Nicole Richie Makes Nice
Nicole Richie is explaining why she believes in the healing power of crystals. Or rather, the 38-year-old is telling me she doesn’t need to believe; because, she says, “It's a scientific, proven fact. Crystals can be healing.” In Richie’s warm Los Angeles fry, these declarations feel less like a lecture than an invitation to the circle of enlightenment. She takes a sip of the tea she brought to the NoMad Hotel restaurant in a thermos. “It's like, even if you don't believe — and I do — but even if you don't, an amethyst has certain qualities. It just does.”
Under her brooch-covered black blazer and Maison Margiela sweater, Richie is wearing a diamond-crowned tiger’s eye necklace from her fashion and jewelry line, House of Harlow 1960. Richie founded the company in 2008, naming it for her daughter, who was born that year. Today, it’s a reflection of the relaxed, Californian luxury style that Richie has matured into. Her metallic maxi dresses and silky wrap jackets, which generally retail under $300 at Revolve, land somewhere between ‘Drew Barrymore at a Stevie Nicks show in Ojai’ and ‘West Hollywood seance.’ When Richie wears her own designs, she has the oversaturated ease of someone bicycling across a Slim Aarons photograph.
“There are a lot of celebrities who have brands and you ask them questions about them and they don't even know how to answer,” says Tim Gunn, who, along with Heidi Klum, chose Richie to join Naomi Campbell, Joseph Altuzarra, and Carine Roitfeld as judges on their post-Project Runway Amazon fashion competition series, Making the Cut. “With Nicole, she's the core of the brand. It wouldn't exist without her — or couldn't — because she's so forceful in her stewardship.”
Richie did not always seem destined to receive plaudits from venerated television mentors. Her origin story is as familiar but vital as Peter Parker’s radioactive spider bite: As a toddler, her struggling parents sent her to live with their friends, singer Lionel Richie and his wife, Brenda Harvey. Richie had the kind of childhood where her mother had her astrological chart done — Richie is a Virgo and displays what she deems typical “Virgo traits” like being a “list-maker, organized,” and in the case of her Zoe Report interview, showing up 15 minutes early — and then had the chart dipped in gold. (“Rich energy,” as Richie says.) When she was 21, Richie was cast with Paris Hilton on the Fox reality series The Simple Life, which dispatched Hilton and Richie to “real America.”
Though initially less famous than her co-star, Richie was more verbally dexterous, the funny foil to Hilton’s “that’s hot” detachment. Hilton asked whether Walmart sold “wall stuff” while Richie cleverly — and, at times, cruelly — illuminated the status differential between the duo and their hosts. She played the shopaholic at a livestock feed store, running up her host’s tab; she said a child beauty queen “looks like she wants to murder me”; she poured bleach on a bar’s pool table after her purse was stolen. In the backdrop of the series’ success was Richie’s rehab stint, DUI conviction, and speculated eating disorder.
But that was all more than a decade ago. Now Richie is a business owner. She has the kind of life where her husband, Joel Madden, buys her no-show socks at the mall with their kids, 12-year-old Harlow and 10-year-old Sparrow. At their home in Beverly Hills, Richie has taken up the kind of earthly pursuits she once mocked: She owns a flock of very attractive chickens and grows her own broccoli in the garden. (But not cauliflower, because, she says, “I've always been warned that it takes up room.”) She’s on Making the Cut and the ABC sitcom Bless This Mess with her friend Lake Bell, the show’s co-creator. (Bless This Mess, about a couple who move to the country, shares its basic premise with The Simple Life.) Richie is working on a Quibi series called Nikki Fre$h — named for her rapping alter-ego — in which she performs socially conscious comedy songs with subjects like colony collapse. “The tea is that they're going to fucking die,” she explains of why bees deserve a hip-hop song. “We can't be here without them. They play a very big role in apples, avocados, almonds, even coffee.”
"The essence of who I am is really the same. In my heart, I am someone who would try things."
