Nicole Richie casually dropped many pieces of advice over the course of an hour-long interview: Don't work with friends. Never stop stimulating your brain. Make your knees touch your elbows. But only one guiding principal has come to define how she approaches every single facet of her life: Celebrate all the things that make you unique.
Richie used that mantra to amass 4.6 million Twitter followers and 2.6 million Instagram followers, and those fans have helped her become a New York Times best-selling author (for 2005's The Truth About Diamonds), an accomplished designer (her two fashion lines, House of Harlow and Winter Kate, are critical and commercial hits), and a TV star (Candidly Nicole is a multi-platform success with webisodes running on AOL and expanded versions airing on VH1).
As the face of and brain behind an ever-expanding empire, the Nicole Richie of today is a far cry from the rich girl that audiences first met in 2003 when Fox's The Simple Life debuted. While the sense of humor that endeared her to the nation is still firmly intact, a newfound poise and confidence have smoothed the frayed edges of her youth.
"There's two sides of me," Richie told BuzzFeed News. "When I'm in a creative space, there are times where I have to be free and want what I want. Then there's creative directing and there's price points and so many different things to think about. That's when I have to be the head of this brand and understand and say, 'OK, now we have to fit this into this.'"
It was a difficult balancing act for Richie to master. "I've always been told, it's a pattern in my life, that I'm not a head person — and that's OK, not everybody is," Richie said, sitting outside on the patio of the Tower Bar at the Sunset Tower hotel in Los Angeles. "I'm not a person of logistics. I'm somebody who is led by my heart. I dress according to my mood; I did Candidly Nicole because I wanted to learn; House of Harlow really celebrates individuality, and I feel like there are so many other people, like me, who are led by their emotions."
"The goal is not to have the entire world follow my every word, because I'm not even saying I know everything about everything," she continued. "I'm actually saying that I have no idea and if you want to take this journey with me, let's go. For me, it's about the experience of learning and growing, and that's just been me my entire life."
It's a life that has played out — almost in real time — in the public eye, as Richie, born in 1981, was raised by singer Lionel Richie and Brenda Harvey. But the number of cameras trained on her significantly increased in 2003 when Richie co-starred with her then-best friend Paris Hilton on Fox's The Simple Life, a massively popular reality show that turned both women into household names — and the targets of tabloid scrutiny.
"When I started doing The Simple Life, it was a very different time in my life," Richie said, not wistfully, but also not proudly either. "I was so young, I was fresh out of rehab, and I did this show when the only other reality shows out there were The Real World and The Osbournes. That was it. There was no precedent. There was no 'This is how you're supposed to do it' or 'This is what it could become.' I definitely did not expect there would be a Season 2, let alone a Season 5."
The show's popularity dovetailed perfectly with the resurgence of America's tabloid culture and turned Richie, Hilton, and their "celebutante" cohorts into the kind of cover girls that no one actually strives to become. Of that time, Richie said, "It was more about me being awake and stepping into adulthood. I think, like any 21-year-old, that's when you decide, 'OK, this is how I'm going to set up my life and this is what I want out of life,' and there are bumps in the road, but to me it feels very age-appropriate."
But now, almost a decade after The Simple Life — and her association with Hilton — came to an end, Richie insisted that she has no regrets about how she rose to prominence. "If someone's telling some story about a night 15 years ago, yeah, I do [have regrets]," she said, with a laugh. "But overall, no, I don't. The point of figuring out what you're going to do with your life at a young age is to really grow and learn. The journey is more important than the destination for me, so I knew I had to set goals and have some work and others not but learn from those mistakes."
While many of her peers continued to wear their Swarovski crystal-encrusted celebutante crowns with pride for years, Richie set out to become more than a name: She wanted to become a brand — but conscientiously and on her own terms.
"I'm very careful about where I put my time and where I put my energy," she said, her knees cradled against her chest. "I've expanded House of Harlow much slower than I've often been asked to, by my partners and different people, but the reason I do that is because I want to put all of my time and all my heart into it. I focus on one thing and really perfect it and live in it and be there and expand on a very slow level."
"Even with Candidly Nicole, when I first met with Telepictures [producers on the series], we talked about it being a show, but I wanted to do it as a web series first to see if people were even interested," she continued. "That ended up being the best decision I ever made, because doing it on the web really gave me all of the creative control. I was able to make the show exactly what I wanted to make, which is about going out and learning and experiencing."
New episodes of Candidly Nicole currently debut Thursdays on AOL, and each installment features Richie immersing herself in a foreign profession or skill set, from synchronized swimming to magic school to sign twirling to composting.
The series is the highest profile conduit through which Richie expands her brand, but it also serves a second, slightly selfish function as well. "I didn't learn as much as I feel like I should have when I was younger because it all felt so big to me," Richie said. "It felt like something I was never going to be and could never learn, and so I just said, 'I'm out.' Learning or experiencing should never make people feel shut out. It's all about finding ways to make people understand that that can be fun, and that's what I've been doing — even for myself."
Richie, who started composting after being exposed to the environmentally conscious method of trash disposal in an episode of her show, cited astrophysicist and Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson as a prime example of someone she looks to as a template for how one makes learning inclusive and enjoyable. "It was [Neil who] got me into understanding our universe and our planet and science as a whole, because I've never been a science person, but he has this way of talking to you where you are interested in what he's saying because he feels like a real person," she said with unbridled enthusiasm. "If I can make learning and growing accessible, then I've won."
Richie has built her brand around the central tenet of embracing everything that makes you unique, but she readily acknowledged that casting your quirks in a positive light is nearly impossible if you don't first love yourself. It's a lesson she learned in recovery and in pursuit of regaining control over her life.
"I think you hit a time in your life where you have to focus your energy inward," she said, as she drew a long sip of chamomile tea. "It's important to put your energy out for sure, but it's just as important to take time and focus on yourself. To learn about yourself, learn about your position on this earth, learn about the power of your thoughts, the power of your words, of being here, of being present, of being 100% you and understanding what your purpose is."
While Richie's opinion of her perceived purpose has changed over the years — "I could have been Britney Spears' backup dancer," she boasted — marrying Joel Madden in December 2010 and giving birth to their two children (Harlow Winter Kate Madden in 2008 and Sparrow James Midnight Madden in 2009) has cemented the fact that family, formed both through birth and choice, will always come first in her life.
"If I'm with Joel and the kids and don't need to be reachable, I'll just leave my phone at home and totally disconnect," she said. "I notice how not present I can be and feel that I'm talking to someone but looking at my phone, which annoys me."
An ironic statement considering a 2006 article in Vanity Fair referred to a single day in Richie's life — which included a VF photoshoot that was being filmed by Access Hollywood which was, in turn, being filmed for The Simple Life — as "a triumph of media self exploitation." When presented with that comment eight years later, the 33-year-old struggled to wrap her brain around the woman at the center of all that madness.
"Because the world is moving at such a rapid pace, it's hard to make that relative to anything that's going on right now," she said. "We just operate differently now. I feel lucky to be around during this time. I think, Wow, I'm really living through a moment in history where everything is changing — the music industry is changing, the way we communicate is changing, technology is changing. It's all changing."
One of the biggest changes in the entertainment industry, one Richie has taken full advantage of, is the wide array of careers available to the truly industrious.
"A lot of my friends have created jobs that didn't exist when we were little, and I think that's amazing," she said as a wide smile broke out on her face. "People can find something they love, something they're passionate about, and turn it into a full-blown career. The world is now offering that. You're able to go and dream and do whatever you're interested in 100%. If you're able to do what you love for a living, and enjoy it, then you've really won — just figure out how to make some dough at it."