The Making of a Sex Symbol, 1993
How Mexia’s Anna Nicole Smith became the model of the moment.
It takes a lot to distract Hollywood’s power players when they gather for lunch at Le Dome on Sunset Boulevard. Tight-skirted starlets stroll past their tables ever day, but the middle-aged producers, directors, and agents barely notice. Bent over their $25 entrées, they whisper about movie deals like Roman conspirators.
On this sunny May afternoon, however, history is about to be made. As the doors of Le Dome open, the maître d’ bows slightly for famous model Anna Nicole Smith—formerly Vickie Smith, waitress at Jim’s Krispy Fried Chicken in Mexia (population: 6,933). In Mexia, eighty miles south of Dallas, Vickie smith was a poor little wild girl who dropped out of high school after getting into a fistfight. In Hollywood, Anna Nicole Smith is fifteen minutes late for her lunch reservation because she has spent the morning at Fred Hayman’s on Rodeo Drive, purchasing a $1,400 dress.
“This way, Miss Smith,” the maître d’ says, leading the young woman, her linebacker-size bodyguard, and two publicists into the dining room. The world-weary Hollywood types glance at the entourage, and suddenly the conversation stops—totally stops. Smith, in a black-and-white vertically striped bodysuit, clears a path through the closely packed tables as if some invisible force field surrounds her. The dealmakers, men and women, swivel in their seats. Tom Snyder, the talk show host, rises halfway out of his chair to get a better look. A movie producer eating with actress JoBeth Williams murmurs, “Who could that be?”
“Hi, y’all,” Smith says as she wiggles past a table of men, her voice so country that it makes Ann Richards sound like Rose Kennedy. Followed by a dozen pairs of eyes, she sits down at a reserved table. “Yes, sir, I want a salad,” she purrs at a waiter. “But don’t put any of that green grass or fancy stuff in there—just lettuce and tomatoes. You people out here don’t know how to make a real salad.” She purses her lips together and gives the waiter a flirty pout.
Hollywood has seen its share of great blondes, but it has never seen a woman like Anna Nicole Smith, for she looms over the city like a Statue of Liberty. She is a magnificent Amazonian creature: 155 pounds and six feet three inches tall in her very high heels, with flawless skin, perfectly sculpted features, and breasts bigger than the state of Rhode Island. For that reason, she has been plucked from Texas working-class obscurity to become an immediately recognizable face. Although successful models are usually known for their thin waiflike looks, Smith has made her mark precisely because she has one of the most voluptuous figures on earth. Almost overnight she landed a coveted international modeling job with Guess? jeans (previously held by Claudia Schiffer) owing to her ability to show lots and lots of cleavage while giving the camera the kind of deep, smoldering look that suggests she can handle any kind of trouble that comes her way. In its ads, Guess? doesn’t even bother to show Smith in jeans. Instead, she poses with the strap of her dress falling off her shoulder or with her shirt halfway unbuttoned. The ads have this other-time look to them, like the pinups of old movie stars. If it is true, as Mae West once said, that a curved line is the loveliest distance between two points, then Smith is the world’s loveliest woman. She has curves so big you could ride a motorcycle over them.
Today, in some artistic circles, 25-year-old Smith has become an object of enormous curiosity. In the past six months she has been selected as Playboy magazine’s Playmate of the Year, starred in Bryan Ferry’s new music video, and completed a small part at Tim Robbins’ girlfriend in The Hudsucker Proxy, an upcoming movie by acclaimed filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. Although she has never had a single acting lesson, directors have sent her piles of scripts. Although she doesn’t sing, a record producer has offered to help her make a country music album. No one, it seems, can look at this unschooled, uncultured small-town girl without wondering whether she might turn into the next Marilyn Monroe—an idea she doesn’t discourage, since she has collected every Marilyn Monroe movie on videocassette and has memorized all of her lines. “I can just relate to her,” Smith says breathlessly. “Especially after I got my body—then I really could relate to her.”
Obviously, Smith possesses the grand bubble-headed manner that is a hallmark of some of Hollywood’s greatest blondes, from Jean Harlow and Judy Holiday to Monroe herself. When asked, for example, who her favorite author is, she replies, “The people who write my favorite soaps.” When asked if she is a feminist, she says, “I don’t understand that question.” Staring at a seafood dish ordered by one of her lunch companions, she says wistfully, “Did y’all know that lobsters have one mate their whole life? Yes! And when someone takes that mate away, the other lobster dies.”
