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PAULA ZAHN NOW

A Killer Walks; Unlikely Journey of Jessica Simpson; Eating Disorders

Aired August 11, 2005 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everybody. Glad to have you with us.
Tonight, a brutal massacre, the bloody murder of five people, four children and one adult, and now outrage, as the killer goes free.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN (voice-over): A deadly school ambush, students killed, a town traumatized. Tonight, after only seven years, why is one of the killers a free man?

The shocking phenomenon you might have thought was only a threat to teens.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What do you remember about weighing 58 pounds?

ZAHN: Why are grown women starving themselves almost to death?

And would you believe that this preacher's daughter...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They all had made the same pledge of abstinence.

ZAHN: ... could turn into this Hollywood bombshell?

(MUSIC)

ZAHN: The unlikely journey of Jessica Simpson.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: A convicted killer turned 21 today, and he's getting quite a birthday present. Mitchell Johnson killed five people, wounded 10 others during a shooting rampage at an Arkansas middle school back in March of 1998. But Arkansas law makes him eligible, as of today, to walk out of prison a free man.

Ed Lavandera has the details of this painful story. He joins us now from Jonesboro.

Do we know if Mitchell has been released yet?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, we're working under the assumption that he has. And most everyone here in Jonesboro, Arkansas, is working under that same assumption.

There's a shroud a secrecy surrounding Mitchell Johnson's case. Because he is listed as a juvenile status case, everything is secret surrounding him. But, by law, he had to be released by his 21st birthday. There are some people here who think he was released a few days ago, some people who think he was released just at midnight. Whatever the case may be, everyone here working on the assumption that Mitchell Johnson is out of prison.

And what this day has done is really bring back all of the anxiety of March of 1998, where four young students, all female students, were killed, as well as a teacher in the case as well. Many of the people here are angered and frustrated by the loophole that existed here in Arkansas law at the time, that the juvenile suspects and those that were convicted in this case had to be released by the age of 21.

We spoke today with one of the victims who survived the attack and also one of the girls who was actually holding -- walking hand in hand with two of the victims as they were walking out of the school and ambushed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRANDI GEORGE, SHOOTING WITNESS: We still have to live what happened. I mean, it happened right there in front of us. We seen people go down. You have to live with those memories. We don't ever know what life would have been like if nothing would have happened like that. I mean, our lives could be completely different now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LAVANDERA: Now, we have made repeated attempts over the last couple of days to get in touch with Mitchell Johnson's family, so many of them who still live here in Jonesboro. They have refused all of our requests for interviews.

But in an interview with a Arkansas newspaper recently, Mitchell Johnson's mother says that Mitchell Johnson wants to become a minister and that he promises never to live here in Arkansas again -- Paula.

ZAHN: And I imagine that's for a very good reason.

I -- the anger we just heard from that young woman I assume mirrors the anger of the community to this day.

MORGAN: Oh, absolutely.

You know, we actually went out after we spoke with the two -- two of the survivors. We thought, let's get out into the town and speak with other people. Maybe there are some people maybe be sympathetic. We had heard some voices on the radio who had expressed a little bit of sympathy.

But, by and large, virtually everyone we have talked to here in Jonesboro, Arkansas, is very frustrated by the way the law has worked in this particular case. And they really don't have a lot of sympathy for Mitchell Johnson.

ZAHN: And I guess it's pretty clear from your reporting why.

Ed Lavandera, thanks so much for your time.

It's easy to sense the outrage in Jonesboro and all over Arkansas.

Natalie Brooks was only 11 when her life was taken. So was Britthney Varner. Stephanie Johnson and Paige Herring were 12. And Shannon Wright, a teacher at the school, was just 32.

Her parents, Carl and Jeannie Williams, have been dreading this day for a long time. And they join us tonight.

Thank you so much for being with us.

I know that no amount of preparation probably could ever get you ready for this day. And it's still not clear whether Mr. Mitchell Johnson has been released or not. But what are your thoughts tonight?

JEANNIE WILLIAMS, MOTHER OF VICTIM: Well, you know, we're disappointed. But we were from the beginning, because we knew that they weren't going to keep him and all, until 18. And then after the federal took over, why, they agreed to keep him until 21. So, that's a little better for us. But it's not enough.

ZAHN: But Mr. Williams...

(CROSSTALK)

J. WILLIAMS: We would like to see him in there for life.

ZAHN: Exactly.

