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updated 5/8/2005 9:15:20 PM ET 2005-05-09T01:15:20

She's a little bit country: Jessica Simpson, soon to star in the “Dukes of Hazard” movie. She's a little bit rock 'n roll: Ashlee Simpson, on tour promoting her first CD. But both sisters are pop music powerhouses, each winning fans by letting them into their homes and into their lives on reality TV shows like Jessica's popular "Newlyweds," that reveal everything including plenty of embarrassing gaffes. But are they really gaffes? Or are at least some of them part of the plan?

She's everybody's favorite bubble-brain, propelled to stardom by a string of highly publicized flubs on national television. Sometimes it feels like the whole country is laughing at her. But wait a minute. Jessica is laughing, too, all the way to the bank. Last year alone she raked in an estimated $35 million. And now she's ready to make herself a movie star.

So maybe America's space cadet sweetheart isn't as dumb as you think. Guided by her father Joe, a Baptist minister turned Hollywood manager, Jessica has found a way to spin her foibles into assets. And so has her little sister Ashlee. Their strategy turns conventional celebrity wisdom on its head, making their private lives very public and plunging in where most pop stars fear to tread.

Could it be a touch of innovation, savvy, dare we say, genius? Of course, they have their detractors. But 24-year-old Jessica and 20-year-old Ashlee have never claimed to be paragons of porcelain perfection.

Hoda Kotb: “When fans look at these two, I don't know that they see picture perfect do they?”

Carson Daly: “No.”

Kotb: “What do they see?”

Daly: “Well they see people that are approachable I think. They don't feel the need to just to touch them. They feel like they know them.”

It's only fitting, really, that Jessica's career didn't go smoothly at the start. Actually, that's kind of a sore subject. In 1994, Jessica lost out on a coveted Mouse Club spot to the likes of Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. Jessica had to settle for a role back home in Texas, her high school production of the Broadway musical Hollywood movie, "A Chorus Line."

Shaw: “I wanted her to play the role of Val, who sings you know the song about plastic surgery. She refused, even though she had the body the looks and the voice she said I just couldn't see myself doing that. it'd be really embarrassed.”

Instead she played Cassie, still a big role, but a little more wholesome.

But Jessica was seeking a bigger stage, and so was her dad, who had dreamed of an acting career himself but chose instead to become a full time youth minister. He says he didn't push Jessica into acting and singing, he just wanted to support her dreams.

Joe Simpson: ”I was serious about saying to Jessica that I’m going to be the dad that holds your hand, I’m going to be the dad that tells you how beautiful you are everyday and I’m going to be the dad that says even when you make a mistake you’re still special.”

And he sure seemed focused on Jessica's success. Buster Soaries was a Baptist minister with his own small Christian music label when Joe and Jessica approached him about getting Jessica started in the contemporary Christian circuit.

Soaries signed 14-year-old Jessica to a deal with his label, Proclaim Records. When he took her to an annual Baptist youth convention in Dallas, the results were mixed. The kids who heard her sing at reunion arena that weekend were enthusiastic. Some of the adults raised questions about another performance by Jessica, at the event turned into a music video. Soaries says she sang a song about abstinence, but there were a few people who resented the fact that someone who looked so secular would be at a Christian event.

Soaries says there were more incidents like that and his backers decided Jessica wasn't right for the Christian market.

Buster Soaries: “I think the rejection, and that's really what it was. The rejection of the Christian music industry, of Jessica Simpson, forced Joe and Jessica to go in a direction that said ‘We’re going to maintain our values.  But we're not going to limit ourselves to this industry that doesn't have a vision for who Jessica can be."

So Jessica and her dad tried their luck in the mainstream pop world. Her first album, “Sweet Kisses,” came out in 1999, around the time she got her G.E.D. But the album didn't really set Jessica apart. She watched from the sidelines while her Mouskateer nemesis climbed the charts.

So Joe and Jessica kept making the rounds and meeting the right people, like Carson Daly, then the host of MTV's Total Request Live. Back then Jessica was just an opening act, for the rising boy band 98 Degrees, featuring Nick Lachey.

Daly: “Nick who was the singer for 98 degrees which sold like 10 million copies musically speaking he was up here and she was sort of here.”

Nick and Jessica started a hot romance. Well, not that hot. Jessica announced she planned to stay a virgin till she married. Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey had their white wedding in October 2002. For all the domestic bliss, Jessica's career was flagging. Her second album had sold only about a third as many copies as her first.

But Jessica and her father, Joe had a plan. Rather than just marketing her music, they'd try to sell her whole life, documenting her new marriage to Nick before MTV's cameras.  Who could have known how a show called "The Newlyweds" would change everything for Jessica Simpson, how very soon, she'd find a goldmine in a tuna can.

