A Deep Dive into Nicole Richie’s 2000s Tabloid Hell

The world has been apologising to female celebrities, such as Britney Spears, Taylor Swift and Jessica Simpson, who were all treated harshly by the media in the 2000s. The media also owe Nicole Richie an apology.

Nicole Richie (houseofharlow1960.com)

When the world was first introduced to Nicole Richie in 2003 through The Simple Life, the media told us that she was fat — and we believed them. Of course, she wasn’t fat at all, but next to Paris Hilton, it was easy for them to argue their case. It was the early 2000s after all; a decade still freshly linked to the “heroin chic” image of the 90s. The tabloids also reported Nicole’s drug problems before the series had even aired, and, when she lost weight in 2005, they prematurely and unrelentingly misdiagnosed anorexia.

Nicole is mostly known for her funny and gregarious personality, as demonstrated on The Simple Life, as well as being a fashion icon. College Fashion called Nicole’s early 2000s style “glam-tack,” describing it as “heavy eye makeup and bold accessories mixed with girly, but revealing, apparel.” But, “Later on in the [2000s], Nicole overhauled her look, claimed the bohemian chic style for her own, and branched out as a bona-fide fashion icon in her own right.” Despite these factors, stories of drugs and eating disorders still ruled Nicole’s image at the height of her fame.

Joey and T 2004 Spring Collection Fashion Show (October 2003)

Before The Simple Life aired in December 2003, Nicole was already known for being a “wild child.” Walking the Joey and T 2004 Spring Collection fashion show on October 31st, 2003, Nicole pulled her top up to reveal her new nipple piercing. “I was excited and wanted to show everybody,” she told People. “I’ve just gone through so much in my life that pulling up my top doesn’t seem like that big a deal.”

Nicole’s drug problems began when she was a teenager. Speaking to Diane Sawyer in 2007, she said: “I got so much so fast that nothing really excited me anymore. I kind of took matters into my own hands and was creating drama in a very dangerous way. I think I was just bored, and I had seen everything — especially when you’re young, you just want more.” During that same year, Nicole told Nylon that she “started off with marijuana, graduated to coke, then prescription pills, and then someone was just like, ‘Do you want to try [heroin]?’ and I was like, ‘Sure, whatever.’”

People reported that Nicole was arrested for a DUI when she was 20, circa 2002, and in October 2002, she was arrested following a “brawl” in a New York City nightclub, but the charges were dropped. Nicole is reported to have thrown a glass, but speaking of the incident to Vanity Fair in 2006, Nicole revealed, “A guy said I stabbed him in the eye with a glass at Bungalow 8.” Nicole had two more big arrests after these.

On February 27th, 2003, Nicole was charged with felony possession of heroin and a misdemeanour of driving with a revoked license. Nicole had been out of rehab for 10 days before she started filming The Simple Life, which also documents that Nicole had a license, but wasn’t allowed to drive, leaving it all to Paris. The press, including Entertainment Weekly, reported her arrests right before Nicole walked the Joey and T fashion show and before the series aired.

Speaking to Deborah Norville in 2004, Nicole said she was already planning on going to rehab. She had signed on to do The Simple Life, but wasn’t set to begin filming for six weeks. “I was going to go to rehab for four weeks, come back, go do the show, and that was going to be that.” Nicole explains that usually when you go to rehab, you can go that day, but she had certain things she wanted to take care of before she could go, so she was waiting a week — the week she was arrested.

Everything worked against Nicole. The one balloon of heroin found in the car wasn’t even hers — nor was the car. “It was, I think, like two days before I was about to go [to rehab], and I was not driving my car. And I get pulled over, and — first of all, if I had known — and I’m just going to be completely honest. If I had known heroin was in the car, I would have hid it, because it’s not like I get searched or anything. And I seriously didn’t know it was in the car.” She adds that she was pleading to the cops telling them it wasn’t hers and she swears she was already going to rehab. “It’s sad because it was the one time I really wasn’t doing anything. So many times I’ve driven with drugs in the car or whatever, and I’ve never got caught. And the one time I truly wasn’t doing anything, I got caught. But I actually believe that everything happens for a reason.”

