‘I tell my children, “Mummy got grounded a lot”: Why Nicole Richie is tapping into her trouble-making past

Former wild child turned doting working mum NICOLE RICHIE is channelling her troublemaking past into her latest project. She opens up about her challenging teenage years, her style secrets and what she’s learnt from her famous dad Lionel.

‘Mornings are wild times in our house,’ says Nicole Richie. ‘It’s survival mode.’ And to be clear, the 36-year-old TV star, actress and creative director of fashion brand House of Harlow 1960 isn’t talking about the kind of wild times she was known for in her younger years.

'My past is out there. I have no choice but to be honest,' says Nicole
‘My past is out there. I have no choice but to be honest,’ says Nicole

She is referring to the demands of family life at home in Los Angeles with her husband Joel Madden, lead singer of the rock band Good Charlotte, their nine-year-old daughter Harlow and son Sparrow, aged eight.

‘It’s like the Olympics: get the kids up, make breakfast, prepare lunches, drive them to school (I volunteer there, so on those days I will stay to read with the class) then go to work’ – which might be at home, on set or at a business meeting, depending on her schedule.

It’s the kind of hectic routine every parent can relate to and there are no complaints from Nicole, the daughter of soul legend Lionel Richie (‘Hello’, ‘Three Times a Lady’, ‘All Night Long’) and his first wife (and college sweetheart) Brenda. We’re meeting in an LA hotel suite full of white flowers to talk about her latest venture as a celebrity spokesperson for the edgy make-up brand Urban Decay.

Nicole Richie lives in Los Angeles with her husband Joel Madden, lead singer of the rock band Good Charlotte, and their children Harlow and Sparrow
Nicole Richie lives in Los Angeles with her husband Joel Madden, lead singer of the rock band Good Charlotte, and their children Harlow and Sparrow

First, though, we find ourselves discussing the challenges of balancing motherhood with a demanding career. ‘I don’t have a trick for making it all work,’ she says, ordering peppermint tea.

‘My kids come first, and then you do what you can fit into the day.’ Poised and sophisticated, there is no trace of the It-girl who once battled drug addiction and rocketed to global fame in the hit reality TV series The Simple Life with her then best friend, heiress Paris Hilton.

The hilarious show – a guilty pleasure that ran from 2003 to 2007 – followed the pampered pair as they left their luxurious homes to work at a variety of low-pay manual jobs (including farm work and cleaning), from which they were inevitably fired.

Nicole with Paris Hilton, her co-star in The Simple Life, in 2005
Nicole with Paris Hilton, her co-star in The Simple Life, in 2005

Fans will recall that Nicole was the witty, talented one. She went on to appear in the film Kids in America and TV shows including Six Feet Under, before starring in her own semi-scripted 2014 reality show Candidly Nicole.

The show so impressed comedy icon Tina Fey that she cast Nicole as a TV presenter in her latest sitcom Great News. (Set in a newsroom, the series is expected to arrive in the UK next year.) Working with the 30 Rock star, who plays the head of the TV network, ‘is 100 per cent intimidating and 100 per cent exciting,’ says Nicole. ‘Tina is amazing, the most down-to-earth person ever.’

Nicole is funny and grounded herself, as I discover when she tells me about the family’s nine chickens. ‘I love them; five of them like me, four of them don’t,’ she deadpans, explaining that because of her recent schedule, ‘I’ve spent zero time with them; I only see them at the weekends and they’re like, “Who are you?” But they will get over it.’

Nicole with husband Joel Madden
Nicole with husband Joel Madden

After 11 years together (Nicole and Joel married in 2010), the Richie/Madden household sounds like a glamorous version of The Simple Life. Nicole is quite the domestic goddess these days.

‘I started cooking when my kids were born.’ She is in charge of family dinners, ‘whenever I get home from work in time; my son loves salmon patties’. And her husband’s culinary skills?

‘He used to cook when I met him and all of a sudden he didn’t any more and now I’m, like, “I remember that you know how to cook, so we’re not going to pretend that you don’t.”’

Who is the disciplinarian? ‘The kids think I’m strict, which is insane,’ she laughs. ‘I just have rules: bedtimes, eating good food, limits. But they think Joel is the fun one because when he is in charge there’s no bedtime and who knows what they’re eating.’

 My past is out there. I have no choice but to be honest and that is very freeing to me

Nicole hasn’t entirely left her wild-child image behind. Astutely capitalising on that persona, she has teamed up with Urban Decay as the face of its new mascara, playfully named Troublemaker.

‘We wanted someone with big eyes, a great personality and a bit of that troublemaking spirit,’ says Urban Decay founder Wende Zomnir. ‘That’s Nicole! She has a really unique sense of style. There are not a lot of A-listers who have that edge. The first time I met Nicole, her husband Joel said: “Oh yeah, she’s a troublemaker!”’