Now, Mr. Williams, I know that you were hoping for a change in the law that might have made this sentence longer at some point. Are you bitter that Mitchell -- Mitchell -- Mitchell Johnson is a free man?

CARL WILLIAMS, FATHER OF VICTIM: Somewhat. It just -- it seemed like the injustice of the justice system just didn't work out this time. The crime that was committed, the punishment just -- just wasn't enough.

ZAHN: And, Mrs. Williams, as the nation focuses on this case, I think they need to understand how brave your daughter was on that tragic day. She was shot three times. And investigators later found that she was shot simply because she was trying to form a human shield between the killers and the children. She was trying to save the children's lives. What else do you want the audience to know about your daughter?

J. WILLIAMS: Well, she was just a good person all around, good mother and good daughter and just a good Christian person, and loved kids and would have done anything for them. (CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: And, Mr. Williams, on the issue of Christianity, there are reports now that Mitchell Johnson wants to become a minister, that he would -- quote -- "give his 100 times over to turn this thing back."

Do you accept his remorse? Do you buy it at all?

C. WILLIAMS: Time will tell on that. I don't really -- I don't know. It's -- it just doesn't seem -- you know, when you're in prison and you say things and you're going to do things, but time will tell on that. I don't know. I'm skeptical.

ZAHN: Mrs. Williams -- and, Mrs. Williams, do you share that skepticism?

J. WILLIAMS: He's never told us he's sorry or the parents or anybody. So, you know, you have to repent before you can be one of God's. And I haven't seen anything out of him that I would want to follow.

ZAHN: Did you ever expect an apology from him, Mrs. Williams?

J. WILLIAMS: Well, after seven years, you would think someone would say, you know, if he really means it, that he would say he is, so, no, probably not.

ZAHN: And, finally, tonight, Mr. Williams, Ed Lavandera was trying to explain to all of us the level of anger that still exists in this community over these brutal murders, Mitchell Johnson saying through his mother that he doesn't intend to settle in Jonesboro. Would he be in danger if he had decided to call that home once again?

C. WILLIAMS: I don't know. I would hate for him to come back here. I don't want to have -- I don't want to see him. And I don't want my grandson to see him. And I just don't think it would be the best thing to do, if he came back. I'd rather him just -- just leave and not come back around here.

ZAHN: And, finally Mr. and Mrs. Williams, I'm going to share with our audience now some of what the other folks are saying in your community about his being a free man.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Somebody like that should not be able to -- to be let go, after doing such a horrendous crime like that. I don't care how old they were. The law is wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It will hard for him to live him. People won't trust him. That's how this town is.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm glad he's not coming back to Jonesboro. Too many people in this area would put a hole in him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: Tough to listen to.

Mrs. Williams, your daughter left behind a son who was just 2 at the time of her murder. How is he doing?

J. WILLIAMS: Oh, he's doing fine good. He's 10 now and going to be in fifth grade. And we see him a lot. And he's a happy little boy.

ZAHN: Does he understand what happened to his mom?

J. WILLIAMS: Oh, yes. He knows. He -- he -- we saved everything for him and that we got during that time, you know, the cards and everything. And, one day, he'll go through them and read some of them, now that he can.

ZAHN: Well, that certainly will be a painful chapter for him to have to endure.

Carl and Jeannie Williams, I know it's still not easy for you to talk about what happened more than eight years ago. We really appreciate you sharing your story with us tonight.

J. WILLIAMS: You're welcome.

ZAHN: Good luck to your family.

C. WILLIAMS: Thank you.

ZAHN: Still to come tonight, the changing face of a problem that devastates a lot of families. These days, why is it affecting more and more middle-aged women?

Also, since Peter Jennings' death last Sunday from lung cancer, something remarkable has happened.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID WESTIN, PRESIDENT, ABC NEWS: I don't think Peter ever wanted to see himself as a poster child for anything. He didn't want to be the story. He wanted to report the story.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: But he has become the story, one that has inspired thousands of people to make a promise they once thought was impossible.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Still to come, the hard-to-believe the story of a family that has produced not just one, but two pop culture icons. Who is behind the success of Jessica and Ashlee Simpson? You might be surprised. But, right now, just about 14 minutes past the hour, time to check in with Erica Hill at Headline News.

Hi, Erica.

ERICA HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Paula.