Nicole with her dad, Lionel Richie

Nicole’s decision to check herself into rehab didn’t come lightly. Appearing on Piers Morgan: Life Stories, Nicole’s father, Lionel Richie, said: “I went to [Nicole] and I said, ‘When I was growing up I lost three friends. One of the hippest guys at the clubs, he drank and he died in a car accident. The second friend died of drugs and the third one, suicide.’ I said, ‘It’s going to happen to your generation. I don’t want you to be in that list of three because after that you’ll be just fine.’ Three months later her friend died of an overdose and I went back to her and very quietly, I was very shocked and I said, ‘I am sorry to hear that. That’s one.’ And sure enough, one year later the second one died and I said, ‘That’s two,’ and I got a phone call and she said, ‘Dad I need help, I don’t want to be the third one.’ And I said, ‘I am with you’ and cancelled the tour. I said, ‘Me and your mother,’ who didn’t get along that well, ‘Me and your mother are checking into rehab with you.’”

Lionel didn’t force Nicole into recovery, likely understanding that’s a losing battle, but he warned her of the consequences and waited until she was ready and then he was all in. When Lionel spoke to Norville in 2004, he said something extraordinary. “I checked [into rehab] with [Nicole] because I wanted her to understand that this is nor her problem alone. This is a family problem.” It’s profound of Lionel to not only go with Nicole, but to communicate to her that she doesn’t have to do this alone and it’s not her fault. Backing up Nicole’s arrest story, he added: “She wasn’t on heroin [at the time]. Believe it or not. She just happened to have that in the car she was driving. It wasn’t hers. Her thing was pain pills. She was on Xanax and stuff like that.”

In addition to boredom, Nicole also agreed mental hardship was a reason behind the drug use that continued into her early 20s. Norville said, “You must have been really feeling low to be doing all that [heroin at 20],” and Nicole said she was. “You don’t realise how bad things [are] getting until you get yourself out of that situation, and you can look back at yourself and say, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe that I was living that way.” Luckily, Nicole wasn’t doing heroin for a long time. In the 2007 interview with Nylon, Nicole described her perception of heroin and how it changed: “When I pictured heroin I pictured some crazy crackhead with no shoes under a bridge. You never think that is going to be you. And it was never me. […] But, of course, that’s not necessarily what a drug problem is.” Nicole didn’t listen to the people who warned her against heroin. “You have that visual of it being really dirty, and here [in Hollywood] it’s so glamorised and it doesn’t seem that bad because you’re at a nice house party — but it is.”

The second arrest was on December 11th, 2006, after two 911 callers reported seeing a 2005 black Mercedes SUV going the wrong way on a Highway in California. Speaking to Sawyer in 2007, Nicole said, “I had smoked marijuana that day. I had Vicodin in my system,” which she took that morning for her severe menstrual cramps. “I never in my head thought that could play a part in your driving. Like, never did I think that. It was hours ago. I literally thought I was okay to drive, and clearly wasn’t.

Nicole hasn’t touched heroin since 2003 and cocaine she was 18.

Next for Nicole was the tabloid’s relentless obsession with her weight. Before filming the first season of The Simple Life, Nicole had just gotten out of rehab where she gained weight as part of her treatment. A few years later, Nicole shocked everyone with her new thinner image when she returned for season 3, The Simple Life: Interns. Only it wasn’t a new image at all — she returned, more or less, to how she was before rehab. Speaking to the Irish Examiner in 2005, Nicole said: “When we were promoting the first season, people would ask me how I felt about being a voluptuous woman. It was weird because I’ve been skinny my whole life. I can show you pictures of me the day I left for rehab.” Any photos of Nicole, at least as a child and teenager, show that her small frame is typical of her.

