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— by Larry Carroll

As everybody knows, those boots are made for walking — and Jessica Simpson has made some big strides in them over the last few years. Now, as she steps into the shoes (and shorts) of Daisy Duke for next month's big-screen version of "The Dukes of Hazzard," the blonde with the penchant for headline-making malapropisms is ratcheting up a cross-media career that has already made her one of the most recognizable faces in entertainment.

 Jessica's patriotic spread in GQ magazine
 Jessica in Us Weekly
She may have made her name playing dumb, but there's reason to suspect significant smarts behind Simpson's every move.

"If I'm going to have a movie career," the Texas-born actress has said, "I don't want it to be the little 'Here today, gone tomorrow' movie career. I want to be like a Reese Witherspoon, Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts — I want to make it last."

Could Simpson really have a genuine movie star future ahead of her, perhaps even along the lines of the "Erin Brockovich" Oscar winner? Don't laugh yourself silly quite yet. If one commonality has marked her fame thus far, it's that Simpson has been constantly underestimated.

After years of honing her pipes in the local church choir, the 12-year-old future starlet auditioned for "The Mickey Mouse Club" — only to be rejected. Soon after, her grandmother helped fund a small pressing of Simpson's debut album, which grabbed the attention of the Christian Youth Conference tour circuit. The young singer built up a loyal fanbase, but few expected her to expand it beyond the religious market.

 "These Boots Are Made for Walkin' "
The Dukes of Hazzard [Original Soundtrack]
(Sony)
After signing with Sony at the end of the '90s, Simpson released two albums: 1999's Sweet Kisses and 2001's Irresistible. While the records placed her on the public's radar, the skyrocketing careers of Simpson's contemporaries left her struggling to find an identity in a cluttered landscape that included the (for a time) barely distinguishable Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Mandy Moore.

It was around this time that Simpson married Nick Lachey, the charismatic lady-killer from 98 Degrees. Suddenly, the poor man's (or woman's) Britney had found her own unique persona: a sexy housewife lovingly standing behind her man while simultaneously asserting her own independence via the mic.

Then, in the summer of 2003, the reality show "Newlyweds" brought Nick and Jessica into living rooms across America, and Simpson's star rose even further. Men enjoyed watching the domestic goddess perform fascinating and mysterious rituals, like cleaning the house; women, meanwhile, seemed to enjoy a kinship with an unguarded beauty unafraid to put her shortcomings on display.

"I foresee big movies in the future," Simpson remarked at the time. Sure enough, Hollywood was listening.

 Set Visit: "The Dukes of Hazzard"
 Simpson, Knoxville, Seann William Scott on the set of the movie
As Simpson publicly pondered the existence of seaborne chickens and crafted her own Homeric inquiry into the flight patterns of the American buffalo, her popularity grew exponentially. Web sites and tabloids alike had her rumored to be up for film roles ranging from a Bond girl to Bruce Willis' love interest in "Die Hard 4."

Appropriately enough, the former "Mickey Mouse Club" reject finally landed her dream movie role of Daisy Duke by beating out many of her contemporaries — including none other than Spears herself.

"We'd always play 'Dukes of Hazzard,' " Simpson recalled of her childhood, discussing the role of Bo and Luke's sexy cousin. "I think it's just being from the South. It's a big deal. I was Daisy; my cousins played Bo and Luke."

Simpson believes that film will be an easier transition for her than most other first-time actresses, because her reality show has "given me so much more than any audition, script, time on camera, whatever it may be," she once said. "I want to be a legitimate movie star, and I think it's all about making the right decision about the roles [early] in your career."

 Photos: "The Dukes of Hazzard"
 Watch the trailer
If the attention currently being paid to Simpson's sexy video for "These Boots Are Made for Walkin' " is any indication, the budding actress has once again chosen wisely. As she writhes and shakes her way around the General Lee, Simpson is once again reminding the world that she's not going to fade away — that she can sing, that she can dance, and that she now plans on showing folks that she can act.

That she's also easy on the eyes makes her bid for big-screen stardom perhaps a bit less quixotic than it might otherwise seem. But mere good looks, of course, do not guarantee movie stardom. Does Jessica Simpson have a Hollywood A-list future ahead of her?

For a possible answer, we might want to look back to the 1960s, when a befuddled, airheaded blonde captured the nation's attention by dancing in a bikini and asking impossibly stupid questions on that icon of television grooviness, "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In." A short time after the show went off the air, the young, seemingly ditzy Goldie Hawn snagged herself an Oscar in 1969's "Cactus Flower," and has since gone on to a long and enormously well-regarded career as one of the shrewdest and most consistently successful actresses in Hollywood.

After "Dukes," Simpson will move on to "Room Service," a comedy in which she'll play a disinherited heiress working as a hotel maid to pay off her debts. Sure enough, she recently described the character as a "fun, Goldie Hawn type."

If only we were all so dumb.




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