20 Years Ago, Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica Accidentally Invented Influencer Culture

10 minute read

“Is this chicken, what I have, or is this fish? I know it’s tuna, but it says chicken… by the sea. Is that stupid?” 

If you remember just one thing about Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica, the mid-2000s MTV reality sensation that chronicled the marriage of Jessica Simpson and 98 Degrees alum Nick Lachey, it’s probably this ridiculous string of sentences, uttered by Simpson as she curled up on the couch with a bowl of what was, of course, canned tuna fish. Appearing just three minutes into the series premiere, which aired on Aug. 19, 2003, the scene established the show as an unscripted variation on a classic sitcom dynamic. Like Lucille Ball in hip-hugging denim, Simpson would play the ditzy wife to Lachey’s exasperated husband. After silently staring at his bride for a few dumbfounded beats, he grumbles: “You act like you’ve never had tuna before!”

Act was the operative word. If Newlyweds harkened back to I Love Lucy, that was because Simpson’s father and then-manager Joe Simpson pitched it as precisely that. Over the past 20 years, and especially since the release of her bracingly candid 2020 memoir, Open Book, it’s become clear that Simpson was in on the dumb-blonde joke all along. As her recording career floundered, following a muddled sophomore album whose six-figure sales had disappointed in the wake of a double-platinum debut, the show was an opportunity to get her music back on MTV. It also gave her a chance to resolve an identity crisis exacerbated by the era’s surplus of gorgeous, young, female pop stars. With Newlyweds, she remade her image—and, in doing so, played a seminal role in the creation of what would come to be known as influencer culture.    

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Reality TV as we know it today—a full-fledged industry, rather than the curiosity it was in the early years of MTV’s The Real World—was still a burgeoning genre in 2003. E!’s Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise wouldn’t debut for a few more years. MTV’s unscripted answer to The O.C., Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, premiered in 2004; its more influential spin-off, The Hills, followed in ’06. Newlyweds even predated Fox’s zeitgeisty Paris Hilton vehicle The Simple Life—which subjected the woman who’s often credited as the original influencer and her best pal Nicole Richie to a litany of menial labors—by a few months. And it contained the seeds of all of the above shows, from the flighty lead to the SoCal glamor to the technically unscripted but heavily stage-managed plots.

While they might also act or sing or play sports, reality stars, like the influencers who now occupy a similar cultural niche, are their own principal products. For Hilton, the brand was hot, spoiled airhead; of course she knew what Walmart was, but The Simple Life got lots of mileage out of leading America to believe otherwise. Another gorgeous blonde with a flair for feigning ignorance, Simpson had already claimed the other side of that coin—the approachable, girl-next-door bombshell. Newlyweds dressed the Texan minister’s daughter in velour track pants and logo T-shirts, while she lounged around her new Calabasas home with her new husband. In goofy golf outings and at restaurants where she balked at eating unfamiliar dishes, it squeezed humor out of her clumsy attempts at upper-crust living. If The Simple Life was a 21st-century take on Green Acres, then Newlyweds owed something to The Beverly Hillbillies.

All of this was by design. As Simpson recalls in Open Book, she and Nick were “figuring out… how to create content for a kind of show that had never been done before.” In shaping Newlyweds as a rom-com counterpart to MTV’s unscripted family-sitcom sendup The Osbournes, “we made a plan to get back to the natural person that I was, the one that people could relate to.” That meant leaning into the innocence of a sheltered 22-year-old who had so famously waited until marriage to have sex for the first time. (Two decades later, the frequency with which Simpson’s virginity and Lachey’s, er, patience come up in the series can be jarring.) It also meant making the highly unnatural experience of being followed for months at a time by a reality-TV crew feel authentic. Hence the fixation on Simpson’s blunders, as well as all the burping, farting, and foul smells that punctuate the show. (Simpson, who’d faced pressure since her teen years to stay unnaturally thin, later blamed any gassiness on a “strict protein diet.”)        

Crude as it could be, Newlyweds was resolutely old-fashioned when it came to gender roles. Most story lines hinged on moldy, essentialist women are like this, men are like that comedy. Several episodes find Nick surrounded by scantily clad women while Jessica plays the jealous wife. In one such instance, she schemes to make him forget about his sexy backup dancers by purchasing some new lingerie—only to call him in a panic when she realizes she’s just spent $750 on two bra-and-panty sets. (Women be shopping, am I right?) While Nick takes the lead on home-improvement projects, Jessica makes fumbling attempts to cook and clean. 

The joke was supposed to be that teen stardom had spoiled Simpson. More likely, she was just as new to the domestic arts as most young adults living on their own for the first time. In that regard, it makes sense that viewers related to the semi-autobiographical characters she and Lachey played. As Simpson notes in Open Book, “Reality television knocked famous people off the pedestal. Girls felt like I had hung out with them in their living rooms, and so when they saw me, they ran up to hug me like we were girlfriends. Couples identified so strongly with us.”