In the Summer of 2003, Jessica Simpson was stuck on the pop music B-list. Her third album "In This Skin" was released to mediocre reviews and modest sales. But then the MTV reality show "The Newlyweds" went on the air. With Nick and Jessica starring as themselves, or some version of themselves, the newlyweds gave us romance. It gave us lovers spats. But mostly it gave us the uninhibited Jessica Simpson -- and a series of sweet, daffy, memorable Jessica moments.

Finally Jessica and her father Joe had found a vehicle to showcase the lovable ditzy blonde. The show surged to number 1 on all of basic cable. But some viewers started to wonder, were they watching a spacey young wife making daffy comments to her exasperated husband, or a performance of a spacey young wife making daffy comments to her exasperated husband?

Some of Jessica's old friends go so far as to say she belongs in the grand tradition of first class screwball comedy. When we showed The Newlyweds to a real live film critic, he didn't know quite what to make of it.

Jessica got an even kinder review from 7-year-old Henry Barrett, an actor in independent films and theater. When we met, he was preparing with his 2nd grade class for a production of Shakespeare's “The Tempest.” Henry seemed impressed by Jessica's skills as a comedy actress.

And the public interest in Jessica and her love for "that man" extended to the reality that lies outside reality TV. It was a heady time for Jessica Simpson. After only 10 episodes of “The Newlyweds,” Jessica had captured the stardom that had eluded her. Most records sag after a few weeks on the charts, but Jessica's album "In This Skin" was shooting upwards.

Meanwhile, at Chicken of the Sea headquarters, officials were learning Jessica's P.R. Secret.

Company officials sent Jessica two big cases of tuna to thank her for her unusual endorsement. Joe Simpson called them up right away, offering to draw out this public relations bonanza a bit longer. So three months after she made her infamous remark on “The Newlyweds,” Jessica showed up for a meeting at company headquarters to meet the tuna giant's sales representatives and even give them a little show.

And if America loved her for her little faux pas, why not make more of them? Her misstatements, both on and off the air, were becoming legendary. Saying something really dumb was now "pulling a Jessica."

Justin Timberlake, yes that's Britney's ex, did a fine Jessica impression on Saturday Night Live. Apparently, Jessica didn't mind being the national idiot laureate. She was embracing her inner airhead, even capitalizing on it. But when you stop and think about it, maybe some of her most famous stupid statements aren't really so stupid after all. While we're on the subject, how many people know anything about the platypus, let alone how you pronounce it.

As Jessica and Nick prepared for “The Newlyweds” second season, her mother Tina told Vanity Fair that Jessica had once scored 160 on an I.Q. test, making her eligible for the prestigious international high I.Q. Society, Mensa.

Jim Blackmore: “I think it's totally fabricated.”

Kotb: “So this is all like a thing, the master genius, Jessica has figured out.”

Blackmore: "I think it's publicity hype.”

And if you watch “The Newlyweds” closely, you may catch her slipping out of the dumb blonde persona on occasion, reading a book and sometimes even showing off her big vocabulary. You don't hear Britney Spears using the word facetious. Anyway, Mensa officials are hoping Jessica Simpson will get in touch.

And if Jessica in Mensa still sounds farfetched, consider this: By early 2004, just a year after her career seemed stalled, she'd pulled off a dazzling feat most Mensa members would never dream of, becoming one of America's most popular, most recognized pop singers without ever having a single number one song.

Alternative rocker Adam Green, whose albums were only selling a few thousand copies, found it all pretty annoying. so annoying in fact, he wrote his own song about her. The lyrics are a little strange, but the tune's so catchy, Jessica may wish she recorded it herself.

Adam Green started getting airplay on MTV, for the first time ever. But before long he jumped off the Jessica gravy train. Now he says he's over the whole Jessica Simpson thing.

Adam Green: “I know it may be hard for you guys to believe, but the focus of my life is not knocking Jessica Simpson. It’s just something I did for five minutes just to be cool.”

For her part, Jessica Simpson never seems to worry much about being cool. She did an infomercial for an acne project. In early 2004, Jessica launched a line of lickable cosmetics and promoted them with an appearance on QVC.

Uncool? Maybe, but in one hour she raked in almost a cool million. A year earlier, pre “Newlyweds,” she couldn't even make that much on a whole concert tour. And believe us, Jessica has a keen understanding of how her on air persona drives up her market value. As “The Newlyweds “second season got underway, Jessica released a new song and a new music video to go with it.

The lyrics were about her love for Nick, the visuals were all about her cute little slip ups from “The Newlyweds,” eating Chicken of the Sea from the can, munching on buffalo wings and wearing a T-shirt that read “platamapus.”

Daly: “It made a connection between Jessica Simpson the person that you're now talking about at work for the dumb stuff she says, etc.. And the music that she sings. Which needed a bit of an adrenaline shot.”               

Talk about smart marketing -- Finally, a Jessica Simpson song made it to the top of the charts. Jessica Simpson was sitting pretty. But that's not the end of the family's story. A younger, edgier Simpson was waiting in the wings.

