The ‘White Trash’ Cinderella: why the Kardashians have nothing on Anna Nicole Smith

Anna Nicole Smith, as seen in the Netflix documentary You Don't Know Me - Netflix
Anna Nicole Smith, as seen in the Netflix documentary You Don’t Know Me – Netflix

On February 8, 2007, Anna Nicole Smith died in a Florida Hard Rock Hotel room after overdosing on prescription drugs. It was a sad but not entirely unexpected end to a chaotic life. But after stumbling through a subsequent decade-long pop culture blizzard during which time the definition of celebrity has expanded to include anyone with a social media account, it takes a moment to fully recall how famous Anna Nicole Smith – now the subject of a Netflix documentary – once was. And it might take another moment to realise the kind of fame she had doesn’t happen anymore.

Vickie Lynn Hogan was a native of Mexia, Texas (population: 7,000), a high-school dropout, a waitress at Red Lobster and a wife and mother before she turned 20. A full-figured 5’11” blonde, Vickie Lynn looked like a different species from the consumptive androgynes populating the pages of the world’s fashion magazines.

She harboured a distant dream of being the next Marilyn Monroe but spent her days working at the local Wal-Mart. Two events changed her life. In 1991,while performing in Texas strip club, Rick’s Cabaret, she caught the watery eye of octogenarian oil billionaire, J. Howard Marshall II.

“He asked me to go to lunch with him the following day,” Smith recalled. “I said I had to work. He gave me an envelope. And it was the last time I ever danced. It was awful in that place. It was just terrible. And he saved me from that.” In 1992, she sent pictures of herself to Playboy and, in less time than it takes the effects of Viagra to kick in, she was the magazine’s May centrefold.

Paul Marciano, co-founder of Guess jeans, caught an eyeful of Vickie Lynn – as she was still known – and her pulchritudinous beauty. She was big, she was blonde, she had curves, she fit with the Guess throwback pin-up aesthetic.

The renamed Anna Nicole Smith replaced Claudia Schiffer as the face of Guess jeans. Her photoshoots were imbued with an old-time glamour that made the fashion world sit up and insist they weren’t solely in the stick-insect business. Editorials for the swanky likes of Vanity Fair, W, Harper’s Bazaar and Italian Vogue followed.

By 1993, she was beguiling Bryan Ferry – a man who knows his iconic models – in his Will You Love Me Tomorrow video, and by 1994 she had appeared in the Coen brothers’ Hudsucker Proxy, the third installment of The Naked Gun, and she had been crowned Playmate of the Year. Anna Nicole Smith was such a legitimate success story that, when New York magazine pictured her filling her face with Cheez Doodles to accompany a story titled White Trash nation, she sued them for defamation of character.

But the magazine had a point. America in 1994 was a seething snake pit filled with fame-hungry, mentally unbalanced hillbillies. This was the era of John Wayne Bobbitt who had his penis-severed by his wronged wife. Of Tonya Harding, the scrappy ice-skater who took a hit out on the knee of her wholesome competitor, Nancy Kerrigan. Of Joey Buttafuco, the Long Island Lothario whose teenage girlfriend Amy Fisher shot his wife in the face. Of Jessica Hahn, the one-time church secretary sexually abused by pious televangelist, Jim Bakker, who turned her overnight notoriety into regular Playboy spreads. Of Bill Clinton’s accusers, Monica Lewinsky, Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones.

A scene from Anna Nicole Smith: You Don't Know Me - Netflix
A scene from Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me – Netflix

This was also the time when countless platforms existed to give these damaged individuals the recognition they craved. These shocking stories were generally broken by supermarket tabloids like The National Enquirer. Daytime TV was filled with scandal-mongering talk shows hosted by Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Richard Bey and a million tawdry imitators. And then there was the original shock jock Howard Stern.

In the mid-1990s, the Stern show was both a VIP lounge and a confessional booth for porn stars, oddballs and tabloid habitués. The likes of Bobbit, Buttafuoco, his wounded wife, Hahn and countless others made the trek to his studio to submit to his lascivious interrogation and keep the clock of their relevance ticking a few minutes longer. “If Howard Stern didn’t exist, white trash would not have a superstar,” observed his occasional guest, Reverend Al Sharpton.