Relatability is, as we know even better now than we did in the early 2000s, powerful. The typical episode of Newlyweds was dreadfully boring—two pretty people bickering over chores and running errands and repeatedly failing to cook dinner for themselves. Yet its particular brand of monotony presaged a form of entertainment that’s become wildly popular since Facebook started rolling out to college students in 2004, with Twitter, Instagram, and eventually TikTok on the horizon. If the past 20 years of social media have proven anything (beyond the self-evidently depressing realm of partisan politics), it’s that we as a culture have a bottomless appetite for curated depictions of how other people live. We pore over these photos and videos, and we allow them to influence the images of our own lifestyles that we curate for the same platforms.

The lifestyle conjured by Newlyweds would’ve been surprisingly achievable for many teen and 20-something viewers. Forget the constant air travel and the Simpson-Lacheys’ million-dollar starter home—an under-decorated expanse of beige and wrought iron that never looked all that appealing in the first place. Just by going about their mundane routines, the couple repped brands like Abercrombie & Fitch, General Motors, Planet Hollywood, and the Coca-Cola Company. A Gap Body shopping bag gets screen time in one episode; in another, a hungover Jessica chows down on Wendy’s with members of Nick’s family. 

Sure, there were glimpses of luxury. Hot-air balloon rides and anniversary dinners at Tavern on the Green, which Simpson has said were usually dreamed up by producers but framed on the show as Nick’s own ideas, injected periodic doses of aspirational romance into a marriage being slowly eroded by competition and surveillance. Jessica toted around a voluminous Speedy bag from Takashi Murakami’s colorful Louis Vuitton collection, which British Vogue would later dub “the defining fashion collaboration of the noughties.” But her obsession with that handbag—the way she dragged it along on a made-for-TV camping trip and squealed over the matching wallet and coin purse her family bestowed upon her as birthday presents—mirrored the attachment any regular girl might feel to the It accessory they’d scrimped and saved to purchase. Do you think Paris the Heiress would’ve been caught dead losing her mind over a designer purse?  

Newlyweds was supposed to be selling the Simpson-Lacheys’ music. And to a certain extent, it did. Released the very same day that America watched her accidental Chicken of the Sea ad, Simpson’s third full-length, In This Skin, became the top-selling album of her career. Nick wasn’t quite so lucky. His solo debut—titled, er, SoulOpeaked at No. 51 on Billboard’s album chart. Maybe that disparity came down to a vast difference in quality between his record and hers. More likely, it was because Jessica so quickly became the show’s breakout star. Papa Joe surely understood that the series on which he’d modeled Newlyweds wasn’t called I Love Desi.

As wellness influencers using chiseled abs to hawk cleanses know all too well, when the product you’re actually selling is yourself, you have to organize your entire life around maintaining the brand. As Simpson writes in Open Book, over the course of three seasons that aired through the winter of 2005, she and Lachey “slowly started acting out our parts even when cameras weren’t rolling. When we did appearances, we didn’t want to disappoint people by not doing the whole act. It didn’t feel wrong, because it was just exaggerated, idealized versions of ourselves. Heck, I wanted to be that happy.” A generation later, she reflects, “I see so many people performing their identities on social media, but I feel like I was a guinea pig for that.”

She sure was. And one casualty of the experiment was her marriage. For all its artifice, the show accurately captured Nick’s increasing discomfort as his wife’s fame eclipsed his own. Paranoid that cameras and audio recording devices were hidden in their home even after the MTV crews had departed for good, the couple would leave the premises to argue. By the end of 2005, Simpson had filed for divorce. 

That same year, she blazed a trail that a generation of reality stars and influencers, from the Kardashians to embattled Something Navy founder Arielle Charnas, would follow, launching what would become a billion-dollar fashion brand. Selling affordably priced femininity in a wide range of sizes, the Jessica Simpson Collection thrived for years as its namesake’s recording career waned (and remains ubiquitous even after its parent company’s Chapter 11 filing in 2021). Yet Simpson was so busy maintaining the persona she’d perfected in Newlyweds that it wasn’t until 2017 that she’d seek help for substance issues that dated back to the diet pills she’d started taking as a teenager pressured to appear perfect in the public eye. (Lachey, for his part, went all-in on television. Relationship reality remains his niche; he and current wife Vanessa Lachey are now the increasingly controversial co-hosts of a suite of Netflix dating shows.) 

The real winner in the end? Well, maybe it was Chicken of the Sea, whose executives had probably never dared dream of the pop-culture relevance Newlyweds brought them. The company capitalized on the exposure by hosting Simpson and Lachey at its San Diego headquarters in a publicity stunt dutifully documented by MTV News. The resulting article reads like pure 2020s #sponcon. “I will be a consumer forever,” Simpson reportedly proclaimed during the visit. “I will be, because normally I don't like fish, but it tastes so much like chicken.”

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