The Moving True Story Of Nicole Richie’s Adoption And Her Relationship With Lionel

These days Nicole Richie is a successful fashion designer and happily married mother of two. It’s a far cry from her time as one half of a reality show duo known for their ditzy antics and troubled personal lives. But her embracing of family life is perhaps a testament to her famous father Lionel Richie, who chose to adopt his little “Ballerina Girl” when she was just nine-years-old.

It may come as a surprise to some that Nicole is not Lionel’s biological daughter. But alongside his two biological children, Miles and Sofia, who are half-siblings to Nicole, his relationship with his adopted daughter has always been special. Indeed, they’ve resolutely stuck together throughout the trials and tribulations that life has thrown at them. And there have been many!

In a 2013 interview with The Telegraph’s Fashion section, Nicole spoke about how she’d never considered her childhood to be unusual. As she put it, “My childhood was my childhood. I don’t have another one to compare it to.” Plus she doesn’t agree with Lionel’s take that his parenting was found wanting due to his hectic touring schedule.

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“My dad [Lionel] has said before that he doesn’t think he was a good dad,” said Nicole. “But I’ve never felt like that. He’s being too harsh on himself. Looking back, I think I had a wonderful childhood.” And it’s clear that Nicole is still close to her father today. After all, she described him as her biggest fan during a 2017 TODAY show interview.

So how did Nicole first rise to fame herself? Well, in 2003 she and childhood friend Paris Hilton starred in The Simple Life, a reality television show that became a global sensation. It saw Nicole and Hilton, two wealthy and supposedly vacuous socialites, abandoning their glitzy lifestyles to move in with a rural family in Arkansas.

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Played as much as a situational comedy as a reality show, it captured the public imagination. Plus it enjoyed hit ratings and made superstars of Nicole and Hilton. Subsequent seasons saw them go on a road trip across America, work as interns on the East Coast and even act as “wives” for different families.

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The Simple Life survived a falling out between the two women, as well as their personal troubles with the law, before eventually ending after five seasons. But following its cancellation, Nicole would move into acting and writing. In fact, she wrote two novels, The Truth About Diamonds and Priceless.

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But Nicole would then truly find her niche as a fashion designer. She founded House of Harlow in 2008, initially as a jewellery line. And over time it has evolved into a full lifestyle brand. Even a host of celebs have been snapped wearing its clothing, swimwear, eyewear, and accessories. Then in 2010 Nicole won Glamour magazine’s “Entrepreneur of the Year” award. Not bad all things considered.

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On the other hand, Lionel’s success came from the music world. He is an icon, of course, known for his hugely successful solo career, but also his early time as a singer and saxophonist in The Commodores. Hailing from Tuskegee, Alabama, he joined the band in 1968 and would go on to pen some of their most famous songs. “Three Times a Lady” and “Easy” were written by Lionel, as was “Brick House.”

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Lionel launched his solo career with a self-titled 1982 album. And it featured three hit singles, including “You Are” and “My Love.” But “Truly,” the album’s first single, made it to number one on the Billboard chart. The following year saw him double down on the success of his first album when its follow-up, Can’t Slow Down, landed him an Album of the Year Grammy Award.

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That record included the massive hit “All Night Long (All Night),” which Lionel would perform for the Olympic Games closing ceremony in 1984. Then in 1985 Lionel solidified himself as a music phenomenon when he co-wrote the charity single “We Are The World” with Michael Jackson. Its sales of over 20 million made it one of the biggest selling singles in history.

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Over the decades Lionel’s records have sold a whopping 90 million copies. This makes him one of the biggest selling recording artists of all time. Plus he still managed to keep himself in the public eye well into his 60s by, for example, playing a headlining set at Glastonbury in 2015. And he appeared as a judge in the 2018 revival of American Idol.

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But when it comes to their relationship, Nicole and Lionel have a great affection for each other. She explained on a 2020 appearance on Live with Kelly and Ryan that when it comes to her father, what you see is what you get. She revealed, “Here’s the thing: he’s the same person he is on camera as he is off camera.”

