Jessica Simpson Turns 40: Inside Her Long Journey to Finding Love and Self-Confidence in the Spotlight

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Happy birthday, Jessica Simpson! The pop star turned fashion mogul turned 40 years old on Friday, and while Simpson appears to be the happiest and most confident she's ever been, it's been a hard-fought -- and very public -- battle to get there after decades in the business.

Simpson knew she was destined to be a star since she was a kid, auditioning for Disney's The Mickey Mouse Club when she was 11 years old. Although she made it all the way to final auditions, she didn't end up making the cut alongside other future superstars that wound up in the now legendary cast like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and Ryan Gosling. Simpson has been candid about how the early rejection made her feel, and how she often felt inadequate next to her peers.

In a 2009 interview with Vanity Fair, she recalled choking when she saw Aguilera's impressive audition.

"She sounded like Mariah Carey," she said of Aguilera. "I ended up drawing a blank, and obviously you can't do that on TV. But I was coming from the church choir with a Polaroid. I didn't come with headshots. I didn't do Off Broadway. I wasn't on Star Search. I wasn't doing all the things these other kids were doing. I was a preacher's daughter with a Polaroid."

"When I got the letter that said I didn't make it, I just remember that I was giving up and I thought that I was going to die," she continued.

Through the years, Simpson would continue to be unfavorably compared to Spears' star quality and Aguilera's well-known singing chops. When ET spoke with Simpson in February at the 2020 Create & Cultivate conference in Los Angeles, she opened up about the difficult time.

"We grew up in a very competitive environment when it came to our record labels and being pushed to do things that were unnecessary for success," she specifically said of her, Spears and Aguilera. "Everybody has found their own way, in such a beautiful, inspiring way. I just love it that everybody has remained authentically who they are. There's so much room at the top! I mean, think about how many people are in heaven! Come on."

"I think everybody's careers have their own unique stories, and I love that Britney owns herself, Christina owns herself, and they don't let the world control them," she added. "They just are themselves, and that's who I am as well."

Simpson has definitely embraced showing her fans her true self over the years. She first gave an unprecedented glimpse into her personal life with her and her now ex-husband, Nick Lachey's, memorable MTV reality show, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, which is credited with catapulting her to a new level of fame. The series, which first aired in August 2003 and lasted three seasons, often showed Simpson's charming -- if sometimes ditzy -- comments, like when she famously asked if Chicken of the Sea tuna was chicken or fish.

In a 2004 appearance on Today, Simpson talked about the criticism she received for her persona on the show.

"I think that's what makes it funny, and that's what makes it endearing, is that I'm accepting of the fact that I know I don't think before I talk, and I have my ditzy moments. It's just who I am," Simpson said.

Still, she admitted she exaggerated this aspect of her personality.

"Ever since I was in junior high, I've played it up," she said of the "dumb blonde" trope. "I don't know whether it's being from the South and having blonde hair and having this image growing up as a blonde, but it was just something that I always adapted too, and made part of my life, and made part of my personality."

Simpson and Lachey ended up separating in 2005 and finalized their divorce in 2006. In her extremely intimate memoir that was released in February, Open Book, she acknowledged that the show did take a toll on their marriage. In an exclusive interview with ET that month, she also blamed the demise of their relationship partly on her skyrocketing fame due to the reality show, and said that she didn't feel her new success was supported.

"He's also eight years older than me so he was already so grown up when I wasn't, so once I started to, you know, get covers and get endorsement deals that were separate from him -- 'cause we did everything together -- there was a little bit of tension," she shared. "And, like, a lot less support. And I just felt in our marriage that we really were kind of spinning and trying to tolerate each other towards the end because we were so used to being mic'ed up or onstage or you know, the world took us in so many ways, and they put us as a trophy couple that we actually weren't. I mean, we were at the beginning but it fell out pretty quick."

"I mean, we just grew apart in so many ways and you know, we both were at fault in a lot of things, but I mean, I'm happy for him now," she continued to reflect. "He's married with three beautiful children and you know, that was his purpose, and he took heartbreak and made it into something beautiful and that's what I did as well. But you know, it took me longer to get there."

Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey 2003 VMAs
Evan Agostini/Getty Images

Simpson has been remarkably open about not feeling like she's been enough in past romantic relationships. In Open Book, she claimed she had an "emotional" affair with her Dukes of Hazzard co-star, Johnny Knoxville, in 2005, while she was still technically married to Lachey. She said that a big part of her attraction to the Jackass star was the fact that he actually had confidence in her.