Richie is this conscientious about everything, down to the materials she uses in House of Harlow jewelry. “I source every crystal,” she says, “then charge them in the full moon, and then sage them. I really charge them and clear them with my best intentions.” I ask Richie what imbuing minerals with her best intentions entails. (And I ask myself: Is kindness and mindfulness just, like, less interesting than sharpness?) Her dewy, makeup-free face is beatific and her eyelids in their customary half-mast position as she answers my question in the placid, authoritative tone that sounds like the year 2003. “‘My best intentions,’” Richie says, “means I'm not like, ‘Fuck these people.’”
Richie’s appeal has always partially come from her incongruities. She’s tiny (5’1”) but imposing, authentic but canny, privileged but self-deprecating. Contrast was certainly what the producers of The Simple Life had in mind when they plopped Hilton and an exorbitantly hair-extensioned Richie in Arkansas to terrorize the patrons of Sonic Burger. The series premiered months after Rich Girls — a much less compelling show about the heiress to the Innovation Luggage fortune and Tommy Hilfiger’s daughter — and Born Rich, a documentary created by Johnson & Johnson scion Jamie Johnson and featuring Michael Bloomberg’s daughter, Georgina, and Ivanka Trump, among others. Rich Girls and Born Rich are strong arguments for a progressive inheritance tax sandwiched by sneering ennui from both sides of the camera. The Simple Life stood out for its sense of adventure and Richie’s self-awareness.
Richie says The Simple Life’s producers — some of whom now work with Richie on Making the Cut — asked her, “‘Do you want to go for a month with your best friend at 20 years old? Fox is going to record it.’ In that moment you're just like, 'Yeah, of course.' By the way, if I was 20 now, I would say, 'Yeah. Why not?' By the way, it took 28 days; it's like rehab. It's just a little moment.”
Since then, Richie has been delightful in scripted sidekick roles that send up her wealth and put-together-ness, like Portia on Tina Fey and Tracey Wigfield’s Great News, or Sierra on Bless This Mess. (Lake Bell describes these kinds of parts as “supporting characters, but extremely high status” in the fictional social hierarchies of the shows.) On the spectrum of televised comedy, Richie’s work tends to cluster nearer the humanistic humor of The Good Place and Parks and Recreation than the viciousness of Veep or Silicon Valley.
That gentle tension extends to Richie’s next project. Though her father is a musician and, now that I think about it, there’s no obvious reason she couldn’t rap outside of what she calls her “iconic karaoke performances [of Eminem’s ‘Forgot About Dre’] that I've done multiple times and gotten standing ovations for,” it hadn’t occurred that Richie might drop bars in a professional capacity until she wrote and recorded the songs for Nikki Fre$h under the musical supervision of her husband and his brother, Benji. Naturally, the raps are delivered in costumes like an enormous tulle ball gown.
What Richie went through early in her life, Tim Gunn says, "will either kill you or cure you."
Richie was voted her high school’s class clown and describes herself as a person who teenage friends would go up to at birthday parties and request, “Nicole, do a cartwheel.” Richie says she respond, “I don't give a shit. I'll do one. Yes.” Meanwhile, she says, “I just want[ed] to be anyone but myself.” She refused to let anyone see her “super-curly hair” in its natural state, which, in retrospect, feels heavy to her. “Having curly hair just wasn’t associated in the '80s with being sophisticated or being polished,” Richie says, inserting her elegant hands into the armpits of her blazer. “I wonder if there's something about us at that age, where we're just afraid of our own light. We're like, 'Oh no, no, I have to control it.'” (Now Richie, who is of Mexican, African American, and Creole descent, wears her natural hair tied back with leave-in conditioner, or down and loose in the fully expressed curl of Franca Sozzani or a particularly sexy painting of Christ.)
