Reflections on Anna Nicole Smith, Ten Years After Her Death
Anna Nicole Smith rose from a small town girl in Mexia to an icon, but her demons followed her far beyond Texas.
It’s hard to care about the tenth anniversary of Anna Nicole Smith’s death with everything else going on in 2017. Looking back at the year she died, 2007, the drug overdose of the former stripper turned icon turned addict didn’t make Time’s list of the top ten news stories, despite her celebrity. Around that time, George W. Bush was president and was busy sending more troops to Iraq. The housing bubble had burst, but “predatory lending” had yet to become part of the lexicon. Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone and was two tough years away from his own passing; the last Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out, allowing parents with children of a certain age to mark the end of their progeny’s childhood. It wasn’t exactly a more innocent time, but at least you can say Time had its priorities straight. Anna Nicole’s life and death formed a peculiarly American arc, but it was finally too tawdry and too sad to really stick.
The British tabloids have been on the job today to help us remember the anniversary, though. The Daily Mail exhumed the story with a “graphic content” warning: (“See the VIDEO of Anna Nicole on a stretcher as paramedics tried to resusitate [sic] her below”). Lots to read and many never before seen photos.
But I’ve always thought that the essential problem with the Mexia native and her legacy was that she never had an identity of her own. She instead enthusiastically embodied the fantasies of those who hired her—the founder of Guess Jeans, Playboy, and so on. The poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks in a small Texas town was too self destructive at 26 to settle into marriage with the impossibly rich oilman Howard Marshall, who was then 89; she was all id and insatiable appetites, for drugs and sex and food and fun, none of which Marshall could provide. Nor did she have the talent of, say, Marilyn Monroe, someone she desperately tried to emulate throughout her career. Anna Nicole was an imitation of an imitation, as one Jungian therapist explained to me, which meant that no one was going to respect her or grieve for her when the going got rough.
Even in death the mess continued: there was a crazy custody battle over the daughter she had in September 2006, and the lawsuit filed by Marshall’s son over her late husband’s estate dragged on until 2014. Her companion, Howard Stern, her psychiatrist, Khristine Eroshevich, and her internist, Dr. Sandeep Kapoor faced charges after her death relating to aiding and abetting an addict.
In writing about her death in 2007, there was little pity for the pretty, hyper-sexualized young woman who everyone watched act out, even when it wasn’t funny anymore. But I’m older now, and I think it’s time to let Anna Nicole rest in peace. It’s partly because only a younger person or a crueler person—both of which I was when I wrote about her—can really enjoy and appreciate the story. Once I hit a certain age, I started seeing more than I wanted to—I’d still put money on the fact that she was sexually abused, for instance. But probably more important is the fact that celebrity culture—or what we used to call celebrity culture—has been applied more broadly in more ways than I care to count. Anna Nicole’s surgical enhancements were shocking; now it’s hard to find people over 50—or 40,30, perhaps?—who haven’t had significant work, including our 70-year-old president. People were stunned to discover that Anna Nicole had fashioned her life story on a series of lies—omitting her beginnings as a stripper, say—while today that’s appropriate behavior for even the most revered among Americans. She needed the spotlight, even when it showed her glaring flaws, just like another reality TV star I could name.
She ended her life at the bottom of the barrel, the embodiment not of the beauty she once possessed but of all the seediness and sadness in the culture.
Let’s face it, she was ahead of her time.