I stayed up way past my bed time last night to watch Jessica Simpson‘s new VH1 show, “The Price of Beauty.” I didn’t have high hopes for the show in the first place (more on that later), but it ended up being kinda terrible in a way I hadn’t expected: “The Price of Beauty” is ostensibly about Simpson and her friends, CaCee Cobb and Ken Paves, traveling to different countries to learn about what they consider beautiful.
But instead, “The Price of Beauty” was a rather embarrassing display about rude American tourists who make inappropriate jokes and shriek, squeal and squirm when offered strange food. When Miss American Pie Jessica Simpson burst into a fit of sniggering giggles while meditating in a Buddhist temple with a Thai monk, I covered my eyes with my hands and winced. I’ve written before about just how dubious I am about Simpson hosting a show about beauty standards around the world: She not only sells her own lip plumper, body shimmer and hair extensions, but she’s gotten Restylane injections in her lips. Is a woman who markets beauty products to women, and clearly puts a lot of money and effort into looking like a life-size Barbie doll, really the best ambassador to tell American women about, as she put it, “the crazy things people do to feel beautiful”? What’s next — Britney Spears teaching a parenting class?
I might’ve been less skeptical if “The Price of Beauty” had created a narrative arc for why Simpson has a sudden interest in beauty, but nope, the show didn’t make a reference to Unflattering Pants-gate. Surely you remember Pants-gate? Simpson performed in some not-so-attractive high-waisted pants and the tabloids creamed themselves with cover stories screaming “JESSICA SIMPSON IS FAT!!!” In a New York minute, Simpson dropped some weight and appeared again in those very same tabloids — this time with approval. Maybe that part got left on the editing room floor, but “The Price of Beauty” makes it seem like she’s traveling around the world exploring cultural norms of beauty just because she’s curious like that. I can understand if Simpson doesn’t want to draw attention to Pants-gate. If only she did, it would at least underscore how cultural beauty standards make up a very serious subject that has affected and harmed her.
The show begins with Simpson and her pals jetting off to Thailand, their premiere stop in a worldwide tour of beauty. The first order of the day is a circulation-boosting Thai couples massage for Jessica and Ken … which set the tone for the rest of the show. Two tiny Thai women twist their bodies and pummel knees into their butts while they melodramatically shriek in pain the whole time. And what does Jess say when it’s all over? “I thought Thai massages had happy endings. I’m just wondering where mine is.”
“Happy endings” usually means a hand job or blow job at the end of an “erotic massage.” Uh … racist and inappropriate much?
Next they met up with the host of “Thailand’s Next Top Model,” who walked the three through an outdoor Thai market and led them straight to a street cart selling fried bugs. I’m sorry, are we watching “Survivor” now? The “Top Model” host insisted they each eat a fried cockroach or something, which all three did, but only after more shrieking, gagging and cries that they could feel legs in the back of their throat. In the background you could see the faces of local Thai people, like, “Who the hell are these people?” By this point, I was convinced “The Price of Beauty” was really about Jessica Simpson discovering her inner “ugly American.”
Then the show got serious, though. The “Top Model” host showed her guests a table of skin whitening creams and explained to them that in Thai culture, lighter skin is considered “better” because it means you aren’t lower-class and working out in the fields. Women buy skin-bleaching creams, even though many of them are actually quite harmful. She then introduced Jessica, Ken and CaCee to a heartbreaking young women who lost all the skin on her face when the creams burnt it off. Covered in scabs, the woman explained that she used to be a singer and wanted to look more pretty, but since her skin burnt off from whitening creams, she has stopped performing and her husband left her. Watching her, it was truly hard not to cry.
Next the threesome visited a Buddhist monk who invited them into his temple for mediation and spoke to them about how Buddhists believe real beauty comes for within. But while they were silently meditating, for some entirely unknown reason, Simpson burst into a fit of giggles and couldn’t stop herself, even after CaCee hissed at her, “Stop!” The camera captured that poor Buddhist monk just furrowing his brow.
The last part of the episode (can you believe they packed this much into half an hour?) brought the three friends to visit the women of the Karen tribe, who wrap rings around their throats to elongate the necks. One woman explained an elongated neck signifies wealth and beauty and can help a woman attract a good husband. Together, Jessica, CaCee and Ken watched a 6-year-old girl have rings wrapped around her neck for the very first time; I was surprised by CaCee’s insightfulness when she asked if the girls choose to have the rings put on their necks, or if they are forced to. (Apparently it is their choice.)
I understand that the producers know they have to make the show “fun” or else people won’t watch it. Indeed, nobody would want to watch all “my skin was burned off by whitening creams!” all the time. And Jessica Simpson, tromping around Thailand in four-inch heels, is all too happy to play the bubbly ditz. But my sincere hope is that in subsequent episodes of “The Price of Beauty,” Simpson stops being an “ugly American” and instead treats the subject she is investigating with the respect it deserves.