Anna Nicole Smith is a pop icon that shot to stardom as she went from stripper to model to Playmate to actress to reality star. She made news with her marriage to a wealthy octogenarian and her son’s tragic death and continued to make news after she was found dead from an overdose with the custody battle for her infant daughter.
I was commissioned to photograph Anna Nicole Smith for a Marilyn Monroe-inspired campaign during a period when her erratic behavior had already become regular tabloid fodder so from the beginning I was dubious that this would be an uneventful shoot. With the popularity of “reality tv” it’s not uncommon for talent to request to have a small crew film our shoot. As is usually the case, the film crew was very considerate and professional.
My fears were confirmed upon her arrival as she was brought in like a soldier being helped off the battlefield, her arms were slung over the shoulder of a guy on either side supporting her weight. She was semi-conscious, incoherent and was deposited face-down, motionless on a sofa in my makeup room. As far as I was concerned this shoot was over. I gathered my client and Anna’a entourage which consisted of her lawyer and long-time companion Howard K. Stern, Larry Birkhead who was introduced as her personal photographer (although I didn’t notice a camera), her personal assistant, Kim “Kimmie” Walthe and her son Daniel. It seemed the only responsible thing to do was pull the plug since it appeared she didn’t need a photographer as much as a doctor. I was especially concerned that her son was witnessing her in this condition.
Anna’s entourage insisted that this was her “normal morning condition.” Stern assured me that by the time she got on set she would be fine. I asked the reality show crew what their experience had been and they confirmed that this wasn’t abnormal. I agreed, after some negotiations, to give her some time to “wake up” and to my surprise, when I checked in on her 20 minutes later she was sitting in the make-up chair in a noticeably improved condition. Anna was coherent but was still slurring her speech. She assured me that she was fine and wanted to move forward. Assuming that her condition would continue to improve and realizing that this was the “Anna” to which the world had become accustomed, we cautiously proceeded with the shoot.
When she finally stepped on set she looked absolutely fantastic but she was still lethargic. She could only stand for a few minutes before she would, without warning, sink to the floor. She insisted she would be fine if we played “Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend” which we downloaded and blared throughout the studio. It was surreal. As the music started thumping she immediately got a spark in her eyes. When Marilyn’s vocal cut-in, Anna’s face lit-up with a broad smile and she sprang to her feet and became an altogether different person. She was totally present, in the moment and moved beautifully. As the song ended it all went away as quickly as it began as she totally disengaged as she slumped back to the floor. Crazy. We put the song on a loop and let it pound until we had our shots. When she was “on” she was fantastic to photograph and dressed as Marilyn she was performing a role she had been rehearsing for years. Her energy improved during the shoot and by the time we were done she was functional even without the music.
This was bazaar by anyone’s standards and at the time I suspected that it might have been for the benefit of the reality show cameras. But on reflection I believe she was powerless a host of substances which dictated her erratic behavior. Without going into detail, as the day proceeded there were issues with her entourage which appeared to be experiencing internal stress. Among other things, it became obvious that she and Birkhead were having a physical relationship and it was well known that she and Stern had long been a couple. Like most people at the time, I had a preconceived, tabloid-informed opinion of Anna which was not very sympathetic but as the day unfolded and I witnessed the dynamics of her relationships I realized I had likely misjudged the situation. I believe that the caricature that was projected by the press was a victim of those she trusted.
Anna’s fascination with Marilyn Monroe is well documented and she actively struggled to forge a real connection. One of my friends is a renowned Marilyn expert and Anna was excited to meet him so I invited him as a technical consultant. After the shoot they discussed all things “Marilyn”. She was very curious to know exactly what substances Marilyn was taking to wake up in the morning and what she took to sleep at night. It seemed she wanted to mimic Marilyn’s substance abuse. Anna was 36 at the time which was the same age at which Marilyn died. When Anna discussed Marilyn she assumed a reverence that was almost spiritual. As crass as it sounds, I commented to my assistant that I wouldn’t be surprised if Anna O.D.’ed before her next birthday, if just to secure that connection with Marilyn…sadly I was sincere.
I was later asked to photograph a calendar of Anna since she was happy with her figure again after signing a deal with TrimSpa but in light of the day’s events I could not in good conscience move forward on that project.