Troublemakers break the rules, Nicole points out, ‘which also means breaking the rules of beauty. It’s about self-expression; the idea that somebody else can’t tell you what beauty is.’

It’s a philosophy Nicole strongly relates to. ‘That’s the principle behind House of Harlow,’ she says, explaining that, in her teens, she was galvanised into developing her own style because high-street trends didn’t always suit her diminutive size.

‘I would be like: “That miniskirt is amazing and should be worn by somebody who’s 5ft 9in.” Since then, I’ve made my own decisions about what looks good on me and how I feel confident.’

Nicole modelling her House of Harlow 1960 fashion line
Nicole modelling her House of Harlow 1960 fashion line

Troublemaker isn’t just for teens and millennials, she says. ‘Mums wear mascara and that alone makes me perfect for this collaboration.’ Nicole has been a fan of Urban Decay since she was 14, when she and friends would shop at the local mall.

‘I would buy a gunmetal-coloured eyeshadow called Uzi.’ She also remembers experimenting with red eyeshadow applied as liner, which was not appreciated by her mother. Brenda once told her as she was setting off for school, ‘You look like you are sick, like something’s wrong with you.’

Today, wearing notably subtle make-up, Nicole comes across as a self-possessed and inspiring role model, which is impressive given her tumultuous upbringing. Her biological father was a drummer, one of Lionel Richie’s backing musicians, and her biological mother was a backstage assistant.

Lionel and Brenda fostered Nicole aged four (because her parents were unable to look after her) and later adopted her. The Richies split up when Nicole was eight and she has two siblings Miles, 23, a musician, and Sofia, 19, a model, from her father’s relationship with his second wife Diane Alexander (whom he divorced in 2004).

Nicole with her parents Lionel and Brenda
Nicole with her parents Lionel and Brenda

I’ve interviewed Lionel at the family’s sprawling Beverly Hills estate where Nicole spent a large part of her childhood. I mention that the 68-year-old multiple Grammy winner, who wrote ‘Ballerina Girl’ for Nicole, has told me how proud he is of her accomplishments, joking that he’s often referred to as ‘Nicole Richie’s dad!’ Nicole smiles, ‘Oh my God, the man loves to chat.’

I’ve heard that father and daughter share a sense of humour. ‘I love to play pranks on him all the time.’ She tells me she recently tried out an alternative health remedy on him, giving him a ‘cupping’ session – which is supposed to open the blood flow and improve circulation – but almost set him on fire. (The treatment entails pouring alcohol into a cup, lighting it and heating the skin.) ‘I just got a little too close to his back for a hot second.’

She grew up surrounded by famous names, with Michael Jackson as her godfather (‘he was so much fun, a very, very nice person’) and birthday parties held at his Neverland ranch.

‘Mums wear mascara and that alone makes me perfect for this collaboration,’ says Nicole of her Urban Decay Troublemaker mascara
‘Mums wear mascara and that alone makes me perfect for this collaboration,’ says Nicole of her Urban Decay Troublemaker mascara

Lionel was friendly with both Nelson Mandela and Prince, and among the regular dinner party guests at the Richie mansion were Diana Ross and music producer Quincy Jones. ‘I wish I had been old enough to appreciate those late-night talks my dad had with Quincy about being black men in LA,’ she says.

Nicole has a clear recollection of the first time she realised her father was famous, when she was a ‘shy little girl’. A member of the Pointer Sisters soul group took her to watch him in concert:

‘I remember seeing all these people dancing and yelling. I didn’t understand, and she had to explain that when people like music, they dance and yell because they’re excited.’

Describing her early childhood as ‘very happy’, Nicole was musical and learned to play the cello, violin and piano. She was also a competitive figure skater. Her parents ‘definitely weren’t strict: I don’t think I had a bedtime’.

Nicole performing with her father Lionel in 2012

Her father was frequently absent on tour, but they would often join him. ‘That’s been the rhythm of his life. And his life is the same now, he has just finished a tour,’ she says, joking that her dad (who’s also a judge on the revived American Idol) never seems to take a break.

The same seems to be true for Nicole. As well as her TV work and her role as creative director of House of Harlow 1960, she has written two novels fictionalising her glamorous life, The Truth About Diamonds and Priceless.

 My dad is extremely kind. He leaves an impression on people

‘I love a schedule,’ she says. ‘There’s something traditional and “Americana” about clocking into work and being told what to do,’ which she is happily doing on Great News. ‘Maybe it’s because I didn’t have a lot of [discipline] growing up,’ reflects Nicole, revealing that she has a goal of acting in big-screen comedies too. ‘I love a good romcom.’

