Anna Nicole's Tabloid Odyssey

Anna Nicole Smith, born Vickie Lynn Hogan, said she wanted to be Marilyn Monroe. She became instead a kind of bombshell circus freak, a star in the lewd carnival of American pop culture. Smith always seemed to be spilling out of her dress in front of a camera, or coming and going from a court of law, or both. Her apogee, or nadir, may have come last May, when, dressed in body-clinging black, she sashayed past the paparazzi up the marble steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to pursue her right to claim half the fortune of a billionaire husband she had married when she was 26 and he was 89. There was grittiness and pathos in her pursuit of celebrity; she was an underdog some cheered for. But her death last week of unexplained causes seemed more tawdry than sad. Her psyche did not appear all that complicated. In her guileless way, she explained that she loved photographers because they gave her the attention she had missed as a child. More interesting and revealing is the way the tabloid world created her, exploited her and is now burying her.

Her father left her mother when she was an infant. At 17, she married the 16-year-old cook at a fried-chicken restaurant where she was waitressing in Mexia, Texas, and soon divorced him. She left their baby boy with her mother and went to Houston to make her way as an exotic dancer in a topless bar. Stage-named "Sweet Cheeks," she was initially put on the afternoon shift because she was a little on the zaftig side. But she made a series of important career choices. She got breast implants, sent her photos to Playboy and began flirting with J. Howard Marshall II, an octogenarian who--only in America--had taught trusts and estates at Yale Law School, made hundreds of millions in oil and lost his mistress when she died in plastic surgery. (In a 2002 federal court deposition, Smith said that the tycoon first noticed her while she was dancing topless; he tried, she testified, to grab her breasts.) In 1993 Smith was named Playmate of the Year; in 1994 she married Marshall. At the wedding, according to People magazine, she bent down to her wheelchair-bound new husband and whispered, "Bye darling, I'm off to Greece."

Like a tabloid-age Helen, she could launch a thousand ships: paparazzi on motorcycles, lawyers with subpoenas, schlock movie and reality TV producers with an eye for the truly tasteless. She played a ditzy, breathy, Jayne Mansfield type in forgettable movies like "Naked Gun 33 1/3" and "The Hudsucker Proxy." She squeezed herself into Guess? jeans for a lucrative modeling contract. And she staged a memorable funeral for her husband, with whom she had never lived, when he died after 14 months of marriage. The casket was decorated with teddy bears; the widow wore her white wedding veil and a plunging white gown.

Then the party ended, at least for a while. She became locked in a still unresolved lawsuit with Marshall's son, E. Pierce Marshall, over the billion-dollar estate. (In one of several rulings, a federal judge wrote that Smith's "illiteracy is striking.") While the case rattled up and down through the courts, Smith declared bankruptcy.

New York Magazine published a cover photo of Smith, squatting and eating Cheez Doodles, under the headline WHITE TRASH NATION. (She promptly sued for defamation; the case was dismissed.) Her weight ballooned and she began drinking heavily and taking drugs. She went through six operations for botched breast implants. "People made fun of her because she was overweight, couldn't find work," says David Dadon, a longtime film producer and chairman of Global Entertainment, who told NEWSWEEK that he had taken Smith "to her first restaurant in Los Angeles" when she arrived in town in 1992. "Everyone said she was a bimbo and this made her increasingly depressed. She never had any real friends."

Still, grotesquerie can be profitable. In 1997 an E! Entertainment Television network "True Hollywood Story" on Smith drew a surprisingly large audience. In 2002, E! Entertainment commissioned a "reality" show built around Smith's daily comings and goings. The plot line seemed to center around her squabbling with a flamboyant interior decorator, Bobby Trendy, and lamenting the alleged lack of sex in her life. The running gag was feeding Prozac to her yappy dog, a miniature poodle named Sugar Pie, and trying to stop him from humping the furniture. The show's tagline was "It's not meant to be funny. It just is." Smith's self-assessment: "I was like, 'Oh, my God, I look stoned out of my mind'."

After two years of critical mockery and ebbing ratings, E! Entertainment canceled the show. Smith became a spokesperson for a diet drug called TrimSpa, started a column for the National Enquirer and continued to make scenes. Presenting an American Music Award to Kanye West in 2004, she slurred her words and appeared drugged. In 2005 she showed up, minimally dressed, backstage at a Live 8 concert in Philadelphia. While Will Smith began a speech about starving children in Africa, Smith shimmied her silicone breasts for the cameras.

She could, at times, appear almost innocent. She told the tabs that she hated make-up ("it feels like dirt on me"), avoided exercise ("you sweat and get all nasty") and disliked posing nude ("I wouldn't open my legs or nothing. I never used to even let my boyfriend have on the lights"). She longed to have a baby girl and, last September, she gave birth to one, named Dannielynn.

Smith had always doted on her son by her first marriage, Daniel, said to be a sweet, polite boy who liked Mortal Kombat videogames and Japanese animé. Two days after Smith gave birth, Daniel, then 20, came to visit his mother and stepsister in the hospital. That night, he slept in the next bed. Howard K. Stern, Smith's lawyer and confidant, dozed in an easy chair. After 9 a.m., Smith awakened to discover that her son had stopped breathing. A medical expert hired by the family later determined that Daniel died from mixing large doses of methadone with two anti-anxiety medicines.

Less than three weeks later, Smith and Stern shoved off from the Bahamas in a 41-foot catamaran, the Margaritaville, to exchange vows in a non-legally-binding "commitment" service. After the ceremony, Smith wanted to jump in the water, but others worried about the sharks nearby so the party sailed to safer waters, where Smith and Stern, fully clothed, leaped in for the cameras. On "Larry King Live" the happy couple announced that Stern was Dannielynn's father, but a few days later a photographer and ex-boyfriend, Larry Birkhead, filed a paternity suit. ("I can't trust anyone. I get sued all the time," Smith told King.) According to his lawyer, Birkhead was concerned that Smith had been using drugs during the pregnancy.

Smith was reportedly suffering from "flulike symptoms" when she checked into the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel on Monday, Feb. 5. She had often come to the Indian reservation gambling resort in Florida, the last time to watch a boxing match between James (Lights Out) Toney versus Samuel (The Nigerian Nightmare) Peter in early January. On Thursday afternoon she was discovered alone, unconscious, in her hotel room by her personal nurse. Her bodyguard's efforts to revive her with CPR were unavailing, and she was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Instantly, the cable news coverage was wall to wall: television screens filled with old film clips and photos of Smith jiggling, pouting and filing suit; sober-sided legal and medical analysis; pop psychology ad infinitum. A new entry emerged in the paternity sweepstakes: Zsa Zsa Gabor's husband, Prince Frédéric von Anhalt, who claimed a 10-year affair with Smith. A patient but besieged local medical examiner, Dr. Joshua Perper, emerged on Friday afternoon to say there was no evidence of a violent crime, but that the cause of death was still a "medical mystery," with natural causes, an overdose or a combination of the two lingering as possibilities.

No one seemed to know what would happen in the endless and unresolved suit over the Marshall millions. Or what might become of Smith's infant daughter while the adults fight over the money. Her mother will be remembered, but not in the way she once dreamed.