After years of existing on the fringe of celebrity with moderately successful pop-music careers, Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson have finally found fame in the most unexpected place: by turning their fledgling marriage into a reality TV spectacle. Since debuting in August, ''Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica'' has supplanted ''The Osbournes'' as MTV's most talked-about domestic-train-wreck series, thanks to a bubbly mix of opposites-attract antics (he's neat! she's a slob!), Simpson's out-of-the-mouths-of-blondes brilliance (''Twenty-three is old. It's almost 25, which is almost mid-20s''), and genuine sitcom-couple chemistry. Pulling in 2.7 million viewers a week, ''Newlyweds,'' which begins its second season Jan. 21, has also ushered in a subset of the schadenfreude-fueled reality TV genre -- call it ''Lifestyles of the Rich and Clueless'' (see Ally Hilfiger, Paris Hilton, etc.).
Most importantly for Simpson and Lachey, however, the series has given them a sustained stay in the spotlight -- something they've yet to achieve through their musical talents. Lachey, 30, will take his fame where he can get it: ''What's cool is our success on the show is from us being us.'' Adds the 23-year-old Simpson: ''For so long in the stupid teen-pop culture, everybody was like, 'All your fans have to envision themselves with you and believe that they can be the one.' Everybody from my record label to my father as my manager was like, 'Don't get married.' But when I got married, my career began.''
That's for sure. MTV has signed Lachey and Simpson for 20 more episodes, even though the cautionary tale of ''The Osbournes'' -- gigantic hit-turned-overexposed ratings flameout in two seasons flat -- looms large. The network ''wasn't looking to find another 'Osbournes,''' says Lois Curren, MTV's exec VP of series entertainment. ''People still want info about Nick and Jessica, and we're going to give it to them. At this point, we feel we're definitely good for 20 more episodes, and after that we'll sit down and figure it out.''