So shoot me

No wonder Nicole Richie - daughter of Lionel, godchild of Michael Jackson - has become one of the paparazzi's most wanted. And, as Hadley Freeman finds out, she's having a Sienna Miller effect on the wardrobes of American teenagers

The day before I met Nicole Richie, adopted daughter of Lionel and American celebrity phenomenon, I - purely for professional research, of course - bought a pile of weekly celebrity magazines. They all featured Richie, usually on the cover. "Nicole's new look!" shrieked one; "Nicole sports a teeny bikini," another solemnly informed its readers; "Nicole pines for her ex," sympathised a third.

By the time I meet her the next day, in Los Angeles, I feel as if I know precisely what she has been doing and wearing every day for the past week.

Richie, golden skinned, far prettier than she looks in tabloid photos and extremely thin, tells me, somewhat pointedly, that only "people in middle America believe those magazines". Be that as it may, people are clearly interested in her: on her way to meet me for a late morning coffee in Beverly Hills, she "had, like, three cars tailing me, which is kind of a lot, you know? It definitely takes its toll." She removes her trademark goggle-sized sunglasses, which serve to make her tiny face look even more doll-like, and rolls her eyes as if to illustrate the aforementioned toll.

In the UK, Richie is not yet a familiar name to anyone whose weekly reading material does not include Heat, Now or Closer magazines, but in America she is Sienna Miller, Peaches Geldof and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson combined. She has become, according to Teen Vogue, "a fashion icon". The New York Times recently described her as "one of the most chic young women in the public eye", and she has just been made the face of Jimmy Choo's advertising campaign - the first time the company has hired a celebrity.

Aside from her famous parentage, Richie is best known for The Simple Life, a TV programme in which she and her sometime friend, hotel heiress Paris Hilton, are taken out of their usual Beverly Hills environment and plonked in middle America, where they learn how to do normal civilian things, such as working as temps in an office or running a farm. There is more than a touch of lèse-majesté about the show - look at the rich mingling with the poor folk! - and it would be unwatchably silly if it weren't for Richie.

She comes across as full of sass and funny comebacks, while Hilton tends to stand on the sidelines, silent, often petulant and palpably bored. In one episode, the two were taught how to use a snow plough. "That's hot," Hilton drawled as they ploughed, a saying she tried to make her signature catchphrase on the show. "Actually," Richie deadpanned back, with the tiniest roll of her eyes, "it's cool." There was a pause as Hilton tried to figure out whether she was being mocked. Was the show scripted? "Well, I would call it improv," Richie replies in a tone that seems to say, "but most would not".

Eventually, and inevitably, the two fell out badly, although neither will say why. "It's not that we've fallen out, it's just that she's no longer part of my life and I think it's much more important to her than it is to me," Richie says jauntily. "She has, like, as much to do with my life now as that man over there," she says, pointing to a man across the terrace who just happens to be overweight, ugly and bald. They are filming another series of The Simple Life "but we're never, like, in the same room".

If Richie's appeal on the show relied on the suggestion of witty normality, her image off it has taken quite a different tack. Her extensive wardrobe has become legendary - she once bought 17 pairs of shoes on a four-day trip to New York - and all her friends in LA appear to be progeny of celebrities or minor celebrities in their own right, such as Kimberly (daughter of Rod) Stewart, Mick Jagger's daughters and actor Lindsay Lohan.

As Teen Vogue says, she has also become quite the fashion icon, which few could have expected from her early days on The Simple Life, when she lived in too-tight Lycra dresses and pastel Juicy Couture. Her new style of elegant vintage dresses, oversized sunglasses and ladylike prettiness has become as popular among American teenagers as Sienna Miller's boho look was here. Partly, she willingly concedes, this is thanks to her stylist, but she pointedly adds, "I only use her for big events. I do think it is a big mistake for people to think, 'Oh, Nicole only dresses well because she's got a stylist.' It's not like I call her every morning." Because of the public's fascination with the famous, celebrities have become fashion templates in the way models once were, a situation Richie describes as "crazy, but kinda cool, because models just wear what people tell them to wear, whereas, with other people, it's more about their personal style". The day we meet, she is looking every inch the luxe hippy in skinny jeans, a vintage chiffon top and a giant Balenciaga bag, and admits the amount she spends on clothes is "kinda bad. I need to start paying attention to prices."

