​reappraising the fabulous feminist legacy of anna nicole smith

Playboy bunny, reality TV star, American icon, feminist? 10 years after her death, we revisit the complex legacy of the woman who made the Kardashians possible and maybe even redefined American beauty.

by Philippa Snow
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09 February 2017, 2:18pm

On the way to the dentist, Howard K. Stern — the Playboy bombshell's lawyer, lover, whatever — is making Anna Nicole read Henry Miller. This is taking place in the odd and unkind universe of The Anna Nicole Smith Show, which is to say that it's happening at her expense and to shame her. The joke is twofold: that Anna Nicole is obsessed with sex, and that Anna Nicole is stupid and does not read literature. 

"In the part that I'm reading now," Stern tells her, sleazily, "he and his friend met this female [little person]. And they're talking about wanting to see if she's normal sized. If what they call her 'cunt' is normal sized." I need not describe the delight that he takes in getting to say the word "cunt" for the camera. We have all, I am sure, met a Howard K. Stern. At any rate, Anna Nicole — having first snarled: "And I suppose they want to stick her on their dicks and spin her, too" with the jaded venom of somebody sick of the things that men do with their dicks — reads the next few lines aloud. "I've got her! I've got her good! And she's taking a fucking that whoever made her never intended her to have. It's a good thing the concierge is deaf; he'd be in here looking for a murder if he heard this bitch howl." 

Then, because Anna Nicole will not be the butt of a joke unless it's one she has made herself, she deadpans: "Hey, this might even make me wanna start reading." This is part of the complicated pleasure of watching The Anna Nicole Smith Show after the fact: you have to be in it to root for her, but you know that you're watching her fail. Her racked to riches story is as American as it is tragic. A famous blonde is a dime a dozen, but very few famous blondes will loudly tell a camera crew that they haven't been laid in two years. Few famous blondes would have eating contests. Fewer still would read: "heard this bitch howl" on TV. Five years after filming this footage — and ten years ago this month — Anna Nicole died. I cannot imagine she ever read all of Stern's copy of Opus Pistorium. It's hardly Tropic of Cancer, so who cares? If Smith did not know about reading Henry Miller, she certainly knew about reading men. Born in Mexia, Texas as Vickie Lynn Hogan, it did not take long for her to reinvent herself: by seventeen, she was married. By nineteen, divorced. By twenty-one, she had a 38DD boob job, and she worked at the dreamily named Rick's Cabaret, Houston. I could not say with any real certainty which year she went blonde, but it was a DD year for pop culture.

One of her most surprising fans is the German filmmaker Werner Herzog — who, having claimed in an interview to be "fascinated by poets who have gone to the very limits of language," went on to define her as one of them. "I am fascinated by The Anna Nicole Smith Show," he continued with genuine awe. "I mean, [she is] the most vulgar blonde with [huge breasts], but [she] is important; there is something big going on [in her show]. And the big thing going on, of course, was the vulgarity on one side — but it was also that there was some sort of a new image, a new prototype of so-called 'beauty' out there. A comic-strip beauty of utter vulgarity. And it's very strange how the collective mind creates these kinds of fantasies." "I insisted," he would later tell the writer Darrell Hartman, "that Roger Ebert, whose judgment and whose caliber I love — I said to him, "Roger, you have to watch The Anna Nicole Smith Show." There's something big about it, a big shift in the wider public's concept of female beauty, in how vulgarity is invading everyday life more than ever before. And he said, 'No, never in my life.' But then he watched it." 

