Anna Nicole Smith's Decade of Life After Death - Rolling Stone
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Anna Nicole Smith’s Decade of Life After Death

From exploitative documentaries to a hit opera and lots of drag queens, a look at the ultimate gold-digger’s legacy

At five years old, Anna Nicole Smith was obsessed with Marilyn Monroe. But instead of telling her parents she wanted to be like the famous bombshell, she said she wished to be her. And at the age of 39, Smith got that wish. Ten years ago today, the mother, model, reality star and figure of constant, often-perverse fascination, died of a prescription drug overdose.

Smith – born in Texas as Vickie Lynn Hogan – began turning heads in the early 1990s, first as the March 1992 Playboy cover girl and later with a series of now-iconic Guess ads that featured her vamping just like her sister-in-tragedy, Norma Jean herself. Smith landed bit parts in films like A Hudsucker Proxy and one Naked Gun sequel, and made herself a household name when she took the son of her late husband – oil billionaire J. Howard Marshall II – to court, claiming that she hadn't married the man six decades her senior for his money. 

Yet Smith's true legacy lies in the fact that she was one of the first reality television powerhouses. Through her reality sitcom The Anna Nicole Smith Show, which featured her going to the dentist and participating in eating contests, she turned D-list celebrity status into A-list television. When Smith appeared on awards shows, like when she introduced Kanye West at the 2004 American Music Awards, she hammed it up with salacious, radically unselfconscious – albeit entirely intoxicated – asides. Couple that with her bad movies and talk show appearances, and Smith's fame dominated the sphere of tabloid culture, paving the way for everyone from Paris Hilton to Kim Kardashian. While she's been gone for a decade, she continues to live on past the grave through film tributes, lookalikes and even an opera. Here's a timeline of how her legacy has unfolded over the past 10 years. 

Lee Celano/

February 2007

Smith had barely been laid to rest when impersonators started cropping up at the likes of Busch Gardens, where impersonator Dawnn Behrens did a musical medley the same month she passed on. The trend wasn't entirely new – Smith was a favorite among tribute artists, and in 2005, Jeanine Garrity, a dental-hygienist-turned-professional-Smith-impersonator, had even appeared on What Not to Wear. But the network of Smith impersonators sprung into full force following her death, and dead-ringers and expertly-clad drag queens from suburban Texas to California started cashing in on playing Smith at corporate events, birthday parties and even as paid marchers in the 2013 New York City Gay Pride Parade.

August 2007

The first of several made-for-TV Smith biopics, Keoni Waxman's The Anna Nicole Smith Story, was ushered into production six months after her death. In this tribute, Smith is played by fellow reality star Willa Ford, who's perhaps best known for scoring minor hit in 2001 with her pop single "I Wanna Be Bad." In the flat tribute, Ford embodies Smith both in life – and, oddly, beyond it. Immediately following her death in the film, Ford becomes a Smith specter that breaks the fourth wall, speaking to viewers while her physical self is being wheeled out on a gurney.

Alan Oke as J.Howard Marshall II and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole with artists of the company in the Royal Opera's production of Mark-Anthony Turnage's 'Anna Nicole' directed by Richard Jones and conducted by Antonio Pappano at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London.

Robbie Jack/Corbis/Getty

February 2011

Shortly after Smith's death, an English classical composer named Mark-Anthony Turnage was approached by London's Royal Opera to write a piece of his own. He thought the late Smith's sordid life and times, and particularly how the concept of celebrity could be translated into the melodramatic medium, would translate well to the stage. "Finding subjects is always difficult, but her life was undoubtedly very operatic," he told The Guardian in 2011, the same year Anna Nicole opened in London to fantastic reviews. Later, it was nominated for Laurence Olivier Award. Fun fact: The opera's libretto was done by Richard Thomas, the co-creator of another little piece that took reality TV to the stage: Jerry Springer: the Opera.                                

November 2012 – Part One

In 2007, Smith starred in her final film, a campy science fiction spoof called Illegal Aliens. Following her death five years later, the film's director, David Giancola, decided to release a film chronicling the making of Aliens, featuring behind-the-scenes footage Giancola had gathered specifically to document her drug-addled state – something even Gawker called out as exploitative. The result, Addicted to Fame, is a bizarre, schlocky documentary of Smith's ongoing woes. As the Hollywood Reporter put it, "Mocking this stuff is so redundant it's cruel."

November 2012 – Part Two

Smith's then-six-year-old daughter, Dannielynn, models in a series of Guess ads in an homage to her late mother's iconic black-and-white ads for the denim company in the 1990s. There’s aren't a ton of similarities between the two campaigns, save for the fact that the mother and daughter look eerily and forlornly into the distance in their respective photos.

Agnes Bruckner

Agnes Bruckner

Everett Collection

June 2013

In the summer of 2013, Smith's life got the Lifetime treatment in Anna Nicole – directed by American Psycho's Mary Harron, no less. Based on an extensive 2011 New York magazine profile of Smith and her late husband's legal woes, the film presents Anna as a well intentioned, albeit doomed star. "Ultimately though, after the final cavalcade of tragedies, the whole thing feels unsatisfying," wrote the Hollywood Reporter. "Then again, that in and of itself may be most accurate of all the statements regarding Smith's life and legacy."                                   

Sarah Joy Miller, left, and Robert Brubaker in the opera "Anna Nicole" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, Sept. 15, 2013.

Sara Krulwich/Redux

September 2013

Anna Nicole, the same opera that was a hit in London, opened the season at the financially flailing New York Opera to, um, mixed reviews. Vice called it "a piece of terrible garbage," while the New York Times loved it, touting it, in all seriousness, as "a production that should not be missed." No matter their expectations, people came out in droves. Time noted in its review that "ironically, turnout, including a few sold out shows, confirms a robust appetite for the Anna Nicole Smith story more than six year after her death."

April 2016

Last year, comedian Margaret Cho released a tongue-in-cheek tribute video dedicated to her late friend. In it, Cho arrives at a mansion for a celebration of Smith's life and spirit, and finds that it's chock-full of Smith lookalikes drinking, swimming in the pool and, of course, popping pills together. On her site, Cho said the piece was "a requiem for Anna Nicole Smith that is as beautiful and quirky as she was. It's my version of ‘Candle in the Wind,’ and about the archetype of someone who is too good for this world that exists in all of us." 

Anna Nicole Smith

February 2017

Last week, Inside Edition aired a special episode in anticipation of the 10-year anniversary of Smith's death, featuring her daughter, Dannielynn Birkhead. She's now 10 herself, and from the looks of it, seems to share Smith's same goofy spirit. In the segment, the camera crew goes inside the Kentucky home where she lives with her father, Larry Birkhead, a photographer. And while Smith may not be there in person, she's everywhere in spirit, from a shimmering evening dress of hers on display in the hall to a poignant self-portrait she painted for her daughter, of herself pregnant with Dannielynn. More than anything, the segment is a reminder that Smith, while she led a sordid life, was savagely sweet, funny, and leaves behind a family and fans who wish she was still around to make them laugh one more time.                                

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