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Pneumatic Tube: Anna Nicole Smith by Matt Labash

After reading the scathing reviews of the unnatural disaster that is The Anna Nicole Show, the most baffling thing to me is that critics insist on referring to Anna Nicole Smith as an “aging sex symbol.” To do so means that the former Playboy, Guess?, and Lane Bryant model was once a regular sex symbol. Looking at her now (she’s only thirty-four), or even back in her prime, such as it was, it is hard to imagine her turning anyone’s crank, unless one fancies obese truck-stop waitresses. Her eyelashes look like they were fashioned from car-wash bristles. Her imported 42DD breasts thrash about like two drunks in a street fight. If the seams in her sausage-casing jeans could talk, they’d cry out in pain: “Make her stop!”

And yet, millions of men have gone to town on themselves while making withdrawals from their Anna Nicole spank banks. What this proves, as if we needed more proof, is that ours is a nation of appallingly suspect taste. In a country where Vin Diesel can become a major motion picture star, this is hardly news. Still, weeks from now, when historians sift through the cultural debris, trying to determine why we are no longer a superpower, why the rivers run with blood, plagues have been unleashed, and God has turned His face from us, they will be able to pinpoint the precise moment that things went irretrievably downhill: the day the Nielsens came in, revealing that Americans made The Anna Nicole Show the number one-rated program on cable and in the history of the E! channel.


Even by E!’s brain-dead standards, wherein Jules Asner is considered the resident pointy-head, The Anna Nicole Show is mind-numbingly stupid. Most bad television has the salutary effect of making you forget yourself. With this show, you are constantly reminded that your own IQ is dropping precipitously every second you tune in.

The show’s star, after all, is a woman who has reportedly tried to peel celery, who threw a hissy fit when she found out that Playboy was flying her to Los Angeles instead of California (she thought L.A. was in New York), and who even caused a judge during one of her endless legal battles to remark that her “illiteracy is striking.” A while back, one of the tabloids speculated that Smith might have sustained brain damage from her diet of tequila and Xanax. Which begs the question: how would it be possible to tell?

Like Ozzy Osbourne, from whom her show’s concept is shamelessly pilfered, Smith is underemployed, lethargic (producers reportedly have had to pump her full of Red Bull while filming) and incoherently slurry. Unlike Ozzy, who at least spent a good many years urinating on historic monuments, making hideous music and dismembering small mammals, Smith never did much to earn her celebrity. In Eric and D’Eva Redding’s definitive Anna Nicole biography, Great Big Beautiful Doll (here, “definitive” means “the only one that was ever written”), the Reddings depict the young Anna Nicole as a flat-chested dimwit from Mexia, Texas, who, after an unsuccessful union which yielded a son, faced life waiting tables at Jim’s Krispy Fried Chicken. To escape the drudgery of a town where the leading employer was the state home for the retarded, Smith decided to, in the words of Mae West, “climb the ladder of success wrong by wrong.”

Scrapping and saving to augment her breasts several times over, Smith danced her way through Houston titty bars, where she was relegated to the less lucrative day shift (no porkers allowed in prime time). According to the Reddings, she supplemented her income by performing sexual favors in parking lots. Almost concurrently, she was discovered by Playboy, as well as by J. Howard Marshall, a multimillionaire oilman and octogenarian who latched onto Smith about the time his wife succumbed to Alzheimer’s and his stripper mistress died on a plastic surgeon’s table.

Playboy made Smith famous, and she explained her career to her son, Daniel, thusly: “Son, you know those naked magazines I catch you looking in sometimes? Your mom is in one of them.” But after a few good years as a model, ended by her omnivorous appetites for booze, pills, food and sex with (according to the Reddings) both men and women, it was her fossilized sugar daddy who kept her famous long after her celebrity should have expired.

At eighty-nine years old, Marshall kept the twenty-six-year-old Smith in gems, clothes and Krispy Kremes for the fourteen months they were married. At one point, Smith claimed to have lost $4 million in jewelry because “I used to be a real ditz.” When Marshall (finally!) died in 1995, Smith held a bizarre memorial service, in which she warbled “Wing Beneath My Wings” while wearing her wedding veil. But she roused herself from mourning long enough to notice that she wasn’t included in Marshall’s will, an oversight she sought to correct by spending the next seven years in a bloody, headline-generating court battle with Marshall’s son. (Barring appeal, she is currently slated to net $88 million for her troubles).

