When cameras were off, Anna Nicole Smith was still Vicki Lynn, friends say

Before she was an icon, she was a girl from a small town in Texas.

To the world, Anna Nicole Smith was a glamorous, voluptuous blonde Hollywood bombshell. But those who knew her best say she warred privately with the public ridicule about her relationships, prescription drug use and weight.

In an exclusive new interview, the father of her daughter and "20/20" consultant Larry Birkhead, spoke with "20/20" about the other side of Smith that he got to witness.

"When you talk about Anna Nicole and you talk about where she came from ... you talk about the court battles," he said. "In between, there were a lot of happy moments for her. There was a lot of highs before there was a lot of lows."

Watch the full story on "20/20" TONIGHT at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.

As one of her best friends Frankie Rodriguez said, it was as if she were "two people": the siren who married an 89-year-old billionaire and the shy, naive, small-town Texas girl desperately working to support her son and make something of herself.

"There was Vickie Lynn Marshall and Anna Nicole Smith," he told "20/20." "Any kinda camera, you just yelled out her name, 'Anna Nicole.' When she turned around, it was on the spot; you saw Anna Nicole."

"The minute that camera left, it was a whole other person. She was back to Vickie Lynn," he said. "I [am] very fortunate to have met and gotten to know Vickie Lynn… How she did it, I don't know. But whatever she was doing, it was making everybody watch."

Those who truly loved her saw her as she truly was. They remember how she bravely fought to support her family and prove that she loved her husband and deserved a part of his fortune. They saw her private effort to navigate countless medical and legal troubles -- moments in which she showed that Vickie Lynn continued to live on in Anna Nicole Smith.

Smith's life in the hometown she escaped

Smith was born Vickie Lynn Hogan outside of Houston. Her childhood best friend, Jo McLemore, remembered Smith's mother as very stern.

"Vickie's childhood life was tough," McLemore said. "[Her mother] was very... forthright and very strict."

At 15 years old, Smith was sent to live with her aunt in Mexia, Texas, a tiny town of about 7,000 people.

"I remember when I dated Anna Nicole and she'd always talk about Mexia, Texas. She always wanted to get out of there," Birkhead told "20/20."

McLemore remembered that Smith attended Mexia High School, until she dropped out in the 10th grade.

"When she went to school here, in Mexia, she was miserable," McLemore said. "She was having a hard time with being bullied. At that point, I think, after all she'd been through ... just all the struggles in her life, she was finally fed up."

McLemore remembered hanging out with Smith on the side of the local roads.

"There was nothing else to do here," she said, laughing. "There's no movie theaters. I mean there wasn't Starbucks or anything. Basically the main place to eat was Krispy's."

McLemore had been working at Jim's Krispy Fried Chicken. She said Smith would come in every day.

"She'd order a large drink. But she always looked really sad to me," McLemore said. "When she started working here, we immediately hit it off… One of the memories I have of her is, we'd sit here together and stare out the window, and just watch traffic go by."

"She was so perfect to me. Perfect face ... and I would tell her, 'You are so, so pretty,'" McLemore said.

Smith started dating the fry cook at the restaurant, Billy Smith, and before long, they were married, making her Vickie Smith, McLemore said.

"Billy was also a high school dropout," she said. "They were so young. He was 16. She was 17. Smith had her first child, Daniel, at 18."

Smith dances in Houston

By the time Anna Nicole was 19, Billy Smith was out of the picture. In 1986, she brought her infant son to Houston, with no high school degree or work skills to speak of. She worked for a while at a Walmart and Red Lobster, then decided to try a different direction.

To provide for Daniel, who was living with her mother, Smith worked hard as a dancer at a strip club, where she made a name for herself. She began to undergo breast augmentation surgeries to enhance her figure.

In 1991, 86-year-old J. Howard Marshall II, a billionaire from his investment in Koch Industries, came into her club. His wife had passed away and Lady Walker, a flamboyant exotic dancer with whom he had a 10-year relationship, had also died.

