Kesha's not-so-simple life: how Paris Hilton's hit TV show led the TiK ToK star to Dr Luke

Dr Luke and Kesha's past is complicated, and harks all the way back to a little-known episode of Paris Hilton's The Simple Life

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18-year-old Kesha, Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie in The Simple Life
18-year-old Kesha, Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie in The Simple Life

When 22-year-old Kesha Rose Sebert emerged as “Ke$ha” in 2009, boasting about brushing her teeth “with a bottle of Jack [Daniel’s]” on debut single TiK ToK, the burgeoning pop star offered a bold and unapologetic alternative to Lady Gaga’s high-concept pop art pretensions.

“What I want to bring to the table is just f_____g fun,” she told me when I interviewed her straight after that year's Q Awards, where she later admitted to urinating in a sink. “Just because I do pop,” she continued, “doesn't mean I'm a c___, you know.” With music that propelled anyone and everyone onto the dance floor and a wild child aesthetic that felt refreshingly edgy next to chart rivals like Katy Perry and Justin Bieber, this young star seemed to blow up overnight. 

Well, almost. In fact, little known to many is that Kesha’s first brush with fame had taken place four years earlier, on an episode of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s hit reality TV show The Simple Life. And it was on this television show that Kesha would receive a life-changing phone call that would come to make, and for a time break, her career. 

The Simple Life’s premise was winningly straightforward if a little tone-deaf: Hilton and her equally privileged best friend Richie, daughter of Lionel, would spend time mingling with ordinary people who had jobs, bills to pay and wardrobes that weren't bought on Rodeo Drive. 

Kesha joins the two socialites for a segment in which they play matchmaker for her mother: Pebe Sebert, a singer-songwriter who’d co-written Dolly Parton’s country hit Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You. It was Pebe, a single parent, who taught Kesha how to write songs. Life was sometimes tough – for a period, the family relied on welfare and food stamps – but also touched by showbiz glitter.

When Sebert signed a new publishing deal in 1991, she moved the family from LA to Nashville. It was here that Sebert found an ad in the paper looking for an “eccentric family” to appear in an episode of The Simple Life. “We all play music, we all meditate, I guess we’re what you could call free spirits,” Pebe says, smiling at the camera in the introduction to their segment.

“You girls could probably find me a better guy than I could find for myself, because you’re really hot,” Sebert then says to Hilton and Richie. “He’s gotta be a hippy. He has to be, like, spiritual. He can’t be a dumbass. He can’t live in his car,” she stipulates. Kesha, who has flawlessly straightened strawberry blonde hair in the episode, a marked contrast from the messy peroxide hairdo she wore when she became famous, joins the two socialites in vetting the candidates.

Wild child: Ke$ha

She’s relatively subdued but still displays the lethal comic timing she’d later deploy in interviews. When one potential suitor says he’s married, she replies deadpan: “Wait… what are you here for?” And when another makes a crude sexual innuendo involving her mother, Kesha says she wants to “vomit”. (Funnily enough, Kesha would later admit to vomiting in Hilton’s closet during a party at the heiress’s LA home, a low moment that subsequently made it into one of her lyrics.)

For Kesha, The Simple Life soon morphed from a chore imposed by her mother to a momentous occasion. It was on set that she received a phone call from “Dr Luke” Gottwald, an up-and-coming music producer who’d just scored his first really big hits with Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone and Behind These Hazel Eyes. He had heard Kesha’s demo tapes after Sebert sent them to a friend in the music industry, and says her “bravado and chutzpah” stood out.

"Nicole actually picked up the phone and hung up on Dr Luke," Kesha said in 2010, recalling the life-changing moment that sadly wasn’t captured on camera. "He called back, and Nicole was like, 'This is serious.' I moved to LA and started singing back-up to Paris and doing background vocals.” Dr Luke soon began to open doors: Kesha sang backing vocals on Hilton’s single Nothing In This World and Britney Spears’ Lace and Leather, both produced by him, and also appeared in Katy Perry’s video for I Kissed A Girl, another Dr Luke-produced hit.

A free spirit

Kesha and Paris didn’t particularly get on, despite working together. "We’re just so different, you know? We come from opposite ends of the spectrum,” Kesha said in 2010. “I grew up in the Valley, broke, running around barefoot and moved to Nashville and played music and really poured my heart out. Very different.” Of Richie, she said bluntly: "I really liked her, but it’s just kind of like, what does an apple and a penguin talk about?"