Even at her most rebellious, Nicole was ambitious, determined to earn her own living rather than relying on the family fortune. ‘I remember my father saying to me all the time, “do this or we are taking away your car,” so, in my mind, I was like, “I can’t wait to not ask my dad for anything and earn my own money.”

‘What drives me now is that I love getting up in the morning, I love to create, and that’s what you should be doing, exercising your brain.’

Nicole playing Portia in Great News
Nicole playing Portia in Great News

Nicole credits both parents for having always supported her – she was arrested on several occasions, spent eight-and-a-half hours in prison after being picked up for drink-driving, and had two stints in rehab.

But she also says it was hard for them to relate to her life. ‘I love them, bless their souls, they are such good people, but my mum has never even smoked a cigarette. When she was young she was an Alabama majorette [a baton-twirling dancer in marching bands]; she did everything her parents told her to.’

As for her dad in his younger days: ‘I would imagine he just liked to keep his afro intact, sing a love song and hook up with girls. I don’t think he got into any real trouble. So they were not my go-tos for advice.

'My parents were not my go-tos for advice. I shut them out very early, in my teens,’ says Nicole
‘My parents were not my go-tos for advice. I shut them out very early, in my teens,’ says Nicole

‘I shut them out very early, in my teens.’ It must have been incredibly challenging, dealing with drug addiction with a father who is one of the biggest names in pop music.

But Nicole is philosophical about her past; in retrospect, she views the attention in a positive way. ‘I think getting into trouble and going through everything in the public eye was good because if I had cleaned up without anyone knowing, maybe I would have figured out how to slip back into it.’

 My past is out there. I have no choice but to be honest

There are no regrets. ‘I mean, it is what it is. What I can do is use that experience as a tool for when my kids get older. They know that people have died from drugs because they go to school and it happens.’

Nicole says she will not be hiding anything from her children. ‘Everything [about my past] is out there and I have no choice but to be honest with them. And you know what? That is very freeing to me.’

Harlow and Sparrow are still too young to understand what their mother experienced, ‘but we’re going to ease into it later on down the line. We’re starting with, “Mummy got grounded a lot.”’

Are there concerns about raising children in LA? ‘I’m worried every second of every day,’ she says. ‘Of course I worry, I’m a mum.’ She has more than five million followers on Twitter, but says the children are banned from social media. ‘Oh my God, they can’t even go on Google.’

Because of her experiences, Nicole cherishes stability and the strong foundations she and her husband have built for their children. ‘For someone like me, who grew up as an only child [there’s a 13-year age gap between Nicole and her half-brother Miles], I got this great family when I married Joel.’

She says her husband, his twin (and band mate Benji), their brother Josh and sister Sarah were raised by their single mother and appreciate stability as much as she does. Joel and Benji (who is married to the actress Cameron Diaz) have always been inseparable. ‘When I met Joel they lived six houses apart. They finish each other’s sentences. They are every stereotype you hear about twins – times ten.’

I tell Nicole that Cameron once told me in an interview how much she, too, appreciates the close-knit clan she’s joined. Nicole smiles. ‘I think every one of us who has married into the Madden family feels like that.

It is a credit to them and to their mum. Those siblings are as close as siblings can be, family is everything to them. We all do dinners, holidays together – everything,’ she says. ‘I don’t think people view LA as a place with a deep community,’ she adds, ‘but it really is. I have people around me that I’ve known for ever. I don’t have to explain who I am or sell them anything: they just know me.’

Nicole’s parents are, of course, part of her warm, extended family, and Lionel is a doting – though occasionally impatient – grandfather. ‘He drives the children and their friends to In-N-Out Burger and he loves it, but he gets so stressed. They’re kids, they change their minds about what they want. It’s like, “I want a hamburger – no, I want a cheeseburger.”

Nicole with (from left) Josh Madden, dad Lionel, husband Joel, Cameron Diaz and Benji Madden
Nicole with (from left) Josh Madden, dad Lionel, husband Joel, Cameron Diaz and Benji Madden

So, when he gets back home we give him some tea and calm his sweet nerves. He never took me to drive-throughs when I was little,’ she says as an afterthought.

But her father is an inspiring role model and has given her valuable keys to leading a good life. ‘My dad is extremely kind, that’s who he is. He is so friendly and he leaves a lasting impression on people. Walking through the airport, I cannot tell you how many times [airport] staff have said to me, “Your dad was here and he’s so nice,” and you can see by the look on their faces that he made them feel good.

‘I’ve learnt from him to be kind, not just so that people can say you are kind – but really kind. If you can float around the world in life and make people feel good, that’s really cool.’