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SWEET INSPIRATION

There are, of course, three sides to every story. In Jessica Simpson's case, there's her side, her mother's side-and the celebrity-hype machine's side. Naturally, the latter is the most expedient. She is a blonde, 19-year-old pop singer on Columbia Records with a hit debut, Sweet Kisses, and a figure that would send Barbie on a jealous rage. She is the next Britney Spears, the next Christina Aguilera-the next princess over at MTV. Even cuter, she's dating Nick Lachey, the "hunky one" in the boy band 98 degrees. In fact, the oft-played video for the couple's bittersweet duet, "Where You Are" has appeared so many times on MTV that any real viewer could easily pick her out of a Britney cone lineup.

But Simpson's career, according to Mom, actually began at age 11 at a preteen church camp in Texas. "One day, Jessica said she felt wind blow past her head," says Tina Simpson, who travels with and cares for Jessica and her sister, Ashlee, 15 (she's one of Jessica's background dancers when she's not in school). "Jessica looked around," continues Tina, "and she didn't see anyone else's hair blowing but hers. Then she looked down. And when she looked up, it was just like she had closed her eyes, and she had heard a voice that said to her, 'You're going to sing, and your singing is going to affect millions of people.'"

That has happened. Simpson's first two singles ("I Wanna Love You Forever" and "Where You Are") have each been a consistent presence on MTV and radio for months, while Sweet Kisses sold over 500,000 copies in less than 20 weeks. She and Lachey crooned their duet on a batch of TV shows, from MTV's Total Request Live to The View to The Tonight Show (with the Rosie O'Donnell Show coming up on May 18), then they sang it live at nine screenings of the teen movie "Here on Earth," whose soundtrack includes the song. Next up, she'll deliver her third, much-anticipated video, "I Think I'm in Love With You," to MTV at the end of May, and on June 24, the Disney Channel will present Jessica Simpson and Jason Raize in Concert. (Raise will pull in the under-13 set, after his star turn as Simba in Broadway's "The Lion King.")

All of this is why Simpson is now telling her side of the story-not so different from Mom's, in fact-inside a stetch limo, hands entwined with Lachey's, fresh from a guest-host stint at TRL, in New York's Times Square.

Her Christian faith is the key to her singing-and her upbringing as a suburban Dallas kid. Dad, Joe Simpson (Jessica's comanager), was a youth minister at their local Heights Baptist Church in Richardson, Texas. She started performing on the gospel circuit at 11; at 12, she didn't make the cut on the now-infamous teen-idol launchpad, 1989's Mickey Mouse Club. (Think Spears, Aguilera, Felicity's Keri Russell and two members of "N Sync.) "I watched Christina audition," says Simpson. "She sang like Mariah Carey. So I froze." She soon thawed enough to record a gospel album, Jessica (at 13), to warm up audiences for Kirk Franklin and God's Property (during her mid teens) and to sign with Columbia Records (at 17).

A year later, the sound of teen pop's emergence grew louder than a World Series crowd. Unfortunately, Simpson wasn't up at bat. "I was so jealous of Britney because I wanted to be first," she says. "But being compared with her now is a compliment because she's so successful." On the other hand, says Don Ienner, president of Columbia Records, "NO disrespect to Britney Spears, but she's playing up to the teen marketplace. Jessica consciously made a record that wasn't like that." (Simpson't five-octave range produced a more gospel-tinged pop album.) Still, promotionally, she has to take the path most traveled. In 1998, the family moved Calabasas, California, outside of L.A. Last year she toured with 98 degrees, then Ricky Martin.

But she treads the less-traveled path in interviews, boldly defending God's mandate of sexual abstinence before marriage: "I've always said, 'God is my boyfriend, ,' because he fills that void. God has me out here for a reason. I can be an example through being the person I am." (Lachey's attitude toward her religious convictions would win him the gold in a Boyfriend olympics. "It's just an element of our relationship," he says.) Ironically, WB, home of the hormone-riddled Dawson's Creek, is developing a possible show for Simpson. "I'm with them," she says. "But if I don't find a show that fits me, I don't do it."

Either way, she knows she'll be taken care of. "I prayed so hard for a gospel career to work out," she says. "But look where I am now! God definately knows what he's doing."

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