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16 May 2023

How the tabloid media turned on Anna Nicole Smith

Smith’s life, death and now – thanks to a new Netflix documentary – after-life was a spectacle.

By Anna Bogutskaya

Searching for Netflix‘s new documentary about Anna Nicole Smith, three titles appear on the streaming service next to it: Pamela, a Love Story; The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe; and Britney vs Spears. Four tragic blondes.

Smith’s life, death and now – thanks to this documentary – after-life was a spectacle. Model and tabloid star, she built her career on the attention of men, reporters and paparazzi: media forces that turned against her, hounding her and making a mockery of her marriage, her body, her career and her addiction issues. Smith died of an accidental overdose of prescription medication in 2007 aged 39, just a few months after her 20-year old son, Daniel, whom she was besotted with, died of the same. In a haunting piece of archive footage that plays several times in Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me, she tells the paparazzi, “Y’all screwed me over”, while they coo all over her.

Smith was known primarily for her voluptuous figure and her brief marriage to the oil executive J Howard Marshall. When he died at the age of 90, a mere 13 months after their nuptials, she embarked on a years-long legal battle to get the part of his fortune that he allegedly promised her.

This documentary continues the spectacle. Without that many credits to her name (a brief appearance in The Hudsucker Proxy was the highlight of her acting career), the film spends a good portion of its running time trying to understand why people were so drawn to her. Born Vickie Lynn Hogan, she was a natural beauty, surgically enhanced and styled to resemble erstwhile bombshells Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe. Hungry for attention, money and sex, she easily found people who would spoil her: Marshall, whom she met while she was working at a strip club in her native Texas; the Playboy founder Hugh Hefner; and her close female friend and occasional lover, referred to only as “Missy”, who regrets not being there for the last years of Smith’s life. The film is peppered with extracts from Marshall and Smith’s saccharine conversations with each other (“you’re the light of my life”, “my lady fair”). To Marshall, Smith was his “precious package”, but to everyone else, she was a trainwreck: a monster, insatiable, greedy and unforgivable.

While a sub-genre of documentaries reassessing the maligned women of the Noughties is thriving, Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me can barely contain its contempt for its subject matter. The film’s purpose reveals itself towards the end, claiming that Smith borrowed other people’s tragedies to pass off as her own. A revelation, supported by Missy and Smith’s own mother, changes our perception of her from maligned victim to that monstrous trainwreck. When challenged about her lies, Smith supposedly said: “I make more money telling sad stories than I make telling good stories.” Smith gorged herself on attention, money, drugs. She was pure excess, from her silhouette to her life to her greed, and so she must be punished. Publicly and perennially.

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[See also: Pamela Anderson’s fantasy life]

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