By the middle of 2004, little sister Ashlee was ready to try and duplicate Jessica's success and so was her dad. But Ashlee was no carbon copy of her big sis.

Daly: “She was really into rock music. She, you know, wore baggy pants. She was definitely cut from a different cloth than Jessica.”

Ashlee played up those differences, dying her hair black, and going for a rougher sound. But she had something in common with Jessica, too, a knack for generating interest with her personal issues. On her "Autobiography" album, she tackled her feelings about her oh so lovable older sister.

Ashlee stepped out of that shadow in the summer of 2004, launching her own reality show on MTV. And for Ashlee, the road to stardom was covered with potholes. The hardest day of all came on October 23, 2004, the night of Saturday Night Live – when her performance was not so live.

Daly: “Most people would have gone into hiding, and just put out a blanket statement.”

Kotb: “Yeah.”

Daly: “And let it sort of die down."

But Ashlee had learned from Jessica's experience, sometimes the best way to handle a mess-up is to keep talking about it. Ashlee blamed her drummer for pushing the wrong button, and said she was only using vocal tracks due to a nasty case of acid reflux. And fans got to see her reaction on, where else? “The Ashlee Simpson Show.”

Ashlee's supporters argue the SNL slip up was no big deal. They say musical artists lip sync all the time to prerecorded tracks. There was only one difference with Ashlee's performance, they say. She got caught.

When Ashlee tried to redeem herself at a halftime performance at the Orange Bowl her voice seemed strained, and the crowd was not impressed. Happily, it was all good material for her reality show where Ashlee relived the episode detail by excruciating detail.

The night of the Orange Bowl, a group of bored teenagers started an online petition, calling on Ashlee to quote "stop recording, touring, modeling and performing.” To date, the petition has gathered 378,858 online signatures. A few signed on as Ashlee supporters.

And in true Simpson tradition, all the controversy surrounding Ashlee's singing didn't seem to hurt her career. Instead it led to a sold out concert tour, and more magazine covers.

Ashlee and Jessica's talent for making the best of a bad situation has been nurtured by their dad and manager, Joe. Maybe it's not surprising to hear Joe Simpson speak of repentance. Remember he's a Baptist minister. He was the one who got Jessica to make that virginity pledge.

But that doesn't mean he's opposed to using his daughters' God given gifts to draw attention to their careers. Listen to what he told GQ Magazine late last year: "Jessica never tries to be sexy, she just is sexy. You put her in a T-shirt or you put her in a bustier, she's sexy in both. She's got double D's you can't cover those suckers up."

But overall, family friend Carson Day says Pastor Joe has kept his Texas values he and wife Tina have been married for more than 25 years. Still, success has changed him a little.

Daly: “He's gone a little Hollywood.”

Kotb: “Yeah.”

Daly: “His friends, and I'm sure he would say that himself. He doesn't look the same. He used to have a mullet, and preach in Texas, and now he's got a big diamond ring.”

Kotb: “Do you think, when it comes to Joe, is there anything that's sort of off limits? Anything that's not reality TV worthy? Or anything that's not worth exposing when it comes to the two girls?”

Daly: “I don't know. We'll see. I mean, so far, not really. It doesn't seem like there's been anything that I know that he's put a big curtain up, I mean are we going to see Jessica Simpson give birth on television?”

Of course, that's assuming Nick and Jessica are staying together. What’s going on with that?

One thing you can say for the Simpson girls, they're not short on ambition. Both Simpsons are coming soon to a theater near you. Ashlee will play an aspiring actress in "Undiscovered." As for Jessica, she'll take on an even bigger role this summer -- that short-shorted red state sweetie Daisy Duke in the film version of the 70s sitcom the “Dukes of Hazard.”

No matter how Daisy Duke goes over, the movie is already a victory of sorts for Jessica -- to get the part she beat out Britney Spears. Mom to be Britney has a premiere coming up too of her reality show with her husband. And speaking of reality television and the bonds of holy matrimony, what's really going on with Nick and Jessica?

Is there really any truth to the rumors that Jessica had an on set affair with her married “Dukes of Hazard” co-star Johnny Knoxville, formerly of MTV's jackass or that Nick's been messing around? Nick has denied it, and Joe Simpson has repeatedly lashed out at reporters who raise questions about his daughter’s marriage.

Nick and Jessica finally addressed the headlines head on when they appeared together on the “Tonight Show.” And to prove them all wrong, Jessica and Nick took a very public trip together this spring to visit U.S. troops in Iraq.

In a world where tuna may be chicken and a jig is worth a thousand songs, it's hard to tell what it takes to be a star. But whatever it is, Jessica and Ashlee Simpson have a genius for it.

Those concerned that Jessica Simpson's husband isn't getting his share of attention will be happy to know that he's about to star in a reality TV show of his own. "The Nick Lachey Project,” as it's known, will take viewers along on his next venture: the writing, recording and marketing of his next solo CD.

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