Ashlee Simpson has had a rough couple of days. Forget the run-in today with some overeager paparazzi -- last night her ex-boyfriend Josh gave her the oh-so-cold shoulder at an L.A. nightclub. ''I know this is really dorky,'' says the younger sib of pop tart Jessica, ''but when he was leaving I stood up and flipped him off. I was really mad. Really mad. He acted like he'd never met me before. I was like, 'Okay, I can't wait till you hear my album.''' Those familiar with MTV's ''The Ashlee Simpson Show'' know Josh as the dispassionate, driver's-capped cutie with the distinction of being the 19-year-old dancer-turned-actor-turned-singer's ''first heartbreak, first love, and, like, all that kind of stuff.''
Ashlee, the show and the singer, was devised by Simpson manager/patriarch/Svengali Joe. The series' aim is to chronicle the creation of -- and create buzz for -- Simpson's debut album, ''Autobiography,'' out July 20. Though she was initially against the idea (''I'd been around my sister's cameras, and I was like, 'There is no way that I'm going to do a reality show!'''), Dad prevailed, and his strategy seems to be working. The show, which premiered to 2.9 million viewers four weeks ago, continues to hold the majority of its lead-in, big sis Jessica's ''Newlyweds''; and Ashlee's first single, ''Pieces of Me,'' is No. 3 on the SoundScan charts.
As anyone associated with the junior Simpson's team will tell you, Ashlee is no way the next Jessica. They'll even say it on TV: There's an eerie scene during the first episode of Ashlee in which Geffen Records president Jordan Schur holds a strategy session with Ashlee and Joe Simpson. ''We've got a lot of work to do,'' he tells her. ''We have to make sure that you're the opposite of your sister.''
Meekly sandwiched between her showbiz dad and Schur, Ashlee -- who, true to Schur's wishes, has traded in her Jessica-like blond tresses for a wicked, Joan Jett-black dye job -- appears more at the mercy of powerful men. But the oft-overbearing Schur maintains that he was the victim of selective sound-biting and only had Ashlee's individuality in mind. ''Ashlee told me coming in: 'I don't want to be anything like that. I'm not like my sister. I like rock,''' he says. ''I knew there'd be times when she wouldn't understand me and would get pissed -- which she did -- and I don't care about that. My job is to make the record great.'' Simpson, who cowrote all the songs on the album, confirms: ''Jessica and I are like day and night. She grew up listening to Celine Dion and Mariah Carey. I grew up listening to Alanis Morissette and Green Day.'' By that standard, ''Autobiography'' is a success: It's a Pretenders-influenced pop-rock showcase of Ashlee's raspy, Courtney Love-lite delivery and packs enough vague-yet-honest teen-trospection to fill a 10th grader's diary.
Now effectively divorced from her two-year stint as sticky-sweet Cecilia on The WB's ''7th Heaven,'' Simpson will likely have more trouble differentiating herself from angst-ridden Avril than from her sister. But ''Autobiography'' producer John Shanks (Melissa Etheridge, Michelle Branch) dismisses any parallel. ''For a year it was like, Michelle, Vanessa, Avril,'' he says of Branch, Carlton, and Lavigne, ''which is like the Britney-Christina thing before that. Everybody wants to compare everybody. That's because they're too lazy to really listen to the whole record.''
As for Josh? ''Guys come and go,'' says Ashlee, who is now dating singer Ryan Cabrera, yet another Joe Simpson protégé, ''but you're the one that has to stay strong.'' She adds, giggling, ''Like, I got over him. I wrote 'Pieces of Me' about my new boyfriend.''