It is a fearful night for thousands of people in the Northwest. That's because all of Washington state is now under a wildfire emergency. The National Guard is on alert, as two major fires burn tens of thousands of acres and are destroying dozens of home. Governor Christine Gregoire says her entire state carries the potential for major fires.

Meantime, at his Texas ranch, President Bush says it's hard to some Americans to see it, but progress is being made in Iraq. Still, the president said any talk of bringing the troops home is premature right now.

In CNN "THE SITUATION ROOM" today, former President Clinton was pressed by CNN's Wolf Blitzer as to whether he thinks invading Iraq was a mistake.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I thought that we should not have gone in there until we let the U.N. inspectors finish their job. That was, after all, the understanding the Senate had when it was asked to vote to Congress to give the president authority to go in.

But that's really not relevant anymore. We did what we did. We are where we are. Fifty-eight percent of the Iraqis showed up to vote, 1,800-plus brave Americans have given their lives there. Thousands and thousands of Iraqis have died in fighting the insurgency and trying to give their country a future.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: Meantime, back in this country, traders pushed crude oil prices to another record high today. Gasoline futures also jumped, oil prices now 50 percent higher than they were a year ago. You may have noticed.

And it was a Kentucky cabbie who led police to two suspected killers wanted for a courthouse shoot-out in Tennessee. The cab driver says he became suspicious of his fares on the way to Columbus, Ohio, because they said that they sold Amway products, but didn't really talk much about it and didn't really seem like they were truly Amway representatives -- Paula.

ZAHN: Yes, he said they didn't have much of a sense of enthusiasm about anything, the dead giveaway, huh?

HILL: They didn't go for the hard sell, apparently.

ZAHN: They did not. Thanks, Erica. See you in about 20 minutes or so.

ZAHN: There have been countless tributes to Peter Jennings this week, but you seen the one that he may think was the most profound?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WESTIN: Peter would have to have been moved by that. There's no question about it. I know he would have been somewhat embarrassed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: In a minute, how can one man's death trigger thousands of promises that may save lives?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: With the death of Peter Jennings this week and the announcement of Christopher Reeve's widow, Dana, that she has lung cancer, we have all been reminded that it is the number one cancer killer in this country. And lot of smokers are getting that message.

The American Cancer Society says its telephone quit line has received 50 percent more calls since the news about Jennings and Reeve. And QuitNet.com, a stop-smoking Web site associated with Boston University, says more than 7,000 people have registered since Monday. The average for the two days before the news was 250 people per day.

And then there's ABC's Web site. It's been swamped since Peter Jennings died.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: "I have smoked two packs a day for 35 years. I stopped the night Peter Jennings died. I only hope I am not too late."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: "This is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I will never smoke again and I will never forget Peter Jennings."

ZAHN: The sheer number is remarkable. The sentiment they all share is brave, thousands and thousands of messages from men and women, young and old, flooding ABC's Web site in tribute to journalist Peter Jennings, many pledging to give up smoking, the habit with which they have struggled for so long.

WESTIN: Peter would have to have been moved by that. There's no question about it. I know he would have been somewhat embarrassed, because he didn't like to be the center of attention.

ZAHN: David Westin is the president of ABC News. And even he's amazed by the messages.

(on camera): Did Peter ever talk to you how much he regretted that he had been a smoker? WESTIN: No, certainly not. We certainly talked a bit about the smoking. When it came to the smoking issue, I think he regarded that as a story out there that was critically important to cover. And he cared passionately about it. But I don't think Peter ever wanted to see himself as a poster child for anything. He didn't want to be the story. He wanted to report the story.

ZAHN (voice-over): But Peter Jennings did become the story. People have been so deeply affected by his passing.

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: It is with a profound sadness and true sorrow that I report to you, Peter Jennings has died.

ZAHN: From the moment he courageously told the nation about his diagnosis just four months before...

JENNINGS: Yes, I was a smoker until about 20 years ago...

ZAHN: ... Peter's death made many people realize it was time to take control of their lives.

WESTIN: People felt he would always be there. And the notion that this man, who represented all these things, could be struck down by this terrible, terrible, disease and, in a matter of four months, be gone, I think brings home to all of us a sense of mortality.

ZAHN: If you read the messages, you meet people, some who have now embarked on the hardest journey of their lives, sharing each high and each low.

NANCIE FARRIS, EX-SMOKER: As soon as the special report of Peter's death aired, I put down the smokes and have not touched them since.

ZAHN: Nancie Farris from San Francisco posted her pledge the night Peter died. She learned of his passing when she was on the porch smoking a cigarette.

