On February 8, 2007, former stripper-turned-Guess model Anna Nicole Smith was found not breathing and unresponsive in a hotel room at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino just outside of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. She was rushed to a local hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival.
Though it shouldn’t have been, the death of Anna Nicole Smith felt shocking and abrupt to me. While the cause of her death was not unlike many celebrity deaths of the last 10 years—a lethal mixture of prescription medications resulting in an overdose—it was arguably the beginning of the pill deaths of the rich and famous. Since then, we have seen overprescribing, careless drug interactions and illegal abuse of legal medications take the lives of Brittany Murphy, Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson. But in 2007, learning of a celebrity drop dead like Smith did—especially one that was still peaking media interest—seemed unfair.
Yes, I saw her reality show, The Anna Nicole Show. Yes, it was beyond evident that she was on something. But when Smith publicly denied being on drugs, for some reason, I believed her. It’s like how I felt about Paula Abdul on American Idol; it was both hard to believe that Smith she wasn’t high and hard to believe she was. How could any producer, director, agent, lover or friend allow someone as sloppy as Smith to get in front of the camera on a nationally accessible television show and make a drug-induced ass of herself? I guess I figured she was smoking pot or taking an anti-anxiety medication (as prescribed) but that that doesn’t really count as being “on drugs” as it’s intended when the question is asked, right? In some cases of prescription drug overdose, it’s hard not to look at doctors for at least partial responsibility in overprescribing. But in the case of Anna Nicole Smith, her death can be fully attributed to her tragic life, her fragile emotional state and the careless choices she made as a result.
Born Vicki Lynn Hogan until she was four years old and changed her name to Nikki Hart, Anna Nicole Smith—a stage name given to her by the Guess Corporation—grew up in Houston, Texas and dropped out of high school at the age of 15. She was married and working in a fast food chicken joint by 17, a mom by 18, separated by 20 and a topless bartender by 21. But unlike the millions of other young girls seemingly dealt a similar shitty life, Anna Nicole would soon become a star by getting discovered by Hugh Hefner, landing on the cover of Playboy, securing a modeling contract with Guess and marrying multi-millionaire oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall (who was, it should be noted, 63 years her senior)—all before the age of 27. Not bad for a country girl.
But the whirlwind of Smith’s young adult life soon took a tool on her health and the health of her family. Fourteen months after marrying Marshall, he died and Smith ballooned up to 224 pounds, shocking the public. Smith’s rapid weight gain added much fuel to the media rumor mill that was already working overtime on her romance with Marshall and the subsequent lawsuits over inheritance that followed his death. Smith’s noticeable physical changes were said to be a result of poor food choices, stress, drug use and depression.
In 2002, the phenomenon of reality TV began to sweep the nation and Anna Nicole Smith got in at the ground floor with The Anna Nicole Show on E! The series, which lasted only two seasons, achieved the highest cable rating ever for a reality show to date. The show’s opening jingle boasted the star as being “truly outrageous,” which was certainly the most accurate word to describe the struggling former model.
Her then 16-year old son from her first marriage, Daniel, became a regular fixture on The Anna Nicole Show—coming off as a quiet, lonesome and somewhat awkward teenager. Although it would have been tough to spot abnormal behavior as a result of drug use in contrast to his mother’s round-the-clock pill-induced sloppiness, at some point Daniel picked up an opiate habit that eventually landed him on methadone—one of the drugs that caused his untimely death.
Three days after Smith gave birth to her daughter Dannielynn, Daniel overdosed and died in the hospital during a visit to see his mom and infant sister. He was 20 years old. The event reportedly devastated Smith. After Daniel’s death, things began to quickly spiral out of control for Smith—who found herself, less than three weeks later, on a catamaran in the Bahamas exchanging vows with her boyfriend and attorney (and regular character on her reality show), Howard K. Stern, who was named on her daughter’s birth certificate but through paternity testing was proven to not be the child’s father. Five months later, Smith herself died from a lethal combination of prescription drugs.
Although Smith’s autopsy ultimately showed that chloral hydrate, a sedative prescribed for sleeping, was the main contributing factor in her death, it was really the interaction of the drug with any of the four other benzodiazepines (Klonopin, Ativan, Serax and Valium) found in her system that likely created the fatal combination. Smith had also taken Benadryl and Topamax—an anticonvulsant generally prescribed to epileptics or people who suffer from seizures, but it is also commonly used to treat migraines. In some cases, Topamax is prescribed to treat borderline personality disorder, which one of Smith’s psychiatrists, Dr. Natalie Maullin, diagnosed her as suffering from.
Out of the 11 medications found in Smith’s bloodstream, only three were actually prescribed to her. The rest belonged to her “husband” of nearly four-and-a-half months, who spent the weeks following her death fighting for custody of newborn Dannielynn, but ultimately losing to Larry Birkhead, the girl’s proven biological father.
From the heartland of Texas to the heart of the spotlight, the life of Vicki Lynn Hogan and death of Anna Nicole Smith—ended much like it did for her idol Marilyn Monroe—as a real E! true Hollywood tragedy.