Once upon a time, it didn’t seem like the worst idea ever for couples to do a reality show about their lives.
For a little while, even, it was romantic.
And that’s thanks to Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, who were instrumental in ushering in a whole new genre of entertainment—for the world and for MTV—when they agreed to star in the pioneering Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, after tying the knot on Oct. 26, 2002.
They weren’t exactly newlyweds anymore when the show premiered on Aug. 19, 2003, with gauzy images of their wedding and sexy shots from home unfolding to the strains of 98 Degrees‘ “I Do (Cherish You).” But close enough—and what doesn’t scream “till death do us part” like immediate product placement in the form of Nick singing the theme song?
Fast forward just a few years and they would forever become the poster exes for why it’s almost never a good idea for couples to do a show that’s going to focus mainly on the inner workings of their relationship (the stories of emerging unscathed are the exception). Fast forward several years more and Lachey and Simpson would both be happily settled in new relationships, with children and doting partners and all the evidence that being married to the other was only a truck stop lunch on the road to their real destination.
But their oft-televised union (remember the Nick and Jessica Variety Hour?) has suffered in the retelling, becoming a marriage of just a few moments—Chicken of the Sea; “Sweetest Sin,” Jess’ musical ode to losing her virginity; their inevitable divorce; etc.
“It was the most amazing moment of my life,” Simpson told Blender about their wedding night. “I’m so lucky I didn’t lose my virginity in the back of a Jeep or something. Instead, I had this amazing, elaborate wedding and I topped it off with that.”
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Sex can be a great motivator, as can an unparalleled opportunity to build a brand and earn some money, but Simpson and Lachey—for all the show revealed them to not have in common—did originally intend to live happily ever after.
They started dating in 1999 after falling for each other on tour, and Lachey later told CBS News, in a joint interview with Simpson, “The first time I ever heard her sing, I got chills. And I told the guys [in 98 Degrees]…, ‘I’m going to marry that girl one day.'”
“We definitely knew—no ifs, ands or buts—we’re totally in love,” Simpson chimed in. To which Lachey added, “You know, it sounds kind of hokey and cheesy, but at the same time, it’s cool.”
So why not share all that hokey, cheesy love with the world?!
It was the blushing bride’s father and then-manager, Joe Simpson, who brokered the deal for their show with MTV (and would continue along with Jess’ mom, Tina, to be really involved in the couple’s life), and Jessica readily admitted she thought it would be a good way to promote her new album, In This Skin.
And it was, in the sense that it soon became apparent that Nick and Jessica were stronger together, at least at first. Of course their fans wanted to know more about their sex life, not to mention watch it play out in PG-rated form in music videos; see inside their spacious Calabasas home, and Simpson’s closet in particular; and watch them playfully bicker and make up. And Nick always seemed to be carrying her around—they were so hot!
All of that translated into more opportunities outside the marriage, especially for Simpson, who launched her edible beauty line Jessica Simpson Desserts and started formulating what would eventually become her booming, billion-dollar fashion brand.
But the whole quirks-of-incompatibly-living-together thing soon got in the way. Though the phrase “reality TV curse” is often used, their marriage would have unraveled anyway—and possibly faster if they hadn’t let the cameras, which gave them a common purpose, into their lives.
“You could feel there was tension between the two of them. They were very different people,” recalls Newlyweds producer Sue Kolinsky in a new interview with Complex that has proved folks are still interested in a little dirt on the long-defunct Lachey-Simpson marriage.
“He was a blue collar guy—he did a lot of things himself, like he and his brother would build things. He was frugal, and she had excessive taste. In the end they weren’t suited for each other. The only thing they really had in common was their music. She was really young; I think he’s seven years older than her. He wanted a family, and her father thought maybe she was too young. Her father was very involved in her life. “
Remember the time Lachey got mad at Simpson for spending $750 on La Perla lingerie, or $1,200 on sheets? Or wasn’t all that welcoming to her BFF CaCee Cobb when she was around? Or the two of them not being able to agree—after all that damn exposition—on how often they should have sex? In one episode, Lachey tried to negotiate three times a week, and Simpson looked rather, um, put out by that prospect.
