MY FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD CALLED ME FROM SCHOOL to tell me that Anna Nicole Smith had died, and he was laughing. I happened to be at Universal Studios in Burbank, working on a story, when I got the news; once it ricocheted from multiple BlackBerrys to the makeup trailer to the set courtesy of CNN, ABC, and the like, people there were laughing too. My guess is that the news broke a record for the shortest time between the registration of shock and ensuing black humor. “No joke, Anna Nicole Smith DEAD,” reported on February 9, at 8:22 a.m., revealing a clear grasp of the problem. For some bizarre, best-unexplored reason, Richard Nixon came to mind; on that first morning I could hear him saying that we wouldn’t have Anna Nicole to kick around anymore.

I was wrong about that, of course. In no time, her death from as-yet-undetermined causes was mirroring her life, which is to say it was an unmitigated disaster: The words “train wreck” conjoined with “Anna Nicole Smith” turned up 135,000 hits on Google a week or so after she was gone. Highlights included the ever-growing list of potential fathers for her then-five-month-old daughter, Dannielynn, and the melodramatic fight over a burial site between Anna Nicole’s enervated mother, Virgie Arthur, and Anna Nicole’s omnipresent faux spouse, Howard K. Stern, while her body lay rotting at the medical examiner’s office. There was some good news: Wal-Mart was interested in a bulk buy of Great Big Beautiful Doll, a biography of Anna Nicole written by Eric and D’Eva Redding, her former manager and his wife, a hair and makeup artist. Others who’d had their piece of Anna Nicole rallied just as quickly. In a story headlined “TrimSpa Moving On Without Anna Nicole,” the CEO of the diet pill company, Alex Goen, admitted that Anna Nicole had “helped to catapult the brand” to fame but that its success was “not simply the result of Anna Nicole Smith.”

Within days, otherwise intelligent, highly sophisticated people—the kind who visit modern-art museums and read complicated books and know the difference between Shiites and Sunnis—were obsessively floating theories that could make you dizzy enough to beg for Dramamine. One friend speculated about a link between Anna Nicole’s death and that of Lady Walker’s, the late J. Howard Marshall II’s first stripper-lover, who, you may or may not recall, died on a Houston operating table during cosmetic surgery, in 1991. “These were not nice people,” my friend said ominously. Another sent me a clip on Anna Nicole’s embalming, suspiciously querying, “Why did they need to embalm? She was in a cooler in the morgue.” My favorite, however, came from an Austin therapist, who passed on her hairdresser’s suggestion that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the father of Anna Nicole’s daughter was Anna Nicole’s twenty-year-old son, Daniel, who died last fall. It was as if Anna Nicole had provided so much entertainment value over the years that no one could let her go—the slug for the news of her death on the Houston Chronicle’s Web site was, in fact, “Entertainment.” The only idea that didn’t hold much appeal was taking Anna Nicole seriously. I had the feeling that if she had ever succumbed to the temptation herself, it might have killed her even sooner.

LIKE A LOT OF TEXAS JOURNALISTS, I had the pleasure of writing about Anna Nicole Smith in the early days, when her life had more twists and turns than a tangled Slinky. My opportunity came in 1994, the year she married wizened, rheumy 89-year-old J. Howard Marshall II. There was a frantic need on the part of almost every man, woman, and child on the planet to understand something that wasn’t really all that mysterious, which was how and why a poor 26-year-old girl from a small Texas town managed to ascend from stripper to Playboy centerfold to Guess Jeans model to sometime actress to wife of a very rich and very old man. (Hint: She was a nearly-six-foot knockout, and she knew how to work it.) Back then, Anna Nicole ignored my requests for an interview, so I never met her; I didn’t see her in the flesh until nine years later, after Marshall had died and she was locked in a lawsuit/death struggle over the billionaire’s fortune with his son Pierce.

There are a couple of salient things I remember from that trial, which took place in a windowless courtroom of the old Harris County Family Courts building. The first was a mammoth, satiny black bra that I found stuffed behind a toilet paper dispenser in a restroom stall. Had Anna Nicole taken it off to look sexier in court, I still wonder, or had it just been … uncomfortable? That question was soon eclipsed by Anna Nicole’s performance on the witness stand, for which the county could have sold enough tickets to finance dozens of new libraries, hospitals, and community college branches.

Anna Nicole was heavy then but appeared to have dressed in what passed for appropriate in her mind: a tight skirt, stilettos, and a sweater so taut over her massive chest that she seemed in danger of suffocation. Maybe, in fact, it was cutting off circulation to her brain: As accounts of the trial frequently mentioned, Anna Nicole lolled her head, rolled her eyes, scratched her strange arrangement of platinum pin curls, nodded off, wept, smudged her mascara, smeared her lipstick, stared into space, and generally had difficulty staying present. She had trouble following questions too, particularly from Pierce Marshall’s attorney, the boyish but deadly Rusty Hardin. Anna Nicole accused Hardin of being “sick” and “perverted” when he asked intimate questions about her marriage to the elder Marshall; at one point she even retorted, “Screw you, Rusty!” in open court, providing trial followers with a punch line to just about anything and everything for most of the next week. On so many levels, Anna Nicole seemed not to know or not to care where she was. Whatever her intention, as a trial witness on her own behalf, she seemed to be working overtime to persuade the jury to rule against her.

