Anna Nicole Smith: Death of a diva
She was the perfect celebrity, a surgically enhanced sex goddess with monstrous appetites, no obvious talent and a narcissism that matched the mood of the Nineties. As a new opera is staged based on Anna Nicole Smith's life, containing 'extreme language, drug abuse and sexual content', Peter Conrad examines the lurid story of white-trash America's poor little rich girl
Imagine the love-goddess Aphrodite fitted with silicone-swollen boobs, bloated by junk food, slowed down by pills and befogged by booze: that was Anna Nicole Smith, who is soon to wiggle, waddle and stagger across the stage of the Royal Opera House (ROH) in London's Covent Garden.
Commissioning a new opera, Tony Hall, chief executive of the ROH, asked the composer Mark-Anthony Turnage to choose a contemporary subject, not some remote, ancestral myth. In the event, Turnage's Anna Nicole supplies both at once. The heroine is our contemporary -- or would be if she were still alive -- but she was also a mythical being, an artificial deity, the superhuman embodiment of our faults and follies, invented and marketed as an object of desire.
Anna Nicole's life beggared the most lurid fiction. She began as Vickie Lynn Hogan, a peroxide-blonde waitress from the dusty Texas backblocks. Having changed her name to something classier, she was chosen in 1992 as one of Hugh Hefner's pin-ups and draped across a Playboy centrefold. In 1994, she married the oil billionaire J Howard Marshall II, who had tottered into the so-called "titty bar" where she worked as a lap dancer. She was 26, he was 89, incontinent and mentally incompetent. They never lived together, but they did go shopping a lot: she plied him with Valium as she wheeled him round jewellery stores and scooped up booty. Fed on scraps of raw bacon and sometimes left out in the rain, in 1995 the old man obligingly made her a widow. She signalled her availability by attending his funeral in a backless, white wedding dress, with a yapping lapdog tucked under her arm. When Marshall's family disputed her right to inherit his estate, Anna Nicole took her claim to the US supreme court, which is still considering the case.
She was the perfect celebrity, sustained by effrontery and unblessed by talent. Her appearance in one of the Naked Gun sequels earned her an award as worst new star (with OJ Simpson taking an equivalent honour as worst supporting actor). She can be glimpsed for a few seconds in the Coen brothers' Hudsucker Proxy, playing one of Tim Robbins's tarty trophies. She preens in a leopard-skin outfit, and, when asked a question, emits not a word but a noise: "Miaow!" Weight gain and botched plastic surgery put a stop to her modelling contracts; in 2002 a reality-TV show chronicling her antics gave her a new career as a raucous self-publicist and made her a national laughing stock.
In 2006, her daughter Dannielynn was born on television by caesarean section. A tag team of occasional lovers -- including Frederic Prinz von Anhalt, a retired masseur who subsequently married Zsa Zsa Gabor -- all claimed to be the baby's father, and eagerly volunteered to look after the Marshall inheritance. Paternity was eventually assigned by the courts to a paparazzi photographer called Larry Birkhead, who now has custody of the child.
Days after Dannielynn's birth, Anna Nicole's 20-year-old son Daniel, the product of a teenage marriage, died from an overdose while visiting his mother and half-sister in the maternity ward. Howard K Stern, Anna Nicole's lawyer, agent and purported lover, denied feeding Daniel drugs and flushing the leftovers down the lavatory. Stern then exchanged vows with Anna Nicole on a yacht in the Bahamas, after which they ate a wedding breakfast shipped in from the American mainland by Kentucky Fried Chicken.
In 2007, Anna Nicole herself, aged only 39, met her end in a garishly opulent suite at the Hard Rock hotel and casino in Florida, brimming with methadone and prescription medicines supplied by compliant doctors. Last summer, Stern was found guilty of contributing to her death by acting as an unofficial pharmacist. Earlier this month, a Los Angeles judge cleared him of all charges due to "insufficient evidence".