At the first sign of Nicole’s weight loss, the press went crazy with headlines about her “skin & bones diet” and her “weight obsession.” The real weight obsession, however, was the tabloid’s. They had diagrams of Nicole’s body in May and August of the same year, comparing the two photos to show exactly where weight had fallen off within those three months. Strong imagery of a skinny Nicole dominated the press cycle in 2005 and 2006, particularly overused photos of her in a light blue bikini, of her in an orange dress, and of her hanging out with Lindsay Lohan (whose weight loss was related to drugs and bulimia). It didn’t take long before the tabloids were diagnosing Nicole with anorexia, while simultaneously talking about how other celebrities were losing weight to achieve their stick-thin looks — as though with praise.

Nicole Richie in Vanity Fair (June 2006)

Nicole finally addressed the rumours that she was anorexic in her famous 2006 interview with Vanity Fair (“Nicole Weighs In”). “It upsets me,” she said. “I know I’m too thin right now, so I wouldn’t want any young girl looking at me and saying, ‘That’s what I want to look like.’ I do know they will, which is another reason I really do need to do something about it. I’m not happy with the way I look right now.” Nicole went on to explain the real reason for her weight loss. “I had a bad breakup, and it eats me up inside when I’m upset about something,” she said, referring to her broken engagement with Adam Goldstein (aka DJ AM, who sadly passed away in 2009). “I get really stressed out, and I do lose my appetite, but I do force myself to eat. I tried to put the weight on my way, eating burritos, but that wasn’t working, so I started seeing a nutritionist and a doctor,” she said. “I was scared that it could be something more serious, because it wasn’t making any sense to me — I was really trying. So I had thyroid tests and all that. I do recognise that I have a problem, and I want to be responsible and fix it, and I’m on that path right now.” It’s important that we recognise that, while other people may turn to food for comfort in times of stress, others are the opposite naturally or perhaps due to and underlying health condition.

The Vanity Fair profile, however, was obsessed with the idea that Nicole was anorexic and purely in denial. After the quotes Nicole gave above, the magazine went on to explain the diagnostic criteria for anorexia and stated that, “Although Nicole doesn’t believe she’s anorexic, she knows that others suspect that she’s simply in denial; a hallmark of the disorder.” Nicole admitted she was scared it could be a bigger problem, whatever that may be, so she wasn’t intent on hiding anything. The magazine also spoke to the health professionals treating Nicole, but they didn’t outright deny eating disorder claims, which didn’t help matters at the time, though they promised to help Nicole which whatever she was struggling with once they knew more.

In the interview, Nicole even attacked the media’s obsession with eating disorders, which is ironic considering it’s all Vanity Fair focused on. “There’s a lot of conflicting pressures,” Nicole began. “I’m not going to sugar-coat the power of the tabloids. The week after Lindsay and I were on the cover for being too thin, the cover was, ‘Celebutantes and how they stay thin!’ Imagine how hard this is for me: everyone else is allowed to fluctuate, but let’s say I lose a few pounds — I’m in the anorexic category for the magazine.” Vanity Fair then proposed, “but is that where she secretly wants to be?”

Nicole Richie for Glamour magazine by Robert Erdmann

In 2006, Nicole also spoke to Glamour magazine, again reiterating that she doesn’t have and never has had an eating disorder. “I have days where I’m up at 4:30am and still filming at 11pm. Am I thin? Yes, no doubt about it. But to say I’m on the verge of death is just untrue,” she said. “It’s very interesting to see where magazines get their information. My family gets really upset to see these people writing lies about their child. Do they ask me about it? No, because they know that I eat.” Nicole was fighting a losing battle trying to explain herself when it was — and still is — very hard for people to accept that stress and long work days could make people unintentionally lose weight, particularly already thin people.

The write-up of the Glamour interview that the Evening Standard published is painful to read, especially this part:

“I have days where I’m up at 4:30am and still filming at 11pm.” [Nicole explained].