"He believed in me and made me feel like I could do anything," she wrote of Knoxville. "And the only person who had ever made me feel that way was my dad. Certainly not my husband."

When Simpson later dated Tony Romo in 2007, she was unfairly blamed by Dallas Cowboys fans when it came to his performance on the field as he was the quarterback for the team at the time. But it was her intense relationship with John Mayer that she's acknowledged really had a negative effect on her confidence. Simpson dated the singer on and off following her 2006 divorce from Lachey, and in her book, detailed how feeling insecure in her relationship with Mayer was the start of her "relying on alcohol to mask [her] nerves." She also accused him of causing her split from Romo and toying with their relationship in order to "torture himself enough to get good material." Simpson wrote that while Mayer told her repeatedly that he was "obsessed" with her, both sexually and emotionally, she found herself insecure in his presence.

"I was constantly worried that I wasn't smart enough for him," she wrote. "He was so clever and treated conversation like a friendly competition that he had to win. My anxiety would spike and I would pour another drink."

John Mayer and Jessica Simpson
Brian Ach/WireImage

Their contact ended in 2010 after Mayer told Playboy that Simpson was "sexual napalm." Simpson talked about her embarrassment over the comments in an interview with People.

"He thought that was what I wanted to be called," she said. "I was floored and embarrassed that my grandmother was actually gonna read that. A woman and how they are in bed is not something that is ever talked about. It was shocking."

"I know that he's publicly apologized and I don't want to take that away from him," she also wrote in her book. "I think he knows a lot of this about me already but he doesn't know the perspective I have as a woman. That was Jess in her 20s. ... He loved me in the way that he could and I loved that love for a very long time. Too long. And I went back and forth with it for a long time. But it did control me."

But her past romantic relationships weren't the only things that took a serious toll on Simpson's self-esteem in her younger years. Simpson also got candid in Open Book about constantly being criticized for her weight, starting at the age of 17 when she met with legendary music executive Tommy Mottola at Columbia Records. Simpson claimed that while Mattola liked her voice, he told her she needed to lose 15 pounds.

"I immediately went on an extremely strict diet, and started taking diet pills, which I would do for the next 20 years," she wrote.

Simpson also wrote that she was told to show her stomach during a ballad at a showcase, "hike up" her shirts during a music video shoot and assigned a trainer by her label. Eventually, she began the Atkins diet "hardcore."

"Off the diet, I obsessed over how I looked 24/7; on the diet, I was also hyper focused on food," she wrote. "It made me nervous. My anxiety had something to hold on to, and instead of examining my emotions, I could just block them out by focusing on carb counts and waist sizes."

By 2001, the 5'3" singer said she was down to 103 pounds, but "couldn't enjoy it because I was so freaking hungry."

"I envied people who could eat whatever they wanted, while I had to microwave slices of turkey with Velveeta cheese on top and call it a meal," she wrote. "But when I ate anything, I yelled at myself, asking why I was getting in my own way and why I hadn't gone to the gym."

Jessica Simpson during MTV's "TRL" Tour - July 12, 2001 at MTV Studios in New York City, New York, United States.
KMazur/WireImage

In 2009, Simpson was famously publicly shamed for her weight, when she performed in a pair of high-waisted blue jeans that plenty of critics cruelly wrote about. Simpson wrote in her book that despite the jeans being a size 25 -- or an American size 4 -- her confidence was "gone" after all the criticism and that "body dysmorphia set in." She also noted that the outfit "started a decade-long international discussion about [her] body," specifically how it's changed since she starred as Daisy Duke in The Dukes of Hazzard.

Jessica Simpson
Logan Fazio/Getty Images

"I had created a gold-standard Jessica, the 'before' for every 'Is she fat or is she thin?' story for the rest of my career," she wrote. "I had always been in on the joke, and that gave me power. Now that it was everybody else making it, I didn’t think it was funny. I was insulted for myself and for all women."

"The worst part was this: my very first thought was not my pain at becoming a joke and everyone laughing at me. No, it was, 'Oh no, I feel so bad that Tony has to be with the fat girl,'" she continued about worrying more about Romo's image at the time than herself. "He loved me for me, and he also thought the whole thing was ludicrous. But I was devastated and confused."

