From the time she burst onto the celebrity scene, Anna Nicole Smith's unlikely rise to stardom has taken on a life of its own. Now the story has taken a surprising -- and tragic -- turn with the death of her 20-year-old son and a custody battle over her new baby.
Most people first noticed Smith when she married Texas billionaire J. Howard Marshall. He was 86 years old and she was only 26.
Soon after, Smith was everywhere. And after Marshall died in 1995, her reputation as America's most famous alleged gold digger seemed secure.
A California court awarded her $450 million from her late husband's estate, but Marshall's son Brian appealed in Texas and won.
The feisty blonde continued to fight for the fortune, taking her battle to the U.S. Supreme Court. And as if her life couldn't get stranger, Smith was becoming a star in her own reality TV show, aptly called "The Anna Nicole Show."
A promotion deal with the TrimSpa diet plan helped Smith drop 69 pounds -- and establish a new image. Then, last summer, another saga in Anna Nicole Smith's life would capture worldwide attention.
Last September, Smith gave birth to a baby girl. But tragedy struck three days later when Daniel, her 20-year-old son, died in her hospital room.
The birth and death sparked a tabloid frenzy -- and a controversy over who fathered Smith's baby. Photographer Larry Birkhead, 33, insisted he was the dad, though Anna Nicole Smith denied it. Birkhead told "20/20's" Deborah Roberts that he fell for the flamboyant beauty while photographing her at a camp for HIV-positive children in the summer of 2004.
"I got to see a different side of her," he said. "She was totally stripped down of all of her makeup … hair in a ponytail, working with the kids. I was impressed that she was actually doing this nice gesture for these people. And she stayed [for] eight days with the kids."
Birkhead said that Smith invited him to her home to work on a photo calendar she hoped to release. And before long, the photographer was falling in love with his subject.
"I know I looked up one day and I was like, 'I've been here a month,' and then one month turned into two months, and then I basically had moved in," he said.
When asked if he thought Smith loved him, Birkhead said, "I think she did. But I think there's so much outside interference with her world that she doesn't sometimes know how to show it. And sometimes she can't show it."
Most of the interference, Birkhead said, come from Howard K. Stern, Anna Nicole Smith's longtime attorney and spokesman. However, Birkhead said that he and Smith talked about building a future together, and having children.
"She constantly would bring out these ovulation kits and [say] 'Tonight's the night… Today's the day,'" he said.
When Birkhead took Smith to South Carolina to meet his family and friends in the summer of 2005, he introduced her to real estate developer Ben Thompson -- yet another wealthy, older man who took an interest in her.
Birkhead said that Smith assured her that the two were just friends. But he said he found out later that "she had Mr. Thompson pick her up in his jet and they flew her down to South Carolina for the holidays … and I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas by myself."
By New Year's, Smith was back in Los Angeles, and she and Birkhead kissed and made up. But within months, they were arguing again, and Birkhead was ready to end their relationship.