looked this up and about this phone call from Justin Timberlake to Ryan Gosling, Timberlake denies that it happened. So journalistic ethics require me to note that he denied that it happened. We have not heard from Gosling, so we do not know that side of the story.
Sarah: Maybe he had Justin Timberlake blocked by that or was he just like screening all his calls and this just like, ah, I've got to eventually, then just kind of forgot.
Mike: So, digression over Jessica, we find out this is really heartbreaking. We find out that Jessica’s audition for the Mickey Mouse Club was so bad that they only took seven kids into the Mickey Mouse Club. They specifically changed the number, so they wouldn't have to take her.
Mike: Yeah. And so she cries for days.
Sarah: And how old is she?
Mike: 13 at this point.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Mike: It's a lot for a 13-year-old man, it's a lot.
Sarah: It's a lot for anyone at any age. I mean, seriously.
Mike: And that's where we're going to stop. That is another little, a rock bottom moment.
Sarah: Poor Jessica.
Mike: And next episode, we're going to hear more about her music career. We're going to hear about Nick Lachey. We're going to meet some other trash dudes. Right now, we're going to leave Jessica crying in her bedroom after getting rejected by the Mickey Mouse Club and not knowing how to proceed.
Sarah: That is a really manipulative cliffhanger, and I applied your mercenary.
Mike: I'm not sorry for every one of these. We are gonna do more of these.
Sarah: I'm excited for our glass bottom boat tour of nineties trash pop star boys.
Mike: If you think Willie Nelson, Ozzy Osborne are weird cameos, just wait, just wait, it's going to get so good.
Sarah: I also do hope that Willie Nelson comes back, he is like the fairy godfather of all this.
Mike: I can neither confirm nor deny. Yeah. What should we, what are your closing thoughts? What do you want, what are your reflections?
Sarah: We've talked a lot about celebrity memoirs on this show and how they can be many different kinds of literature. And I think, you know, the reaction that I've seen people having to this book so far without having read it myself is one that seems to be really empathetic and maybe to be helping us to create a culture where more girls don't have to go through what Jessica went through. And I'm hopeful about what we're going to learn to avoid perpetuating the sins of all these jerks in the nineties.
Mike: Yeah. If Justin Timberlake calls don't pick up, that's number one, primary lesson.
Sarah: I am blocking Justin Timberlake, I am straight up blocking him.
Mike: Ghost him.