By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010; C01
Back when dinosaurs in low-rise denim roamed the land, a barely famous, chastity-promoting pop singer from Texas named Jessica Simpson had a show on MTV, "Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica," which chronicled her nascent marriage to a man who'd sung in a barely famous boy band.
The show was a hit, in part, because Simpson was so maddeningly stooooopid. (She thinks buffalo wings come from buffalo! Haw!) She was an emblem of her era, the triumph of the baby-talking pop star of the 21st century, who was praised far beyond her actual talents thanks to her (and her father/manager's) ability to jiggle and preen for the camera.
Then an asteroid crashed into the planet, and all the reality dinosaurs died. Only they didn't. Simpson got divorced, dated another pop star and a pro athlete, and learned what all celebrities learn -- that there is nothing more soothing than pressing that big red "reset" button on the wall. The worst (and best?) thing that happened to her came in early 2009: During a concert at a chili cook-off in Florida, she wore some high-rise jeans and a too-small tank top that made her look quite plump. Everyone (on the Internet) talked about it, which hurt her feelings, and so she's launched a new reality show about . . . beauty.
But "The Price of Beauty" (debuting Monday night on VH1) is not about beauty, not by a long shot. Mostly it's about a celebrity needing something to do. In it, Simpson travels the globe -- Thailand, France, India, Uganda -- with her BFF, CaCee Cobb, and her high-dollar hair stylist and feyde de camp, Ken Paves. The three are searching for cross-cultural notions of what's pretty, sexy, alluring -- and the emotional and economic prices that a woman must pay to achieve it, even (especially?) in the Third World.
Now, of course Simpson is no Nicholas Kristof. With a little less makeup and bereft of her leonine hair extensions, Simpson is just another innocent broad abroad, gamely participating in the activities "The Price of Beauty's" producers have contrived for her during the first episode's trip to Thailand:
Will she eat a fried cockroach? (To derive its beauty-enhancing nutrients?) Will she pass gas during a cleansing but aggressive body massage in Bangkok, only to crack the obvious "happy ending" joke? Can she get through a Buddhist prayer session to purify her soul without giggling?
Soon enough it's clear that Simpson and her friends are on a trip around the world to make jokes and get free spa treatments. Sure, "The Price of Beauty" tries to serious things up a bit (they visit a woman who irreparably burned her face in search of the Thai ideal of pale beauty; they go out to visit those tribal women who elongate their necks using heavy rings), but these efforts fall flat.
At best, "The Price of Beauty" reminds you of the most clueless of ugly Americans who are sometimes seen in "The Amazing Race," barking in Spanish ("muy rapido!") to cabdrivers in Mozambique; Simpson's naivete about the world beyond her own crosses a line from mildly clueless to patently offensive. What's striking about this show is that Simpson, nearing 30, has apparently done little in the way of maturing or learning since the buffalo-wing days. Even if it's all a dim-bulb act, it's a tired act, and if we're talking about real beauty, this sort of ignorance looks unattractive on a woman her age.
Sending Simpson and company around the world to search for anything (beauty, handbags, whatever) is a waste of precious jet fuel. If she wants to do an interesting TV show, I suggest one where she moves back to Dallas, goes to school, lets go of fame and gets a job. Even better? She does all that without a camera in sight.
The Price of Beauty, (30 minutes) premieres at 10 p.m. Monday on VH1.