03/20/2000 at 01:00 AM EST
In the final round of auditions for The New Mickey Mouse Club seven years ago, 12-year-old Jessica Simpson
faced tough competition. "Everyone had head shots and had been on Star Search," says her father, Joe. "All Jessica had was a Polaroid." Just before going onstage in Orlando, she watched 12-year-old Christina Aguilera
deliver a flawless performance. "I froze and forgot everything," says Simpson, who lost out to Aguilera and to another unknown: 11-year-old Britney Spears
Luckily, Simpson, now 19, eventually thawed. Nowadays, as a contender for the Blonde Pop Princess crown—ironically, her look-alike rivals are none other than Aguilera and Spears—Simpson boasts a gold album (Sweet Kisses), a Top 10 single ("I Wanna Love You Forever") and a beau who's a certified pop prince: Nick Lachey
, 26, of the boy band 98 Degrees, with whom she recently cut the hit duet "Where You Are." Her star has risen more slowly than those of Spears and Aguilera, partly, Simpson suggests, because she chose ballads over bouncier pop. "Hopefully I've differentiated myself from the whole up-tempo dance thing," she says. "I want people to fall in love with my voice before my image."
Lachey fell in love with her voice, and more, when Simpson performed at a TEEN PEOPLE party in Florida early last year. "I watched her sing and saw the way people responded," he says. Within weeks of meeting her, Lachey was telling fellow band members, "I'm going to marry that girl." Though there are no wedding plans as yet, the couple's romance ignited last March when Simpson began touring with Lachey's band. But not without a few speed bumps: "There were so many girls backstage at their concerts," recalls Simpson. "At first I was like, 'I don't know if I like this.' But Nick said, 'Trust has to be the core of our relationship.' "
For his part, Lachey is learning patience. At age 12, Simpson vowed to abstain from sex until marriage. "My virginity is something I stand strong in," says Simpson, a devoted Christian who neither smokes nor drinks. And Lachey stands with her. "It's not always easy," he says. "But I do respect it. Virginity can be cool and sexy."
Keeping her priorities straight is Simpson's style. She and her sister Ashlee, 15, were raised in Dallas by parents Joe, 42, a Baptist minister (now Jessica's manager), and Tina, 40, who styles her daughter's wardrobe. Jessica's dreams of stardom were already in place at the age of 5, when she sang "Amazing Grace" at her father's church. "I'd go to concerts and think, 'That's exactly what I want to do,' " she says.
But after failing to win her Mouseketeer ears in 1993, Simpson was demoralized. "I wanted to give up," she says, "but my family kept me going." At 13, she signed on with a New Jersey-based gospel label, which led to her first CD. When the company folded after three years, Joe put his ministry on hold to market Jessica's music. Around that time, Simpson starred as Cassie in a production of A Chorus Line at J.J. Pearce High School and was crowned Homecoming Queen. By senior year, career demands forced her to complete her credits by mail.
In August 1997, eight months before getting her GED, Simpson wrangled a meeting in New York City with Tommy Mottola, the Columbia Records mogul who had launched Mariah Carey
's career. "It was the most nerve-racking moment of my life," Simpson says. "I was supposed to sing two songs. After the first one, he said, 'Okay, you can have a seat.' I thought, 'Oh no, I blew it.' " But Mottola signed her on the spot.
Sitting poolside at her newly purchased four-bedroom Mediterranean-style home in Calabasas, Calif., Simpson, who recently signed a deal to develop her own TV series for The WB network, ponders her prospects in the cutthroat teen-music market. "I think there's room for everybody," she says. But then, Simpson isn't everybody. "I want to be a diva," she says. Then adds quickly, "Like people-totally-respect-my-music diva, not diva like carry-my-diet-Coke-around."
Monica Rizzo in Los Angeles