That public appearance offered convincing proof that Anna Nicole had lost her feel for the difference between who she was and who she imagined herself to be. Maybe it had been her plan all along. When her mother emerged from obscurity to discuss her death on Good Morning America, she shared Anna Nicole’s explanation for exaggerating her small-town past. “Mom,” her daughter had told her, “nobody wants to read books or see people on TV concerning, you know, ‘Middle-class girl found a rich millionaire and married him.’ There’s not a story in that. The story is, I come from rags to riches, and so that’s what I’m going to tell.”

It was an easy sell. Anyone who’s ever driven up Interstate 45 and passed the Mexia exit can think they know all they need to about Anna Nicole’s history. (I did, when I wrote about her twelve years ago.) It is a small, dusty town in which not much appears to happen, and so it’s natural to assume that after Anna Nicole ended up working at the now-famous Jim’s Krispy Fried Chicken and, at seventeen, was married to and swiftly divorced from a pimply faced fry cook one year her junior—with a son born along the way—she was ready to get the hell out of Dodge. Not too long after that, in the early nineties, she burst on the scene as one of Playboy’s most successful centerfolds and then one of the glamorous faces of Guess Jeans. (In the kind of minor but niggling blow that must have intensified Anna Nicole’s mood swings, her name at some point stopped appearing on the list of Guess girls on the company’s Web site. Naomi Campbell, whose behavior has been equally cuckoo at times, still rates.)

Her youthful, abundant beauty from that time continues to startle. Anna Nicole could convey both purity and sophistication; she was innocence in a plunging bustier, on satin sheets, in a hay field, on the beach. Not coincidentally, her career took off at a time when the country’s divide between rich and poor was widening and the price of blue jeans became an odd if critical marker. The owners of Guess, the Marciano brothers, followed a trail blazed by former socialite Gloria Vanderbilt and transformed denim from a proletarian uniform to something aspirational. Their sexy black and white ads worked a little like hip Rorschach tests—you could spend a lot of time trying to decide whether the young, hot, beautiful types pictured had just done it or were about to do it—and so created a compelling link between casual clothes, casual sex, and casual glamour. In front of the camera, Anna Nicole embodied it all effortlessly.

Seeing her on the witness stand nearly a decade later, then, was an object lesson in the power of image. The real Anna Nicole clearly had a screw or three loose. It had been the Guess ads, photographed by then-undiscovered masters like Ellen von Unwerth and Wayne Maser, that were iconic, not the models. Unfortunately, Anna Nicole never figured that out.

Even so, for quite some time, her success grew in accordance with that particularly comforting American (female) mythology: Small-town beauty makes good. If you read her early press, she admitted to being poor, and she admitted to being from Mexia, but that was it. In particular, Anna Nicole never mentioned her life as a dancer in Houston’s men’s clubs, because she knew that that was the side of the story no one wanted to hear. She was supposed to be fresh-faced and innocent—even for Playboy, where the centerfolds by then were baring it all—and being an exotic dancer clashed with the wholesome-ish narrative that she and everyone who stood to profit from her success had created and maintained.

The reality was much darker, and anyone who has spent any time in those clubs knows it. (The only people who don’t want to see or sense the truth are the patrons.) To put it mildly, they are unhappy places where all kinds of needs and dysfunctions meet in semi-anonymity. Drugs and alcohol are a big part of the mix, as confidence builders and self-medication, and there’s a lot of what psychiatrists call acting out: people, particularly the dancers, reliving past traumas like early sexual abuse in updated settings. When various stories took me to those clubs years ago, I was forever meeting “SMU coeds” and “nursing school students” who claimed, not very convincingly, to be working just for the money. And the men were there ostensibly for fun, but their neediness permeated the stale, funky air. These were damaged people who couldn’t make intimate connections in the real world, and that included losers in expensive suits and losers in blue-collar jumpsuits, as well as guys who would fly into a rage if you accidentally blocked their view and guys in wheelchairs for God knew what reason.

Anna Nicole learned all she needed to know about American sexuality in those clubs (like a lot of women who worked in them, she had lesbian affairs, partly in self-defense). It was her high school, college, and Ph.D. program rolled into one, though I’ve always suspected her sexual education began much, much earlier, sometime during that poor and tumultuous childhood, when she was shuttled from relative to relative and no one seemed to be paying much attention. As an adult, she made damn sure that never happened again.

