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The rebranding of Jessica Simpson

No longer a ‘Newlywed,' singer charts new path with ‘A Public Affair’
Actress and singer Jessica Simpson appears on stage during MTV's \"Total Request Live\" at the MTV Times Square Studios in New York, in this July 19, 2006, file photo. Simpson's new album \"A Public Affair\" was slated for release on Aug. 29.Jason Decrow / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Few celebrities have predicated their fame on married life more than Jessica Simpson.

Simpson was a minor pop star with sagging record sales before 2003, when MTV’s “Newlyweds” made her a reality TV sensation. Previously a bland, girl-next-door modeled after Britney Spears, the blonde Texan was suddenly revealed to be a charmingly ditzy young woman in love, a princess in a comical L.A. fairy tale.

Simpson herself has often remarked how much her marriage did for her career. Since the start of the show, which ran for three seasons, she’s reported to have earned more than $30 million annually.

The couple traded on their wedded popularity with a network variety show and holiday specials. But when their marriage fell apart, so did their well-manicured image — and tabloid rumors of bitter fights, infidelity and diva-like behavior seemed to especially sully Simpson.

“A Public Affair,” released Tuesday, is Simpson’s fifth solo album, and her first since the divorce. The question is: Will fans embrace Simpson as a solo act as much as they did a newlywed?

Many, including her new label, Epic Records, are banking on it. Simpson’s album arrives atop a marketing blitz that features a myriad of ways to text, download and experience the new Jessica. The video for the disc’s first single, the title track, features guest stars like Eva Longoria, Christina Applegate and Ryan Seacrest. The message is clear: Simpson’s friends are stars; Simpson is a star.

And unlike Nick Lachey’s tear-jerker hit “What’s Left Of Me,” which used their broken marriage as inspiration, the single avoids any post-marital subtext. It’s a carefree piece of grade-A bubblegum, infectious enough that it will likely ease Simpson’s post-‘Newlyweds’ transition.

That’s the right approach, says veteran Hollywood publicist Michael Levine.

Time to change the subject“The first thing I would do is stop any things that are negative,” says Levine. “She needs to individuate herself from this marriage. She needs to not do things that play to that past story. What she needs to do is change the subject.”

Showing some Internet savvy, an alternative video for the song has been compiled of fans singing and dancing to the song. It has even won a tribute from YouTube stars 2 Chinese Boys, whose passionate, accurate lip-synching of old Backstreet Boys hits have been watched by millions.

There are two songs on the album, though, that clearly reference Lachey and their break up. Simpson closes the disc with a cover of Patty Griffin’s “Let Him Fly.” And on “b.o.y.,” she sings: “Can you be my witness?/ Cause I’m still needin’ this boy/ breakin’ my heart, takin’ my money.”

Oh, no she didn’t.

It’s only natural that a relationship that played out so publicly should have a public denouement. Simpson and Lachey together were a force of celebrity that belied mathematics, says Levine.

“I’ve noticed in certain Hollywood matchings — Jen and Brad or whatever — that one plus one instead of equaling two, equals 11,” he says.

Everybody loves a soap opera
Levine notes that people love a soap opera just as much as a fairy tale, and expects Simpson’s assets of youth (she’s still just 26) and beauty to make future success a definite possibility.

Publicist Michael Sands is more inclined to think Simpson’s career outlook is bleak now that she’s “out of character.”

“She’s off the tabloids — she’s not the cover girl anymore,” he says.

Since Simpson’s 1999 debut album, one aspect of Simpson’s brand has been a wholesomeness and a Christian faith that she frequently speaks of in interviews. She professed that she remained a virgin until she got married, and made a very traditional Christmas album in 2004.

But plenty of sexiness has been added to that image. Over the years, her outfits have increasingly accentuated her buxom frame; last year, she cavorted in nothing but a bikini in the over-the-top video for “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” And she epitomized eye candy for boys as the short-shorts wearing Daisy Duke in last year’s “The Dukes of Hazzard.” It was a character Simpson, renowned for her dippy confusion, once called “iconish.”

Intentional or not, Simpson in this way has shown a knack for comedy, which she hopes will translate to the big screen in her next film, “Employee of the Month.” In the movie, due out Oct. 6, she co-stars with standup comedian Dane Cook.

But only time and record sales will prove if Simpson’s career can extend long enough to make her iconic, or merely “iconish.”