Richie still goes to the gym despite having no fat to burn.

“I’ll squeeze in a workout when I have time, but I don’t do any cardio — I don’t need to, I’m too thin,” she said. “And I eat whatever I feel like.”

The comments from the Evening Standard put forward the idea that going to the gym is for weight loss only, rather than overall health and fitness, even though Nicole said she doesn’t do cardio because she obviously doesn’t need to. It was really careless and dangerous how they made Nicole look bad and perpetuated the eating disorder narrative, purely because gossip and drama sells.

Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie for The Simple Life: Goes to Camp promo in 2007

To promote The Simple Life, Nicole appeared with Paris in a joint cover shoot and interview for Harper’s Bazaar in 2007, where she once again had to address her weight. “I eat everything. I always have, contrary to what people think,” she explained. She also re-highlighted the importance of stress induced weight loss. “It happens to a lot of people, and I don’t understand why people don’t understand that it happens to me. I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t really thin at one point, because I was. But it had nothing to do with not eating.” Nicole rightly continued to blame the press for perpetuating the stress cycle. “I’m not saying I have more problems than everyone else, but people’s weight fluctuates, and five or ten pounds is a lot on me.”

In March 2007, after reportedly being hospitalised due to dehydration while on the set of The Simple Life: Goes to Camp, Nicole was diagnosed with hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) — another reason for why weight gain was difficult. Speaking on her hypoglycaemia, Nicole told Harper’s Bazaar, “Even though it’s not good news, it’s good news to me because I didn’t know why I was having so many problems.”

By August 2007, In Touch Weekly had “SCARY SKINNY!” with Nicole on the cover, which she was aware of, but she was no longer interested in this narrative, having already addressed it endlessly. By the time Nicole spoke to Nylon, she had distanced herself from the tabloids and was trying to move on. “People just have to get over it,” she said. “It’s just exhausting to care about what the tabloids think of you. It’s a false world. It’s paper with writing on it and pictures of you. That’s your world? That’s ridiculous. My world is my home, my dogs, and my friends. That’s real life. Tabloids aren’t,” she concluded, before adding it all just makes them money. In a different interview, some years later, Nicole said, “Both of my parents have always said, ‘You don’t like something? Don’t give it energy and it just won’t exist in your world.’ So none of that existed for me. It just wasn’t there.” Though these were said over a decade ago, Nicole’s comments are still very poignant and relevant in today’s social media climate. I imagine Nicole still follows her parents’ advice — and many others would do well to do the same.

In a 2010 interview with Marie Claire, Nicole voiced her thoughts on her Vanity Fair profile, four years prior. “I definitely felt it was a little unfair to say someone has an eating disorder when they don’t,” she began. “It’s extremely insulting and irresponsible. An eating disorder is serious and is a disease, and I don’t think you can lightly say that someone has a disease unless they’re openly telling you that they do.” Nicole went on to say that she’s been very honest with her friends and family, but also with the public, about the mistakes she’s made and the challenges she’s faced in the past. “I have said many times, ‘Listen, if I had an eating disorder, I would tell you and I would talk to you about it.’”

Nicole Richie photographed by Ben Watts for Marie Claire (March 2010)

Nicole grew up partying and taking drugs, which was well-documented by the paparazzi and reported by the tabloids. Nicole got help for her drug problem, but she continued to be a huge target and obsession of the tabloids due to her weight, even after she got help for that too. Around this time, Nicole was no longer going out partying as much and she was settling into life with Joel Madden (who both married on December 11th, 2010). When speaking to Nylon Nicole wondered why the media couldn’t focus on someone else instead. “I’m not walking down Robertson Boulevard everyday. I’m not at Fred Segal shopping everyday, and I’m not sitting at The Ivy everyday, so I don’t understand why [the paparazzi] feel the need the drive all the way over to my house just to follow me around and try to find something that’s not right about me.” Nicole really was trying to turn her life around and pay more attention to her health and wellbeing — particularly after her hypoglycaemia diagnosis.