FARRIS: I think, in the back of my mind, I kind of thought, well, you get cancer, they have got so many cures. You're going be OK. That's not the case.

ZAHN: It's now day four since she quit.

FARRIS: I really don't want another cigarette. It's just, there seems to be some kind of an urge or a craving that's getting stronger the last couple days.

ZAHN: But she hopes she can hold on. Nancie and others have found support through the ABC message board.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: "Be strong. You can beat this. Mr. Jennings would be proud to know that many have decided to quit smocking."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "Thank you for quitting. This is the biggest sacrifice, the very best way Peter would want to be remembered."

ZAHN: Sentiments meant to motivate, inspired by a man who lost his battle so fast.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And this Sunday, we would like to invite to join Dr. Sanjay Gupta for a special "CNN PRESENTS," "Taming the Beast: Inside the War on Cancer." Once again, that's at 8:00 p.m. right here on CNN.

Coming up next, though, an alarming trend. Why are middle-aged women choosing to starve themselves?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The food and the disease has total] control over me. I don't have control.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: Could this be happening to someone you know?

Stay with us for some new information on a disorder that is affecting a lot more people than you might think, in fact, millions.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are most common among girls and young women. But I had no idea they were so widespread.

Listen to this. In the United States, as many 10 million women and girls are fighting the urge to starve themselves. And now doctors are seeing a very disturbing trend.

As Randi Kaye reports, it's now a crisis among middle-aged women.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KAYE (voice-over): Becky Marsella is planning a wedding.

BECKY MARSELLA, BATTLING ANOREXIA: Think you should do you hair like this or maybe like that? What do you think?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't think so.

KAYE: Her daughter Rachel (ph) is getting married in November. Becky just hopes she's healthy enough to be there. At 46, Becky Marsella is severely anorexic, one of a growing number of women over 35 who suffer from the illness. Although she had never done so before, she says, she began starving herself six years ago, as she turned 40 and depression suddenly set in.

MARSELLA: It was kind of just a senseless hopelessness that my wasn't going anywhere, that I had just reached a point in my life where I couldn't get any more satisfaction out of just day-to-day living. It's like I needed something else, something that would just make me happy, something that I could be successful at.

KAYE: Becky was searching to take control of her life. The only thing she thought she could control was food and the amount she ate.

(on camera): But if you look at yourself now, you have to wonder, who's really controlling you? Are you controlling the food or is the food controlling you?

MARSELLA: The food and the disease has total control over me. I don't have control.

KAYE (voice-over): When her depression kicked in, Becky started exercising excessively. She only takes walks now. But, back then, she would sneak out in the middle of the night and run. She would run again before work and when she got home.

In spite her husband's desperate efforts to help her, the weight of this 5'5'' Florida woman dropped to just 58 pounds.

KAYE (on camera): What do you remember weighing 58 pounds? Do you remember?

MARSELLA: I remember being weak. I remember my skin just ripping off and my hair falling out.

KAYE (voice-over): But even that wasn't enough to shock Becky back into regular eating habits. Becky got so sick, she could barely hold herself up.

MARSELLA: I remember standing in the shower, and I got very lightheaded. The next thing I remember is waking up laying on the bathroom floor, with my husband watching over me. And my daughter was on the phone calling 911 for an ambulance.

KAYE (on camera): Back in October of 2003, Becky checked herself in here, to the Hyde Park Counseling Center in Tampa. She was treated by a counselor and a nutritionist. She wasn't allowed to take regular exercise classes with other eating disorder patients because her condition was so severe. But she was weighed every week.

(voice-over): Becky is no longer getting treatment, but is working with a nutritionist. Today, her weight is up, to 71 pounds.

KAYE (on camera): What is it like when you go out in public?

B. MARSELLA: It's hard, it's real hard. People stare. People talk. The hardest part for me is when the little kids see me.

KAYE: And what would they say?

B. MARSELLA: Mommy, what is wrong with her? Look at her. What's wrong with her? Why does she look that way?

KAYE: That must break your heart. B. MARSELLA: It's very hard.

DOUG BUNNELL, RENFREW CENTER: We are seeing an increase in the number of women, again, for the most part, coming into treatment in their 30s, 40s, 50s and even 60s.

KAYE (voice-over): Psychologist Doug Bunnell works at the Renfrew Center for eating disorders. He's been treating eating disorder patients for 20 years. The center recently started a program to treat women over 35.

