Lionel Richie was at a Prince concert in 1983 in Los Angeles and he couldn’t take his eyes off the stage. But it wasn’t the “Purple Rain” singer who had captivated him — it was the 2-year-old girl playing the tambourine alongside him.
Lionel was immediately drawn to her. He found himself asking around to figure out who the child belonged to. He soon realized she was Nicole Camille Escovedo, daughter of musician Peter Escovedo and assistant Karen Moss, who worked for Peter’s sister, singer Sheila Escovedo, better known as Sheila E.
“The beautiful part about it is I realized, ‘Oh my god, what a cute little button,’” Lionel told Huffington Post of his first meeting with Nicole. “We played around. Never thought about it again.”
Little did he realize at the time that she would soon become Nicole Richie and be calling him dad.
Nicole’s birth parents were 'having difficulties with their relationship'
A few weeks later, Lionel saw Nicole again and learned about the challenges she was facing. “We [were] a little worried that the little kid can’t go on tour because a 2-year-old needs to be stationary — they can’t keep going on the road,” Lionel told Huffington Post of Nicole’s parents’ careers.
“I don't know how we got into the conversation, ‘Well, why don't you just kind of keep the kid here?’” he continued in the interview that was conducted by Nicole for the outlet’s "Talk to Me" series.
On top of the logistics, the situation wasn’t going quite well. “They were having difficulties with their relationship,” Lionel told Piers Morgan in a 2015 interview. At the time it made sense since Lionel knew Sheila and the family.
Before they knew it, about two years had passed. “The situation with you wasn’t getting any better,” Lionel said to Nicole for Huffington Post, explaining that he and then-wife Brenda Harvey started out as legal guardians. “It was actually getting worse, the family situation was falling apart.”
Lionel and Brenda officially adopted Nicole when she was 9
As Lionel’s career skyrocketed during this period with songs like “All Night Long (All Night)," “Hello” and “Say You, Say Me,” the Grammy-winning album Can’t Slow Down and the charity hit “We Are the World,” he also began to adore his role as a father.
“So it took about maybe a year for me to just fall in love and she was a little button, and of course by that time I was Dad,” he told Morgan. “So I said, ‘Okay, here is what we are going to do: You're going to make everyone wish that they had adopted you. You are going to make everyone in your family wish they actually had a chance to get you back,’ and that's when I said, ‘Let's adopt her.’”
Nicole was 9 years old when the adoption came through. “I can remember to this day, that little head, sitting up in the little judge’s chamber,” Lionel said to Nicole on "Talk to Me," realizing that the young girl didn’t quite understand what was happening.
It took time for Lionel to gain Nicole's trust
Establishing trust with Nicole was a challenge, especially because she hadn’t had much stability in her young life. “I remember you had abandonment issues for obvious reasons,” he continued. “You've been handed around to every relative in the family. And remember what I said to you. I said, ‘I'm never, ever going to leave you.’”
But she doubted his words, as Lionel remembered “this look” on her face. But he persisted. “I said, ‘No no, listen, I'm never going to leave you.’”
Nicole remembers the conversation well too and how insistent he was that she understood what he was saying, especially since he’d often be gone for weeks or months at a time for work.
“And as soon as you realized — I think over time — ‘Okay, he's not leaving me. He's just going away to work,’ I think you felt safer,” he said to her.
On the other side, Sheila E. said in her 2014 book The Book of My Own Drum, “As a single working mom, Karen was extremely grateful, but very torn... If Nikki stayed where she was, living rent-free, then Karen could earn enough for their future without disrupting her child's life.”
But she adds that when the adoption happened, it wasn’t that easy: “The heartbreaking part is that once Nicole Escovedo legally became Nicole Richie, it felt like we lost her. We all lost her.”
Lionel says Nicole 'softened' his heart
For a successful musician, Lionel had been laser-focused on his career. “Everything up to that point was about songwriting in the business and touring,” he told her in the Huffington Post interview. “All of a sudden, I found something I could actually fall in love with that was never going to leave me.”
“And so, I think you kind of changed my life a great deal in terms of softening my heart,” he admitted.
As for Nicole, she summed up her dad’s personality on Live with Kelly and Ryan in March 2020: “Here’s the thing about my dad: He’s the same person he is on camera as he is off camera.”
She added that whenever they talk on the phone, he’s filled with that same enthusiasm. “He’s got the zingers and the one-liners and zoom zoom zoom, I’m like, ‘Were you waiting for me to call? Do you have a list written down? How do you have so many jokes ready to go all day long?’”
Lionel stood by Nicole's side through difficult times
As life has thrown Nicole ups and downs, her dad has always been there to support her. When she went to rehab for drug use in 2003, he dropped everything to be by her side. “I said, ‘I am with you’ and I canceled [my] tour,” Lionel told Morgan. “I said, 'Me and your mother' — who didn't get along that well — ‘Me and your mother are checking into rehab with you.’”
When Nicole received attention for her emaciated appearance, he stepped in. “I called her over to the house and asked, ‘What’s going on here?’” he told The New York Times, later learning the weight loss came from the stress of being in the spotlight. “Some people take fame and pressure and get fat, some get skinny, some get addicted to drugs, but she’s already been through that, so she’s not going back there... She’s just got to find her rhythm and she‘ll be fine, but I always tell her, ‘Get used to it, kid, because it doesn’t get any better.’”
He also learned to take a backseat when Nicole’s career dominated his legendary one. “Young people come up to me all the time and say, ‘Oh my God, you’re Nicole Richie’s dad — I just saw you on The Simple Life,’” he continued to The New York Times. “They have no idea who I am or what I’ve done.”
After all, he knows that’s part of being an honest parent. “With my kids, I know their job is to completely scare me to death — and they’re doing a great job, by the way,” he told People in 2019. “I told this to Nicole the other day, my job is to embarrass them as much as I could, as long as I’m here. They’re trying to do the same to me, so I think it’s an equal swap right now.”
Lionel thinks it's 'ironic' that Nicole married a musician
After growing up in a household with a musician parent constantly traveling, Lionel finds it ironic that Nicole ended up marrying Good Charlotte and Madden Brothers singer Joel Madden in 2010, with who she shares two children, Harlow (born in 2008) and Sparrow (born in 2009).
“How ironic… you married another musician that goes on the road,” Lionel said to Nicole. “I'm thinking to myself, ‘Are you, are you a masochist?’... But I get it because you can identify so well.” And Nicole agrees, “It’s what I'm used to... It almost feels safe to me.”
And the two share such a candid relationship that Nicole can even put Lionel’s love life in check, even though he and her mom divorced in 1993. “Women haven't really been your strong suit,” Nicole said to Lionel in the Huffington Post interview. “But you're very gentle with me and, and I feel like you and I have a really good, strong relationship.”