Nicole Richie struts into the L.A. offices of MDDN wearing a bedazzled headband, a floor-length mock-neck velvet gown, and bright-pink eyeshadow. She tells the label founders—her husband, Joel Madden, and his twin brother, Benji—that she would like to make a trap record about environmentalism. “This is a new genre,” she says confidently. “This is parent trap. Conscious trap. Music with a message.”
“My name is Nikki Fre$h,” she reveals. “A new voice has landed, and it raps.”
So goes the opening scene of Nikki Fre$h, a short-form series that Richie created and produced for Quibi, the mobile streaming service that launched on April 6. Like she’s done in many of her past projects, Richie plays a heightened version of herself; in this case, it’s a debut rap artist with a deep passion for gardening, clean water, and saving the bees. Alongside the series, Richie plans to release an online album featuring tracks like “Drip Drip,” which she worked on with her husband and singer-songwriter Sarah Hudson. (Hudson has collaborated with Dua Lipa and Katy Perry.)
The show—a comedy—is about “being at one with the garden, being at one with the universe, understanding that we, like everything else, are living and have to be here and need water and attention,” Richie tells me.
We’ve just hobbled off the ice at the Pickwick rink in Burbank, California, one of Richie’s real-life haunts. Today she’s wearing black leggings, two oversize black sweaters, and four or five small diamond-studded hoops in each ear. She brought her own teeny-tiny white figure skates, and for 30 minutes she skated backwards around the rink while I hugged the wall. “I was a national competitive figure skater, no big deal,” she says. And it’s true. From the time she was about 7, Richie spent most days at a rink in Culver City that’s since closed. She continued training and competing through high school, and then she quit and spent a couple of years studying media arts at the University of Arizona before joining the cast of The Simple Life alongside Paris Hilton.
Though she is perhaps most recognizable for that legendary five-season run in the mid-aughts, Richie does not consider herself a reality star.
“I’ve never done traditional reality,” she says, taking a sip of Trader Joe’s decaffeinated green tea from the reusable mug she brought with her to the rink. “Even Simple Life, it was a 28-day or 30-day trip. And it was me leaving L.A. and living in someone else’s life. I’ve never opened the doors to my own [life].”
And she never would. “No, no,” she says emphatically when I ask.
Perhaps that’s why she had no advice for her little sister, Sofia Richie, when she made her reality-TV debut on Keeping Up With the Kardashians last year. Sofia, 21, is currently dating Scott Disick, who is, of course, the father of Kourtney Kardashian’s three children. Nicole and the Kardashians go way back; she was childhood friends with Kim and attended the same college as Kourtney. But Nicole says that Sofia’s E! cameos are strictly her business. “She’s an adult. She can handle anything she wants to do.”
Richie doesn’t even watch reality TV these days, she says, even though she regularly participates in some form of it. This year she signed on to be a judge on Amazon Prime Video’s fashion-design-competition show Making the Cut, alongside Naomi Campbell, Heidi Klum, Tim Gunn, and Joseph Altuzarra, where she bestows the expertise she’s gathered in her 12 years as creative director of House of Harlow 1960. Instead, she is “very into” watching Curb Your Enthusiasm right now: “I love it so much.”
It’s not totally surprising that Richie would be into the recently rebooted HBO series. Richie herself is kind of a 38-year-old party-girl-turned-fashion-designer-turned-gardening-influencer version of Larry David. Ever since The Simple Life, she has grown used to playing a character whose name is Nicole Richie. You know, the “Nicole Richie” who offered passengers lap dances during a stint as a flight attendant on season three of The Simple Life. Or the “Nicole Richie” who jammed out to “Brick House” while driving a hearse when she and Hilton moonlighted as funeral-home interns.
But most days, the real Richie entertains herself with the goings-on in the backyard of the Beverly Hills home she shares with Madden and their two children, Harlow, 12, and Sparrow, 10. In addition to her dog, cat, seven chickens, and beehives, Richie has two turtles, who recently emerged from underground hibernation.
“When you buy turtles in a pet store, they give you the glass aquarium, and they were in there,” she says. “And I read online that they actually love to be outside, so I built them this box [in the backyard], and I swear to God, they hibernate every year. For six months, they disappear!”
She shows me a video on her iPhone of one of them reemerging after—swear to God—six months. “He just came from that hole!” she says. “Isn’t that wild?”
Given Richie’s clear passion for environmentalism and regular-old L.A. woo-woo (her favorite kind of crystal is “smoky quartz,” which is meant to provide “grounding and protection”), it would be easy to assume that Nikki Fre$h is autobiographical. But she is adamant that the “conscious trap” artist is a character. “Nikki Fre$h is acting. It’s scripted,” she says. “I love doing comedy; it’s where I’m the most comfortable.”
Since 2017, Richie has slowly established herself as a sitcom actress. She spent two seasons on the Tina Fey–produced NBC show Great News playing Portia Scott-Griffith, a cable-news-show cohost. And this year, she had a guest-starring role on ABC’s Bless This Mess, starring Lake Bell and Dax Shepard. She considers her relevant job titles to be “actor” and “designer.”
Richie is less eager to chat about her personal life. She is hesitant even to talk about her marriage to Madden, making her transition from TMZ fixture to happy domestic wife and mom frustratingly opaque. But just because she has settled comfortably into family life—she and Madden will celebrate their 10-year anniversary in December—doesn’t mean she’s ready to dish out marriage advice for other long-term couples.
“Do I have advice?” she asks. “I don’t know. I think it’s really important to enjoy the other person as an individual, not just as the role of your husband or the role of the father. Appreciate that person for who they are and really prioritize having fun together. I wish that there was some trick. There’s not. It’s two people growing into themselves.”
Richie clearly spends a lot of time thinking about how things grow. These days, that applies to the earth’s offerings.
“I love having the skill to know how to grow my own damn food,” she says. “I think it’s such a privilege that we can possibly do that, and I love having that skill. I’ve actually thought about if there was ever an end-of-the-world moment and people were picking people who would be useful. My first thought was, Ugh, no one’s going to pick me. I’m not really going to bust through any bushes or anything like that. That’s not who I am. But they will save me because I know how to grow food.”
As Richie starts to pack up her skates, she tells me that she hopes to one day go on a “massive” tour as Nikki Fre$h. “A farmers’ market tour. Where I sell herb.”
A sly pause.
“Except the herbs are mint and parsley and cilantro. But I’ll probably sell them in dime bags,” she says with a grin. “Just in case you were wondering.”
This article originally appears in the Summer 2020 issue of Marie Claire. The interview was conducted before COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic.