HOLLYWOOD, Fla. - Anna Nicole Smith, the curvaceous blonde whose life played out as an extraordinary tabloid tale — Playboy centerfold, jeans model, bride of an octogenarian oil tycoon, reality-show subject, tragic mother — died Thursday after collapsing at a hotel. She was 39.
She was stricken while staying at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino and was rushed to a hospital. Edwina Johnson, chief investigator for the Broward County Medical Examiner's Office, said the cause of death was under investigation and an autopsy would be done on Friday.
Just five months ago, Smith's 20-year-old son, Daniel, died suddenly in the Bahamas in what was believed to be a drug-related death.
Seminole Police Chief Charlie Tiger said a private nurse called 911 after finding Smith unresponsive in her sixth-floor room at the hotel, which is on an Indian reservation. He said Smith's bodyguard administered CPR, but she was declared dead at a hospital. Later Thursday, two sheriff's deputies carried out at least eight brown paper bags sealed with red evidence tape from Smith's hotel room.
Dr. Joshua Perper, the chief Broward County medical examiner who will perform the autopsy, said if her death was from natural causes, the findings would likely be announced quickly. He cautioned, however, that definitive results could take weeks.
"I am not a prophet, and I cannot tell you before the autopsy what I am going to find," he said.
Through the '90s and into the new century, Smith was famous for being famous, a pop-culture punchline because of her up-and-down weight, her Marilyn Monroe looks, her exaggerated curves, her little-girl voice, her ditzy-blonde persona, and her over-the-top revealing outfits.
Recently, she lost a reported 69 pounds and became a spokeswoman for TrimSpa, a weight-loss supplement. On her reality show and other recent TV appearances, her speech was often slurred and she seemed out of it. Some critics said she seemed drugged-out.
"Undoubtedly it will be found at the end of the day that drugs featured in her death as they did in the death of poor Daniel," said a former attorney for Smith in the Bahamas, Michael Scott.
Another former Smith attorney, Lenard Leeds, told the celebrity gossip Web site TMZ that Smith "always had problems with her weight going up and down, and there's no question she used alcohol." Leeds said it was no secret that "she had a very troubled life" and had "so many, many problems."
Smith attorney Ron Rale told The Associated Press that he had talked to her on Tuesday or Wednesday, and she had flu symptoms and a fever and was still grieving over her son. He dismissed claims her death was related to drugs as "a bunch of nonsense."
"Poor Anna Nicole," he said. "She's been the underdog. She's been besieged ... and she's been trying her best and nobody should have to endure what she's endured."
The Texas-born Smith was a topless dancer at a strip club before she entered her photos in a search contest and made the cover of Playboy magazine in 1992. She became Playboy's playmate of the year in 1993. She was also signed to a contract with Guess jeans, appearing in TV commercials, billboards and magazine ads.
In 1994, she married 89-year-old oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II, owner of Great Northern Oil Co. In 1992, Forbes magazine estimated his wealth at $550 million.
In a 2005 interview with ABC, Smith recalled meeting Marshall at what she called a "gentleman's club" in Houston. "He had no will to live and I went over to see him," she said. "He got a little twinkle in his eyes, and he asked me to dance for him. And I did."
Marshall died in 1995 at age 90, setting off a feud with Smith's former stepson, E. Pierce Marshall, over his estate. A federal court in California awarded Smith $474 million. That was later overturned. But in May, the U.S. Supreme Court revived her case, ruling that she deserved another day in court.
The stepson died June 20 at age 67. But the family said the court fight would continue.
Smith starred in her own reality TV series, "The Anna Nicole Show," in 2002-04. Cameras followed her around as she sparred with her lawyer, hung out with her personal assistant and interior decorator, and cooed at her poodle, Sugar Pie. She also appeared in movies, performing a bit part in "The Hudsucker Proxy" in 1994.
In a statement, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner said: "I am very saddened to learn about Anna Nicole's passing. She was a dear friend who meant a great deal to the Playboy family and to me personally."
Smith's son died Sept. 10 in his mother's hospital room in the Bahamas, just days after she gave birth to a daughter.
An American medical examiner hired by the family, Cyril Wecht, said he died accidentally of a combination of methadone and two antidepressants. Last month, a Bahamas magistrate scheduled a formal inquiry into the death for March 27.
Meanwhile, the paternity of Smith's now 5-month-old daughter remained a matter of dispute. The birth certificate lists Dannielynn's father as attorney Howard K. Stern, Smith's most recent companion. Smith's ex-boyfriend Larry Birkhead was waging a legal challenge, saying he was the father. An emergency hearing in the paternity case was scheduled for Friday in Los Angeles.
Lawyers were expected to discuss an emergency motion filed by Birkhead's attorney seeking DNA from Smith's body. The reasons for the motion were not immediately clear, but an attorney for Stern, James T. Neavitt, was frustrated.
"There's no question about her being the mother," he said. "So what's the purpose of the DNA testing? Why do they need her DNA?"
Debra Opri, the attorney who filed Birkhead's paternity suit, said only that doctors told her to get a DNA sample, declining to elaborate.
She said Birkhead was devastated. "He is inconsolable, and we are taking steps now to protect the DNA testing of the child. The child is our No. 1 priority," she said.
The legal complications of Smith's estate could take years to unravel, an expert said. Christopher Cline of the law firm Holland and Knight, who is an estate planning specialist, said he has never seen a case "with more moving parts."
Outstanding questions include not only the paternity of her daughter, but if she died with a will and how her death will affect the lawsuit pending against the Marshall estate. It also wasn't clear where she legally lived when she died.
"It's a really large legal quagmire," Cline said.
