One blond diva in for long haul


She burst onto the music scene in 1999 at the tail end of the blond bombshell-ette wave that brought the world teen sirens Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

But Jessica Simpson's image diverged from her counterparts' in a few distinct ways.

She was an openly devout Christian, a girl determined to have such a wholesome image she stayed as covered up as a young pop princess can be these days. And as America gradually got to know Simpson, her vow to her father to abstain from sex until marriage quickly became as well-known as her top-40 hits.

Well, so much for that.

At a time when teen pop is on its way out and young divas are trying to find ways to remain at the top of the charts, Simpson has unveiled a new look that suggests that perhaps this little Christian girl has grown up.

On the cover of her newly released, slightly edgier, second pop album, Irresistible, she's pouting at the camera as she pulls up her see-through shirt to offer a teasing glimpse of her taut tummy. And her new sex appeal has been ubiquitous in the magazine spreads and music videos that have accompanied her album release.

"God gave me my body, you know," Simpson, who just turned 21, said matter-of-factly. "I'm just doing what I can to make it look good."

It's been a year of many changes for the young Texas native.

In addition to her dramatic makeover and departure from her innocent public persona, she's endured a high-profile break up with Nick Lachey of boy band 98 Degrees and released a new album that debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard charts two months ago. Tonight, she performs in Aberdeen in her first headlining tour with Eden's Crush and Youngstown and - an achievement she's still savoring.

"Oh, my gosh, I'm having so much fun," she said, virtually squealing into the phone from a tour stop in Richmond. "I rise up on this thing at the beginning of my show, and I hear people chanting my name, and it's such a good feeling. I guess it's so fun for me because I'm so used to performing for 15 minutes and getting off the stage. This is my first headlining show!"

Even with the projected teen pop fadeout, Simpson and her label, Columbia Records, are planning for it not to be her last. They're banking on more than her hitting the gym for a carefully orchestrated sexy makeover to make it happen. And industry observers have been speculating that she may just be the teen pop queen with the talent to stick around.

"She's got the maturity and the ability to move past the teen pop phenomenon," said Guy Zapoleon, a music industry trends consultant whose clients include radio stations across the country.

"The smart ones are doing what Santana did when he revived his career by latching onto artists in other genres," he said, noting that Simpson's first single off her new album was also released as a remix featuring hip-hop artists Lil' Bow Wow and Jermaine Dupri. "Like Christina Aguilera has done with 'Lady Marmalade,' where she attached herself to Pink and Lil' Kim and gave herself a facelift."

Simpson got her start in music in the same place many of the greats did - church. Growing up as the daughter of a Baptist minister, Simpson aspired to be a gospel singer and was spotted at age 13 while singing in church.

"Every young girl wants to be Mariah Carey," she said, "but I didn't think it would ever happen."

At 17, Simpson recorded Sweet Kisses, an album that sold 2 million copies while spawning three hits. Two were power ballads, including "Where You Are," a duet with Lachey that made the clean-cut couple the darlings of the MTV generation.

Having risen to fame on the heels of Spears and Aguilera and having had to endure the image of being in their shadow, Simpson knows the competition she has.

"People are always going to compare me to Britney and Christina," she said. "It's something I've accepted and that's fine. As long as I know in myself that I'm different, that's all that matters to me.

"I give my heart to my fans," she added. "I'm not saying that they don't, but for me, it's not about a performance or an outfit but connecting with my fans and being a really positive role model."

And Simpson's determination to provide a positive influence has gotten her almost as much attention from the public as her music has. Besides having parents who initially limited the skimpy clothing that was standard issue among competing teen sensations, Simpson made headlines for the commitment ring her father gave her, representing her promise to abstain from sex until marriage.

Simpson not only became the modern poster-girl for abstinence, but also, in a perverse way, ended up heightening the focus on her budding sexuality. And some critics have noticed.

"What I find especially sneaky is the way she plays the virginity card," said former Sun pop music critic J.D. Considine, now senior editor at Blender, a new music magazine. "By making an issue of [her virginity], she manages to sexualize herself without tainting her image. She makes us think about her having sex simply by making an issue of her not having any."

With her new sexy image in place, Simpson said nothing has changed on the abstinence front - except that her father's commitment ring flew off her finger last year during an opening act per- formance.

"It's very, very sad," she said. "The ring flew off, and some guy in the audience has it now. But I'm still holding onto the promise."

Simpson has also been as open in discussing her two-year relationship with Lachey, which she ended recently. The couple had discussed getting engaged, but Simpson said she realized it was the wrong decision to marry at such a young age to a man she'd dated since she was 18.

"Don't get me wrong - I still love him and I'm not saying that I'm not going to spend the rest of my life with him," she said. "But for now, I really needed to be on my own and not have to depend on somebody.

"I just think it's very important that before you spend the rest of your life with someone, you've done everything you want to do, and you're the person you want to be for the rest of your life," she said. "You're able to give the other person a lot more that way. But it was the hardest thing I've ever done."

Along with the breakup came the sexy look that Simpson said she's proud of.

"It's just part of growing up," she said. "I'm 21 now, and I think I dress like a normal 21-year-old. ... My new album is a lot more mature. I was only 17 when I recorded Sweet Kisses and 20 when I recorded this. There's been a lot of growth, there's a lot more confidence. My last record was younger and all about the butterflies of being in love. This one deals with more issues - heartbreak, telling a guy if you give a little bit more in a relationship, how much farther it would go."

Ultimately, Simpson believes her longevity in the business lies in the fact that she's displayed the ability to produce hit ballads in the style of Carey and Celine Dion.

"I'm really a ballad singer and that will rise above everything else I'm doing," she said. "I'm trying to run a marathon, not a sprint. I have my fingers crossed, and I'm pacing myself."

Jessica Simpson

Where: Shine Sports Field, Aberdeen Proving Ground

When: 5 p.m. today

Tickets: General admission, $35 at the gate

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