"He had no will to live and I went over to see him," Smith said in an interview with "20/20" in 2000. "He got a little twinkle in his eyes and he asked me to dance for him, and I did."

She said Marshall was "really, really funny" and "brilliant."

"Gosh, he had so many stories," she said. "He was just an amazing man. He was just really amazing."

"She would call him her sugar booger and sweetheart and all that," McLemore said. "They needed each other, in more of a sense than people understood, and so, they just took care of each other."

Marshall proposed to Smith but she declined, insisting that she wanted to make her own way. He bought her millions in jewelry, a ranch and horses, a red Mercedes convertible and breast augmentation surgery. He proposed repeatedly, including once at his favorite restaurant, Red Lobster. She continued to say no, saying she wanted to be able to support herself before she remarried.

Smith becomes international star

A friend sent photos of Smith to a scout for Playboy, who hired her for the publication. McLemore didn't believe it at first.

"Around 1992, my uncle called me who lived here and said, '[Smith]… made Playboy,'" she said. "I was like, 'What?' He said, 'She made Playboy.' And I said, 'She did not.' And he said, 'Yes, yes, I promise. Get the magazine.'"

She felt dueling emotions about her friend's success.

"I was kind of weirded out," McLemore said. "I was proud of her, but I was like … she's up here now and I'm down here... I'm a little person now, I think, is what I was feeling.'"

Smith was photographed for Guess jeans ads and became internationally recognized as she started modeling abroad. After numerous Playboy appearances, she was named Playmate of the Year in 1993. She started modeling overseas and was signed with William Morris, one of Hollywood's biggest talent agencies.

She even appeared in the movies "The Hudsucker Proxy" and "Naked Gun 33 ⅓." She later worked with filmmaker Ray Martino in the movie "To the Limit" in 1995, where she played a CIA double agent, and "Skyscraper" in 1996.

Meanwhile, Smith's implants kept her in constant pain, Martino said.

"Her back wasn't strong enough to carry them, and so the doctors started to give her pain medication," he said.

Smith said she was taking prescription drugs for migraines and insomnia.

"I had Vicodin and Xanax. [Those are] prescription drugs that I have to take," she said in 1994. "I mean, I don't consider that hard drugs. It doesn't make me high. I've been taking it for years. It just helps my headaches."

In 1994, she decided to marry Marshall. At the wedding, her son was a ring bearer and Marshall voiced a desire to adopt him.

"It was never about the money, and she loved this man," Martino said. "She would sit close to him with her legs on the couch over him. And he would laugh and they were as happy and communicative with each other as two people could be."

But their marriage -- and their 63-year age difference -- became a punchline across pop culture. After only six months, Marshall fell ill.

"We were in the middle of shooting in Las Vegas and she flew down to be with him," Martino said. "She loved him. Really loved him so much."

J. Howard Marshall was hospitalized and his condition was clearly on the decline. His son Pierce had been given power of attorney and Marshall's caregiver Betty Morgan became his legal guardian.

Then, Anna found herself cut off financially. At one point she was only allowed to see her husband for thirty minutes a visit. The family said that was because of the doctor's instructions, but she was heartbroken.

In 1995, Martino remembered breaking the news of Marshall's death to Smith in New York.

"I said, 'Howard passed away,'" he remembered. "She just bowed her head … and she started crying."

"After my husband passed, it was really, really hard on me," Smith told "20/20" in 2000. "He knew me when I was nobody and that's what people don't understand, and I don't wanna be called a gold digger because I'm not. I could've married him a week after we met, or two weeks after we met. I could've married him years before, and I didn't. I didn't. I went out and I made something of myself."

After her husband's death, Smith finds love again

Marshall's death spurred years of acrimony and court battles between the widow and Marshall's son. First, they went to court debating what to do with his remains. When Marshall was cremated, his ashes were divided between his widow and his son, and they each held separate funerals.