BUNNELL: When you think about other developmental shifts that go on in mid-life. Often, kids are growing up and leaving the house. Often, well, we know when that happens, the marriages have to be renegotiated. There is a sort of a quantum shift in how the relationship works. That can be upsetting, or a risky transition for a lot of people.

KAYE (on camera): Have you ever thought to yourself, this could kill me?

B. MARSELLA: At night, my breath would be so shallow, that I would just pray, you know, please let me wake up in morning. Because I don't feel like I can.

KAYE: Do you ever worry about losing her?

RACHEL MARSELLA, BECKY'S DAUGHTER: All the time. All the time. Yes. It's terrifying to think that I might lose her. It's just -- I can't bear to even think about it.

KAYE (voice-over): Becky's daughter Rachel understands was her mom is going through. Rachel used to work out and diet with her mom. Her own weight became dangerously low. At 5'11", she weighed only 100 pounds.

R. MARSELLA: I was just starving every day. So hungry, so weak and tired. And I just -- I had to stop. I just quit it.

KAYE: Rachel is frustrated she can't help her mom. Becky, still averaging only about 200 calories a day.

B. MARSELLA: I normally don't eat breakfast and lunch. I may have a handful of grapes, or a couple of carrots or a cracker. And at dinner time, I may have something like egg white, and maybe some sauteed mushrooms.

People have good intentions, they're like, just eat. Just pick up -- you know, go get a milkshake, you know, go get hamburgers and french fries. And you know, just eat, just sit down, and put the food in front of you and eat it. And you just -- you can't.

KAYE (on camera): So what happens if you try to do that? What happens if you bring home a whopper and cheese?

B. MARSELLA: They will go in the garbage. KAYE: You just can't eat it?

B. MARSELLA: Can't eat it. There's a little voice inside your head that will say, if you give in, if you eat that food, if people see you eating that food, they're going to think, she's getting better. And to get better would be a sense of losing the control over denying myself the food.

KAYE (voice-over): Becky's family is seeing small improvements. She's trying to dine out once a week, and struggling to stand up more often to the voice in her head telling her not to eat.

Becky's own wedding ring, now too big to wear on her tiny finger, serves as a reminder. She has a husband who loves her, a daughter who needs her, and a fall wedding to attend, preferably wearing a dress in a size much larger than she can even dream about right now.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And that was Randi Kaye reporting.

While eating disorders are much more prevalent among women, men and boys are not immune. By one estimate, there may be one million men and boys with anorexia or bulimia right here in this country.

Coming up, a change of focus. The minister's daughter who signed her first recording contract at the age of 14. But she isn't doing gospel music anymore.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JESSICA SIMPSON, ENTERTAINER: It became like this ongoing thing for me, to try to differentiate myself and try to separate myself.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: So, who is that secret force behind Jessica Simpson's jump from singing in church, to reality TV, to "The Dukes of Hazzard?" You'll be surprised.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I noticed your initials were DD.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Still to come, the family with not one, but two of the hottest pop stars in the country. So, who's pulling those stings? First though, at just about 20 minutes before the hour, well, kind of taking liberty. Let's try maybe 26 minutes before the hour -- time to check in with Erica Hill of HEADLINE NEWS.

HILL: Thanks, Paula. A Washington lobbyist with close ties to powerful Republicans has been charged with fraud and conspiracy. A federal grand jury charged Jack Abramoff with wire fraud and conspiracy involving a casino deal in Florida. He's one of Washington's most successful lobbyists, a long-time associate of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, among others.

The FBI's Los Angeles office says information suggests terrorists might try to use fuel tank trucks to attack New York, Chicago or L.A., between now and mid-September. A homeland security official says the information comes from a questionable source.

Thousands of British Airways passengers getting some pretty bad news at Heathrow today. BA flights to the U.S., Australia -- in fact, anywhere -- all canceled. This because of a strike by food service workers, which spread today as ground crews walked out in sympathy with them.

In Orlando, delegates to the Lutheran Church are debating whether to approve gays for ordination, and whether pastors should minister to same-sex couples. Emotions and prayers running high on both sides.

And the last time we checked, there was a $760 bid on this, perogi portrait of Jesus. The seller says it just turned up in her frying pan on Palm Sunday. Wonder why she waited so long, though, to put it on eBay. Paula, back to you.

ZAHN: Thanks, Erica. Go figure.

