After Surviving 2005, Nicole Richie Is Saving the Bees
by Rob LeDonne
11 November 2020
The beat is a little ominous and menacing, backed by an understated synth. Could this be the new Post Malone? Suddenly, a female voice emerges in the sonic distance and an electronic drum loop kicks in. Perhaps it's Megan Thee Stallion's latest? "Why aren't we saving the bees," the voice questions. "You know it's an issue for me. Up in their hives, trying to survive, we treat 'em like an enemy."
No, your ears do not deceive you. This is indeed a trap song about the environmental plight of honeybees, alas not courtesy of a Top 40 artist, but rather a tabloid celebrity we've been familiar with for the better part of two decades: Nicole Richie. "They sparkin' the cycle of life, keeping the planet alive," she continues. "Pollinating, no complainin' too many flowers alive." Adding another layer of delicious bizarreness is the fact "Bee's Tea" is credited to Nikki Fre$h, an alter ego for the reality star-turned fashion mogul-turned comedic actress-turned budding musician. And when she spits rhymes about saving the bees, she means every single word of it.
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"When I first started gardening, it felt like the world opened up," Richie says from her Los Angeles home during a brief respite from attending to her two kids and back-to-back Zooms for both the Nikki Fre$h project and her fashion brand House of Harlow 1960. "I was growing things and creating life at every turn. I just absolutely fell in love with it."
What began as Richie posting her harvest on social media ("I saw Oprah was doing that, so I said I'm going to do it too"), has grown into more than kale and tomatoes. "It became this joke between me and my friends. A lot of them were making fun of me, saying gardening isn't cool or that it's for old ladies. And I'm like, how did gardening get this reputation? I started calling myself Nikki Fre$h." Supported by her debut album, Unearthed, along with an ancillary Quibi show, it's an inside joke that's sparked the latest phase of what's been an idiosyncratic career.
Nicole Richie's breakout role was, at the time, just as unique as what came after. The Simple Life premiered on Fox in 2003, the same year Greta Thunberg was born and 10 days before the capture of Saddam Hussein. Years before the Kardashians and Real Housewives took over television and culture at large, the exploits of Richie and her real-life best friend Paris Hilton were a signal — maybe a warning flare — of what was to come. It was a situation Richie says she stumbled into. "I had grown up a dancer and figure skater my whole life and wanted to go to New York to pursue musical theater," she recalls. Richie was no doubt inspired by her adopted pop star father Lionel, whom she lovingly refers to as "L Train.". "My parents looked me in my eye and said, 'You're not ready to go to New York, you'd be a wild animal.' And they were right." Instead, Richie headed to the University of Arizona and became a party girl there. (In a cosmic twist, Kourtney Kardashian was a classmate.)
It was during a trip back home to Los Angeles two years later that Hilton pitched Richie about joining her in a show. (Fox executives, who originally envisioned Paris's sister Nicky as co-star, developed the concept: two socialites struggling through less-than-glamorous jobs in an unscripted comedy in the vein of Green Acres. Nicky eventually decided against it).
"I was around 20 and they said it'd take 28 days and we didn't know where we'd be going," remembers Richie of the fateful decision to join. "We'd be getting on a plane and wouldn't have our phones. I was like, that sounds so much fun. Never in my life did I think about what it meant or what it'd become. It was an adventure."
The show exploded into the cultural zeitgeist, making stars of both Richie and Hilton during the glory days of the tabloid journalism of inane celebrity culture. Despite an eventual, much-publicized fallout, the two became inextricably linked as a result. Throw in a sex tape (Hilton's, with ex-boyfriend Rick Solomon) and some jail time (Richie was popped for DUI and served 82 minutes of a four-day sentence, while Hilton did considerably more time for the same infraction) and you have yourself a recipe for media catnip, albeit one built on personal tumult where even your darkest moments garner public redicule. (See: David Letterman's 2007 skewering of Richie in which her impending jail time was mined for laughs.)
But talking to Richie, it doesn't sound as bad as all that. The Simple Life had simply seemed like a good idea at the time. "Being that free and going somewhere for a month, knowing on some level you are being protected and looked after is something I would recommend to any 20 year old. I'd say, 'Yeah, do it. That's what you're 20 for,'" she says. "I actually don't get asked that much about that era. Sometimes I have trouble having an accurate memory of what my pattern of thought was at that time."
Now nearing two decades later, the stars of the Perez Hilton-era have diverged in their fates. There's cases like Hilton, who is grappling with the upheavals of her past with a new YouTube documentary and an ever-full slate of projects, to careers that either fizzled (Lindsay Lohan) or continue to raise eyebrows (Britney Spears). When it comes to the latter star, whom Richie is an unabashed fan of ("Britney walked me like a dog on stage at one of her concerts and it was the best night of my life"), she is perplexed as the rest of us in regards to the speculation and controversies that surround her. "I love Britney, so I want her to be happy and healthy whatever that means. I don't know the details of her whole thing. I know there's something, but I'm not clear on exactly what it is."