Smith was born Vickie Lynn Hogan on Nov. 28, 1967, in Houston, one of six children. Her parents split up when she was a toddler, and she was raised by her mother, a deputy sheriff.
She dropped out after 11th grade after she was expelled for fighting, and worked as a waitress and then a cook at Jim's Krispy Fried Chicken restaurant in Mexia.
She married 16-year-old fry cook Bill Smith in 1985, giving birth to Daniel before divorcing two years later.
Scant hours after news emerged of her death Thursday at age 39, many people were hard pressed to describe what exactly Anna Nicole Smith was. Actress? Model? Reality star? Rich widow? "I don't know exactly what she did," said talk show host Joy Behar, hearing the news over the phone. And yet, trying to put her finger on why we watched this strange woman over the years, she came up with two things: Dysfunction. And beauty.
"No question, she was beautiful," said Behar, of ABC's "The View." "We know people like to watch dysfunction. But beauty gives you something extra to look at. Dysfunction and beauty: Now that's something to watch."
How was she dysfunctional? Really, how wasn't she? Her strange life seemed to veer from one outsized struggle to another. She struggled famously with her weight and with her family. She sometimes even struggled to speak without slurring. She had a TV show that could be so embarrassing you'd want to watch it with dark sunglasses on. Much more tragically, she lost her 20-year-old son. Five months ago she had a baby daughter and now two men claim to be the father.
In other words, she was a perfect pop culture icon. By contrast, another famous creature of Internet celebrity, the chic-er, more sophisticated and chillier Paris Hilton, has much less to fascinate us, grainy sex video notwithstanding. It's hard to feel sorry for her.
"With Anna Nicole, she was pathetic but at the same time you thought, 'Gosh, if I could just scoop you up and fix things, it would be OK,'" said Jerry Herron, a professor of American culture at Wayne State University. "You wouldn't want to scoop up Paris Hilton.'"
"Anna Nicole was," Herron noted, "in both her actions and her physical being, such an over-exaggerated version of what we both lust for and loathe in our society. Bombshell blonde? Family feuds? Lots and lots of money? Weight troubles? Obscene self-revelations on TV? She had it all."
The compelling mix of beauty and vulnerability is just one quality that has led to comparisons with Marilyn Monroe, another sexy, tragic blonde who Smith liked to compare herself to. The comparison is tempting, but the difference is monumental.
"Marilyn Monroe was an artist, a real performer, able to evoke in audiences a real empathy and a passion," said Richard Walter, a film professor at UCLA. "There is NO comparison." And yet he sees one strong point in common: the simple beginnings, the climb from total obscurity to fame.
"She came from humble origins and achieved celebrity and wealth, one way or another," Walter said. "And that is an American story."
For celebrity editor Janice Min of US Weekly, it's the element of perseverance that stands out in Smith's tale, which she sees as "almost this perverse Hollywood Horatio Alger story."
"She fought against so many obstacles — poverty. Teen pregnancy. A bad home life." And of course, ridicule. "But she persisted, where others would have shrunk away out of humiliation and shame."
It might have made her look pathetic. But it also made it exceedingly hard to look away.
Miss Cast Away
"N.Y.U.K" (2000) TV Series
To the Limit (1995)
Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994)
Hudsucker Proxy, The (1994)
Birthname: Vickie Lynn Hogan
Height: 5' 11"
Born: 28 November 1967, Houston, Texas
J. Howard Marshall (27 June 1994 - 4 August 1995) (his death)
Billy Smith (1985 - 1987) (divorced) 1 child
Met her husband when she was a topless dancer in Houston in 1991
Crowned Miss Republic of Cuervo Gold, a title she retained for one year. She was one of 8 contestants, but won because "her party spirit won out." [28 April 1998]
Playboy Playmate of the Month May 1992
Playboy Playmate of the Year 1993
She began modeling at 20.
She likes lying in bed, watching TV and shopping.
Married J. Howard Marshall when she was 26; he was nearly 90
Former Guess? jeans model.
Fought her former stepson, E. Pierce Marshall, in court since November 1999 for half of her late husband's $1.6 billion estate. In Sept., 2000, LA bankruptcy judge awarded Anna $449,754,134 from husband's estate. But in July 2001, Houston judge Mike Wood vacated that award and ordered her to pay over $1 million in fees and expenses to stepson E. Pierce Marshall's team. Finally, in March, 2002, was awarded $88 million from the estate of her late husband (but was denied claim that she was also owed interest on that money.)
Her daily life will be televised on E! network's new "The Anna Nicole Smith Show," set to debut in August, 2002.
Measurements: 36A-25-37 (dancer in Texas 1988), 42DD-26-38 (after implants early 1990s), 39DD-27-39 (1993 Playmate of the Year), 39D-27-39 (slimmed down after rehab & dieting). (Source: Celebrity Sleuth magazine)
She's the biggest (tallest, heaviest, biggest measurements) Playmate of the Year. Though India Allen (1988) and Julie Ciali (1995) were also 5' 11" tall.
Her Playmate data sheet for May 1992 gives her measurements at 36DD-26-38 with a weight of 140 lbs. When she became Playmate of the year, her weight was reported at 155 lbs. Her weight reached a peak of 224 lbs in 1996, but she managed to slim down to a reported 138 lbs in 1997. She has gained weight since, and is close to her peak weight now in 2002.
2004 - Having lost a reported 80 lbs, she is back down to her 1990s modeling weight
Worked in a fried chicken restaurant, married one of the cooks, according to Playboy Playmate of the Year interview.
After her first pictorial in Playboy went into print, Guess Jean designer (Ralph Maciano) was so intrigued by the look, he contacted Playboy to find "who is this girl"? He then signed her as the Guess jean model on the spot, no question asked.