Joe Simpson has made his daughters, Jessica and Ashlee Simpson, two of today's hottest pop superstars. But to do that, he had to dress Jessica in skimpy clothes and turn her marriage into a reality television show. The irony to some people is that he is a Baptist minister. Did he betray the values that he preached? And are his daughters paying a price for living in the spotlight?
Ashlee Simpson found out how tough the music business can be last weekend when she was caught lip syncing on "Saturday Night Live."
It was horribly embarrassing -- but perhaps not surprising. Having her missteps exposed on a national stage is nothing new to Ashlee Simpson. Her dad has made that a central part of her marketing. In fact, by opening his daughters' private lives to public scrutiny, even the difficult or awkward moments most parents would zealously protect, the former Baptist minister has redefined how you sell records.
And in just a few years Simpson has transformed Jessica and Ashlee into two of the biggest stars in pop music.
"I don't speak for Ashlee on this, but other than my talent and my mom's encouragement, my dad is the rest. My dad is 90 percent of the success of my career," Jessica said.
Ashlee added, "I'm one of those people that like to take control of things. So I would say 60 percent, 50 percent."
And their success is staggering. With Simpson guiding his daughters' careers, Jessica and Ashlee each have a platinum-selling CD, a hit reality television show and parts in television dramas and sitcoms.
It's estimated that the sisters will earn more than $50 million.
On the set of their family Christmas television special, to air Dec. 1 on ABC, Simpson talked about the early struggles, including his attempt to get Jessica signed as a Christian contemporary artist. Simpson says that effort failed when parts of his daughter's anatomy proved too big a distraction for the men running the Christian labels.
He was referring to Jessica's chest. "Her chest is ahead of her by 2 or 3 feet so, you know, it gets there before she does," he said.
But a copy of Jessica's demo record found its way to Sony, which signed her. All of the hard work seemed to have paid off. Her first album was released in 1999 and sold well.
Simpson quit his job at the church in Texas and moved the family out to Los Angeles. By this time, Jessica's sex appeal was no longer a distraction but part of the marketing and the former pastor was accused of making a deal with the devil in the city of angels.
"I was accused, [because of] my background in the ministry, you know 'your daughter doesn't love God anymore', 'you've forsaken the church' and I'm like, you don't even know me or know my family," Simpson said.
He's been criticized for setting up some of the sexy photo shoots Jessica did early on in her career.
"Part of this is a learning process. Early on when we started, we weren't equipped with how to say no," Simpson said, adding that there are some photos he wishes they hadn't done.
But industry insiders say they think Simpson is pleased with the decisions he's made -- because they've worked.
"He'll come back and tell you things have been a mistake, but I think he would still have done them, regardless," said Tamara Coniff, executive editor of "Billboard" magazine.
She thinks he'd still put his daughters out on covers dressed very skimpily if it would help their careers somehow.
"Sex sells. It might not be the best in terms of putting on the dad hat -- but as the manager absolutely it was the right thing to do," Coniff said.
Ashlee and Jessica say they don't stop to think of how their dad would react when they're considering posing for sexy photos. "When I'm doing a sexy photo shoot, I don't really think, 'Oh gosh, what's dad gonna think?" said Ashlee.
"Me either," Jessica said, adding, "I don't ask him to come up to the shoot either, you know?"
Simpson was dealt a setback when Jessica's second album flopped. She was quickly being labeled just another Britney Spears wanna-be -- a has-been at 21.
"That defeat really shook me, because it was my defeat. ... I had not really prepared for failure," Simpson said.
Then he failed again.
In the fall of 2002, Jessica married Nick Lachey, a former member of the successful boy band, 98 Degrees.
Joe Simpson thought this would end his daughter's career.
"My husband was miserable ... at the wedding itself he was just miserable," said his wife, Tina Simpson.
But he seemed to recover quickly, pulling a career-saving victory from a wedding he'd lost the battle to stop. After the honeymoon, Joe got Jessica and Nick to agree to turn their new marriage into the latest reality show on MTV.
"I think at that point, her career was just sliding downhill fast. I mean she was considered B-level talent. She wasn't selling records and he rolled the dice and took a risk," Coniff said.
Several executives at Sony said they thought the reality series was an enormous mistake
"For me, the show gave America the opportunity to see the greatest gift she has, which is her heart. What happened was through the show people forgot about the beauty, they forgot about the voice and they fell in love with her," Simpson said.
Jessica and Nick's reality show was the beginning of Simpson's new strategy for selling records: get them to buy the person and they will soon buy the music.
Simpson believes a song doesn't sell records, people sell records.
"People are saying I want someone that I can relate to. Someone I can touch feel and smell. ... Ultimately, people buy records because they love the star," Simpson said.
In Jessica's case, making her "real" meant letting cameras documenting her life the good, the bad, even the seemingly stupid.
Jessica said she wasn't nervous about it, because she thought it was going to be a sort of documentary. "Then I saw the first episode and I was like, oh no. This is gonna go in a completely different direction," she said.
So far the direction has been up. Since the newlyweds began airing on MTV, sales of Jessica's albums have soared. She has also turned up everywhere -- her own variety show, award shows, television commercials, even on Donald Trump's "The Apprentice."
And, for now at least, Simpson's not worried about over-exposure.
"I think over-exposure is when people believe your story's not true. You're hawking every product in the world you supposedly love and people begin to go 'Oh, there's no way you love all that,' " Simpson said.
"They're absolutely over-exposed but I do think that they're choosing not to risk not getting everything they can right now," Coniff said.
"If you're trying to make as much money as you can right now the best way to do that is to over-expose yourself," Coniff said.
Jessica's reality show was so successful that when her little sister wanted to launch her own music career, Simpson made a deal with MTV for what might be described as a spin-off of the newlyweds -- "The Ashlee Simpson Show."
But cynics out there say are saying Simpson simply created Ashlee as the "anti-Jessica" -- dying her hair brown and giving her an edgier style.
Simpson isn't put off by the skeptics. He's got faith in his daughter's pop potential. "You can have all the hype and all the press and the record's not good, doesn't matter," Simpson said.
But is Simpson pushing his daughter too hard?
"Ashlee was really stressed out on 'Saturday Night Live' and that begs the question of is she being pushed too far, too fast. Is this actually too much for her to handle? 'Cause she clearly couldn't handle it," Coniff said.
Simpson knows that the life expectancy of a pop star's career is increasingly short and that her gaffe on SNL may have made Ashlee's even shorter. But the Baptist preacher he once was tries to remain philosophical.
"None of us are guaranteed tomorrow. So in one sense we have to live everyday and grab all of life that you can get and do all that you think you're capable of doing that day and let tomorrow worry about itself."