People responded to Richie’s inherent gifts, and she harnessed them into what she thought was the more appealing version: weaponizing her powers of observation. “In being on TV as ‘yourself’ — kind of — you understand what the goal is,” Richie says. “You understand what gets the laughs. It becomes big really fast. Then it's like, 'What's she going to do now?' People see one version of you and they're like, 'Oh, so that must be you: antics, antics, antics.'”
Tim Gunn, who “loved The Simple Life,” thinks Richie’s delicious tartness “was why we watched.” But, he says, “If you're too blunt an instrument, people discredit you.” Of the empathic woman Richie has become, Gunn says, “The two of us were frequently in tears because a designer was going through such an emotional trauma due to putting their heart and soul into a design in such a high-stakes environment. Nicole was so valuable on that panel because she did bring qualities that the other judges weren't exhibiting; I don't think Naomi Campbell is capable of weeping. But Nicole felt comfortable exhibiting [them] or she didn't have a choice.” He considers Richie’s emotional intelligence hard-earned. “What she went through early in her life” — a gauntlet of post-adolescent self-harm and authority issues — “will either kill you or cure you. It didn't kill her, but it kills a lot of people. Metaphorically.”
Richie seems to genuinely agree that undergoing the process of becoming a fully sentient adult in the pages of Us Weekly was good for her. “Some of the most horrible things I've done have come out in the world,” she says. “As terrible as that has been at times, it's also kind of given me this freedom to grow and change. It's not like I came out and was like, 'Hello, my name is Nicole Richie and I have everything figured out.' But the essence of who I am is really the same. In my heart, I am someone who would try things.”
"I'm making an iconic rap album right now about how I'm not using plastic."
After all, Richie reminds me, “I'm making an iconic rap album right now about how I'm not using plastic. Do I use plastic sometimes? Yes, I do. I really try not to. Got the old tea cup.” She taps her tumbler. “But it's the effort. It's just being aware.”
Bell, who met Richie through Richie’s sister-in-law Cameron Diaz, says, “I grew up in New York and there were a lot of wealthy kids that came up and didn't do a lot for themselves. Nicole has every opportunity to do nothing and just exist. And she goes above and beyond to kind of create her own creative stamp in culture and what we ingest and what we think is beautiful.” Richie admits that “it’s probably harder” to be interesting and kind. But now, she says, “It's very important to me to not be mean.”
Richie needs to get back to the House of Harlow office; the crystals await. Before she goes, Richie wants to tell me something. She leans forward with a naughty little smirk, like she’s about to reveal a juicy piece of gossip.
“I have an apple tree,” Richie says. Ah. OK. We’re talking about apples. “Small, not big. It grows these beautiful, little white flowers like this.” Richie holds her finger over her thumb to indicate a space not much bigger than the countless little diamond huggies rimming her ears. “Gorgeous with a pink center. Then the flower drops dead and dies. It’s disgusting.” Richie wrinkles her nose, gleeful in revulsion. “It looks like a burnt crisp with four sticks coming out.” Her hushed voice crescendos, and now I’m the one leaning forward, needing to hear what happens next. “Two days later, the tiny, tiny burnt crisp of a center ends up being a little hairy nub. Then the nub gets bigger, and bigger. And from that death forms a beautiful, hairless, green apple.” She cups her hands and beams down at the imaginary fruit between them. “It's like, who doesn't want to get their mind fucking blown?”
This story isn’t exactly high drama, but my mind is fucking blown. Nicole Richie’s best intentions are fascinating.
Top image credit: Gucci dress, Eye M by Ileana Makri earrings, Pascale Monvoisin necklaces, Ariel Gordon necklace, Jennifer Fisher ring, Pascale Monvoisin ring, Ariel Gordon ring.
Photographer: Thomas Whiteside
Stylist: Jamie Mizrahi
Set Designer: Set Design and Prop Styling by Ward Robinson/Wooden Ladder
Hair: Gregory Russell using Kerastase at The Wall Group, assisted by Brian Cowell
Makeup: Makeup by Vincent Oquendo for Maybelline at The Wall Group, assisted by Jackie Piccola