Over the years, Jessica Simpson has gotten a pretty bad rap for being, well ... Jessica Simpson. Blonde, buxom and arguably talented, the entertainer has racked up gold and multi-platinum albums, a hit film, launched her own line of beauty products, and starred in a wildly successful reality television program. Despite her accomplishments, Simpson has been a lightning rod for criticism ranging from her political views to, most recently, her weight and looks.
Tonight, Simpson's new reality television program, The Price of Beauty, premieres on VH1, and aims to explore what it means to be beautiful around the world. Claire O'Donohoe, executive producer of the show and Executive Vice President of Current for RDF Media, took a few minutes to speak with Fabio Periera about creating the show, what reality television does best, and the controversies it can sometimes create.
Fabio Periera: Do you think that Jessica Simpson understands how her own success might reinforce stereotypes and assumptions about beauty in America?
Claire O'Donohoe: Well, she understands that she looked up to by a lot of young girls because she's been very successful in her career. I think the message she really wants to get across and it's borne out of the journey she did, which is that, yes, of course, she's blessed with good looks. (But) all of the criticism that she's at the center of is borne about her looks. People don't look any further than her looks and it'd be nice if people looked a bit deeper sometimes.
Can you tell me a bit about how this show came about?
Well, it was internally generated idea with the development team at RDF. I just started at RDF and we were just thinking about who would take the personal journey and explore the subject matter with real heart. When we approached her, we didn't know whether she was ready to do TV again or what she was up to. But she loved the show concept and jumped at the chance to do it.
Were your trips planned to the letter, or did things happen spontaneously along the way?
It was well-researched. We found beauty ambassadors in each of the countries to navigate the production, Jessica, and her friends (Ken and Cacee) through their respective culture and traditions. We weren't throwing things in the way because she wanted to be informed about what she was getting into and of course she was involved in the creative process. The beauty ambassador at the top of the show was a way of informing her about what she was going to do. We knew where we were heading and who we'd be meeting. Obviously, lots of fun stuff popped up too, like the Thai market. (Laughs). I think it's a good balance of both.
From the first episode, where Jessica travels to Thailand, it's very clear that she's affected by the different ideas of what makes a beautiful woman and that she thinks about it. How do you think Jessica's perception of herself changed over the course of the series?
Well, I think it progressed and you'll see throughout the episodes. (Thailand) was our first foray into the adventure, and for me once she'd gone through some quite excruciating moments in Paris, where she was stepping onto the runway for the first time in her life with these stick-thin models. She's bossed around by the creative director of the fashion show who says, "You may walk like that in America, but you don't do that in Paris." She was petrified, she nearly threw up backstage. She's not a supermodel but it was something she wanted to overcome, that fear, and to try it and say she'd done it. It really hit home for her about her own confidence and who she is and the struggles that she had.
And she speaks so freely about them, which is what I found so fantastic about her. The heart of her shines through as the episodes go on and by the time the episodes are finished, it's a complete transformation. I think it really took that journey for her to realize that, you know what, until you're happy with who you are and you feel good inside, you're going to battle with your confidence. And she has for years, since she was a child. Every step of the way, I think we got to know her better and she was honest about her personal journey.
But given how much negative criticism has been attached to Jessica, did you feel at the outset of production that you had any particular obstacles to overcome?
No, not at all. She's a joy to work with and she's a very smart and lovely person. We got on like a house on fire. And she realizes that people love her for who she is and all the quirkiness and fun bits, she understands that's who she is. She doesn't want to hide that and that's why people like her. She's very real, a joy to hang out with and the beauty with her is what you see is what you get. She's an all-American lovely girl who gets to go on this amazing journey. And she's got a great sense of humor.
Can you tell me a little bit about the planning that went into selecting the locations where you filmed The Price of Beauty?
