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Jessica Simpson

Jessica Simpson asserts herself artistically

As 2003 came to a close, there was good reason to wonder if Jessica Simpson would be the latest pop diva to disappear from the scene after being unable to parlay her initial success into consistent popularity.

Her 1999 debut, "Sweet Kisses," had sold more than 1.8 million copies and had many people predicting that Simpson would join Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera as the forefront of the next generation of female pop stars. But her second CD, 2001's "Irresistible" tanked, selling only about 600,000 copies.

Then her current CD, "In This Skin" failed to set the world on fire after its release last year. Despite the fact that Simpson was getting a huge boost in visibility from the launch of "Newlyweds," the hit MTV reality show based around the life shared by Simpson and her husband of just more than a year, 98 Degrees singer Nick Lachey, "In This Skin" wasn't responding.

After 20 weeks the CD barely had surpassed 500,000 in sales.

Then came the release of the single "With You," which gave "In This Skin" a second wind — gale-force style. The CD, which was re-released earlier this year with three added tracks, hasn't stopped selling since. Sales have topped 2 million, and the CD returned to the top 15 before slipping slightly to its current slot of 28 on the Billboard magazine album chart.

Meanwhile, Simpson's cover of Berlin's "Take My Breath Away," one of the added songs on the new version of "In This Skin," followed "With You" onto the charts, peaking at 20 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart before sliding out of the top 50. A second song that was added to "In This Skin," a cover of Robbie Williams' "Angels," is set to be released as the next single.

It may have taken some time, but Simpson credits "Newlyweds" with kick starting the "In This Skin" CD.

"I know it had an effect just because it really set up me as a person, as a personality, which when 'With Me' hit the radio, really people could relate to it because they thought of the show, they thought of me, they thought of my ditzy moments, they thought of whatever they thought about, my stubbornness, whatever it is," she said. "It really just made sense."

The kind of success Simpson, 23, now is enjoying is something for which she has seemingly been preparing throughout much of her life. Born in Dallas, Texas, Simpson, the daughter of a minister, auditioned alongside Spears and Aguilera for Disney's "Mickey Mouse Club" when she was 12, but failed to make the cut.

Stung by that setback, Simpson and her parents decided to pursue a path into show business through the Christian music scene. Simpson, though, never landed a deal with a Christian label, and instead got her break when a Dallas talent scout for Columbia Records heard her demo and sent it to then-label president Tommy Mottola, who signed her.

Like Spears and Aguilera, Simpson initially was groomed for the teen pop market, as a host of outside writers and producers were brought in for "Sweet Kisses" and "Irresistible" to write the kind of emotionally wrought romantic ballads and breezy uptempo dance-pop numbers that had become the standard fare for the teen market. With "In This Skin," Simpson decided to assert herself artistically. She co-wrote most of the songs on the CD, playing an especially major role in writing the lyrics, many of which were drawn from journals she had been keeping.

"The first two CDs weren't really me," she said. "I mean, it was my voice, but I was basically being told 'Record this song. Wear this outfit. Do your hair like this.' It was kind of like I was a machine in a way."

But if Simpson was more involved in creating "In This Skin," musically it's not a major departure from her previous CDs.

Although the songs are stronger, the CD once again mixes R&B-tinged pop ballads like "With You" and "Sweetest Sin" with a sprinkling of danceable uptempo pop tunes such as "Forbidden Fruit" and "Loving You."

With the success of "Newlyweds," Simpson believes she has established her own image apart from singers like Spears and Aguilera. She said her current tour further will separate her from those two by veering away from the dance production approach that's common for teen pop concerts.

"Actually the show is a television," she said, noting that outtakes from "Newlyweds" and a recent ABC special, "The Nick & Jessica Variety Show," will be shown as a part of the stage set. "It's a spoof of television, which is kind of funny. It's called 'The Reality Tour.' But you know, it's just me being me. There are not a lot of bells and whistles. I mean, it's a big production, but there's no dancing, there's nothing like that. I mean, I'll dance around and I'll perform and I'll give it my all, but I even, I sit on the end of the stage and do question and answer time where I don't even know what people are going to ask me, but I just put the mic in their face. I think it's important to walk away from a show and really know something about the artist that you didn't know before."

Jessica Simpson performs Wednesday, July 7, at the UMB Bank Pavilion. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show, which also features Ryan Cabrera, range from $45 to $20.

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