Stephen King considers the story of Anna Nicole Smith, the little girl who became a princess — but, like too many before her, fell prey to the contemporary equivalent of the Big Bad Wolf
Here’s a fairy tale for you. It’s a good one; everybody knows it and loves it. It’s from the Book of American Fame and Celebrity. Ready, kids? Once upon a time, in a dusty little Texas town called Mexia, there lived a poor (but pretty) little girl named Anna Nicole Smith. She worked at Jim’s Krispy Fried Chicken to add her bit to the family finances, but she harbored bigger dreams. The walls of her bedroom were covered with posters of Marilyn Monroe. Her heart burned with the desire to be a star. And you know what? Partly because of her beauty and mostly because of good ol’ hard work, her American dream came true! Yes! She went to parties in a mansion, had her picture taken for a magazine filled with pretty girls, became a famous model (for which brand name? guess), married a rich and handsome prince, even got her own network TV show. And, of course, she lived happily ever after!
That’s the fairy tale. Only like all of them, it’s ridiculously off target. As most of us know by now — because on TV, especially basic cable, it was All Anna, All the Time in the 48 hours following her death — Ms. Smith was actually Vickie Lynn Hogan (the sort of name that seems reserved exclusively for high school girls dreaming of the big time). The guy who signed her up to model jeans hung Anna Nicole on her. She did most of her growing up middle-class, in Houston. The mansion and the magazine belonged to Hugh Hefner, who realized that middle-class — and middle-aged — American males, especially in the 1950s and ’60s, could not get enough T&A. Her prince was an 89-year-old billionaire who bore an uncomfortable resemblance to Tobin Bell, who plays the madman in the Saw movies. And the network TV show? It was on E!, which exists in that high-cable weed patch where strange plants flourish for a bit, then die. The Anna Nicole Show debuted to strong ratings (for basic cable, at least), but they soon tailed off.
And there was no happily ever after — except for the celebrity mags, tabloids, and cable-TV franchises that subsist on gossip and feast on death. Those guys had a ball, and the party will continue in the weeks ahead.
As I said, this is a fairy tale we all know, and this seems to be the ending we most…like? No, I won’t believe that, I refuse to believe we actually like such endings, but it is the one we most readily understand. Maybe there’s a part of us that thinks famous people, especially the pretty ones, are like Icarus with his wax and feather wings: doomed to fly too close to the sun and go tumbling down. And maybe, in our secret hearts, we think they deserve to go tumbling down.
America’s celebrity factory seems especially dangerous for women. Take Smith’s mythic American forebears: Jean Harlow, dead at 26 (uremia, with alcohol as a contributing factor); Jayne Mansfield, at 34 (killed in a car accident while hustling to a TV interview); Marilyn Monroe, at 36 (barbiturate sleeping pills). Once you’ve noted those, however, the floodgates open and the names of female celebrities — some talented, some not, all dead too young — come rushing to mind. Sure, you can think of guys who died of being famous (Freddie Prinze, John Belushi, and River Phoenix, to name just three), but after the death of Ms. Smith, it was the women I found myself remembering: Bridgette Andersen of drugs at 21; Rebecca Schaeffer, shot by a stalker at 21; Tejano singer Selena, shot by the ex-head of her fan club at 23. There are many more, but the American fame machine’s most perfect example may be Karen Carpenter, who was much more talented than Smith, if not so pretty. Carpenter died at 32. Of anorexia, the American girl’s fairy-tale disease.
Carpenter starved herself to death. Smith fought a grim, public battle with weight and depression in the final years of her life, and may have abused certain prescription drugs — only time and expert medical opinions will tell for sure. Women like Karen Carpenter and Anna Nicole Smith have to go out in public and look their best, because the photographers are always there. For women in their position, looking your best means not being fat. And always smiling. No waistline? No smile? Here’s your pink slip, good luck.
The talented and beautiful are the special ones — or so they are told. They are ushered into a room where a great banquet has been laid. It’s all for you, these folks are told. Eat anything you want. Drinks are on the house. It’s your happily ever after. Of course, the price one pays — especially female ones, it seems to me — is the objectification of your body and the almost total sacrifice of your private self. It’s a great banquet, all right, but all too often the famous person discovers that he or she is for dessert. On Entertainment Tonight. On E!, where Anna Nicole so briefly flourished. In People. In our very own Entertainment Weekly, where she’s pictured on the cover. Next year it’ll be someone else. The fame machine runs pretty well, but — like the Mayan gods in Apocalypto — every now and then it seems to need a sacrifice.
Story time’s over, kids. You’ve all been good! So go ahead. Eat your dessert.