Simpson was later further shamed for gaining a noticeable amount of weight while she was pregnant with each of her children with her husband, Eric Johnson -- 8-year-old Maxwell, 7-year-old Ace and 1-year-old Birdie. In 2014, she told Redbook magazine that while pregnant with Ace, she didn't let all the talk about her weight affect her that much.

"I never listen to it, no matter who the press talks about when they're pregnant," she told the magazine at the time. "It's ridiculous and unfair. I think any woman who is pregnant and creating a life is pretty much entitled to eat whatever she wants as long as she's healthy. I wasn't going to let the media take away from what was one of the happiest times in my life."

Of course, privately, she was again suffering from the effects of the harmful comments.

"I was so ashamed of my body at this point that I wouldn't let Eric see me without a white T-shirt on," she wrote in her book about how she felt about her physical appearance after her pregnancies. "I had sex with it on and even showered with it on. I couldn't bear to look at myself."

jessica simpson pregnant in october 2018
Brian Ach/Getty Images
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Still, throughout her pregnancies, Simpson continued to be open with her fans about her struggles, including once breaking a toilet seat and having extremely swollen feet. But while Simpson eventually lost more than 100 pounds of baby weight and has proudly acknowledged putting in the hard work to get there, she has made it clear that she lost the weight to make herself feel better and not for anyone else's standards.

"Even now, people [are] commenting on my Instagram, 'Oh, snap back?' No, it wasn't a snap back and I don't even know what that word means," Simpson wrote in her book about her post-baby body. "It's like, I work hard and when I work out, a lot of it is to release anxiety. That's one of my tools for sobriety. Just walking, just going and talking, walking and talking with my husband. Even some of my biggest fans… They're saying it as a compliment, but it's like, that's not what I was trying to get with this picture but okay."

"I just thank God times are changing a little bit and people are standing up for themselves and making it not all about body image," she added. "I can hopefully be part of the change that my daughters grow up in a world where she can accept herself at any size."

In May, she shared a selfie and looked fitter than ever, but again stressed that her exercise was for mental reasons as opposed to physical.

"Woke up before all three kiddos to get my steps in and spend time with me, myself, and I. Move move move for your own mental health," Simpson captioned the picture.

Simpson has also made big changes in her life aside from exercising and sticking to a healthy diet. She's kicked unhealthy diet pills and has been sober since 2017, crediting her decision to stop drinking alcohol to wanting to be there for her kids. In her book, she recalled being too drunk to help her children into their costumes during Halloween in 2017 and being deeply ashamed.

"I need to stop," she wrote about what she told her friends the next day about drinking. "Something's got to stop. And if it's alcohol that’s doing this and making things worse, then I quit."

She later told People that actually giving up the alcohol was easy.

"I was mad at that bottle," she said. "At how it allowed me to stay complacent and numb."

Getting sober also allowed her to face her anxiety and emotional trauma head-on -- much of which came from the sexual abuse she endured as a child -- with a team of doctors, support from her parents and therapy twice a week.

"I found direction and that was to walk straight ahead with no fear," she told the magazine. "Honesty, it is hard but it's the most rewarding thing we have. And getting to the other side of fear is beautiful."

"I had room for so many wonderful moments that I would have missed: sober for the first time ever in my studio and seeing Maxwell grab a guitar," she continued. "Ace in pajamas he put on himself, proudly adding a sticker to his bedtime chart. There's just no better gift. There's no better gift I can give my kids, there's no better gift I can give my husband. More importantly, there's no better gift I can give myself."

These days, Simpson is clearly more confident than ever -- and now has no problem defending herself when it comes to the way people talk about her and her body. In December 2018, she called out Natalie Portman for the actress' comments to USA Today about her. Portman said, "I remember being a teenager, and there was Jessica Simpson on the cover of a magazine saying 'I'm a virgin’ while wearing a bikini, and I was confused. Like, I don't know what this is trying to tell me as a woman, as a girl."

Portman ended up apologizing to Simpson in an interview with ET after Simpson clapped back at the comments with a classy response on Instagram.

"I was disappointed this morning when I read that I 'confused' you by wearing a bikini in a published photo taken of me when I was still a virgin in 1999," Simpson wrote to Portman. "As public figures, we both know our image is not totally in our control at all times, and that the industry we work in often tries to define us and box us in. However, I was taught to be myself and honor the different ways all women express themselves, which is why I believed then – and I believe now – that being sexy in a bikini and being proud of my body are not synonymous with having sex."