Richie, meanwhile, has managed to avoid most of the minefields. In short, she simply grew up. Her daughter was born a year after her tumultuous 2007, and she gave birth to a son two years later. She married the father, rocker Joel Madden, in 2010.
It took a while to get here, but Richie's happy with how things turned out. "There's a lot of conversations now that we're living in a girl boss moment when there are so many women saying, 'I knew what I wanted to do at 16 and went out there and got it and was focused,'" she says. "I think that's a great story to tell, but it's not the only journey that exists. I had a specific time in my life and that's when I was out in the world. People know about my wins and losses, people know about my strengths and people know about my demons. It started out that way for me, and it's never been anything else. I have just had to lean into it."
Having kids proved a turning point. "The biggest thing was taking [them] back to school and seeing what amazing education they have at their fingertips," she says. "It made me think of all the education I had at mine too, but it wasn't my focus."
Perhaps that's why she swapped partying for gardening and now prides herself on being a voracious reader. (She recently finished Kevin Wilson's Nothing to See Here, a novel "about a girl who basically goes to live with her best friend from college's family, and that's all I can say without giving it away. It's very funny"). Aside from her work in fashion (on this particular day she's grappling with Zoom-only fittings for House of Harlow), Richie also leaned heavily into comedic acting. She wisley first bridged the gap between her reality past and a comedy future with the VH1 series Candidly Nicole, a reality lampoon in which she played a scripted version of herself. She then went toe-to-toe with comedic heavyweights on Great News, a show in the vein of 30 Rock (even produced by Tina Fey) where Richie played a cable news anchor alongside SCTV veteran Andrea Martin, the veteran character actor John Michael Higgins and Saturday Night Live alum Horatio Sanz.
Working with these humor vets sharpened her chops. "She's hilarious,"says Ira Madison III, the internet personality and cultural commentator who served as writer and segment producer on Nikki Fre$h. "I was a huge fan of Great News. You can tell she took the experience of The Simple Life and used it to carve out a sense of comedic timing that is more conducive to comedy than reality TV." Richie's husband Joel, meanwhile, recognizes a certain Lucille Ball-type sensibility. "I always kind of got the I Love Lucy vibe from her when she turns on the jokes. I think people have only really gotten a peak at the comedian she really is. At the very least, I think she remains completely unique to herself, regardless of how far she decides to take her acting career."
While supportive of Richie's talents, even Madden was incredulous about her trap comedy foray. "I knew I wanted to do this comedy album, so I talked to Joel and he was like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay, okay, okay,'" Richie remembers of initially broaching the subject. "But the first time we talked about it was at home and I knew I had to have a real sit down with him for him to take me seriously, so I set up a meeting with him and everyone in his office."
It was an awkward conversation that was later parodied, or perhaps simply reenacted, in the first scene of the Quibi series. "I read my favorite Rupi Kaur poem 'The Sun and Her Flowers,' and brought a Wendell Berry book and said that they were the two people and inspiration behind the album." Madden's interest was lukewarm, yet supportive. "We began working on the music kind of lightly, I didn't have to turn it in at any particular time. It was just something I wanted to do for myself."
Richie had a solid vision of the hard-to-explain project and its curious layers. "She came into the studio knowing exactly what she wanted," says co writer Sarah Hudson, known for penning hits for Katy Perry and Dua Lipa. "She would usually come in with a title or a concept and we would go from there. The producer Andrew Goldstein would start making a beat and Nicole and I would just start writing lyrics and melodies until it all came together. Nicole was so natural at songwriting and recording vocals. It was super impressive."
As the fate of the show currently floats in limbo with the impending shutdown of Quibi (press reports note that the service's stars learned alongside the general public when the announcement came), it is, after all, just one component of Richie's alter-ego, forged through a popular Instagram account (posts are equally made up of shots of her in flowing dresses and eggplants and chickens), as well as that aforementioned album of trap tracks which recently launched a Grammy campaign.
"Don't bring the virgo out in me," Richie sings on the song "Parent Trap" which is about exactly what you'd think. "Cut your TV down cause momma tryin' read." Meanwhile, "U.G.L.Y" focuses on food waste. (Lyrics: "Freaky ass tomato, busted up potato, pullin' up a carrot lookin' like a tornado.")
The Nikki Fre$h project lives at the intersection of exactly who Richie is at her core: a mom, a gardener and a starlet who knows how to tap into the zeitgeist. "When you're growing vegetables, it's crazy to have something almost die on a Monday, but when you give it some water and attention it's blossoming and full of life," she says. "I just had to express to the world how cool and interesting it really is."
Photos courtesy of Nikki Fre$h