Arnelle Simpson has always had a famous father. There were always people interrupting their dinners out to ask for his autograph; there have always been exchanged whispers-- "That's O.J. Simpson's daughter"-- when she showed up somewhere. "I've dealt with that all my life. I can read lips," she said with a chuckle.
But that was scant preview of the kind of fame that would be bestowed upon her in the past 16 months between her father's arrest and her father's acquittal. She has been dogged by photographers, scrutinized by tourists parked on the driveway of her father's house where she lives, and inundated by more than 2,000 pieces of mail, all addressed to her. (She promises to write back.)
Now, people want her autograph. She declines to give it.
"I don't feel like I'm a movie star. That is not what I'm trying to get out of this," Simpson said. "I think it's inappropriate for me to sign an autograph when I haven't done anything that any other normal person wouldn't do in the circumstances."
But the extraordinary circumstances have taken the stunningly pretty 26-year-old woman with the melancholy smile from being an unknown quantity in the world outside Los Angeles ("Some people didn't know Jason and I existed") to an indelible fixture in the O.J. Simpson drama. Even she ruefully calls it a "Sunday night movie."
The timing was ironic. Two years out of Howard University in Washington, she was just getting comfortable in her fledgling career as a wardrobe stylist when the events of June, 1994, changed her life:
"I've worked so hard to be Arnelle Simpson, and not Arnelle Simpson, 'O.J. Simpson's daughter,' " Simpson said a couple of weeks ago as she sat in a Westwood hotel restaurant taking stock of her life over nonfat cafe latte. "And right when I got to a point in my life when I was becoming an independent woman, it kind of backfired on me because of what's going on now. I'm not angry--I don't believe it's my father's fault. Or my fault. It's just something that happened that I have to deal with."
She cut back on her work to spend time in court and preside over the Brentwood household that also included her brother, a housekeeper and two aunts and an uncle who came to town to maintain a court vigil.
She talked most nights on the phone to her father in jail, sometimes discussing nothing more innocuous than the latest television shows. Sometimes she became the one to offer advice. ("You know how they say the parent becomes the child and the child becomes the parent?" she laughed.) When she noticed her father becoming too animated or obviously dismissive of testimony in court, she sent him a note through his lawyers telling him to stop.
"I said, 'I know it's hard for you and I know that you know and I know the truth, but right now, you need to watch yourself. God forbid, we don't want anyone to misunderstand something."'
She wrestled with her nerves before her own testimony: "I was going up there to tell the truth," she said. "And I prayed on it before I went up there."
Her recorded voice message on her pager often exhorts her callers to "have a blessed day." It's a greeting she picked up from her mother, Marquerite Thomas, who divorced her father when Arnelle was barely 12. She credits her mother with bestowing upon her and her brother, Jason--now 25 and a sous-chef at a Beverly Hills restaurant--a sense of a normal world where not everyone is rich and famous.
Early on, in what she often refers to as "the fiasco," she joked to a friend about simply hopping on a plane and disappearing.
She had her moments of frustration with her father. "There were some days when I was like, 'Why, Dad? Why did you have certain people in your life? Why did this have to happen to her?' . . . Some days, it would be like, 'You know, Dad, I don't feel like talking. I'm sorry. Just please understand me.' There have definitely been days when I've just been like--excuse my language--'[expletive] this.' "
The crush of photographers have sometimes, by her own admission, made her paranoid--as if they steal a piece of her control over her life with every picture they snap. When a friend had a birthday party at a trendy restaurant, Bar One, and hired a photographer to take Polaroids of the group, Simpson sensed he was taking extras to keep. She demanded to have the extras and when the photographer resisted, the two squabbled, upsetting her as well as her friends.
The glare of the limelight has been too much for one boyfriend. "It's hard for anybody to be my friend right now," she said. But longtime friends have steadfastly remained by her side, offering support and calling her pager regularly to check in.
As the dutiful daughter who never doubted her father, she felt betrayed by people who did doubt him. "My trust in people has become very shallow," she said, her earlobes glinting with the diamond studs her father gave her for her 21st birthday. "And I hate that--because I used to be a very trusting person. . . . [People] were so good to him when he was O.J. Simpson, the football player, making records, and now they're like, 'He did this and he did that.' If you went into anybody's life, everybody has some skeletons in their closet."
The daughter who was born the day her father won the Heisman Trophy--as she told a packed courtroom this summer--went to the prestigious Crossroads School in Santa Monica, then attended the University of Colorado before graduating from Howard University in 1992 with a degree in child psychology. She returned home to Los Angeles, unsure what she wanted to do with her life, living first with her mother and then with her father at Rockingham. Her father told her it was time to get out of there and earn her own way.
"I was angry with him at first," she said. "But then I realized he was preparing me to learn survival skills as a young adult."
She calls it a normal upbringing but its sorrowful, even tragic, moments prepared her, she said, for dealing with her father's trial. Her parents' divorce was painful. Worse, when she was 10, she lost her 2-year-old sister, who drowned in a swimming pool.
"I feel for the Goldmans," she said. "I especially feel for the sister, because I am close to my brother. And I have lost a sister. I know those feelings. I've been there. And I've lived it and survived it."
In court, she tried gently to connect with the Goldmans. "I've tried to make eye contact, but I don't want to insult them and I don't want to make them angry."
Instead, she says, she prays for the Goldmans and the Browns each night. "To me, there are three families involved here. The Browns, the Goldmans and the Simpsons. And to me, no one's pain is more severe than the other's. Pain is pain."
Dealing with the Browns, who have custody at the moment of her younger brother and sister, Justin and Sydney, is more direct--and more difficult. "It's difficult to be pushed in a situation where you've known these people and your father has taken care of these people and they believe that he did something that you don't believe he did. But at the same time, they have your brother and sister. It's something that I am on my hands and knees every day dealing with."
But she puts that aside when she visits her siblings--often carting them off to Magic Mountain or the beach with her brother, Jason, and A.C. Cowlings in tow.
She sighs when asked about trial testimony that portrayed her father as a wife-abuser.
"I didn't know that. I really didn't. As far as if it's true, I do know that all marriages have problems and that there are times maybe when it did get out of control. I do know that a lot of times both people play a part--and I do know that it is wrong for a man to hit a woman any time."
Her own future is still fuzzy. She toys with the idea of moving east. "Sometimes I feel like everyone's very La-La Land here. It's all about who you know and what kind of car you drive." (For the record, she drives a black Saab convertible.)
Even through the trial, she occasionally worked as a stylist, worrying that she needed to make some money. She outfitted singer Nona Gaye for the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards show last August. It's not often that the stylist who arrives to work behind the scenes of a celebrity photo shoot or awards show is herself something of a celebrity. It catches others off guard. "Sometimes they're surprised," said Simpson, "but most of the time it's like, 'You go, girl!' "