There's no scene more Herzog in the series than one where Smith goes to an eating contest with Stern and her purple-haired assistant Kim, in a Marilyn t-shirt. "This is one of the seven deadly sins, you know," Kim somberly says. "Gluttony. That's what it says in the Bible." If this is a comic strip, it's the kind that prefers to be called a graphic novel. It's also, as when sound-tracked by puking as Smith disappears to the bathroom, just graphic. The fact that there is a disgusting Anna Nicole as well as a hot one and a doomy one is the reason that Herzog is right about new beauty paradigms — she contained multitudes. Some of these multitudes, as with most women, proved gross. If you didn't like one of her selves, there was always another. Apportioning oneself into different personas is either insane or, for somebody famous, good business sense. Marilyn, Anna Nicole's icon, did it: a diary entry of Truman Capote's describes her divisiveness. "After 20 minutes had passed," he writes, "I decided to investigate. Maybe she'd popped a lethal dose, or even cut her wrists. I found the ladies' room, and knocked on the door. She said: 'Come in.' Inside, she was confronting a dimly lit mirror. I said: 'What are you doing?' She said: 'Looking at Her.'"

"Looking at Her"! No slouch, that Marilyn: and no naïf, either. Knowing that there is a 'Her' there is, even if it cannot guarantee living past 40, a lifeline for anyone famous enough to have two selves. "Anna did achieve a genuine homage of sorts to Monroe, though, by dying of a prescription drug overdose in Hollywood," says a piece about her drug use in Los Angeles Magazine, with an addendum that snippily favors its own turf —  "even if it was Hollywood, Florida." Smith is no Monroe, whose greatest trick has been convincing the public at large that her intellect did not exist, but she has the same turn-on, turn-off kind of heat. She is and inhabits herself in the best kind of way. In her show, in the very first episode, there is a scene where she's looking straight into the mirror, but at us; and we are — it soon becomes obvious — seeing Her. It's a transformative sequence, and her face realigns to resemble a woman who's totally different. 

"Mhhm," she slurs, in that voice whose odd molasses slowness has suddenly found its real context. "You know what I'm talking about, don't you boy? Bring it on. Come on, come on — I dare you. You and me. I dare you. I double-dare you. Bring it on, big boy." Ten minutes later, she's resting her head in her hands. "You know those bumper stickers that say Shit Happens, And Then You Die," she asks with a clear-eyed sincerity. "Well, they should make one that says Shit Happens, And Then You Live. Because that's the truth of it." What's odd is the fact that we recognize all of these women — the goofball, the bombshell, the sad hick philosopher — as the ur-Anna depending on who's on the screen. This may be because she was effortless in her charisma. It may be because she was beautiful. Whatever else she was, she was hysterical; and I mean this in the funniest sense of the word. 

In her reality show, it's true that we're seeing a prototype. The very idea that having no talent and still being famous was ever odd is, in itself, odd: the year that Smith died, The Kardashians got their reality show. We've since lived a Kardashian decade, and chosen celebrities under Kardashian rule. "[Anna Nicole] had been gathering chunks of fame," a writer at Slate explained on the eve of her death, "the same way a successful World of Warcraft player gathers gold, armor, and potions: again and again." Word for word, the same could be said about Kim and her sisters. There is no Kardashian as goofy as Anna Nicole — it might once have been Khloe — although their vagina-smell contests and sex talk owe some kind of debt. In The Anna Nicole Smith Show, she is given or else has devised quips like: "There's three reasons I like dogs better than I like men. Dogs are loyal, dogs are affectionate, and dogs can be fixed," or: "Some people say it's a man's world. Maybe it was, until Eve came along." Asked if she wants to go home or to dinner, she giggles: "I want to go to a goddamned orgy. I haven't had sex in two years." At her best, she's a Hawkesian heroine cast by the Farelly brothers. "Anna Nicole's legacy," Amos Barshad observed at the now-defunct film website, Grantland, "is, I fear, a fleeting one. But if you were around for the heyday — when she was kind of our catchall ur-busty blonde, graced with manifold trashy charms and just the right dab of self-awareness — I believe you can't help but feel some type of way [about her]."