Coming up next, the man behind Jessica Simpson's amazing career of music, that is, movies and mangled phrases.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE SIMPSON, JESSICA SIMPSON'S FATHER: She speaks before she thinks. (INAUDIBLE) through the filter that other people do and go, what will people think if I say this? She just says it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: Who would say such a thing about a multi-million-dollar pop star or two? Stay tuned.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And welcome back. Moving up to the top of the hour here. In just about 17 minutes, "LARRY KING LIVE" leads off that hour. Who's joining you tonight, Larry?

LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": We always look forward to visits with Bill Maher. His new book is skyrocketing up the bestseller list. It's called "New Rules." It's of course, highlights from the rules from his regular television series. Bill Maher is never, never dull. Bill Maher, with your phone calls at the top of the hour. Next, following the lovely and talented Paula.

ZAHN: Thank you, Larry.

KING: You're welcome. ZAHN: I was with Bill the other day and he's always entertaining, as well.

KING: Did you smile? Did you laugh?

ZAHN: I did and it's always interesting to see how the crowd reacts to him, because he can generate a couple of different reactions at the same time.

KING: You're not kidding.

ZAHN: Depending on who you're sitting with. Have fun tonight. Tell him I said, "Hello."

KING: Thanks.

ZAHN: And look who's starring in the number one movie in the country, Jessica Simpson. "The Dukes of Hazzard" earned more than $30 million at the box office last week and Simpson's role in the movie version of the '70's TV show is her film debut. And it's the latest move in a remarkable career transformation for Simpson, who's first break was reality TV. She's the focus of tonight's "People in the News."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN (voice-over): She's the embodiment of pop star perfection, with her own rendition of "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'." But take note, this is not your father's Nancy Sinatra.

(SINGING)

CASTRO: We always knew she was pretty and sexy before, but this puts her on a whole other level of sexiness and gorgeousness.

ZAHN: But don't be fooled by the bodacious blonde singing sensation. It took more than her body and ballads to catapult her to pop star fame.

Before you heard any of her sultry vocals, you probably saw her on reality TV.

JESSICA SIMPSON, SINGER: Sit. Sit. Sit. Oh, you're already sitting.

ZAHN: Who knew that all she had to do was be herself?

JOE SIMPSON: She speaks before she thinks.

JESSICA SIMPSON: I mean, if a duck is like a chicken, why is it pink?

JOE SIMPSON: She says what's on her mind, because she has nothing to hide.

ZAHN: But after a few ditzy-blonde TV moments, 25-year-old Jessica Simpson would become a phenomenon.

JESSICA SIMPSON: She's like bowl-legged, the way she sits.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Bow-legged. What did you call it?

JESSICA SIMPSON: I say bowl.

LYNN SHAW, DRAMA TEACHER: I think she's just one of those people like a Lucille Ball or a Goldie Hawn that does it so well, that you just fall in love with it.

ZAHN: When she and her hubby stepped into the world of reality TV, Simpson became a household name. "Newlyweds" became MTV's most popular show. And Jessica, once a struggling singer, became a pop icon.

JOE SIMPSON: Same voice. Same girl. But now they've been introduced to her heart.

ZAHN: She graces the covers of best-selling magazines.

JESSICA SIMPSON: I got the new buffalo chicken pizza from Pizza Hut.

ZAHN: Hawks pizza and breath mints on TV commercials.

JESSICA SIMPSON: Oh!

ZAHN: Oh, and let's not forget her "are they on or off?" relationship with former boy-band hottie Nick Lachey.

JESSICA SIMPSON: What are you doing?

NICK LACHEY, JESSICA'S HUSBAND: I'm going to watch it in the theater room.

JESSICA SIMPSON: No, I'm going to the theater room.

LACHEY: Well, then, vamoose!

ZAHN: When Nick and Jessica opened up their home and private lives on national TV, the couple became fodder for tabloids speculating on their marriage.

CASTRO: It was like this assault on their marriage. And they started to believe this stuff and like, "maybe we really are that unhappy." And it had a devastating effect. They would fight about it.

ZAHN: Add to the Jessica package, her famous pop-rocker sis Ashlee and you've got the ultimate marketing machine. The sisters raked in about $50 million last year.

Who's the mastermind behind the Simpson showbiz empire? Father Joe Simpson.

Simpson, once a struggling Baptist preacher and a youth minister, has become a well-known figure in the music world.

JESSICA SIMPSON: My dad likes to credit for...

