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Jessica Simpson: Just a good ol' star

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She first tasted fame with music, and her profile grew along with her MTV reality show. Now, Jessica Simpson is the amateur actress (with very little screen time) who is a big reason The Dukes of Hazzard is a hit movie.

On top of that, she has an album due in November and another movie project on tap.

Simpson, 25, has thwarted Hollywood's traditional star-making system. She did not spend years in supporting roles, working her way up to a No. 1 blockbuster. She certainly did not fret about overexposure. But her position as an A-list star with very little acting chops is not quite the head-scratcher it appears to be, Hollywood insiders say.

Jessica "connected to an audience with her reality show (MTV's Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica), and the real strength of her celebrity is her personality," says Janice Min, editor in chief at Us Weekly magazine. "Her breakthrough moment was when she uttered, 'Is it chicken or fish?'" If she was not pretending, Jessica did a good job of appearing to be confused about the key ingredient in a certain brand of tuna.

Even before her marriage in October 2002 to singer Nick Lachey, 31, became an MTV hit show, Simpson had a growing fan base thanks to her music. Her first album, 1999's Sweet Kisses, has sold a respectable 1.8 million copies. But when her next album tanked in 2001, Simpson's father, Joe, decided to defy the record industry's conventional path to pop stardom.

"They were putting all the emphasis on her 4 1/2-octave range, and that's not what separates Jessica from all the rest," Joe Simpson says. "What people really love is her heart." Negative publicity about Jessica isn't a concern, he says. "We're not doing this for the critics. We're doing this for the people on the street."

So instead of worrying about what went wrong with the second album, Jessica's next step was Newlyweds, which led to an immediate boost in record sales.

The show also led to a live performance tour in 2004 and network specials where she could sing her heart out with no pressure, says her dad. "We're always praying that she won't hit a wrong note. But because the show made it OK for her to be human, you breathe easy. If she makes a mistake, she'll go on."

The obvious next step: Hollywood.

With her heart set on landing the part of Daisy Duke, Simpson beat out Britney Spears for it. By the time Spears read for the role, the Dukes folks were "already in like with Jessica," says producer Bill Gerber, who adds that Spears' plate was already full at the time. "We tested a ton of girls, and we had interest from some pretty big people. But everything about Jessica screamed Daisy Duke."

Locking in the draw of Jessica as Daisy: The bodacious bumpkin character is not a big stretch from Jessica's public persona from Newlyweds.

Marketing possibilities? Sure, Gerber says. But it didn't play into the decision to cast her. "She had to earn it 100%."

Jessica's plan from here? An album in November, and then she begins filming a goofy Private Benjamin-like role in February, working again with Gerber.

"Those are the places where we want to go and not take ourselves too seriously," Joe Simpson says. "We'll leave great actresses their slot in history."

And all those critics who rant that Simpson has no real talent? "As of right now, she has the last laugh," Us Weekly's Min says.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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