The Anna Nicole Show, then, is Smith’s comeback vehicle, an attempt to remind us that long before we came to think of her as a venal, shallow gold-digger, we thought of her as a venal, shallow bimbo. She succeeds wildly. Her supporting cast of real-life characters is a witless circle of sycophants. Her decorator, Bobby Trendy, seems to know two words (“sumptuous” and “leopard-print”), and has obviously studied all of Nathan Lane’s films to see how over-the-top gay men should act. Her creepy, ever-present lawyer, Howard K. Stern (not the shock jock), would grout Smith’s toenails if it brought him closer to his contingency fee. Her purple-haired assistant Kim, who bears a tattoo of Anna Nicole’s likeness, seems to hope their relationship grows beyond the platonic, which it appears to when they shop for lingerie: in that scene, Smith drops a quarter down Kim’s shirt, then bounces on her lap as if she’s a grocery store kiddie ride.

Even Smith’s toy poodle, Sweetie Pie, is a twisted little beast, who, when not ingesting Prozac, tears the panties off a stuffed teddy bear then humps away. (“One time Sugar Pie saw me f— this guy,” Smith tells us, “and the next day she just started doing it, and she’s pretty good at it.”) The only person who seems remotely normal is Smith’s sixteen-year-old son, who prefers to remain off-camera. He seems alternately horrified that the world gets to witness the freak show that is his mother and hopeful that someone will send help.

Interspersed throughout all these edifying episodes are Smith’s Mensa moments. At one point, when hunting for a new house, then stopping in front of a stucco-and-red-tiled-roofed job, she tells her lawyer, “I think it’s like a Mexican-type ca-na-ba-na, is that what you call it?” While checking herself out in the mirror in between snack breaks, she allows “I have a big butt in this dress.” During a limo ride to a fashion gala, her lawyer tries to bring her up to speed on Palestinian suicide bombers. “Ewwwww,” she says confusedly. “Why would they do that? Don’t they think it’s kind of painful?” All this beauty — and brains, too!

If there is one constant in the show, however, it is Smith’s breasts. She bares at least one-half to three-quarters of them in every shot. When she participates in strenuous activities — such as climbing into other people’s bathtubs to make sure that she can fit — they lash out like two wombats being suffocated under a baby blanket. To some, this might sound sexy on paper. It’s not. By now, Smith’s breasts appear to contain so many foreign objects that they literally have lumps — not of the tumorous variety but the type you see in curdled milk.

So far, Smith has had precisely one almost-human moment: when she moves into a new place and brings home her late husband’s ashes. Although he’s been dead seven years, and she’s admitted she was never in love with him in the first place, she squirts like a sprinkler. (One suspects this is for our benefit, and for the benefit of the judge who’ll determine whether she gets to hold on to that $88 million.) Smith says that transporting Marshall’s ashes is one of the most difficult things she’s ever done (though not as difficult, one suspects, as finding gainful employment). Her lawyer tells us that she wants to pick just the right spot for Marshall’s urn, a “prominent place” where she’ll regularly see him. That, of course, would be the inside of her refrigerator. But Smith opts instead to perch him on top of her television. Closure, at last.

With such vulgar displays, critics have inevitably clucked that this is the end of civilization. It isn’t. It’s the beginning of a groundbreaking chapter in reality programming: the celebrity snuff film. While I have watched the first two episodes for professional reasons, I will watch the rest to see precisely how it ends — and it will end, badly. For Anna Nicole Smith is nothing more than the sum of her self-destructive appetites packaged in silicone saddlebags. If the E! cameras stick around long enough, they will inevitably catch The Dreaded Moment, the modern equivalent of Mama Cass choking on a ham sandwich or Elvis keeling over on his Graceland can. No one knows how it will happen. Maybe she drowns after wedging herself into a regulation-size bathtub. Maybe she comes home crocked, trips into the furniture, and gets crushed by her big-screen TV. But it will happen.

In fact, Anna Nicole nearly expired already, according to her assistant Kim’s “diary” on the E! website. It seems that one day while house-hunting, Smith noticed a lemon tree in the backyard of a prospective residence and helped herself to the fruit. When she went inside and tried out the bathtub, adopting her standard reclining position, she was still eating. “She started to choke,” writes Kim. “She was too embarrassed to let on that she was gagging, and so she played it off as a joke. None of us noticed until her eyes started to water  . . . Later she told us she would rather die gracefully than be embarrassed at any cost.” If that is truly the case, look for Anna Nicole to be cashing out at any moment.

Matt Labash is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.
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