Larry Birkhead's Story

ByABC News
December 7, 2006, 1:23 AM

Dec. 8, 2006— -- 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.