ANYONE who arrived from Mars and was astonished at the fuss over Anna Nicole Smith would do well to watch just one clip: her appearance at the 2004 American Music Awards.
Prancing on stage in a tight-fitting black gown that showcased her cleavage - which was, as all else about her, larger than life - she grabbed your attention. Her looks were outlandish, but there was beauty beneath the excess.
And then she spoke. "Like my body?" she asked, tracing her fingers over her breasts. Her slurred words spilled out dangerously. She was clearly very high on something, and you wondered if she would survive, literally.
It was hard to watch. And, of course, harder not to.
Scant hours after news emerged of her death yesterday at age 39, many people were hard pressed to describe what exactly Anna Nicole Smith was. Actress? Model? Reality star? Rich widow? "I don't know exactly what she did," said US talk show host Joy Behar, hearing the news over the telephone. And yet, trying to put her finger on why we watched this strange woman over the years, she came up with two things: dysfunction and beauty.
"No question, she was beautiful," said Behar, of the US ABC network's The View. "We know people like to watch dysfunction. But beauty gives you something extra to look at. Dysfunction and beauty: now that's something to watch."
How was she dysfunctional? Really, how wasn't she? Her strange life seemed to veer from one outsized struggle to another. She struggled famously with her weight and with her family. She sometimes even struggled to speak without slurring. She had a television show that could be so embarrassing you'd want to watch it with dark sunglasses on. Much more tragically, she lost her 20-year-old son. Five months ago she gave birth to a daughter. Two men claim to be the father.
In other words, she was a perfect pop-culture icon. By contrast, another famous creature of internet celebrity, the chic-er, more sophisticated and chillier Paris Hilton, has much less to fascinate us, grainy sex video notwithstanding. It's hard to feel sorry for her.
"With Anna Nicole, she was pathetic but at the same time you thought, 'Gosh, if I could just scoop you up and fix things, it would be okay,"' says Jerry Herron, a professor of American culture at Wayne State University in Michigan. "You wouldn't want to scoop up Paris Hilton.
"Anna Nicole was," Herron notes, "in both her actions and her physical being, such an over-exaggerated version of what we both lust for and loathe in our society. Bombshell blonde? Family feuds? Lots and lots of money? Weight troubles? Obscene self-revelations on TV? She had it all."
The compelling mix of beauty and vulnerability is just one quality that has led to comparisons with Marilyn Monroe, another sexy, tragic blonde to whom Smith liked to compare herself. The comparison is tempting, but the difference is monumental.
"Marilyn Monroe was an artist, a real performer, able to evoke in audiences a real empathy and a passion," says Richard Walter, a film professor at the University of California in Los Angeles. "There is no comparison."
And yet he sees one strong point in common: the simple beginnings, the climb from obscurity to fame.
"Smith came from humble origins and achieved celebrity and wealth, one way or another," Walter says. "And that is an American story."
For celebrity editor Janice Min of US Weekly, it's the element of perseverance that stands out in Smith's tale, which she sees as "almost this perverse Hollywood Horatio Alger story".
"She fought against so many obstacles - poverty. Teen pregnancy. A bad home life." And of course, ridicule. "But she persisted, where others would have shrunk away out of humiliation and shame." It might have made her look pathetic. But it also made it exceedingly hard to look away.
Smith was stricken while staying at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Florida and was rushed to hospital. Local medical officials say the cause of death is under investigation and an autopsy will likely be done today.
Just five months ago, Smith's 20-year-old son, Daniel, died suddenly in the Bahamas in what was believed to be a drug-related death.
Police say a private nurse called paramedics after finding Smith unresponsive in her sixth-floor room at the hotel, which is on an Indian reservation.
Recently, she lost a reported 31kg and became a spokeswoman for TrimSpa, a weight-loss supplement. On her reality show and other recent TV appearances, her speech was often slurred and she seemed out of it. Some critics said she seemed drugged-out.
One of Smith's lawyers, Ron Rale, said yesterday he had talked with her this week and she had flu symptoms and a fever and was still grieving for her son. He dismissed claims her death was related to drugs as "a bunch of nonsense".
"Poor Anna Nicole," he said. "She's been the underdog. She's been besieged ... and she's been trying her best and nobody should have to endure what she's endured."
The Texas-born Smith was a topless dancer at strip club before she submitted her photos to a search contest and made the cover of Playboy magazine in 1992. She became Playboy's playmate of the year in 1993. She was also signed to a contract with Guess jeans, appearing in TV commercials, on billboards and in magazine ads.
In 1994, she married 89-year-old oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II, owner of Great Northern Oil Company, whom she met at a "gentlemen's club" in Houston. In 1992, Forbes magazine estimated his wealth at $US550 million ($705 million).
Marshall died in 1995, aged 90, setting off a feud with Smith's former stepson, E. Pierce Marshall, over his estate. A federal court in California awarded Smith $US474 million. That was later overturned. But in May, the US Supreme Court revived her case, ruling that she deserved another day in court.
The stepson died on June 20 at age 67. But the family said the court fight would continue.
Smith starred in her own reality TV series, The Anna Nicole Show, in 2002-04. Cameras followed her around as she sparred with her lawyer, hung out with her personal assistant and interior decorator, and cooed at her poodle, Sugar Pie. She also appeared in movies, performing a bit part in The Hudsucker Proxy in 1994.
Meanwhile, the paternity of Smith's now five-month-old daughter remains a matter of dispute. The birth certificate lists Dannielynn's father as attorney Howard K. Stern, Smith's most recent companion. Smith's ex-boyfriend Larry Birkhead was waging a legal challenge, saying he was the father. An emergency hearing in the paternity case has been scheduled for today in Los Angeles.
The legal complications of Smith's estate could take years to unravel, an expert says. Christopher Cline, of the law firm Holland and Knight, is an estate planning specialist. He says he has never seen a case "with more moving parts".
Outstanding questions include not only the paternity of her daughter, but if she died with a will and how her death will affect the lawsuit pending against the Marshall estate. It also isn't clear where she legally lived when she died.
Smith was born Vickie Lynn Hogan on November 28, 1967, in Houston, one of six children. Her parents split up when she was a toddler, and she was raised by her mother, a deputy sheriff.
She dropped out of high school after being expelled for fighting, and worked as a waitress and then a cook.
She married 16-year-old fry cook Bill Smith in 1985, giving birth to Daniel before divorcing two years later.