Pierce was the main beneficiary. Smith got nothing in the will, so she sued Pierce in Texas for a share of the estate.

It was a dark time for Smith. She and William Morris had also parted ways and "things weren't going well for her," Martino said.

"Her career was just basically at a standstill," said Frankie Rodriguez, a friend she made around this time. "She wasn't doing anything and she was trying to find her next big thing."

At this point, Smith was getting treatment for substance abuse. She was legally prescribed an array of medicine to address everything from migraines to stomach problems and back pain from implants to seizures.

The media lit into her for her drug use but was also vicious in their attacks about her weight.

"It's hard. I mean, I went through a lot. You know, people, when I gained a lot of weight... people thought I was just like, partying, doing this and that," she said in 2000. "I mean, I'm having seizures, I'm having panic attacks. My husband just died and people think I don't care."

Against the advice of her friends, Smith agreed to star in a reality show that, at the time, had the highest rating ever for E!, the best debut for a cable reality series and the second best debut for an original series on basic cable. By the second season, however, audiences stopped tuning in.

After an onslaught of negative attention, Rodriguez said, "she kind of disappeared… She was out of the spotlight."

Sponsored by weight loss brand TrimSpa, she lost 69 pounds. Rodriguez said it was kind of a renaissance for her.

"She was back. Bigger and larger than life," he said. "She couldn't be more happier at the time."

That was also around the time that she started dating Larry Birkhead.

"The first time that I ever encountered Anna was in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, working at the Kentucky Derby. I was working as a photographer," Birkhead said. "I looked at her and I said, 'There's something about her ... she's just beautiful.' So I talked to her, I interacted with her and we exchanged this kiss."

Rodriguez said she was "really smitten" with Birkhead, who said he felt like he'd seen a different side of Smith when he photographed her at a children's camp charity event.

"I got to kinda witness Anna hanging out with the kids," he said. "It was [a] stripped-down version of this small Texas girl that I really appreciated."

Birkhead said he soon had his bags packed, ready to live at Smith's home. She lived with her son, her assistant and her attorney, Howard K. Stern, who also acted as somewhat of a manager and publicist, Birkhead said.

Before long, Smith became pregnant with her second child. Birkhead said that's when Smith suddenly began to push him away.

"She actually told me that she was pregnant, and that Larry was the father. She loved him," Rodriguez said. "She was very happy with him. I don't know what happened. I don't know how it got to where it got."

Smith whisked away to the Bahamas

Smith and Stern moved to the Bahamas for the last part of her pregnancy.

"Her and I, we've actually had communication when she was in the Bahamas," Rodriguez said. "The conversations would happen in the middle of the night… I don't know if she was doin' it because she didn't want Howard to hear. "

On Sept. 7, 2006, she gave birth to daughter Danielynn, with Stern at her side. Two days later, she was joined in the hospital by her son, Daniel, as she recovered.

Smith woke up where Daniel had fallen asleep next to her, but then realized her son had died.

Though his cause of death was determined to be a drug overdose, the question of where he got one of the drugs is still unanswered.

Daniel actually had a prescription for Lexapro, and he was taking Zoloft because he was anxious about his flight. Smith had been taking methadone for years, but it's not clear if he secretly took it from her.

Martino said Daniel's death devastated Anna Nicole.

"Having the beauty of the birth of a baby and then the loss of your love, your son, in the same bed," he said. "She just started to emotionally, mentally, started to cave in."

Smith's final days

While in the Bahamas, Smith met a local couple, Brigitte Neven and King Eric Gibson, and found some peace going out on their boat.

"We would take people out fishing. Then, one day, a guy came and said why don't you take Anna Nicole fishing?" Neven said. "From then on … she decided to call King Eric 'daddy' and called me 'mummy.' And then, they were just part of the family."

Birkhead said Smith saw Neven as a motherly figure "because she was calming and spiritual."

"She was attracted to families … because she didn't have that," Martino said.