"I have always embraced being a role model to all women to let them know that they can look however they want, wear whatever they want and have sex or not have sex with whomever they want," she continued. "The power lies within us as individuals. I have made it my practice to not shame other women for their choices. In this era of Time’s Up and all the great work you have done for women, I encourage you to do the same."

In May, she once again used her voice to call out Vogue after the high-fashion magazine's creative digital director, Sally Singer, recounted sitting at the same table as Simpson during the 2007 Met Gala in an oral history of the glamorous event. Singer said that Simpson's breasts "maybe fell out of her dress on the red carpet."

jessica simpson at 2007 met gala
Evan Agostini/Getty Images

"Feeling a little like Jayne Mansfield after reading this (inaccurate!) oral history of the #MetBall where I am body shamed by #SallySinger 😜," Simpson wrote on Instagram. "But in all seriousness I have persevered through shaming my own body and internalizing the world's opinions about it for my entire adult life."

"To read this much anticipated article about the classiest fashion event there is and have to be shamed by another woman for having boobs in 2020 is nauseating," she added.

Vogue ended up apologizing to her.

Of course, Simpson has also been open about finding true love with her husband and him being her biggest supporter and being a source of newfound confidence for her. In Open Book, she shared that she was immediately infatuated with the former NFL player after meeting him through mutual friends in 2010.

"We got deep real fast, talking about our own spiritual journeys," she wrote. "With other men, I was afraid to talk, but with Eric, there was no fear of judgment. This was completely new."

In our interview with Simpson in February, she shared that she counts May 21, 2010, as their anniversary, which is the first day they met. They got married in July 2014.

"I count the first day that we met, because it was pretty instant," she explained. "It was definitely instant. I think he moved in, like, a month later! So we knew. When you know, you know. Especially both of us. We had been through a divorce, we had other relationships. We knew exactly what we wanted in a person, in a companion, and exactly who we wanted to raise children with. We were that for each other. Through all of this, we've only become stronger."

Simpson went on to call Johnson's love for her "unreal."

"The pride that he takes in our love and in me, as a woman, is so sexy and it is so empowering, because he just knows that this is my calling," she said. "He knows that this is my path and he's just there to hold my hand through it. He's really the backbone to who I am, because anytime I feel like I can't stand, he's there to hold me up and tell me that I actually can."

Eric Johnson and Jessica Simpson arrive at the Los Angele Premiere "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1" at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 17, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.
Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic

Simpson has said that at times her husband has loved her more than she loved herself, recalling in her book when he didn't want her to go through with getting a tummy tuck in 2015. Simpson ended up having serious complications after the surgery, which she decided to get against doctor's orders.

"It was so hard on Eric, who was convinced he should have talked me out of going through with the surgery," Simpson wrote. "Eric loved me at any size or shape, even if I couldn't."

In an interview with InStyle magazine in 2015, Simpson said Johnson never criticized her for her weight.

"My husband and I were looking at old pictures recently, and I asked him, 'Babe, why didn't you tell me to put the brownie down?'" she joked. "He said, 'You looked great.'"

"He's always loved every curve on my body," she continued. "And we've always had a healthy sex life."

In ET's interview with Simpson in May 2017, she shared that her husband has a lot to do with her body confidence. When asked to spill her secret to feeling great about her figure, she simply answered, "Sex."

These days, the couple's love for one another has only grown. Simpson Instagrammed a sweet picture of the two in May to celebrate their 10-year anniversary.

"I fell head over slippers in love with this perfect man 10 YEARS ago today!" Simpson wrote. "By chance he knocked on my dreamy cottage door (sigh), I let him in and never let him leave. He is mine, I am his...forever #MAY212010"

The couple recently celebrated their 6-year wedding anniversary as well, with Johnson giving his wife a giant, purple crystal butterfly, which she called her "dream gift."

"Eric Johnson, my Husband, I love you," Simpson wrote on Instagram. "6yrs ago today I married my perfect soulmate. Our unity was written in God’s sky of colliding stars. Together we manifest dreams, nurture desire, and hold space. Destined, it always has been and always will be, forevermore."

Simpson recently poked fun at herself yet again about how far she's come with regard to her image over the years. Comparing her life now as a wife and mother to her memorable 2003 Rolling Stone cover declaring her "Housewife of the Year" as she posed in her underwear and heels while pushing a vacuum, Simpson tweeted, "Housewife of the Year looks a little different these days 😜."

For more on Simpson and Johnson's sweet relationship, watch the video below:

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