While many churchgoing Mexia citizens are no doubt embarrassed that Smith’s body topography has given the town reams of national publicity—in her Playboy video, she poses in front of a Mexia Chamber of Commerce sign—others see a kind of fairy-tale quality in her success. Regardless of how much further she goes, Vickie smith’s transformation into Anna Nicole Smith is indeed the classic fable about luck, beauty, and show biz.
“Lord, if you could have known how poor that girl was,” says Kay Beall, Smith’s aunt. “I used to slip her some of my food-stamp money just so she could buy herself some candy.”
Smith’s parents divorced following her birth in November 1967, after which time she alternately lived with her mother—a sheriff’s deputy in a town near Houston—and Beall, who worked at the state school for mentally retarded children in Mexia. (At the time, Smith didn’t know her father.) By age fifteen, she was living permanently with Beall, along with three cousins, in Beall’s tiny two-bedroom frame home. Life there was far from perfect. Beall’s home had no heat, so Smith wore her flannel pajamas underneath her clothes in the winter. Beall couldn’t afford toilet paper, so Smith stole rolls from the bathroom of a local restaurant.
Still, Smith had no particular ambition to escape Mexia. After getting expelled from high school for fighting, she decided that she didn’t need any more education (“I hated school anyways”), and she and her best friend, Jo Lynn, took to cruising up and down the drag on Milam Street in Jo Lynn’s white Cobra. In the morning, she waited tables at Jim’s Krispy Fried Chicken. It was there that Smith first considered being a model: The restaurant owner’s wife encouraged her to move to a big city and become one. But Smith, at a gawky five foot eleven and flat as a door, couldn’t see it. “I mean, I had nuthin’,” she remembers. “I wore a double A bra. I was so skinny that bones would poke out of my jeans.”
Anyway, Smith was more interested in a boy named Billy, who cooked the chickens in the back of the restaurant. Not long after they met, she married Billy in the living room of his parents’ house, and almost immediately she got pregnant. After her son was born, she decided she wanted another child. “I didn’t want to leave that life,” she says, even though she had no television in her little house and had to keep working at Jim’s. But then she and her husband started fighting. After one particularly nasty episode, Smith grabbed the baby, left everything else behind, and fled to north Houston, where she rented a studio apartment and took a cashier’s job at a Wal-Mart. After she divorced her husband, she and her son never saw him again.
But by that point, one other significant thing had happened to her: She got breasts. They began developing during her pregnancy and grew to be as big as fire hydrants. It was then that she decided her anatomy would be her destiny—especially when she read a in a newspaper that a scout from Playboy was in town. It was such a strange destiny. While lots of small-town girls believe the Miss America pageant is the path to fame and fortune, others believe salvation lies in the pages of Playboy. “Scores of girls send us their pictures over and over,” says Marilyn Grabowski, the magazine’s West Coast photo editor. “Even after we reject them, they go off, lose a little weight, and try again. We’ve been sending some of them rejection letters for years.”
So, in late 1991, Smith did some test shots, which the scout dutifully mailed to Playboy. “I saw pictures of this girl with thick blue eye shadow and red lipstick—kind of like Dolly Parton on a bad day,” Grabowski says. “Her hair was styled big, but I couldn’t stop staring at her.” Grabowski called Smith to have her fly up to Los Angeles to take more test shots. Compared with the other doll-like anatomically correct Playmates, Smith was gigantic. “But she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen without makeup,” says Grabowski, who has been picking Playboy centerfolds for 29 years. “Sharon Stone is a close second.”
Grabowski told Smith that Playboy would pay her $750 and put her on an upcoming cover dressed as a debutante. “That’s great,” Smith exclaimed. “What’s a debutante?”
Within weeks, Smith was chosen as the Playmate of the Month for May 1992 and paid $20,000. With her newly found financial security, she returned to Houston to resume her life. But a Houston modeling agency told her that she would never get any work because she was too big, too busty, and too blond. She also had trouble finding a job other than restaurant work, which she now refused to do. “It was degrading to go out and find me a job at some chicken place or something,” she says.
Then Paul Marciano called. Marciano, the president of Guess? and the brother of fashion designer Georges Marciano, had seen Smith’s Playboy spread and arranged to visit her. Smith was happy to oblige, though she had never heard of either Marciano or Guess?. “We met at this famous Italian restaurant in Houston,” Smith says. “Oh, you know the name of it. It’s got two names. Wait—it’s called, uh, Something-Something.”
Marciano, an elegant, meticulously dressed man with a beautiful French accent, told Smith that he was looking for the next great model for Guess?, which he pronounces “Geee-yess.” Smith leaned over the table. “Excuse me, sir,” she said. “I can’t understand what you are saying.” That evening, Marciano took Smith to the Galleria, where she bought her first Guess? outfits. According to Marciano, Smith took a look around and said, “Y’all make real nice clothes.”
