Nicole Richie is the world’s greatest satirist

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Nicole Richie is capable of parodying the world that birthed her whilst still partaking in the very constructs she is ridiculing.

by Alim Kheraj
13 April 2020, 2:00pm

The Simple Life

Nicole Richie is a trap star now. Going by the moniker Nikki Fre$h, Nicole wants to become the world’s first “conscious trap icon”. If you're wondering what that is, well, in the words of Nikki Fre$h herself, conscious trap is “music for everybody. Teachers, rabbis, Virgos… but mostly moms and gays.” As a trap artist, Nikki Fre$h wants to encourage us to save the bees. She wants to inspire us with a clean style of living as a fresh voice in the world of wellness. And through her music, she wants to save the planet.

This being Nicole Richie, the transition from author, fashion designer, reality star, actor and mother to a rap legend in the making is being documented as part of a new show on fledgling streaming service Quibi. Across a number of bite-sized episodes -- Quibi’s quirk is that all its videos are under 10 minutes -- Nicole, with the help of her trusty gay assistant Jared Goldstein, will launch her career, meet with wellness experts, conduct market research in order to flog the right kind of merch, and, of course, share clips from her music videos for songs such as “Parent Trap”, “Bee’s Tea” and “Get Ugly 4 Tha Veggies” -- the latter being an ode to often discarded misshapen fruit and vegetables.

Having seen the first three episodes, I can say wholeheartedly that the show is great. It’s obviously entirely satirical, but it’s charming, with just the right amount of irreverence and absurdity. Filmed in a mockumentary style, the show jumps between scripted comedy and “unscripted reality”, leaving you, the viewer, to figure out the split between fact and fiction. To those that have followed Nicole across the past two decades, they'll know this intersection has always been her brand. In fact, from the moment she appeared with her then-BFF Paris Hilton in the iconic reality show The Simple Life, it’s been difficult to know just how in on the jokes at her expense she really is. Presented initially as an entitled, air-headed Hollywood brat, the popularity of the show torpedoed Nicole into the gossip columns, quickly framing her as simply another privileged rich kid stumbling around LA with a tiny dog. Nicole’s story, however, isn’t your traditional “entitled heiress pivots to reality TV”.

Aged three, she moved in with Lionel Richie and his wife Brenda, friends of her biological parents who, at that time, felt they couldn’t afford to provide for their daughter. She was adopted by the Richie family when she was nine, an idyll that crumbled after Lionel had an affair that led to a public divorce. Nicole's parents compensated by doting on her lavishly. “Their way of making me happy was to say yes to everything I wanted,” she said in 2006, adding, “I don’t think a little girl should have that much freedom.”

Months before The Simple Life debuted on TV, Nicole was arrested for driving with a suspended license and was entered into a rehab facility for the second time for an addiction to heroin. She admitted that she was off the rails. “I thought I was getting away with everything, when the reality was that I was arrested three times and had five car accidents. Two were totals,” she said. You get a sense of this bullheadedness watching those early seasons of The Simple Life. It was shambolic, Paris and Nicole living up to their contrived reputations as disrespectful socialites, oblivious to the great economic and cultural divides in American society. Those first two seasons were also as real as reality TV can get. “In the beginning we weren’t even allowed to have phones,” she told Vice in 2017. “That concept alone wouldn’t fly now, which is so crazy because it doesn’t seem like that long ago. I was cut off from the world. I don’t think the show could exist now for that reason, but that was the whole point. The concept of just leaving your life just isn’t a thing. It was just a whole different time.”

After Nicole completed her second stint in rehab, The Simple Life had become a pop culture phenomenon. The stakes in the third season were amped up. When a reality show -- and, more importantly, its stars -- become popular, the whole song-and-dance becomes somewhere more self-aware, and the show leaned into the theatrics, stupidity and differences that made The Simple Life such compelling and cringe-inducing viewing. Having been through the ringer, though, seems to have given Nicole a sharpened sense of humour and self-awareness that her co-star lacked. As the show progressed, it became clear that she was in on the joke. As she told Vice, “My life just went in a completely different direction.”

This manifested itself in Nicole’s next proper television venture, Candidly Nicole. Like her current show, Candidly Nicole blended reality and scripted television to create something akin to a lifestyle show, but with more bite. The concept was fairly simple: Nicole would explore various fields, like removing her tramp stamp, online dating, going to therapy and learning how to be a boss. More so than The Simple Life, it proved Nicole had an ability to satirise the world that birthed her while simultaneously partaking in the very constructs she is ridiculing.

Handled by another TV personality, the show would likely have lacked any drive or humour, becoming another vehicle to sell an aspirational lifestyle. In other words, she would have been a YouTuber. But Candidly Nicole was funny. Like, really funny. Taking the privileged, spoilt, celebrity luddite persona she had cultivated while starring in The Simple Life, Nicole created an even more monstrous version of herself to play. As she told Vanity Fair, the Nicole in Candidly Nicole is a “pilled-out, alcoholic" version of her. "I’m not saying doesn’t exist. But, that is one aspect”.

The show highlighted the absurdities of celebrity, Hollywood and the shifting priorities of middle-and-upper-class Western culture. In one episode, she met with a “jobless” social media influencer (years before that became a career path) for a day of relaxing by the pool, only to learn just how much effort goes into portraying a life of leisure and the perfect selfie. “I’m doing more work here,” Nicole says, “than I do on Candidly Nicole,” before she adds: “Do you think that we’ve got any likes yet?”

She pokes fun at virtue signalling, too, and the co-opting of political causes for celebrity clout. In one episode she visits a chicken farm run by two gay farmers to showcase just how organic and liberal she can be. Meanwhile, another episode sees her using a group of LGBT+ people to help her fight an invasion of woodland creatures, poking fun at the idea of “gaytrification”, while also highlighting how celebrities use causes to further their own agendas. She delivers each and every line with near perfect comic timing.

From the first three episodes of Nikki Fre$h, it’s clear that Nicole has ludicrous celebrity career changes and the commodification of socio-political movements in her line of fire. She again plays a version of herself, just this time it’s less sardonic, but still obtuse and oblivious. It’s almost painfully awkward, as she and her assistant approach shoppers in a supermarket to talk about the ridiculous products she intends to sell as merch. There are observations about colourism -- her assistant doesn’t realise that Nicole is mixed race -- and the sheer level of money that the entertainment industry sinks into celebrity vanity projects.

What sells it all, though, is the fact that the public persona that Nicole has created for herself over the years still leaves you wondering: is she for real? After The Simple Life, both Nicole and Paris have forever been stuck as those young twenty-year-olds who were oblivious, obnoxious and, depending on who you asked, annoying. Paris has never really relinquished that colouring. In fact, much of Paris’s brand still consists of leaning into the baby-voiced ditzy character with a penchant for hot pink and an underlying Republican sentiment. Nicole, on the other hand, has deconstructed the person she was painted as in The Simple Life only to stitch it back together as a Frankenstein-ian take on the Hollywood starlet. Acting as both a weapon and armour, she uses it to satirise and parody the very culture that created her. What is perhaps unique is that none of it would work if Nicole herself didn’t, in some way, subscribe to that very lifestyle. Publicly, her life has been defined by celebrity, from her father to her own media career. The brilliance lies in the blurring between what’s real and unreal. It’s up to you to figure out which is which.

reality tv
Nicole Richie
Think Pieces