ZAHN: The 47-year-old has guided his daughters' careers, transforming Jessica and Ashlee from unknowns into superstars.

BUSTER SOARIES, PROCLAIM RECORDS: He will know things that other managers and media moguls will not know, because he has this unique connection to young people that started in his ministry in Texas at a Baptist church.

ZAHN: He was a pastor at this church in Richardson, Texas, a quiet suburb outside of Dallas, when Jessica was growing up. The preacher's daughter was a popular student, who swore off sex until marriage.

SHAW: She did not go out with the big drinkers. She did not go out with the partiers. She pretty much stayed within this group of kids and they all had made the same pledge of abstinence.

ZAHN: Jessica sang in the church choir. When her family realized how talented she was, Joe left the ministry to become Jessica's full-time manager.

Twelve-year-old Jessica tried out for the Mickey Mouse Club in 1992, but choked when she heard another contender: Pop-diva-in- training Christina Aguilera.

JOE SIMPSON: Jessica just happened to watch it and it scared her to death. And she was next.

JESSICA SIMPSON: I froze in the audition. I forgot everything and I ended up not getting it.

ZAHN: Jessica wasn't ready for Hollywood. But back home, she took the starring role in her high school production of "A Chorus Line." When she was 14, Simpson landed a recording contract with Proclaim Records, a small gospel music label. Her record was never released, though. Execs found Jessica too sexy for Christian music.

SOARIES: The two specific criticisms that I received: Her dress was too short and her gestures seemed to be too sensual.

JOE SIMPSON: Somehow double D's don't really fit on the overall picture of, you know, what works in white Christian music.

ZAHN: But Joe still tried to get Jessica's music to the masses. He borrowed $10,000 from his mother to mix Jessica's songs himself, then sold her records to churches all over Texas.

One of those demos made its way to a Columbia talent scout and she sealed her first record deal in 1997.

Jessica dropped out of high school and Joe moved the family to L.A. Simpson's debut album fared well, but in the late '90s, there was no shortage of pop princesses.

JESSICA SIMPSON: I signed with Columbia and when I was 17, I hear that Britney signed with Jive, you know, the week before and that Christina signed with RCA the week after. So, it's been like this ongoing thing for me, to try to differentiate myself.

ZAHN: Jessica's follow-up album still couldn't set her apart from pop star rivals. And 2001's "The Irresistible," and later 2003's "In the Skin," fell flat.

JOE SIMPSON: We were a product of the belief that we should try to be first Mariah and then Britney. And I was really asking for us to just be Jessica, because her gifts are not those other girls' gifts.

ZAHN: By 2002, Jessica was barely a blip in the music world. And the Simpson family was close to bankrupt, owing millions to record execs.

But when we return, Joe sells Jess on her bubbleheaded charm.

JESSICA SIMPSON: Here's a trivia question: How did they make wine back in Jesus' days?

ZAHN: But could the preacher-turned-Hollywood-stage-dad push his kids too hard?

JOE SIMPSON: That's what we're set to do, the Japan loop and the Europe loop.

CASTRO: He's very resourceful. And some would say, he's shameless.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: So, when Jessica Simpson was just about 21, she had some modest success under the guidance of her father. But she was struggling to really break through. That would soon change thanks to a new man in her life as we're about to see.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: By the end of 2001, pop songs like "Irresistible" had branded 21-year-old Jessica Simpson just another Britney wannabe.

Though her career seemed dim, her love life lit up. She was hot and heavy with 98 Degree singer Nick Lachey. But the minister's daughter declared no hanky-panky before marriage.

LACHEY: I think we're both very happy and committed.

JESSICA SIMPSON: And it's definitely not a publicity stunt, that's for sure.

ZAHN: Nick wouldn't have to wait long. After a quick courtship, the two married in October 2002. Simpson's protective dad wasn't happy his little girl was getting hitched.

JOE SIMPSON: It had nothing to do with Nick, really had more to do with, baby, you're 22, you know. In a couple of years, you're going to go, oh, my gosh, I get it.

ZAHN: Jessica's dad eventually rallied behind the couple. But even with all the marital bliss, Jessica's career was sliding downhill.

Then, MTV approached Joe with an idea that would turn everything around. Why not chronicle the new marriage on TV?

JESSICA SIMPSON: You're going to kill me?

ZAHN: Joe convinced Jess it was the right move.