It is easy to forget — and I mean this — just how lovely Anna Nicole was. Marilyn had talent that she did not, absolutely; but for my money, it's Smith's that's the better face. There's a diamond-hardness to it, whatever her weight. She has hot bones. Terry Richardson once shot Natasha Poly in an editorial inspired by Anna Nicole and her marriage — the sex is missing in it, even if the style is there. Whether Smith liked being sexy qua sexy, of course, is debatable. Radar called her "gossip's golden goose," though it seemed that whoever she laid she did not get much out of the bargain. "I hate for men to want sex all the time," she wrote in her diary. "I hate sex anyway." What a curse for a sex symbol; and no wonder she chose to present herself, sometimes, as belching and uncouth and flawed. "People ask me about my childhood," she monologues at the start of an episode. "Well, I didn't have a childhood, so I'm having one now. I like fast men, fast cars, and fast food." 

Which begs the question: why does she think that fast men are a childhood staple? Anna Nicole wears her fucked-up youth as lightly as lingerie. There's an old publicity shot of her wearing a vest that says "LOOKING FOR DADDY," which may be the truest thing she didn't ever quite say. "I love the cameras," she tells an interviewer from FOX News. "But there's good sides, and there's bad sides." In a review of the opera about her life, the critic Alex Ross quotes the playwright Karl Kraus; she succumbs, he says, to "the revenge of the world of men, which dares to avenge itself for its own guilt." Another thing Karl Kraus once said was that "a liberated woman is a fish that has fought its way ashore." 

Sure, Smith was partially liberated. She earned her own money through sex, and inherited more very slowly through marriage. This made her indebted, but canny. One good word to describe a fish on the shore might be "floundering." Anna Nicole, on The Anna Nicole Smith Show, was seen to flounder constantly. On casting for his movies, Herzog once said: "I prefer people who have worked as bouncers in a sex club, or have been wardens in the lunatic asylum. You must live life in its very elementary forms. The Mexicans have a very nice word for it: pura vida. It doesn't mean just purity of life, but the raw, stark-naked quality of life." Smith was the pura videst, which was her USP. There's a scene where a woman on the street yells to her: "I think you're great! But I think you're being exploited." She hardly misses a beat. "Oh yeah? Well, I don't fuckin' mind as long as I'm being paid for it." She would say that she liked Monroe not just for her looks, but because she "completely feel[s] what she went through." 

It would be impossible to say that a straight blonde white woman, plus-sized or otherwise, had rewritten an old beauty standard. Celebrating Anna Nicole is celebrating a typical kind of American beauty writ large. ("It is quite possible," per Molly Lambert, a critic and host of the Mollywood podcast, "that in the decades since the reigns of Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and Brigitte Bardot, the barometer for what is sexy hasn't really moved that far beyond white blonde women with big boobs.") But it is writ large. It is so much itself that it feels inescapable. "More than any other role she ever played," Caitlin Flanagan once wrote at The Atlantic, "Marilyn Monroe was Sugar Kane: manipulative and kind, innocent and mercenary, madcap and melancholy, and most of all desperately lonely." More than any other role of Marilyn's, Smith was Sugar Kane, too. A loveable gold-digger, sad and silly in equal measure: beautiful in a way that made men lose their minds, and lonely in a way that occasionally threatened to ruin hers. 

"I was walking in a little Spanish town," Capote recalls elsewhere in his diary, "[and] I saw these headlines saying: 'Marilyn Monroe, Morte,' I was shocked, even though you knew she was the kind of person this might happen to." Anna Nicole was the kind of person these things happened to, too. We cannot say that we were shocked. It might be fairer to say that we had seen it coming. It may also be fair to say that what Herzog saw as "a big shift in the wider public's concept of female beauty" was really, by 2007 when Anna Nicole Smith had died, a big shift in the things we were willing to see gorgeous women do. "It's very expensive to be me," she once said. "It's terrible the things I have to do to be me." What was novel was actually watching her do them on-camera. She was not lying. 

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Text Philippa Snow

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