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Plus when they talk on the phone, “He’s got the zingers and the one-liners and zoom zoom zoom,” laughed Nicole. “And I’m like, ‘Were you waiting for me to call? Do you have a list written down? How do you have so many jokes ready to go all day long?’” Dig deeper than his fun personality, though, and you’ll find that Lionel has been there for his daughter through some tough times.

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Because in her teen years Nicole had struggled with drugs. In 2007 she told Diane Sawyer on 20/20 that, in some ways, living a privileged life had warped her worldview. She said, “I got so much so fast that nothing really excited me anymore. I kind of took matters into my own hands and was creating drama in a very dangerous way.”

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“I think I was just bored,” reasoned Nicole, “and I had seen everything – especially when you’re young, you just want more.” This desire for “more” led to an 18-year-old Nicole using cocaine, which she wound up receiving treatment for. But then she simply replaced this addiction with a potentially more frightening one in her early 20s – she began to take heroin.

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In a 2006 interview with Vanity Fair Nicole explained how she felt when using China White heroin. She said, “To me it was the epitome of caring about absolutely nothing. There were points when my mom would come home and scream at me about something, and I literally didn’t care about anything.”

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“It was like watching a really dramatic movie with the volume turned down,” continued Nicole. “I thought I was getting away with everything, when the reality was that I was arrested three times and had five car accidents.” Nicole realized that she needed to deal with her addiction head-on, otherwise she wouldn’t be able to continue filming The Simple Life.

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“I knew I could not go on television being as wasted as I was,” Nicole admitted to Vanity Fair . “I went to my parents and said, ‘It’s time for me to get help.’” With this, Lionel and ex-wife Brenda leapt into action. During a 2015 interview on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories, Lionel revealed he told Nicole, “‘I am with you and I canceled [my] tour.’”

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Lionel knew he and Brenda needed to pull together for Nicole. He told Morgan that, “I said, ‘Me and your mother’ – who didn’t get along that well – ‘Me and your mother are checking into rehab with you.’” The month-long treatment, which included family therapy sessions, changed Nicole, Lionel and Brenda’s perspectives.

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Nicole confessed to Vanity Fair , “I had to sit in a room with my parents, and they were crying. I kind of put down my shield, and I wasn’t as defensive – and then I felt really bad. We all had to change the way we dealt with each other. My parents didn’t speak for ten years, until we went into rehab and they both had to figure out what to do about me.”

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Following the revelatory experience in rehab, Nicole said that she and her parents were in a good place. She explained, “I have a really good relationship with both my parents. I know they both love me.” Lionel added, “Nicole managed to bring her mother and father together,” alluding to the fact that, in its own way, Nicole’s addiction had helped them all find each other again.

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But the story of how Lionel first found Nicole is equally emotive. The trajectory of his life would be forever changed because of a fateful night in 1983. He was attending a Prince gig in Los Angeles and found himself drawn to something on the stage. It wasn’t the magnetic performance of the headline act, though. Rather it was the tambourine playing two-year-old little girl standing beside the superstar.

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In a 2016 episode of The Huffington Post’s series Talk To Me, Lionel and Nicole discussed the unusual events that led to her adoption. Lionel revealed that he was taken backstage after the show and met two-year-old Nicole and her parents. Her father was musician Peter Escovedo and her mother was Karen Moss, an assistant to singer Sheila E., Peter’s sister. As you may now know, Sheila E. actually dated Prince and later claimed to be engaged to him.

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Lionel was immediately taken with Nicole. He said, “The beautiful part about it is I realized, ‘Oh my God, what a cute little button.’ We played around. Never thought about it again.” Sadly, when Lionel and Nicole met again a few weeks later, it became clear that the little girl’s family life was far from ideal.

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Because Nicole’s parents were traveling musicians who were often touring the country. Lionel saw the toll this was taking on their relationship and on their daughter. He said, “We [were] a little worried that the little kid can’t go on tour because a two-year-old needs to be stationary – they can’t keep going on the road.”