FROM THE MOMENT ANNA NICOLE GOT FAMOUS, she told the world that her role model was Marilyn Monroe. It was a shrewd move, as it linked her image with one of the greatest American icons of all time, and it had a neat logic: one platinum-haired sex symbol taking after another, one poor, deprived child latching onto the success of another. But Anna Nicole couldn’t keep up the act to ensure icon status of her own. Monroe had talent, but Anna Nicole’s gifts were limited—she was just beautiful, and she never had any sense of how to operate in the world. She had bad manners, she was impulsive, she lied, and she was fiercely derivative. D’Eva Redding told me years ago that when Anna Nicole went for her first Playboy test shoot at Eric’s studio, he took some Polaroids and wasn’t interested; the woman he knew as Vickie had been dancing for a while by then, and in posing for the camera she was too sexually overt, too cheap, too tarted up. He finished the session with bored dispatch. But D’Eva saw something in her that he had missed. It happened after Anna Nicole had gone back to the dressing room and was taking off her clothes and makeup, unaware that anyone was watching—when she was quietly herself. “Wait, Eric,” D’Eva told him, as he was about to send Anna Nicole packing. “That’s a really pretty girl.” Even then, Anna Nicole couldn’t fathom that anyone would want her unless she was pretending to be somebody else. From the beginning, she was always trying too hard.

Monroe was probably just as needy and just as self-destructive, but all that time spent at the Actors Studio and in psychoanalysis gave her insight into herself and her culture: She saw herself as a modern-day Aphrodite, someone who could rescue the populace from the sexual constraints of the fifties and early sixties. As James Hollis, the executive director of the C. J. Jung Educational Center, in Houston, told me, “She conceived that her role in life was to embody, represent, and channel that missing, exuberant sexual energy.” Carrying that burden tends to take its toll—the authentic self has to take a backseat to perpetuating the dreams and fantasies of the public—and Anna Nicole, “an imitation of an imitation,” in Hollis’s words, had it a lot worse than Monroe. By the time she became a celebrity, in the early nineties, most people didn’t need to be cured of their sexual inhibitions. They could watch music videos (now we have Fergie in her Girl Scout uniform), learn bedroom fashion tips from Victoria’s Secret models, and enjoy 24/7 access to porn on cable and the Internet. When Anna Nicole showed up on the ubiquitous red carpets stoned, bloated, and bursting out of her clothes, she was nothing more than the embodiment of a supersexualized, celebrity-besotted culture: Aphrodite as a drunken, drug-addled slut. No wonder people turned away.

In some ways, Anna Nicole’s troubles more closely resembled those of another Texas sex symbol, Farrah Fawcett. Fawcett, like Monroe, was a genuine talent, but her best role was as a seventies-era Aphrodite: healthy, athletic, all-natural. The image most people still treasure is that of the poster girl with the bountiful blond mane, beaming in a scarlet bathing suit that isn’t at all revealing by today’s standards. Fawcett looked then as though she was having more fun than anyone else and wanted you to do the same.

Eventually she became a nut too, trying to be both the ingenue and the serious actress to the public. When I wrote about her in 1999, she was just a little over fifty and as fragile as a wren, having ruined her face with too many futile efforts to stop time. The Emmy and Golden Globe nominations didn’t matter; her most famous role had become that of space cadet on the David Letterman show. The tabloids delighted in featuring her cellulite and wrinkled knees.

We spent a lot of time driving around Bel-Air and the Hollywood Hills in her black Jaguar as I tried to get her to talk about being beautiful then and being … older now. Not surprisingly, she wouldn’t go there. Instead, she retreated frequently to various restrooms for extended stays—at home, in restaurants, at a movie premiere. It was easy to imagine that she was doing drugs or staring at her reflection, Dorian Gray—style, but I think now that she was just hiding from it all, especially the anger and the cruelty that resulted from a set of expectations she’d engendered and then, thanks to the ruthlessness of nature, betrayed. Well, hadn’t she been betrayed too?

Last October, however, Fawcett was diagnosed with cancer, which in the celebrity world can be just another opportunity for a comeback. She issued publicist-perfect statements about staying positive (“Throughout the journey of my life, I have maintained a strong faith in the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity”) and appeared to reconcile with ex-lover Ryan O’Neal (giving him a much-needed publicity boost too) and her former Charlie’s Angels co-stars. Declaring herself cancer-free earlier this year, Fawcett was rewarded with another round of positive press, including the all-important tribute from People. “I have never seen anyone go through so much with such dignity and determination,” fellow Angel Kate Jackson told a reporter. “I am in awe of her strength and courage.” In other words, Fawcett, unable to relinquish her celebrity status entirely, engineered a return to public life as a different sort of icon: the survivor.

Anna Nicole could never have resurrected herself that way. Despite suffering horribly—growing up deprived, struggling with all sorts of addictions, losing a child—she was incapable of generating sympathy. She was either too needy (even she made jokes about her appetites) or too enchanted with the surface of things (playing at being Monroe, for example), always both too near and too far from everybody else. In the end, there was nothing for the public to connect with except her slow, determined decline, and since no one much wanted to be party to that, Anna Nicole became a reliable punch line instead. She died as she had lived: as a bit of tabloid ephemera, sandwiched between a diapered, love-crazed astronaut and Britney Spears’s new skinhead do. That’s where Anna Nicole must have really believed she belonged; it just took her a lifetime to convince the rest of us she was right.