Nicole Richie peers out from behind her new shaggy, chestnut fringe and, though she plays along gamely, it's apparent my particular line of enquiry is far from novel.
No, she assures me, this is not a born-again Nicole Richie. 'That's not really how I see it. I'm 28, and it's a natural progression to keep growing and changing. That's what I've been doing my whole life.'
NICOLE RICHIE FOR MARIE CLAIRE: SEE THE SHOOT HERE
This is a celebrity story with a happy ending. Like it or not, when the history of fame in the past decade is written, how the all-pervasive cult of celebrity has infiltrated our lives, Nicole Richie's name must rank highly in the closing credits. And while others have not been so lucky, Richie has not only survived to tell the tale but, despite a reluctance to acknowledge her own dramatic metamorphosis, she has reinvented herself from Young Hollywood agitator to contented mother of two, successful fashion designer and nascent multimedia mogul.
She will speak about her family only in the most general of terms, but surely the most significant contributing factor to the new, grown-up Nicole Richie sitting opposite me has been her partner of almost four years, Joel Madden, lead singer with the rock band Good Charlotte. Together they have two children - daughter, Harlow Winter Kate Madden, born in January 2008, and son, Sparrow James Midnight Madden, born September last year. She visibly lights up at the mention of her children's names, telling me that she loves the idea of Harlow having a baby brother so close in age. (She says they chose to call their son Sparrow to give him 'a name to stand up for'.)
Significantly, when Richie decided to venture into the world of fashion, in 2008, she chose to name her design label House of Harlow 1960. (The 1960 part is a nod to her love of 60s style.) A successful jewellery line came out that year, and this spring sees the launch of her debut clothing and footwear collection, Winter Kate. In an industry not noted for welcoming celebrity upstarts, the range has drawn excitable reviews from the world's fashion editors.
SEE NICOLE'S WINTER KATE COLLECTION HERE
'Clothing was something I always wanted to do,' explains Richie. 'I've been pulling tear sheets from magazines since I was a little girl.'
Because her name has become synonymous with the new school of show-and-tell celebrity journalism, it's sometimes difficult to ask Richie a question without thinking that, intentionally or not, you are only adding to the pyre of throwaway headlines. 'He's just turned three months,' she dutifully replies, when asked how she managed to regain her shape so quickly after the birth of Sparrow. 'I'm nursing and he's a big boy, so...'
She's slender, but toned; 5ft 1in at most. During the course of the Marie Claire shoot, she'll help herself to the catering fare on offer, then call out for a burger later on in the day. Fashion and diet - well, it says much about the strength of Nicole Richie's personality that she has now chosen to pursue a career in an arena that has provoked so much uproar in the past. First, there was her association with Hollywood uber-stylist Rachel Zoe, when some observers unkindly cast her as no more than a doll to dress up.
At the same time, on a more serious level, she was the centre of the whole size-zero debate when, post-The Simple Life, her alarming weight loss stirred the wrath of social commentators the world over. In 2007, after tests, she was eventually diagnosed as hypoglycaemic, a low-blood-sugar condition that makes it difficult for her to gain weight. It's obvious she can't quite forgive the way the media spun the whole story. 'I definitely felt it was a little unfair to say someone has an eating disorder when they don't,' she says. 'It's extremely insulting and irresponsible. An eating disorder is serious and it's a disease, and I don't think you can lightly say that someone has a disease unless they're openly telling you that they do.
'I also feel that I have been very honest with my friends, my family and also with the public about the mistakes that I've made and the challenges that I've gone through. And I have said many times, "Listen, if I had an eating disorder, I would tell you and I would talk to you about it."'
Hard as it may be to believe, it's impossible to over-emphasise how much the Young Hollywood set, and the 'small world' they inhabited on Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood, has shaped popular culture, style and modern-day social mores in general. Here's the truth: without Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Mischa Barton and Britney Spears, our world wouldn't have been quite the same. While the up-and-coming movie stars along the lines of Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman have sought to control their images, Richie and friends partied. Without them, there wouldn't be a Cheryl Cole or a Coleen Rooney, or even a Katie Price. Richie and Paris Hilton, and all the Kardashians that came after, redefined what it was to be a celebrity in the modern age.
What was it like, I wonder, living through this period of time? 'Just like,' she asks, 'going out?' Yes, I say. Going out. What was it like to experience it all? 'I mean, it was just me wanting to have a good time. I was definitely too young to be going out that much, but, you know, I was just young and wanted to go out and have fun, hanging out with my friends.'
'I live my life and I do what I do, and sometimes you forget that people are watching you.' Speaking to her, it's clear she wishes to put that chapter of her life behind her. 'Look,' she continues, 'people can give reason after reason. To me, I've just accepted responsibility for what I've done, and I don't really try and look at why I did it. I just feel that I have gotten past it and moved on, and it's just something that's not really a part of my life any more. And I feel extremely blessed to live the life that I'm living.'
These days, she looks at the one-woman industry that is Beyoncé for inspiration. At the moment, House of Harlow takes up much of her working day. Unlike a lot of her peers, Nicole's role in the development of her clothing collection is very much hands-on. No celebrity figurehead, she spends days trawling the flea markets and vintage stores of downtown LA and taking inspiration from her travels abroad. Then, with her business partner, the celebrated Hollywood designer Pascal Mouawad, she commits her ideas to paper, and together they work her sketches into designs.
So when was the last time you went for a night out with Paris, I tease. 'I don't remember,' she smiles back.
She knows that the past cannot be rewritten, but the new Nicole Richie has moved on. She isn't Young Hollywood any more, and what she craves more than anything else is to make headlines for all the right reasons. 'You know,' she says, 'I'm just one to live in the present and enjoy the time that I'm having. Going back into my past is just not something that I do. Right now, I'm living my dreams.'
To read the full interview, pick up the March issue of Marie Claire, on sale now.