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NEW YORK - A year ago, Ashlee Simpson was too upset to get out of bed.
Despite a hit reality show and a chart-topping debut album, the scrappy singer couldn't bear the backlash of a "Saturday Night Live" gig gone awry.
"I was feeling really weak, like being in bed and not wanting to get out, trying to stop feeling insecure about it," confesses Simpson who, last fall, was caught using prerecorded vocal tracks instead of singing a song live.
"But I grew up a lot, and learned I have to find strength within myself," she says.
On Oct. 8, she triumphed on the "SNL" stage, performing songs from her new album, "I Am Me," without a hitch. Her first number was "Catch Me When I Fall," a brooding ballad, written after her "SNL" debacle, in which she laments, "Who will be the one who's there and not ashamed to see me crawl/Who's gonna catch me when I fall?"
"Last time I was so nervous and then I fell on my face," Simpson says. But bolstered by a year touring with her band, this time she took the stage "excited, calm and confident to be out there."
The result was a show she "felt really good about." So did fans, and even strangers. According to Simpson, they have stopped her in public and given her high-fives over her "SNL" comeback.
On "I Am Me," out this week, Simpson continues her star-making tradition of selling herself to audiences as an every-girl with everyday emotions and trials. Like "Catch," the uplifting "Beautifully Broken" explores the aftermath of "SNL," and the process of growing past her pain.
Admitting vulnerabilities and insecurities lies at the heart of Simpson's success, says Rod Aissa, a producer on MTV's "The Ashlee Simpson Show."
"Her appeal is that she really puts it all out there. There is a real honesty to her," he says, noting that her tear-soaked struggles with acid reflux were aired on the show. "When she makes mistakes she really makes them, and there is no one to gloss it over and make it pretty. It makes her incredibly relatable to teen girls. They just love her for it."
Simpson says her confessional tracks - which foray into rock, punk, dance and hip hop - are her way of "standing up and saying I conquered this, and I am better than one mess-up."
Her challenge is proving this to cynical audiences.
"It was so weird," she recalls. "I have awesome fans, and the people who were not nice to me after that `SNL' thing were, like, old men. They don't listen to my music anyway, so it's like, leave me alone!
"We were in the middle of a war, and America took a 20-year-old girl and went crazy about that, ripping her apart," she continues. "It was sad and embarrassing about America."
From the start, some viewed Simpson's rise - from sister Jessica's backup dancer to full-fledged pop star - with skepticism.
"There was a sense that her music career was a caricature of a
prefabricated,'market-tested' act coming down the assembly line," says Jonah Weiner, associate editor at Blender magazine, which will feature Simpson on its December cover. "But no one ever listened to the music, which is actually fantastic."
Most of "I Am Me" comes straight from Simpson's experiences. "I tried to write exactly about what I was feeling and going through," she says. "I am really honest with my fans. I'm human."
However, she insists the CD's first single, "Boyfriend," about a girl who steals another girl's man, is pure fiction, and not about her alleged flirtation with Lindsay Lohan's then boyfriend Wilmer Valderrama.
"We are just really good friends," she says of Valderrama ("That `70s Show"). "I found all of those rumors to be really funny. I laugh all that tabloid stuff off."
Simpson, who used to date singer-songwriter Ryan Cabrera, says she is now "really single," a fact she mourned earlier this month at her 21st birthday party in Las Vegas. Though she won $500 at roulette, Simpson wished she could have had "someone there to celebrate with."
Her favorite gift of the evening was a vintage, diamond-encrusted Rolex from Jessica. Though she has suffered from little sister syndrome in the past, Ashlee says she's through feeling inferior to Jessica. She sang about that struggle in the song "Shadow" on her first CD, "Autobiography."
"I am really confident now," she says of her relationship with her Barbie-like sib. "As you get older you become closer. Though," she adds with a fiendish giggle, "I am sometimes still the brat little sister."
But she's maturing in other ways. Instead of clubbing, Simpson says she prefers quiet nights in her new 9,000-square-foot Encino, Calif., home.
"Now I am 21, I just don't want to go out," she says with another laugh. "I haven't taken my sweatpants off all week."
After touring with her new album, Simpson will sift through possible movie roles, following up on her acting job in the recent indie "Undiscovered." She also wants to work on Broadway, a dream she has harbored since childhood.
Until then, she will strive to prove her critics wrong.
"For me, honestly, no matter what you do, people will strive to take you down," she says. "I think that all you can do is surround yourself with the people who love and support you."
(c) 2005, New York Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.