"I needed to escape," says Jessica Simpson, reflecting on her recent 10-day trip to Kenya. "I needed to get away from life and surround myself in that which is good." For the pop princess, that meant being a goodwill ambassador for Operation Smile, an international charity that provides free reconstructive surgery to kids born with facial deformities.
Simpson, 25, rode a bus from Nairobi to the town of Nakuru in western Kenya, where she sat in on an operation to correct the cleft lip and palate of 18-month-old girl Boke, (top), one of 158 procedures that Operation Smile's plastic surgeons performed during Simpson's visit. "I was there from scrub up to the end," she says. Adds Dr. William Magee, Jr., cofounder of Operation Smile, "She was great – she didn't flinch."
"They were in awe of the blonde hair," says Simpson (with children in Nakuru). "It's so cute because they look at you like they are just trying to figure you out." And out there, no one knew her as the celebrity she is back home. "It was refreshing. It was nice to be normal."
"The women hunt, and they build the houses," says Simpson (with a mother and child in a Masai village near Nakuru). The hut "is not mud. It's actually cow dung. Interesting, right?" Via cell phone, she described to husband Nick Lachey, 32, who was in Sweden recording a new album, how she was roughing it. "I told him, 'Nick, you would be so proud of me. I had spiders in my bed, and I didn't even care because I was so tired.' "
Toward the end of the trip – which "Simpson and her group paid for themselves," says an Operation Smile executive – she fell ill for a day. Simpson, who left Nov. 1 (but not before seeing some African wildlife), says, "It wasn't a big deal, just a high fever." In the end, the journey was worth it. "It's crazy, to go there to bring blessings to these kids," she says, "and they end up blessing you more."