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And Lionel went on to explain to Talk To Me, “I don’t know how we got into the conversation, ‘Well, why don’t you just kind of keep the kid here?’” Regardless of how the idea was brought up, this was what materialized. Lionel revealed, “I think we decided that what we’ll do to kind of give you some stability was we’ll be like legal guardians, but nothing more.”

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Lionel shed more light on the unusual arrangement when speaking with Piers Morgan in 2015. He said, “I knew the mother and I knew the father and, of course, they were having difficulties with their relationship.” He then broached the idea of Nicole staying with him and Brenda.

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Lionel said to the Escovedos, “While you are having the difficulty, the kid is sitting out here in limbo, so I’ll tell you what I’ll do, just put the kid in my house until the tour is over with and then we will sort this out later.” And Peter and Karen, who were not as wealthy as the Richies, agreed. Nicole told People magazine in 2003, “They trusted that they would be more able to provide for me.”

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Plus when Nicole came into Lionel’s life, his career was continuing to soar. It was the period when he recorded hit songs like “Say You, Say Me” and “Hello” and won the Grammy for Can’t Slow Down. The success meant that, not unlike Nicole’s biological parents, he would sometimes be away on tour for months at a time.

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“I remember you had abandonment issues for obvious reasons,” confessed Lionel during Talk To Me. “You’d been handed around to every relative in the family.” He knew he had to reassure the little girl that, even if he left for a while, he would always come back. So he sat her down and told her, “I’m never, ever going to leave you.”

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As Lionel became Nicole’s father, he realized that she was changing him for the better. He told Talk To Me, “I think you changed my life a great deal in terms of softening my heart, because everything up to that point was about songwriting and the business and touring. All of a sudden I found something that I could actually fall in love with that was never going to leave me.”

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During his Piers Morgan interview, Lionel elaborated further on how it felt to become Nicole’s father. He said, “And so it took about maybe a year for me to just fall in love and she was a little button, and of course by that time I was dad and so I said, ‘Ok, here is what we are going to do.’”

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Lionel continued, “‘You’re going to make everyone wish they had adopted you. You are going to make everyone in your family wish they actually had a chance to get you back,’ and that’s when I said, ‘Let’s adopt her.’” So Nicole was officially adopted by Lionel and Brenda when she was nine-years-old.

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During the Talk To Me interview, Lionel reminisced about that day. He said, “I can remember to this day, that little head, sitting up in the judge’s chamber,” before admitting that he knew Nicole was too young to fully understand what was happening. From that day forward Nicole was raised knowing Brenda and Lionel as her mom and dad.

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But it’s still a wonder how the Escovedo family felt about the situation. In Sheila E.’s 2014 memoir The Beat of My Own Drum, Nicole’s biological aunt wrote, “As a single working mom, Karen was extremely grateful, but very torn. If Nikki stayed where she was, living rent-free, then Karen could earn enough for their future without disrupting her child’s life.”

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Yet it’s obvious that the guardianship arrangement, even though the Escovedo family agreed to it, took a toll on Nicole’s biological mother. Sheila E. wrote, “The heartbreaking part is that once Nicole Escovedo legally became Nicole Richie, it felt like we lost her. We all lost her.”

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Regardless of the Escovedo family’s viewpoint, however, Nicole has been Lionel’s daughter for the majority of her life now. These days their relationship is so strong that they can poke fun at each other’s love lives. Because Nicole married Good Charlotte rocker Joel Madden in 2010, and Lionel told Talk To Me that he saw the irony in his daughter’s choice of husband.

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“How ironic, you married another musician that goes on the road,” laughed Lionel. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Are you… Are you a masochist?’ But I get it because you can identify so well.” Nicole concurred, saying, “It’s what I’m used to. It almost feels safe to me.” She then gave as good as she got, hitting Lionel with the kind of retort that only family can get away with.

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That’s right – Nicole poked fun at her father by saying, “Women haven’t really been your strong suit,” cheekily referring to Lionel’s two divorces. Yet being a father is his strong suit it seems. Because Nicole added, “But you’re very gentle with me and I feel like you and I have a really good, strong relationship.”

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