THE BLONDE IS BACK
Jessica Simpson grows up (sorta) with The Price of Beauty
It was way back in 2003 when Jessica Simpson first became a household name with such pearls of wisdom as thinking buffalo wings were made of buffalo and not knowing the difference between chicken and tuna on Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica.
And while her turn as one of the decade's most high-profile ditzy blondes earned her millions in album sales, movie roles and countless magazine covers, it also made her a tabloid target ready for backlash. After years at the top of the A-list, Jessica's career stumbled, and recently she's been famous more for her high-profile relationships and supposed weight battles than any of her own projects.
What a difference seven years makes.
Older — she's now pushing 30 — and demonstrably wiser, she's going back to reality TV with The Price of Beauty. It's a brilliant vehicle for her: partly a travelogue to exotic global destinations — France, Japan, Morocco, Thailand and more — and partly a sincere exploration into the cultural concept of beauty and what women go through around the world to feel beautiful.
There are still plenty of Newlywed-isms. In tonight's premiere episode, set in Thailand, Simpson compares an elephant's hair to a "scrotum" and gets a bad case of the church giggles about 40 minutes into a Buddhist meditation set.
Dropping a blonde around the world to see what dumb things she does has been tried before (think Taradise and Bridget's Sexiest Beaches), without much success. Simpson succeeds because of her natural likeability, and seems more ready to make fun of herself than to be just a punchline. In her commentary after she's been twisted and tossed around like a rag doll in a traditional Thai massage, the Newlyweds Jessica might have said something along the lines of "I thought? Thai massages? Had like, a happy ending?"
But now she can express the same joke with more confidence: "I thought Thai massages had happy endings. And now I'm wondering where mine is!"
While most of the show is watching Jessica and her friends Ken Paves and CaCee Cobb react to weird things the producers put in their path (Thailand offered a snack of fried grasshoppers in addition to elephants and Buddhist monks), Simpson seems sincere in wanting to learn about how different cultures perceive beauty. She is introduced to a Thai woman whose face is disfigured from creams meant to lighten skin to acheive the Thai ideal of paleness, and is visibly upset by the woman's story.
She also travels to remote northern Thailand to talk to a tribe of women who elongate their necks by wearing brass coils starting around the age of five.
There's an easy tendency to cast judgements on these foreign beauty practices, but the show seems more interested in a balance of celebrating the different and interesting traditions while showing that the dangerous lengths women go to achieve the beauty ideal. After all, while I might not be lining up to have coiled brass rings stretch my neck, is it any crazier or more dangerous than high heels or injecting poison into our foreheads?
As for other adventures, an episode in the French fashion world seems to bring out Simpson's every insecurity, and another in India introduces a little girl with a cleft palate getting a new smile, a somewhat tangential issue that comes in because Simpson has been an ambassador for Operation Smile since 2003. It seems like Simpson is determined to become a role model again — this time for all the right reasons.
While the ditzy blonde was never really my cup of tea, I kinda adore the new Jessica Simpson.
Still a silly, loud-mouthed and undeniably gorgeous Texas girl, she's learned from her experiences and grown into a woman who has an interesting perspective on the cult of beauty, and who wants to know and explore more about the world.
The Price of Beauty airs on Vh1 Mondays at 9 p.m. Central Time, starting tonight.