As for her favourite designers, she demurs about mentioning names because "even my favourites don't make stuff that is good for my frame. I've got a small frame, so things don't really fit me." It is the first time I've ever heard anyone criticise fashion designers for making clothes too big.

Richie was adopted by Lionel and his then wife Brenda when she was three, and has always denied rumours that her birth parents were a groupie and a member of Lionel's band. With Michael Jackson as her godfather ("I never comment on that"), the pastoral care situation was always going to be unusual. Her parents divorced acrimoniously when she was a teenager, and Richie began taking drugs in high school. By all accounts, she was quite the teenage tearaway of Beverly Hills, once lying in the middle of Sunset Boulevard in protest because she couldn't get a sandwich at 2am. She was arrested twice before the age of 23: once for failing a Breathalyser test and, second, when police found a balloon of heroin in her car. Her defence that "it wasn't on me, it was in the car" failed to get her off. She was by then addicted to heroin and, with her father's encouragement, went into rehab.

When asked why she got into drugs so young, she answers instantly, "Because I had the freedom to do it because my parents were going through their divorce. I just wanted to ignore everything that happened to me. I grew up in the 80s, so my dad wasn't really around much, either." He is now, though, she says, and is helping her with her forthcoming album, which has been described as "pop funk". "My dad sometimes oversteps the boundaries, but he knows that he should just play the dad role," she says with a smile, a comment that seems to suggest she sees "the dad role" as synonymous with being distant and uninvolved.

Aside from the forthcoming album, she has also written - "Yes, by myself" - what she insistently describes as "a novel", The Truth About Diamonds. It's the story of a fashion-obsessed young girl, Chloe, adopted by a pop star who was big in the 1980s, who grows up in LA with a fast group of friends, develops a heroin problem and is cast in a reality TV show with a spoilt heiress who once lost her mobile phone (as Hilton did last year), probably just to get attention from the papers, and makes sex videos of herself with various boyfriends, another Hilton habit. "There are a lot of people like that," Richie insists. "And Chloe is not me."

To further confuse matters, the novel includes a series of photos of Richie posing as "Chloe" at various stages of her life, from a childlike ballerina to a strung-out junkie in a night club. "Those photos aren't me," she says brusquely. They look like you, I reply. "They're not." Really? "They're Chloe," she enunciates very slowly, as if speaking to the hard of learning.

No matter, her book is undeniably a fun, and even funny, read and now, post-wild-teenage-years and mid-book-publicity, Richie has become famous for something else: skinniness. She is the poster girl for the bony young Hollywood set. On The Simple Life, she looked almost chunky, although she insists she "was never over a size 4 [UK size 8]" and that she was heavier because she'd just come out of rehab. "I knew I'd lose that weight and I did," she says, a little crossly. She certainly did: Richie is distressingly skinny, with a childlike, concave chest and arms that look as if they might snap under the weight of her enormous bag. She looks prepubescent, particularly when she ends her sentences with her unsettlingly childlike giggles. It is as if, having rushed so headily through her teenage years, she is now trying to grab back a little bit of childhood. Before she and her fiance, a 32-year-old DJ, broke up last month, Richie told a magazine that she wanted her wedding to have "a Cinderella theme, with glass slippers and everything".

The waiter comes over and I expect Richie to order a glass of water, hold the slice of lemon. Instead, she beams up at the waiter angelically, asks for "scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, toast and a pot of hot chocolate", and smiles at my dropping jaw.