CASTRO: It was Joe Simpson who realized that he had a daughter with a floundering record career, and he had to act fast. Perhaps out of desperation, perhaps out of intuition.

It made her a household name, essentially, overnight.

ZAHN: With the phenomenal success of her TV show, Sony re- released Jessica's album "In the Skin." The same record that bombed just one year before soared to multi-platinum.

The Simpsons had achieved their dream. But Joe wasn't finished. He had another talented daughter at home.

JOE SIMPSON: When I went to MTV on Ashlee, I said, look, if we put out this record, without someone knowing who Ashlee is, they're going to kill me. Because they're going to say, oh, well, you know, she's Jessica's sister, so she's really not really talented, da-da-da.

ZAHN: But she would prove she was more than Jessica's kid sister.

Twenty-year-old Ashlee Simpson was no stranger to the spotlight before she won reality TV. She began dance lessons at the age of 4. And at 11, became the youngest person ever to be admitted to the School of American Ballet. She was a backup dancer for her older sister Jess.

ASHLEE SIMPSON, ENTERTAINER: I care about you.

ZAHN: And later, landed a recurring TV role on "Seventh Heaven." But the young actress later had music on her mind. She hired dad as her manager, and in 2003 caught the attention of Geffen Record exec Jordan Schur.

JORDAN SCHUR, GEFFEN RECORDS: Ashlee had a strong vision for what she wanted to be, and who she wanted to be. And Joe was very supportive of that.

ZAHN: Ashlee's first album, 2004's "Autobiography," debuted at a startling number one. But like her sister, it would be reality television, MTV's "The Ashlee Simpson Show," that would make her a star.

And as quick as the change of her hair color, Ashlee was transformed from Jessica's little sis to pop rock sensation. Joe Simpson had struck gold twice.

But one of his golden girls would soon be tarnished. In 2004, a media storm erupted when Ashlee got caught lip-syncing on "Saturday Night Live."

CASTRO: This was Milli Vanilli redone. And it just reminded a lot of people of that fiasco, and they came down hard on her.

ZAHN: And came down on her dad. Joe has been criticized for exposing his daughters to public scrutiny at such a young age.

CASTRO: Some people look at that and say, the guy has no scruples. He's completely unethical to do that with his kids. Other people say, good on you. Brilliant move.

ZAHN: But Joe admits the "SNL" slipup was painful for Ashlee.

JOE SIMPSON: It's a struggle for her. You know, she has said to me a number of times, daddy, you know, why did this happen to me? Daddy, do people not like me anymore?

ZAHN: Criticism aside, there's no question that Joe has helped make the Simpson family a small empire in the music industry. And now, possibly in the film industry. With the help of their dad, both daughters have ventured into movies. Joe is the executive producer of Ashlee's not yet released film, "Undiscovered."

A. SIMPSON: Working with my dad is honestly, like, amazing. And a lot of people, like, question it, like, oh, but it's your dad. But my dad has, like, such a good opinion, and I really, really trust him.

ZAHN: And Jessica is making her screen debut in the summer's much hyped "The Dukes of Hazzard."

JESSICA SIMPSON: How about a special, sir?

ZAHN: Does the onscreen success translate to success and harmony at home? The tabloids have said Nick and Jessica are all but over. Did Nick really cheat on Jess, and did Jessica fool around with co- star Johnny Knoxville on the set of "Dukes?"

The couple insists despite the rumor, everything is OK at home. And in July's "GQ" magazine, Jessica said, quote, "I really adore Johnny Knoxville. I think he's great. If people want to make that romantic, they can. But I'm married, and my husband is my romance."

So what's the deal with America's favorite couple?

CASTRO: The real deal is that they're still married. The other real deal is that they do fight. And the other third layer of that real deal is that they have had significant problems as a married couple. ZAHN: It remains to be seen whether "The Newlyweds" will stay together. But those who know the Simpson family say, when it comes to his daughters, there's nothing Joe can't fix.

SOARIES: This whole divorce cloud that surrounds Jessica, and it's now becoming tainted by charges of infidelity, is something that Joe will manage.

ZAHN: After all, it's what the minister turned music mogul has done throughout their lives, transforming his daughters from the margins of teen pop, to mega stars, to a finely tuned marketing machine.

JOE SIMPSON: We've made a pledge to our children. If you dream the dream, I'll help you get there.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And then some.

Thanks so much for joining us tonight. We'll be back same time, same place tomorrow night. Good night.

END

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