Anna Nicole Smith with her husband Howard J Marshall - Rex
Anna Nicole Smith with her husband Howard J Marshall – Rex

With her incredible trajectory from small-town Texan penury to a gorgeous, glittering fantasy figure posing to perfection in glossy foreign fashion bibles, Anna Nicole Smith seemed to inhabit a rarefied world where the air was different to the toxic sludge inhaled by the nutcases who were happy to exhibit their pain on the performing freak circuit where Stern and Springer cracked the whip.

But she soon plunged back down into their dirty world. In 1994, Anna Nicole Smith, then 26, married J. Howard Marshall, 89, at the White Dove Wedding Chapel in Houston.

“He courted me for two and a half years,” she explained. “I promised him that I would marry him after I made something of myself. I wasn’t physically, oh my God, you hot, hot body. I loved him for what he did for me and my son.”

Anna Nicole Smith: You Don't Know Me - Netflix
Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me – Netflix

Minutes after the wedding ceremony, Smith blew a kiss to her new wheelchair-bound husband and departed for a photoshoot in Greece. Thirteen months later, he was dead and she was embroiled in a battle with his family over her claim to a share in his estate.

The wedding, its abrupt end and the endless court battles that followed irrevocably altered the public perception of Anna Nicole. The Guess girl who photographed like a 1950s dream was forgotten. The Anna Nicole Smith whose weight had ballooned and who slurred and stumbled her way through tabloid TV shows, the National Enquirer and the court of Howard Stern was an entirely different spectacle.

“He was the light of my life,” she repeatedly insisted of the husband she had never lived with, nor shared any intimacy greater than a kiss on the lips. But for the rest of the decade, in the media and the courtroom, she was doomed to play the role of hapless gold-digger.

In 2002, she capitalised on her gossip column ubiquity by signing up for an E! reality series. The Anna Nicole Show was a depressing wallow through what E!’s editors managed to turn into a storyline. Through two seasons, a frequently woozy Smith and her Fellini-esque retinue that included her attorney (and future husband) Howard K. Stern, her frazzled assistant Kimmie, her shrieking interior designer Bobby Trendy, and half of her dead husband’s ashes (a judge awarded Marshall’s son the other half) wobbled through storylines about eating binges and court battles.

Also present in the show, though reluctantly so, was Smith’s son, Daniel, who died in 2006 at age 20. That same year, she gave birth to a daughter, Dannielynn, whose parentage was the subject of frenzied dispute. By the time of her death, Anna Nicole Smith had become less a punchline than a cautionary tale of what happens when a life careens off the rails and there’s no one to stop the train because all the passengers are voyeurs invested in seeing the carnage.

Her passing was met with few teary-eyed eulogies. “What was she famous for, aside from being famous?” sniffed MSNBC morning pundit, Joe Scarborough, himself mainly famous for his access to Donald Trump. “(She was) available for parties,” leered gossip website Radar contributor, Tyler Grey. “She didn’t come cheap but she would join the party.”

Anna Nicole's hated New York cover
Anna Nicole’s hated New York cover

Attorney Rusty Hardin, who represented J. Howard Marshall’s son, Pierce, and to whom Smith addressed in court with a loud “Screw you, Rusty!” commented, “I did tell her one time, I don’t know why you’re so upset with me, I’ve been good for your career.”

This is 2023. Howard Stern now conducts empathetic, compassionate conversations with Lisa Kudrow about body image or with Priyanka Chopra about depression, and who cries while interviewing Bruce Springsteen. Reality TV is dominated by the affluent Real Housewives. Everyone with a four-figure TikTok following considers themselves, if not a star, then certainly a brand.

But no one has achieved the kind of trajectory Anne Nicole Smith enjoyed. This is an age of dynastic privilege; of Kardashians, Jenners and Hadids who were born into celebrity and achieved what they were entitled to with little effort.

There’s no struggle in these women’s success stories, no social mobility; they didn’t go from rags to riches, they went from riches to even more riches. Anna Nicole Smith was the last White Trash Cinderella.

Published by anthonyhayble


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