Kesha’s collaboration with Dr Luke, however, seemed supremely fruitful. With Kesha signed to his label Kemosabe Records, he executive-produced Kesha’s debut album Animal, which produced four US top 10 singles including the chart-topping TiK ToK. Billboard magazine hailed her as “a 21st century pop star” when she graced its cover in 2010. Kesha captured the moment because her super-catchy electro-pop songs crackled with a raucous rockstar energy that she also brought to live performances and interviews.

In 2014, she even admitted to breaking into Prince’s house to leave him a demo tape, saying she “almost pooped my pants” when she spotted the superstar sitting in the corner of the room. It’s not an anecdote you can imagine coming from the lips of Taylor Swift.

And yet, despite the sudden stardom, Kesha remained unusually unaffected and generous to work with. Lady Lloyd, a British drag queen who performed with Kesha on her first UK tour in 2011 and joined her on stage at Glastonbury in 2011, praises her for collaborating with drag performers before RuPaul made it fashionable. 

“She also made sure everyone was paid properly for everything we did, which I knew she had to fight for,” Lloyd says. “I’m forever thankful for that because a lot of artists just take it for granted that you’ll work for free because you're going to appear on TV with them.” (The reason why Kesha used to have a dollar sign in her name was because she never got paid for the Flo Rida song Right Round to which she lent her vocals. Lesson learnt.) Lloyd adds: “On one TV show we did together, they asked for another take with 'less energy'. Cue eye rolls and a big fat no from Kesha!”

More number one hits followed Animal, with We R Who We R, which she wrote as a Pride anthem for the LGBTQ community, and Timber, a country-flecked collaboration with rapper Pitbull. Her second album, 2012's Warrior, saw her duet with Iggy Pop and incorporate a more pronounced rock influence on tracks such as Die Young, Gold Trans Am and Only Wanna Dance with You. But in January 2014, fans were shocked when it was announced that Kesha had checked into rehab to seek treatment for an eating disorder.

When she checked out two months later, Kesha dropped the dollar sign from her stage name and changed her Twitter handle from @Ke$haSuxx to @KeshaRose. Later that year, she filed a lawsuit against Lukasz Gottwald (aka, Dr Luke), accusing him of years of emotional and sexual abuse which she says triggered her eating disorder. On one occasion, Kesha alleges, the producer referred to her cruelly as a “fat f_____g refrigerator”. An email sent by Dr Luke to Kesha's then-manager, Monica Cornia, and later filed in court documents, shows him castigating Kesha for breaking her juice cleanse.

“We all get concerned when she is breaking her diet plan... we have seen it happen multiple times... almost every day,” he wrote in the 2012 email. “It is also double concerning when the A-list songwriters and producers are reluctant to give Kesha their songs because of her weight.” Gottwald has denied all charges and subsequently counter-sued Kesha and her mother for defamation. She remains signed to his label, Kemosabe Records, though Gottwald hasn’t led it as CEO since 2017.

Her legal battle with Dr Luke - arguably the music industry’s very first MeToo moment - remains frustratingly unresolved, but Kesha has managed to bounce back creatively as a more versatile and respected artist than she was before. Her 2017 comeback sophomore album Rainbow (released seven whole years after her debut) saw her flit confidently from sassy retro-soul on Woman to cute campfire balladry on Bastards. She even recorded a cover of Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You, the Dolly Parton hit that her mother wrote, as a duet with Parton herself.

A new woman: Kesha performs in January 2020 Credit: AFP

The album's stunning, Grammy-nominated lead single, Praying, allowed her to show off the vocal range she often played down during her early career. "But after everything you've done, I can thank you for how strong I have become," Kesha sings, presumably referring to her excised former collaborator. 

Now, on her new album High Road, which has been celebrated as a return to her pop roots, Kesha tries to reconcile her party-girl past with her present as an icon for fellow abuse survivors. “We get it that you’ve been through a lot of sh_t, but life’s a b___h, so come on, shake your tits and f__k it,” she sings on My Own Dance, almost giving herself a pep talk. Though at times this balancing act feels a little forced, it’s hard not to admire her determination to party the pain away. On the self-consciously silly Potato Song (Cuz I Want To), Kesha fantasises about behaving like a child again and “moving to a distant island where I'll sleep all day”. 

“Who else but Kesha could put a song like that on their album?” says her old friend Lady Lloyd, who calls her “one of the best pop songwriters ever”. Kesha has come a long way since she first tasted fame on The Simple Life, but after all she’s been through, she’s earned the right to take whatever creative risk she likes. A belated duet with Paris Hilton seems unlikely, but don’t count it out entirely.

Read more:

Kesha's comeback: a timeline of her bitter legal feud with Sony and producer Dr Luke

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