NEW YORK -- Even the folks at VH1 admit they didn't really consider Jessica Simpson diva material when they put together their annual "Divas" extravaganza last year.
"At that point, she was geared a little toward a teen audience," Rick Krim, a VH1 executive vice president, said delicately. More bluntly, Simpson was widely regarded as a C-list Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera with diminishing record sales and questionable star power.
One year later, Simpson's once dull star has not only brightened - it has exploded, ever since she and hubby Nick Lachey turned their marriage over to MTV for the hugely successful series "The Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica."
Simpson's latest album, "In This Skin," a dud when it was first released last summer, is now platinum and still climbing. The couple's April 11 TV special, "The Nick & Jessica Variety Hour," was so successful that ABC ordered another for Christmas. Simpson's shooting her own ABC sitcom pilot about a not-so-bright blonde celebrity named Jessica Sampson. And then there's her line of lickable perfumes debuting this month.
"The best part about life right now is watching prayers being answered. That's so amazing," Simpson, 23, told The Associated Press in an interview.
And she finally ranks as a diva - in VH1's eyes, anyway. She's one of the headliners at Sunday's live broadcast from Las Vegas.
"I've always watched 'Divas,' and I knew I could hang with them. I knew I could do it. And I think more than anything, it's an honor to be finally respected for my voice," Simpson said.
Her considerable vocal talent is what first made her a teen pop starlet. Her 1999 major-label debut, "Sweet Kisses," sold almost 2 million copies (though 2001's follow up, "Irresistible," wasn't a big seller).
But it's Simpson's personality - a delightful mix of ditziness, petulance, wholesome Southern charm and sex appeal - that's now getting her on magazine covers.
"She had a moderately successful recording career, but as a personality, I don't think people got to see that other side of her, that captivated people," said Krim.
That "other side" happened to be her ditzy side. She's been widely lampooned for her bubble-head antics on the "Newlyweds" (like eschewing Buffalo wings because "I don't eat buffalo"). But she's not only accepted her doofus status, she's reveled in it.
"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.
For those who ask, "How can she be that dumb?" the answer is, she's not. She's just acting her hair color.
"Ever since I was in junior high, I've played it up," the Texas native said. "I don't know whether it's being from the South and having blond 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."
Now it's part of her shtick, too. In her new pilot, she plays an airhead celebrity who's tapped by a news magazine to join their show in part to boost ratings: "It's kind of like playing myself exaggerated, so it's really not that much acting," she said.
Lachey, the former lead singer for the teen pop group 98 Degrees, is developing his own sitcom as well. But his solo debut, also released last year, has not fared as well as his wife's, nor does he garner as much attention. It's led to tabloid speculation that her bright spotlight is causing martial tensions.
Simpson, who is quick to rave about her husband during a conversation ("Nick has a great sense of humor" she gushes), is also quick to shoot down rumors of jealousy.
"I think in general, focus is always more on women because there's always a story in an outfit or in a purse," she said. "From 'Newlyweds,' people have seen what an amazing man of character Nick is, and I think most of the viewers would want to be married to him if I wasn't."
Of course, if she wasn't married to Lachey, she might not have such amazing success - she even jokes it was the best move of her career.
But she's not sure how long her marriage will be the focal point. "It's hard to have cameras around nonstop all the time, but it has given us the opportunity to further our careers, and to take on stuff that we've always wanted to take on," she said.
Only a few years ago, Simpson was writing in her journal, wondering why she hadn't achieved the multi-platinum successes that peers like Spears and Aguilera had.
"I was young and I was comparing myself to them as well," she said. "And now I don't even have to because people see me so completely different, which is awesome.
"I can just be myself, and maybe somewhere down the line, a new up-and-coming girl will be compared to me."
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