December 22, 2003 12:00 PM

Just before she was due to appear as a celebrity model at the Joey and T fashion show in L.A. in October, Nicole Richie received a stern warning from the designers: Please don’t do anything outrageous. Might as well ask her not to breathe. This is a girl, after all, who once lay down in the middle of Sunset Boulevard to protest not being able to get a sandwich at 2 a.m. “She doesn’t really live by any rules,” says a childhood pal, model Kimberly Stewart. “She just does what she wants.”

Strutting to the end of the runway, Richie yanked her shirt up to reveal…her newly pierced nipple. “I was excited and wanted to show everybody,” explains the 5’2″ socialite turned TV star. “I’ve just gone through so much in my life that pulling my top up just doesn’t seem like that big a deal.”

Especially when you consider how much notoriety Nicole, the adopted daughter of pop star Lionel Richie, has crammed into her 22 years. True, she hasn’t turned up in an amateur sex video like Paris Hilton, her best friend and costar of FOX’s hit reality show The Simple Life. But Richie’s had her mug shot taken three times in the last two years. “I got arrested for a DUI when I was 20,” she says. Then in October 2002 she was arrested following a brawl in a New York City nightclub. “The charges were dropped,” she says.

Not so last Feb. 27, when Richie was busted in Malibu for driving with a revoked license and possession of a controlled substance. “They found one balloon of heroin,” she says. “It wasn’t on me; it was in the car.” Nevertheless, at the urging of her parents, Lionel, 54, and his former wife Brenda, 51, Nicole checked herself into an Arizona rehab center. “I give her a lot of credit,” says Lionel. “She said, ‘Dad’—and I love this line—I think I have a problem.’ I was just so relieved when she [realized] that maybe she was going too fast down the road.”

In August she was sentenced to three years’ probation. “I’ve been sober since March,” she says. “No drinking, no drugs, and I have someone who checks up on me. And I am definitely happier now.”

Certainly more so than she was back in April, when she and Hilton gamely pursued The Simple Life as guests of the Ledings, a farm family in Altus, Ark. The plucky Beverly Hills belles clashed with patriarch Albert Leding, often ignoring his midnight curfew. “We were so bored we just needed a little time alone,” says Richie. Time to meet the local boys too. She says she fell for Anthony Leding, 18, whose father is Albert’s cousin, but the two have since lost touch. “We just live in different worlds,” says Richie.

Hers spins a lot faster. Her birth father, a musician, and mother, a backstage assistant (whom she declines to name), split up even before Nicole was born in Berkeley, Calif. Lionel Richie was so taken with Nicole, a fixture at his concerts, that he got her parents’ approval to let her move into his L.A. home when she was 3. Six years later she was adopted by the Richies. “My parents were friends with Lionel,” says Nicole. “They trusted that they would be better able to provide for me.”

At the same time, Brenda and Lionel were going through what Nicole recalls as “a very stormy, bad, public, horrible, horrible divorce.” (Brenda had caught Lionel with another woman, Diane Alexander, whom he wed in 1996 and from whom he recently separated.) Nicole went to live with Brenda and enrolled in a posh L.A. private school, which she attended with Paris and her sister Nicky. By 14, she was using fake IDs to sneak into clubs and honing her party-girl reputation. A few years later, she says, “I experimented with drugs,” and at 21, “I dabbled in heroin.”

She’s now single and living in a guest house on Brenda’s three-acre Bel Air estate. Richie “is much more focused than she used to be,” says Nicky Hilton. “She’s grown up a lot.” Enrolled in acting classes, she goes on auditions “here and there,” she says. She recently scored a guest shot on UPN’s Eve. “She’s really kind of mastered the art of survival now,” says Lionel, who lives five minutes away. “I tell her, ‘As long as you’re having fun, that’s all that really matters.'”

But not too much fun. “My [wild] reputation is so not what I am,” says Richie. “Maybe only my close circle knows there is much more to me. But that’s my world, you know?”

MICHAEL A. LIPTON. Kwala Mandel in Los Angeles

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