It feels like I've been watching Anna Nicole Smith die my whole life.
It's not true: Smith's first wave of fame, which carried her from Playboy playmate to GUESS Jeans model to celebrity widow of an elderly billionaire over the first half of the '90s, hardly made a dent in my consciousness.
I started paying attention when things got weird, as the escalating legal battle for her dead husband's estate kept her in the courts and her downward-spiraling public behavior splashed her across the tabloids. The clash of Anna Nicole's competing personas—celebrity litigant, impending heiress, public train wreck—reached its apotheosis on The Anna Nicole Show, E!'s 2002 reality series tracking Anna's "daily life" in shocking detail.
No one who watched the show, featuring a sloppy, slurring Anna stumbling through her life in a narcotic fog, can be surprised to learn that Anna Nicole Smith ended up dead in a hotel room. In every way imaginable—emotionally, financially, medically—the show was a cry for help. No celebrity has ever allowed herself to be captured in such unflattering and desperate circumstances, and in a perverse, culturally incriminating twist, it made Anna a star all over again.
Future archeologists will puzzle over the motives of a culture obsessed with the bumbling non-adventures of a deeply troubled woman, with the easy answer positing some intoxicating combination of voyeurism and schadenfreude. But The Anna Nicole Show wasn't paparazzi footage—she was a willing participant and the primary financial beneficiary, and, however klutzily, the show spotlighted the intricacies of exploitation in a new way. Yeah, she's the one who offered up her desperately pathetic life on television, but we're the ones who watched.
Considering the near-stupor in which Anna Nicole Smith conducted her last half-decade on earth—stumbling through unhinged award-show appearances and stints as TrimSpa's tweaky spokesmodel—it's interesting to remember that whatever pain she was killing through aggressive self-medication was left unspoken. Maybe it was the stress of extended litigation and an uncertain financial future, maybe it was the embarrassment of radically fluctuating weight, maybe it was chronic back pain brought on by brutally augmented breasts, or maybe she was just a drug-loving floozy—we didn't ask and she didn't tell.
Granted, both asking and telling would've required open acknowledgment of a problem, something Anna never gave, not explicitly. Her every stumble and gurgle pegged her as an incorrigible doper, but all inquiries were shot down by her handlers, who lazily blamed "exhaustion" or "cold medicine" or said, "that's just Anna!" when they deigned to offer an explanation at all. Those who talked openly about Anna's drug problems—most notably her mother, Virgie Hart—were banished, forced to watch Anna's battle with consciousness from afar like the rest of us, to whom Anna's morbid struggle was presented as entertainment.
Maybe things would have been different if Anna's problems had threatened someone other than herself. Far less egregious cases—Mel Gibson, Michael Richards, Isaiah Washington, Mark Foley—have been led into rehab by their public offenses against others. But the sole victim of Anna Nicole was Anna Nicole, and as the years passed, public self-degradation became her stock-in-trade.
All of this changed last year, when the morbid comedy of Anna Nicole Smith turned into morbid tragedy. On September 9, Anna Nicole's 20-year-old son, Daniel, arrived in the Bahamas, where his mother had just given birth to a baby girl. The morning after his arrival, Daniel Smith was found dead of a drug overdose, and Anna Nicole was at the center of a tragedy that would tempt even the most resilient person to obliterate the agony with drugs.
Things got ugly fast. As the freakiness piled up—the one-two punch of Daniel's death and Anna and Howard's "wedding," the ongoing paternity drama over baby Dannielynn, the couple's shameless hustling of "the final photos of Daniel Smith!"—those of us who'd been paying attention grimly started the Anna Nicole death countdown.
This sounds crass and it is, but I'd been watching Anna navigate life on thin ice for years, and the loss of her son seemed certain to drive her over the edge. Tragically, I was right. In a final bit of Marilyn Monroe emulation, Anna Nicole Smith apparently died after choking on her own vomit. In a fitting testament to the world of difference between their legacies, Marilyn Monroe died in her home in Hollywood, California, while Anna Nicole Smith died in a Hard Rock Hotel in Hollywood, Florida.
Entertainment Tonight has what looks to be the final interview footage of Anna Nicole, who gives ET a tour of "her new Bahama home!"
"You're going to make a lot of memories in this house," gushes the ET host. "What kind of life do you want to create here?"
"No stress," slurs Anna through her impenetrable, glassy-eyed haze, which her interviewer blithely ignores, as interviewers have been doing for years. Watching this footage after Anna Nicole's death, I was forced to imagine how her statements would've landed had she lived. It was nearly impossible: Smith's been on the fast track to the only stress-free situation humans have known since the dawn of the new century, and the matter of her death has long been just a matter of time.
From the start, Anna Nicole found her way by baring it all: Stripping in a Texas nightclub led to meeting her billionaire husband, appearing in Playboy led to her contract with GUESS. When people stopped wanting to see her increasingly bloated body, she showed everything she had left for reality TV cameras, and we kept watching.
Baring herself for the entertainment of others is what Anna Nicole Smith knew how to do, and for better or worse, she did it like no one else before her.