Must-See Tragedy TV: The Anna Nicole Smith Story

ByABC News
February 9, 2007, 5:05 PM

Feb. 9, 2007 — -- Boxing promoter Don King announces a press conference to reminisce about Anna Nicole Smith.

Zsa-Zsa Gabor's 59-year-old husband, Prince Frederic von Anhalt, proclaims he's the father of her 5-month-old daughter, Dannielynn Hope Marshall Stern.

A February 2002 issue of Playboy that Smith autographed is going for $575 on eBay, and a graphic video of emergency medical technicians trying to save her life sells for $500,000.

Welcome to the Anna Nicole Smith feeding frenzy -- live on a TV, newspaper, magazine or Web site near you.

When news broke Thursday afternoon about the 39-year-olds sudden death at a Florida hospital, the mania exploded and just kept building.

Wherever you looked, news was interrupted for wall-to-wall coverage of the tragedy. There was Anna -- vamping on the cover of Playboy, stumbling down the red carpet, grieving over her son's tragic death last summer, playing with her newborn daughter, entering the U.S. Supreme Court, goofing on her reality show.

"I don't think I've heard such breathless reporting since Katrina -- 'Maybe she had a heart murmur,' 'What's going to happen to the child?'" said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "This turned into something out of control. It's as if editors on the desk at news networks were thinking 'If we don't have it, viewers will switch to MSNBC.'"

Some observers questioned the news value of the coverage. "I was at the gym yesterday afternoon as CNN flashed their "Breaking News" of Anna Nicole, and I had this moment of "And this is news how?" said Amanda Lotz, a professor of media studies at the University of Michigan. "We've become increasingly accustomed to this blurring between what makes up real news and what would have ended up on "ET.""

Why are we all obsessed with the tragic death of Anna Nicole Smith?

Much of the fascination can be attributed to the car-wreck phenomenon, said scholars.

"Part of you doesn't want to look, part of you wants to look, part of you is ashamed about looking," said Robert Kubey, director of the Center for Media Studies at Rutgers University. "And it's a big mystery. Plus, it's not part of the Iraq War, so it's escapism."

Smith gained some notoriety from being a Playboy model in the early 1990s, but it's the roller-coaster ride that her life has taken since then that's made her a sensation and contributed to enhancing her fame and our interest in her life and death.

"Her death turned out to have been her greatest creation," explained Thompson. "People keep saying she was famous for being famous. But that's meaningless. She was beautiful, she became a centerfold and she married a really, really rich old guy. That gave her some attention."

"But once she was in the spotlight, we found it interesting -- she acted strange, she got that reality show," he said.

Mix in a bit of pathos, and her celebrity soon became legend. In the last few years, her dramatic struggles with her weight, the death of her 20-year-old son last summer, and rumors about her abuse of prescription drugs all added to the myth of the poor-girl-turned-stripper who became a star.

"It's hard to tell how much of that is genuine audience interest or how much is generated by publicists who are very savvy at spinning a rags-to-riches tale," said Lotz. "As an onlooker, it's difficult to tell what's intentional and what was manipulated."

Certainly, Smith was known for self-mythologizing, creating her own legend and spinning the tale of her humble roots.

Though she was born to a middle-class family in Houston, Smith always talked about how she was from the dirt-poor town of Mexia, where she lived sporadically with her aunt.

'Well, she didn't' come from a small town, as she said she did," her mother, Virgie Arthur, told "Good Morning America" this morning. "I asked her, 'You were born in Houston, middle-class family. Why do you tell that story?'"

Smith said that a "rags to riches" story was much more interesting to the media, said Arthur. She remembered her daughter's savvy sense of publicity, telling her once, "If my name is out there in the news, good or bad, it doesn't matter good or bad, I make money so I'm going to do whatever it takes."

But it wasn't just any fame and fortune that Smith desired. As a skinny, flat-chested brown-haired teenager named Vickie Lynn Hogan who toiled at Jim's Krispy Fried Chicken, she dreamed about transforming herself into Marilyn Monroe. Her bedroom walls were decorated with posters of the screen legend.

Soon enough, she was coloring her hair and getting breast-enlargement surgery to turn herself into a voluptuous blond beauty. When Guess executive Paul Marciano gave her a modeling contract, he threw out her birth name and dubbed her Anna Nicole Smith.

"She wanted to be the next Marilyn Monroe," said Eric Redding, her first manager. "She would walk around singing Marilyn Monroe songs, she dressed like her and had her photographs all over the house."