Anna Nicole was a woman of primal hungers. "Hurry up, I'm starving!" she orders the obsequious Stern in her reality show. At a casino buffet in Las Vegas, he heaps a plate for her as she yells across the room; under his breath, he mutters: "She's not gonna want salad." Burgers, sausages, waffles, barbecued ribs, processed cheese and whipped cream chugged into Anna Nicole, to be later expelled by laxatives or extracted by liposuction. Between blow-outs, she snacked on gherkins that looked like warty green penises. "I'm proud to swallow," she liked to brag. Even her poodle, Sugar Pie, was named after a sweet treat, as if in an emergency the dog might be edible. She also had an appetite for dollars, which was facilitated by her puzzlement about the decimal point: she once told a court she had "trouble with zeroes", and thought that $2,500 was only $25.00.
Above all she craved fame, which she attained by undressing. Eating and spending were her occupations, but exposure was her business. Long before Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction, Anna Nicole's amplified boobs regularly popped out from under cover for the cameras. Whenever that happened, she would shimmy, squeal and ask the ogling crowd: "Do you like my body?" The response was always a feral roar of lust. Like one of the sacred prostitutes who pleasured worshippers in the temples of Babylon, she belonged to whoever fantasised about her.
Although Elaine Padmore, director of opera at the ROH, promises that Turnage's Anna Nicole will not be "tawdry", a brochure uses inflammatory red letters to warn of "extreme language, drug abuse and sexual content"; the libretto, after all, is by Richard Thomas, co-author of Jerry Springer: The Opera, which in its subtitle, equates opera with exhibitionism. Thomas's expletives may be new, but nothing else should startle genteel music-lovers. Opera already has plenty of hoydens and harlots like Anna Nicole Smith. The heroines of Verdi's La Traviata, Puccini's Manon Lescaut and Massenet's Thais are courtesans, and Strauss's Salome performs a striptease without needing the pole around which Anna Nicole's legs twined themselves when she cavorted at the club in Houston.
In opera, however, these wantons all finish redeemed. Violetta, the fallen woman, is raised up by the sacrifice she makes, and the reformed Thais slumps at the foot of the cross. Anna Nicole did not end in a state of grace. When her son died, she hysterically entreated Jesus to take her instead, then recovered in time to sell the last photographs of him alive; at his funeral, she climbed into his open coffin. A few months later, she died in a puddle of vomit, and millions peeked at snapshots of her messy exit on the internet.
Nowadays any celebrity who misbehaves is likely to be called a diva, but Anna Nicole will soon have a legitimate right to the name: she is to be played at Covent Garden by the Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, acclaimed everywhere for her impassioned performances in Wagner and Strauss, Verdi and Puccini. Ever since receiving Turnage's score, Westbroek has been puzzling over the motives of the woman whose skin she will have to inhabit.
"Why would you do that to yourself? Where does that come from?" she wondered in a recent interview. She has decided that Anna Nicole was driven, like Salome, by an erotic compulsion that compelled her to destroy herself: "I find her fascinating and tragic because she really went for death."
In opera, music harmonises discords and helps to pardon moral faults, but the real Anna Nicole was loud, unlyrical and intermittently obscene. In one of her films, Skyscraper, a terrorist in black leather pants bends her over to be sodomised. She pulls a knife, stabs him in the groin, then aims a gun at him. "You wanna fuck me? Then fuck this!" she snarls, blowing his head off. In her last film, a sci-fi farrago called Illegal Aliens, her medicated stupor made it impossible for her to memorise dialogue, so instead she burps, hiccups and noisily farts. If she speaks, it is to give bulletins about her bodily needs. "My stomach hurts," she whines. "Why's my poopy-slot sore?" she asks after a mind-controlling suppository is inserted. Later she urgently announces "I gotta pee!"
In her reality show, she cheats in an eating contest and is overheard in the lavatory spewing up bucketloads of pizza and ravioli. Caught out by Stern, she bawls at him in the street: "I just went in there and took a shit, OK?" Elsewhere she suddenly remembers that she didn't masturbate that morning, and wanders off to find her vibrator; the cameras that follow her everywhere retire as the knobbly length of latex powers up. By contrast with Anna Nicole, Katie Price and Kerry Katona look and sound like nuns in a closed order.