We did a load of research before we pitched the show to Jessica, but actually what happened when we sold the show to VH1 with Joe (Simpson) and Jessica (is that they) became executive producers on the show. We (would) have creative meetings and discuss all the research--they'd do research and we'd do research and decide on the (locations). There were so many places we could have gone that would have been equally as interesting and ultimately, these were our favorite seven. We wanted to get a really decent cross-section of different cultures so that show-to-show you felt like you were getting a different flavor. (We chose) India, for example, (because) she does a lot of work with Operation Smile. And I'm fascinated by Bollywood culture, and so is she, and we thought it would be a really interesting take on the subject.
What do you think Jessica's journey through countries like Thailand, Uganda and Morocco taught her about the way other cultures see women?
In every culture she stepped into, (she found that) everyone feels pressure to (obey) the rules and regulations forced on us--that low self-esteem is what draws any woman in any culture to feel pressure to conform. I think that's what happens in Thailand, just as it happens in Hollywood and Uganda--it just manifests itself in a different way. And that's what she absorbed.
Why did you choose to shoot the final episode in Los Angeles?
We because we felt, and Jessica felt, (that the final show should be in Los Angeles) because this is where she lives and this is where she feels pressure on a day-to-day basis. She felt that this would be a place for her to reflect on her final thoughts on the journey and it would be a place for her to translate everything she could have learned back into a society that we understand and all the pressures that we're under. It's actually a really emotional ending. She brings (someone she meets along her journey) back for a transformation because it particularly affected her. And she talks to young girls who are suffering from self-esteem issues like she was in high school. Basically, (the same issues the series explores are) on our doorstep. She didn't have to travel the world to understand what young girls go through the world over. But it's a fascinating comparison to see how other cultures dealt with this particular subject. So, coming home, it felt like the perfect end.
Before coming to America, you've had a long career. Can you tell me some of the highlights?
I had an extraordinary experience working on Celebrity Big Brother back in the United Kingdom. We were under the spotlight for what was considered to be a racist storyline that the British press sort of jumped on.
I lived in England at the time and I remember it well, but can you explain it for those who might not be familiar?
Well, Big Brother was doing what Big Brother does best, which was taking different personalities and watching the stories unfold in a very natural way. And there happened to be this story line where it was considered that one of the housemates, Jade Goody, was bullying Shilpa Shetty, a Bollywood movie star, and things got a bit nasty in the house. And we did what Big Brother does and what producers do, which is show the truth. And it caused quite a stir to the point where even (British Prime Minister) Gordon Brown, who I think was in India at the time, was asked to pass comment. From our perspective, we were making what we thought was a brilliant television show. There was a lot of speculation about, "Oh did we plan it? Did we know this was going to happen?" Of course, we didn't, you never do. You never know what's going to happen in those circumstances, and I've produced a lot of Big Brother. Everything you think's going to happen doesn't and everything you don't think's going to happen does and I think that's the way it works. That what (happens)--real people in extraordinary circumstances do extraordinary things.
I also remember at the time that the criticisms in the British press focused on the editing of the show, that somehow as producers you bore responsibility. How would you respond to that criticism?
Quite honestly, I can tell you that all we did was report the truth. It was what happened. It wasn't manipulated. The stories weren't cut out of context and I stand by that, and everybody that worked on the show does too. We showed what happened--and people were fearful. If people are fearful of knowing the truth, then so be it. But it's probably a mostly fair reflection of most of British society. These are ordinary conversations. I'm not suggesting that she should (have been) proud of her behavior. Quite frankly, I think a lot of her behavior was probably born out of bullying itself.
Do you think that reality television can do a better job of exploring social issues--like what constitutes beauty--than traditional programming?
I've done a lot of reality television and it doesn't matter whether you're dealing with a celebrity or an ordinary person from the streets. When you're very honestly showing them--and reality television does it very well, taking ordinary people and putting them in extraordinary circumstances--of course, there's going to be take-away and we all have a lot to learn from it. I've made my career in reality television. And it has a lot to offer. It's all about the storytelling and the people and what they're bringing to the screen.