In 2006, Nicole commented on her “feud” with Paris, addressing rumours that Nicole screened Paris’ sex tape to a group of their friends — especially as Paris told the press that, “Nicole knows what she did.” Nicole said it was completely made up. “A, I don’t watch porn, and B, I don’t want to see someone I’ve known forever having sex.” Nicole said her divergence from Paris was due to naturally growing apart and also deciding what was best for her. “We never had a fight. I just decided I didn’t want to be her friend anymore. We’re just two completely different people; we don’t have that much in common. I really don’t have anything horrible to say about her,” Nicole said. “When I got out of rehab, I had to figure out what path to go down, and part of what included taking certain people out of my life. When Paris made her little announcement that ‘Nicole knows what she did,’ I didn’t really understand what that was about.” Nicole removing Paris from her life seemed to serve her recovery. The pair are currently on good terms, just no longer close.

Things changed quickly for Nicole when she found out she was pregnant in 2007. She and Joel sat down with Sawyer that year to discuss her pregnancy and how she’s changed as a person. “I would really want to be someone my child would look up to,” she told Sawyer. Speaking about drugs, she said, “I don’t take anything now.” At this time, Nicole was awaiting an upcoming four-day jail sentence, which she only served 82 minutes of, for her DUI arrest in December 2006. She said it leaves her “feeling afraid of the unknown,” but “this is my way of being an adult.” She said her transformative behaviour came after seeing images on TV of children who had been killed by drivers under the influence. “That was our first real parent moment,” Joel interjected. It’s what made Nicole change her plea to guilty.

Nicole Richie and Joel Madden photographed with their children for People by Justin Coit (2009)

They talked about Nicole’s weight, too, who was four months pregnant at the time. “‘Do I eat?’ is kind of an understatement. I eat all the time, especially now. I’m constantly hungry. I’m eating at least every hour. Just like any mother, you know, you want to take the best care of yourself, especially while you’re pregnant. And I’m definitely eating healthier now, and I’m really playing by the rules.” Nicole said she’s “totally okay” with gaining weight during pregnancy. When Sawyer asked Nicole if she felt any responsibility for the impression photos of her at her thinnest might have had on young girls and their body image, Nicole said, “I’m really sorry for not accepting that earlier. It took me a while.” On the photos of herself from the mid-2000s, she said, “I see a girl that is obviously going through something and is much too skinny,” but Nicole maintained that she did not and never had has an eating disorder: “It’s anxiety. It’s stress. It’s just not being careful.”

In addition to her pregnancy, Nicole changed the media cycle in October 2008 when she launched her own fashion brand, House of Harlow 1960, named after her daughter, Harlow Winter Kate, who was born in January 2008. Nicole and Joel also have a son, Sparrow James Midnight, born September 2009. The brand started out as a costume jewellery line, but quickly evolved into a full lifestyle brand that has expanded into clothing, footwear, accessories, and limited edition speciality items. The website says, “House of Harlow 1960 has been a channel for Nicole to reimagine vintage pieces that inspire her while always staying true to her native California vibes.” Nicole told Forbes, “Once I got into the business, I never looked back.” She won Entrepreneur of the Year for the Brand at the Glamour Women of the Year Awards in 2010.

Nicole also took over social media with her own scripted reality series, Candidly Nicole, which aired from 2014–2015, where Nicole reminded everyone of the funny, crazy, and adventurous woman she is. Currently, Nicole continues dabbling in acting, with her next project being TV movie Richard Lovely, and she runs her fashion brand. Nicole is now 40 and has faded from the tabloids, allowing the current young celebrities to take over, but when Nicole does appear in the press, it’s usually for interviews regarding House of Harlow 1960, and finally she has more control of it.

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Toni Stanger

Freelancer writer on mainly film and television, but sometimes dabbles in celeb culture. Covers mostly horror and female-led media for Screen Queens.