Anna Nicole was woozily ignorant about the world she lived in, and when first flown from Texas to Los Angeles by Playboy was astonished to find that California was not, as she believed, on the east coast. Geopolitical crises passed her by. Stern once tried to persuade her to take up the Israeli cause, and told her about the activities of Arab suicide bombers. "Wow," she marvelled, "why would they do that? Ain't it kinda painful?" She then added: "I don't know nothin' 'bout nothin."
She may not have understood her times, but she typified them all the same. The Reagan era legitimised greed; Anna Nicole's grossness was a logical consequence of this shift in public morality. Bill Clinton found greasy food and easy women irresistible, and right-wingers argued that he and Anna Nicole -- both spawned by dysfunctional families from the southern underclass -- were interchangeable. In 2006, the administration of George W Bush accepted responsibility for Anna Nicole by sending its solicitor general to file a brief for her during her dispute with the Texas probate courts over the Marshall millions. She instinctively knew how the system worked: the law, back in those heady days, was a means of enrichment and an extension of showbiz.
She became the symbol of a binge that ended soon after she died, when the American economy imploded. She appeared to be rich, though she lived off handouts and never paid bills. She was overbearing and uproarious, but her energy had toxic sources. She began the day with an injection of vitamin B12, immunoglobins and human growth hormone. These were her "longevity drugs", though they were part of what shortened her life rather than prolonging it.
Along with the usual female accoutrements, her handbag contained enough uppers and downers to concuss and then resuscitate an elephant. A tabloid took an inventory of the drugs she carried round with her, listing Aldactazide, Decadron, Demerol, imipramine, methocarbamol, Prilosec, Propulsid, Seldane, Synthroid, temazepam, Vicodin and Xanax. She washed these down with tequila, and kept her engine revved with snorts of cocaine. Her dog was on Prozac, with a psychotherapist on standby to deal with its whimpering anxiety.
Anna Nicole's narcissism matched the glutted, self-satisfied mood of America in the Nineties. Skyscraper contains a sex scene in which her lover, conscientiously doing his duty behind her as she bestraddles the bed, seems irrelevant to the proceedings. The camera concentrates on her famous breasts, which look like a pair of tanned, twin Zeppelins. Anna Nicole herself seems to be in awe of them as she fingers a nipple and palpates the squashy mounds; the man is, at best, a substitute for her vibrator.
Like America with its trickle-down theory of affluence, she allowed the rest of the world to partake of her bounty, so long as it remained appropriately grateful for the favour. Throwing a Christmas party in the reality show, she has an ice sculpture moulded from her torso and sets it up as a punchbowl; arriving guests are required to kneel before her hollowed-out bosom and slurp up the contents. But those boobs were as much a burden as America's imperial role. Anna Nicole referred to them as transplants not implants, as if they had been grafted on; they caused her crippling back problems, and in 1994 a saline sac ruptured, leaked and shrivelled, leaving her with an asymmetrical chest. "This is my life, my whole world!" she screamed as she summoned the surgeon. "Everything I have is because of my breasts!" No wonder she deflated.
Like all wannabes, she suffered from mythomania, and fancied she had relatives in heaven. Hence her insistence that she was the farmed-out child of Marilyn Monroe (who inconveniently died five years before Anna Nicole was born). Her chosen consort also belonged in the upper air. In one episode of her reality show, she slavers over Superman, whom she finds on a mural at a theme park. Coaxed by Stern, she gobbles the cartoon figure's crotch and licks his aerodynamic anus. Mortal men could not measure up.
Stern is relentlessly mocked, called a "pussy boy" when he won't go swimming, and asked "Is your dick hard yet?" as some Las Vegas chorines grind in his face. In another episode, Anna Nicole dismisses a nerdy millionaire who arrives to take her out for dinner. "How's his butt?" she asks one of the camera crew that trails her. "Oh yuk, it's flat!" At moments like this, she resembles a gay man in a female fat suit.