Perhaps most poignantly, their careers and personal brands were not escalating at the same rate. Lachey was still the hunky 98 Degrees guy, and Simpson was fast becoming more than the sum of her parts—though her parts, particularly when they were on the display in Dukes of Hazzard, helped her along the way.
When Simpson later joked that her first marriage was her “biggest money mistake,” she wasn’t talking about extravagantly priced panties. (And Simpson made that crack in a 2015 interview on CNBC’s Closing Bell—an indicator all on its own of financial success.)
But while Lachey and Simpson haven’t had any sort of relationship for years, and their show is remembered far more as a recipe for disaster, there was a real relationship at its core. And yet also…business.
While Simpson confidently capitalized on the starry-eyed early days of their marriage, Lachey got in on the ending, scoring a hit with the tear-jerker title track of his album What’s Left of Me, which became the biggest single of his solo career to date.
“It’s not in any way vindictive or an assault on her,” Lachey explained the album in the companion MTV special What’s Left of Me, which aired in April 2006, five months after Simpson filed for divorce. “In a lot ways, it’s more of an assault on me.”
Acknowledging how broken he sounded in some of the songs on the album, which came out that May, Lachey said he felt “blindsided” by the divorce, but hopeful that he’d find love again.
“Do I believe that I’ll fall in love again one day? I certainly hope so. I certainly hope I’m not going to be the jerk, uncle, bachelor the rest of my life,” he promised. “You know, it’s not what I envisioned for myself, but at the same time, when I got married, that was it for me, you know, that was my life.”
OK, Simpson put her pain to productive use as well.
In August 2006 she released her album A Public Affair, which would have been really disappointing if it hadn’t had anything to do with her divorce—though the title track and star-studded video were more about a fun, carefree night out with friends.
“‘A Public Affair’ is a play on words; it’s not about what you think it’s going to be about,” Simpson explained to MTV News. “People probably expected [it to be about Lachey] because of everything going on in my life, but it’s not about him at all. It’s about me going out with my girlfriends and forgetting everything that’s around me, which is paparazzi, and just having a fun night. Because [paparazzi] can ruin a night.”
But the album included a cover of Patty Griffin‘s “Let Him Fly,” which did have a particular meaning.
Simpson recalled listening to the song with sister Ashlee Simpson in December 2005, as her marriage was unraveling around her, and the effect it had.
“We laid there listening to the song and just cried and cried like babies,” she said. “In a lot of ways, my sister really gave me the strength to pull through this really hard time. And it was just lying there and being with her that got me through it. I knew everything would be OK. The song is about how sometimes you just have to know when to let something go. And that was that moment. And I had to sing it.”
While Simpson went on to high-profile relationships with John Mayer and Tony Romobefore ultimately meeting the future husband and father of her children, Eric Johnson, Nick met the next Mrs. Lachey just months after the divorce.
There was a little off-and-on turbulence before Nick and Vanessa Minnillo (now parents of three) tied the knot in 2011, but their instant connection when she starred in his “What’s Left of Me” video prompted Lachey to bounce back pretty quickly from the depths of his woe.
“Why does any marriage end? There are probably more reasons than either one of us will ever understand or want to talk about. Sometimes people are in your life for a period of time for a reason and… that situation changes.”
Lachey admitted at the time that he and Simpson were no longer in touch—but when he and Vanessa got engaged the following year, Simpson told Ryan Seacrest on KIIS-FM that she was “extremely, extremely happy for him.”
As for the instantaneous rumors that she was actually quite saddened by the news, Jessica pleaded ignorance.
“You know, our relationship was over a really long time ago, so it would be nice if everybody could move on with us and really just celebrate the love between him and Vanessa,” she said. “I do, and I wish them nothing but the best.”
Fans do get really attached to the original version of something, especially when it comes to celebrity couples.
But while Simpson and Lachey had a much easier time of it than some stars who part ways and yet remain haunted by their exes in headline form, the reminders continue that audiences once fell in love with Newlyweds—and they stayed in love with the idea, even when the Newlyweds themselves realized it was time to move on.