The next day, Marciano had Smith fly in his private jet to San Antonio, where a Guess? crew was shooting an ad for the company’s line of baby clothes. Marciano wanted to do some test shots, though he wasn’t very optimistic. Smith was a country girl with poor grammar and incredible naiveté; his ads needed to portray young sophistication.
Once on location, Smith went off to have her makeup and hair done. Then she emerged from the trailer. “I could not believe what I was seeing,” Marciano says. “I had never seen such an extraordinary face. The temperature was a hundred degrees, and she was still natural in front of the camera. She could have worked all day. She gave me a hundred different looks.”
The first test shot taken of Smith—lying in a field, chewing a piece of straw, wearing a red-and-white checkered shirt—so impressed Marciano that he immediately began using it (the first test shot!) for his Guess? ads in magazines around the world. Soon after, Marciano signed her to a three-year deal and shot four other sets of pictures with her. Later, to give her a more urbane image, he encouraged her to change her name from Vickie Smith to Anna Nicole Smith. Suddenly, the girl from Nowheresville was a star.
“Oooh, crème brulee, my favorite,” Smith says as her dessert arrives at the end of her Le Dome lunch. She holds the bowl close to her mouth and starts scooping the food in. Everyone around her watches in amazement. The custardy treat vanishes within sixty seconds. “I love sweets,” she coos.
Thus far, the elite modeling world has had difficulty accepting the big-boned Mexia girl who has joined its ranks. Recently, several well-known models, including Smith, attended a large party in New York, but it was hardly a fathering of friends. “The other girls didn’t want to have nuthin’ to do with me,” Smith says. “I was trying to talk to this one girl, and she would, like, turn around and not speak to me. I think they just can’t accept what’s happening—that I can eat and that they have to be skinny and really work at staying that way.”
Considering that she once had no ambition to be anything but a small-town mother, Smith has almost effortlessly adapted to her new life of fame. Already she is full of plans. She complains, for instance, that Sharon Stone, and not she, has been asked to play Marilyn Monroe in an upcoming movie. Meanwhile, she has to choose between a role alongside Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley in the latest Naked Gun sequel and a part in Chuck Russell’s gangster movie The Mask.
Smith says that she has found an apartment in New York so she can take professional acting lessons with Broadway stars. She also is looking for a place in Los Angeles where she can live while pursuing her film career. She has purchased a small ranch north of Houston, where she lives with her son, who is now seven. She has moved her aunt Kay Beall, who is suffering from a variety of illnesses, into a nicer house. And, with the help of a professional search firm, she has located her father, who, she says, is “a three-dimensional-art person who make sculpture out of driftwood.” Deall says, “She might be real fancy and all that, but she still goes to a nursing home every Christmas and hands out presents. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”
When it comes to men, Smith says she would ultimately like to fall in love with a Texas cowboy. (“A Marlboro man,” she says.) But for now, she’s ready to meet celebrities. In particular, she hints, she wants to meet actors like Michael Keaton and Brad Pitt. To date, neither man has called Smith, a fact hat leaves her a little perplexed. Maybe, it is suggested, men are intimidated by her bodyguard, who is always lurking nearby. “Oh, dear. I hope they don’t think he’s my boyfriend,” she says. But she has no plans for giving him up. Apparently, she believes a Hollywood starlet should have a bodyguard. It’s a sign that a young woman has made it.
After Smith has completed her meal, her bodyguard approaches her seat and prepared to escort her out of the restaurant. Smith has a lot to do this day. She wants to work out on the boxing bag in the gym at the Playboy Mansion. She wants to buy a “really cute” present for her son, who is back in Texas. She wants to reread her lines before auditioning for a small movie role later in the week.
Smith rises from her chair…and rises…and rises. Once again, everyone in the restaurant turns to watch. Again, the maître d’ bows as she exits through the doors. The valet-parking attendant gapes at her. Traffic slows on Sunset Boulevard.
At such a moment it is difficult not to wonder about a young woman who has become famous only for her beauty. Her one great attribute is like a flower that age will someday devour. What will happen to her when people no longer talk about her looks? What will her life be like if she does not become the next Marilyn Monroe? But it is also unfair to ask her such questions. For now, Anna Nicole Smith is relishing a life that she has never dreamed of.
As Smith waits for the car to pick her up, a man in a sleek German automobile swerves to a lane in front of the restaurant and honks his horn as he passes by. Smith smiles and, suddenly inspired, addresses the entourage around her for one last time.
“Y’all,” she says, “it’s hard to believe what can happen just because people want to get a look at you.”