Skyscraper -- in which she plays a helicopter pilot who clutches her chopper's joystick with scarlet talons as she ferries passengers between high-rise landing pads in Los Angeles -- gives her a properly divine job of salvation to do. Like Schwarzenegger or Stallone with mammaries, not muscles, she thwarts a gang of terrorists in black leather pants who have captured one of the city's office towers. In Illegal Aliens, she belongs to a trio of extraterrestrial kickboxers who descend to Earth, wriggle into skimpy shorts and strained bras, then set about recapturing a gizmo called a mega-gravitron that has tugged the moon out of the sky and put it on a collision course with Earth. Someone asks one of Anna Nicole's nubile colleagues what the nonsensical plot is all about. "We're trying to save the world, dickhead!" snaps the babe from outer space. Anna Nicole, walking unsteadily and slurring her speech, is excused on medical grounds from taking part in the action. Her contribution is to disappear: this time she magically morphs into a helicopter, and the other women ride in her as they go about the work of restoring cosmic order.
Her craziest act of self-consecration occurred after the death of her son, when she arranged herself into a tableau of divine anguish. Daniel Smith died while she and Stern were asleep in the same hospital room; the bereaved mother had Stern photograph her clasping Daniel's stiff body. It was a pieta styled for the tabloids, with a blearily voluptuous and unvirginal Mary cradling a Christ who was killed, according to the autopsy, by a mixture of methadone and antidepressants.
Did disasters like this make Anna Nicole tragic, as Eva-Maria Westbroek believes? Probably not, since she was so quick to capitalise on her misfortunes, and so unwilling to accept responsibility for them. Her mode was melodrama, and she had an operatic tendency to exaggerate. "Kill me, kill me please, get me out of my misery!" she begs in the reality show, before banging her head against the wall and collapsing. What provoked this aria was not remorse or a tormented conscience; a mirror had given her a confidential glimpse of her oversized bum and, like every other self-advertising neurotic on reality TV, she was acting up for the cameras.
Her agony may have been mere histrionics, but she was certainly a victim -- of her own false values, and also of a society whose ethics she challenged and whose hypocrisy she exposed. In 1994 she appeared on the cover of New York magazine wearing cowboy boots and stuffing herself with cheesy crisps from a bag held open between her spread legs; the image illustrated a scornful analysis of America by the writer Tad Friend as a "White Trash Nation", overrun by rednecks like Beavis and Butt-Head and Lorena Bobbitt (the harridan who chopped off her cheating husband's penis) and of course Clinton and his bimbos. Friend's article warned against the "guilt-free freedom" of these monsters, who threatened a culture that traditionally valued self-denial and regarded fame as a reward for achievement, not a by-product of vacuous notoriety.
Sexually, Anna Nicole was equally alarming, less a wet dream than a castrating nightmare. Her pin-up pictures catered to a voyeurism that was edged with fear and envenomed by contempt. Hence the barrage of misogynistic abuse, as lethal as gunfire, against which she battles in Skyscraper. "Let's off this bitch!" growls one of the terrorists. "Time to die, you blonde bitch!" screeches another. A third coldly sneers: "You fuckin' whore!"
One way of neutralising her was to treat her as a mother not a mistress, and hangers-on habitually called her "Momma". She allayed male terrors by pretending to be infantile: she conversed in baby talk, and addressed the doddering, dribbling J Howard Marshall as "Paw Paw". Despairing of men or despising them, Anna Nicole turned to other women for sexual comfort. Gossips reported on romps with girlfriends in a seething jacuzzi, and in the reality show she seems happiest when comparing implants with some Las Vegas dancers who are naked except for their sequins.
The Royal Opera is expecting and probably counting on a fuss, but no one should dispute Turnage's choice of subject. The gaudily uninhibited Anna Nicole belongs in opera, where her many predecessors include the man-killing heroine of Alban Berg's Lulu. At one point in Lulu's career, the composer who is her latest conquest fondles her body and applies musical markings to its various sectors: her ankles, he says, should be played grazioso, her knees misterioso, her breasts cantabile, while a steady rhythmical andante conducts love towards its targeted climax. I can't wait to hear how Turnage has composed the symphonic physique of Anna Nicole Smith.
'Anna Nicole' premieres at the Royal Opera House, London, on February 17 and runs until March 4
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