As an example, Jon Stewart pointed out that CNN aired a 90-minute, commercial-free program dedicated to the late stripper turned red-carpet regular, whose only claim to fame was the parading of her voluptuous assets and her 1994 marriage to a wheelchair-bound billionaire several decades older.
Stewart jokingly called the segment “Death of a Person,” and poked fun at a news channel that devoted time to Smith’s “Death Fridge?” (Stewart loved the question mark). Smith’s refrigerator, noted an expert, said a lot about her personality. That same expert went on to analyze the news anchor’s fridge and its contents. It seemed that no matter how remote or trivial or tenuous, if there was a connection to Smith, the media leaped on it.
Smith, with her proverbial rags-to-riches “fairy tale," invoked “tsks” and raised eyebrows with her questionable antics, over-the-top behavior and glamorous (and ever-changing) looks. From her 2002 E! reality series The Anna Nicole Show to her final television interview with ET’s Mark Steines, Smith offered the best/worst in train-wreck television, slurring and sleeping her way through tapings. She was a beauty, but her actions and transformations could make her appear beastly.
Her beginnings were classically rural, even down to the Mexia, Texas, trailer-park upbringing. Her mother, Virgie Arthur, worked in law enforcement, and when her busy schedule took away from her ability to control her increasingly wild daughter, Smith was sent to live with relatives.
As producer Robert Bentley (E! True Hollywood Story, Anna Nicole: A Life Unfinished) points out, the imposed “restrictions” didn’t work — Smith ended up pregnant, at 17. She married Billy Smith, whom she met at Jim’s Crispy Fried Chicken, where they both worked, and then gave birth to Daniel. But within two years she was divorced. Blonde and almost 6 feet tall, Smith stood literally and figuratively above her more “ordinary” relatives and seemed destined to do something beyond, as Bentley says, working at “Kmart or Red Lobster.”
Smith became a stripper and eventually moved to Houston, where she soon became one of the area’s most popular exotic dancers. Bentley notes that Smith tried to be a good mother and tried to keep Daniel with her as much as she could, but he was shuttled between Smith and relatives.
Smith’s fortunes changed, says Bentley, when she met a low-key billionaire named J. Howard Marshall, a twice-married retired oil executive who was already a veteran of senior/stripper romances. Though Marshall "was very proud” of his relationship with Smith, Bentley says, because of his age and limitations, he often could only take his buxom girlfriend to the early dinners at his country club, and didn’t “wine and dine her."
Even after the couple wed — amid a good deal of controversy — Bentley says that Marshall tried his best to “set up” Smith in a business, wanting to give her a clothing and/or perfume line so that she wouldn’t be dependent on his estate after his death. The Yale Law grad — who began work in oil in the 1930s, working his way up the ladder to an extremely high executive level — was still “sharp” until the very last months of his life, and he wanted to help Smith. “She was his last project,” says Bentley.
But as she would continue to do until her death, Smith “did what she wanted to do” and “couldn’t be controlled.” Ultimately, Marshall deemed her “unteachable,” says Bentley.
Smith did have personal success. She turned a long-held dream into reality when she was named Playmate of the Year by Playboy. She was later chosen as the face and body of Guess? jeans.
In addition to Marshall, other hugely successful, powerful men — Playboy’s Hugh Hefner and Guess’ Georges Marciano, to name two — who genuinely cared about her simply couldn’t direct her to help herself.
“One of the first things she had done was get breast implants very early on,” says Bentley. “That increased her attractiveness in that world. It got her a lot of attention, and once that started, she placed a lot of faith in all kinds of plastic surgery. There were people in her circle in the early days who believe her real substance abuse came during that period, where she had access to the prescription drugs, and the taste stayed with her for a long time.”
Unrealized opportunity seemed always at her door. “People now don’t realize that at the peak of her success, when she was at the pinnacle of Guess? and Playmate, she had a shot at movie stardom, but she just really wasn’t an actress,” says Bentley.
“She could’ve been, with better handlers, like Pamela Anderson; she was a hard worker, but didn’t have the discipline or attention span to do it.”
She still drew people to her. In 1996, she met, as her designer Bobby Trendy describes him, “the ultimate hanger-on,” her lawyer turned eventual companion Howard K. Stern. Stern represented her in her strenuous estate battle when, after Marshall died, she was pitted against his sons, most notably J. Pierce Marshall (who died last fall, further muddying the inheritance waters).
Up until her death, Smith still wasn’t receiving any money from her late husband’s estate. People don’t realize, says Trendy, “that she was the breadwinner. Her house [cost] $7,000 a month, and it was all her supporting” everyone who lived in her home (Daniel, Stern, personal assistants and several dogs).
With her reality show, leveraged because of the popularity of MTV's The Osbournes and her E! THS special, Smith soon became the butt of jokes. Depressed and lazy, she began to gain alarming amounts of weight. Through it all, “she was very sweet,” says her acting coach Howard Fine. “People made a lot of assumptions about her. But she was not stupid.”
She also was desperate to prove herself. While having some artwork framed, Smith met gallery owner Lynne Crandall. Crandall’s studio was the setting for Smith’s one and only gallery showing, of some 30 paintings. “She did acrylic flowers, landscapes, people,” says Crandall. “It was charming, childlike art that her fans were interested in seeing.” Many pieces were sold, ranging in price between $2,000 and $4,000, recalls Crandall. Whether Smith’s artwork will increase in value is questionable, seeing as it "is strictly based on her name only, not her expertise as an artist. She wasn’t a great artist, yet they were from herself, from her real self.”
And that real self, says her hypnotist Dr. Amazing (aka Marvin Teitelbaum, MD) “was bright, clear, very friendly, very smart, intelligent.” Trendy concurs, saying that off-camera, Smith was "very friendly, sweet and giving.”
But that sweetness may have made her vulnerable to those who didn’t have her best interest at heart, both health- and career-wise. As much as her rise was documented in the pages of Playboy and artsy Guess? ads, her demise was just as public. No one told her not to appear before cameras or to conduct interviews when she was incoherent. Even if they did, she wasn’t listening.
“She was a classic train wreck,” says Bentley. “And people were fascinated by it. She put her strengths and weaknesses out right there in front of everybody” — in both life and death, as the paternity of 5-month-old Dannielynn and Smith’s possible inheritance from Marshall continue to be fought in court and in the media.
The TV Guide Channel looks back at Smith's rise and tragic fall with Anna Nicole: An Unfinished Life, which retraces her career from her emergence as a top model to her courtroom battles to her reality-TV comeback. Check local listings. Revisit Smith's life in pictures in our photo gallery.
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