Back to my pile of magazines. Two featured the same photo of a shockingly bony Richie in a yellow bikini. One fretted that "Richie has been looking increasingly gaunt". The other, however, saw the photo differently, saying it illustrated Richie's "bikini body", making her a "beach babe". Between the gap of these two statements, one can hear the shift of physical standards for young women.

Undoubtedly, Richie is thin - "gaunt" was one of the more sensitive adjectives that came to mind when I saw her ribs in that photo. But among other photographs of young female celebrities on the beach, which appeared alongside Richie's photo in the magazine, she didn't look too unusual, although she was by far the skinniest. All the other young women - most of whom form Richie's network of friends, such as the actors Mischa Barton from The OC, Lohan, Hilton, and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen - were flaunting the requisite jutting hipbones, deflated stomachs and, in some cases, tendons. What once looked "gaunt" is now "beach babe".

Although some magazines occasionally run stories pointing out a celebrity's unnatural thinness, ultimately it is the thinness that gets the celebrity the publicity. After all, if Richie was a healthier weight she would not have been on the cover of the issue of Heat I read on the plane to LA (coverline: "Stars' dramatic weight loss!").

"I blame [America's weight obsession] on the tabloid magazines," says Richie, bolting down some bacon and taking a glug of hot chocolate. "One week on the cover it's me and it's like 'Anorexic, blah blah blah', and the next week it has 'Celebrity diet tips'! They're, like, obsessed and I'm, like, get over it." She has a point: these magazines, which are mushrooming like funghi, are far crueller about women's bodies than any fashion magazine ever would be, with their taunts and their yellow arrows pointing out cellulite. When I return from LA, the new coverline on Heat reads "Charlotte [Church]'s weight problems!" Inside, the 19-year-old is accused of porkiness. But then, the only reason magazines are obsessed with weight is because we seem to be so, and prove it by buying the magazines. It has got to the point where a person can achieve fame just by being thin and doing little else: Elizabeth Hurley comes to mind, or Victoria Beckham.

Richie is adamant she does not have a problem with food - "I've always been thin," she insists - but even if she were the healthiest girl on the planet, surely constant comments about her weight in the national press would bother her? "Not at all. I just live my life, and it's a very honest and healthy life," she replies merrily, shovelling more bacon into her drawn little mouth. "It's not," she insists, leaning against an arm so thin I can see the tendons, "something I think about at all."

But even if she doesn't, one would have thought that a friend or family member might. She says dismissively, "No, no, they're not worried at all." Lionel, however, gave an interview last year to an entertainment news programme in which he conceded that his daughter was too thin, because "right now she is feeling a little bit of the pressures of her new business ... Dad is on the case." Last month Lohan, who has often been pictured with Richie going into night clubs, the two of them in slip dresses that hardly stayed on their tiny frames, told Vanity Fair that she had suffered from bulimia. "It's never been an issue for me," Richie repeats. "But it's sad when people feel that pressure." Surely all young women feel some pressure about their weight: how does she cope with it? "I just don't feel pressure because I am thin. I've never dieted in my life," and she closes the conversation by filling her mouth with more scrambled egg.

It's hard to know what to make of it all. Perhaps the food was to make a point (in previous interviews she has chowed down on fast food, much to the shock of the journalists); perhaps she suffers from tapeworm. Who knows? Has she ever wished she lived a less high-profile life? "Sometimes I do, yeah, I'm not going to lie to you, but actually I had a lot of fun when I was growing up."

At last, she gives up on the meal and the waiter returns. "Can I get this to go?" she asks, all girlishly. Of course she can. When we were talking about her drug addiction earlier, she made an unusually perceptive comment: "I think the main reason you get into drugs is because you don't want to deal with something, but it doesn't really work because you end up having to deal with it later." It's a remark that comes to mind when watching her leave, with her chopstick legs and armful of food, ready to face the waiting paparazzi and the eyes of America.


Hadley Freeman

The GuardianTramp

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