Neven remembers Smith loved being on the boat.

"She was totally different. She was just being free," she said.

Smith loved it so much she looked into buying her own boat. She found one in Florida, and left with Stern and others to pick it up. It would be the last time she saw her baby.

Before she left, Smith was given a shot of human growth hormone and vitamin B12 in her left side, which she had been taking to maintain her weight. But during the flight, her side started to hurt, and by the time she reached the hotel, she was very ill, with a fever of 105 degrees.

Although the people with her urged her to go to the hospital, she refused.

Birkhead said he wasn't surprised she wasn't taken to the hospital.

"She was scared," he said. "The press would find out she was there and turn it into some big headline and she didn't want."

Over the next few days, she was sick and listless. She had a visible infection.

On the morning of Feb. 8, 2007, she could barely stand. Neven remembered Stern had to help her to the bathroom.

Stern left a few hours later to keep the appointment to check out the boat Anna hoped to buy, the reason for the trip to Florida.

"I walked over and I realized there was something wrong with Anna," Neven said. "There was definitely something wrong. She looked like she was sleeping but I saw that she wasn't sleeping. But I realized that she wasn't breathing. There was no chest movement and then it all exploded."

Neven told the wife of Smith's bodyguard to call 911, but instead, she called her husband, who called Stern. As this was happening, the bodyguard's wife tried to resuscitate Smith.

Eventually the bodyguard Maurice Brighthaupt arrived at the hotel and called 911, but 38 minutes had passed. Emergency workers arrived to the scene and tried to revive her.

"I started getting a little bit emotional, and I just started screaming her name," Brighthaupt, said. "I asked her, I said, 'Baby girl, if you've got anything in you, please come back. Dannielynn needs you.' I said, 'Forget it. I need you. We all need you.'"

She was brought to the hospital, where she was declared dead.

Even in death, drama followed Smith. There was an argument about where to bury her, which turned into a legal dispute. Ultimately a judge ruled that Smith should be buried in the Bahamas, next to her son Daniel.

Meanwhile, there was an ongoing legal battle over who fathered Smith's daughter. Stern said he and Smith had a relationship and he was the father. Smith's ex-boyfriend Mark Hatten, who claimed he'd given her frozen sperm, and Prince Frederic von Anhalt, the fourth husband of Zsa Zsa Gabor, also said they might be the father. Eventually, Birkhead's legal team was able to get a sample of the baby's DNA.

Birkhead remembers the moment he was determined to be Danielynn's biological father.

"I'm in this Bahamas courtroom… They opened the envelope, and they said that Larry Birkhead is the father," he said. "I remember putting my head down in my hands and for one moment, I caught myself looking over my shoulder thinking I was turning to Anna like she was gonna be right there."

Birkhead said he picked up Danielynn that day after court.

"She smiled at me and she was laughing," he said.

He said that Stern taught him her routine and how to feed and change her.

"To this day Howard has been supportive, Birkhead said. "Almost [as if] the same loyalty that he had for Anna has now carried over to me and Dannielynn."

"Dannielynn, she has a big heart like her mom had," he said of his now 14-year-old daughter.

Fourteen years after Smith's death, Rodriguez says it "still hurts the same … like it was yesterday. Probably because there's so many unanswered questions."

McLemore said she wishes she could "go back in time" and tell Smith, "I love her very much and I miss her."

"This was a small-town girl who went to the Supreme Court twice, a Playboy Bunny, a Guess model, an actress, that came from the sticks of Mexia in Texas," Birkhead said. "You couldn't make this up, and it happened. She lived it. She lived fast and she lived big… She inspired a lot of people. I think she changed a lot of lives. That's why I think, to this day, there's still a fascination about Anna Nicole, and I think there will be for a long time."

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly detailed the preferences of the parties in the legal dispute over Smith’s burial. This article has also been changed to clarify events related to J. Howard Marshall’s illness, and the litigation after his death.