Human Sacrifice

Reality TV’s last “victim”

Few reality stars were more spectacular, or more punished, than Anna Nicole Smith, the former Playboy model and face of Guess Jeans. In the early ’90s she found fame on the strength of her beauty and self-conscious likeness to Marilyn Monroe, as well as her humble backstory: she’d grown up poor in small-town Texas, and fled a bad marriage to Houston with an infant son in tow. After hitting it big as a model, she married an 89-year-old billionaire, J. Howard Marshall II, who died the following year, and entered an ugly, winding court battle with his family for her inheritance. Audiences loved to hate her, even more than they’d loved to ogle: they lapped at her substance abuse issues, her weight gain, her fake breasts, her past as a stripper. The Anna Nicole Show, which debuted in 2002, traded on her supposed ruination.

The early 2000s saw the birth of reality TV as we now define it: Survivor, American Idol, Fear Factor, the Osbournes, the Bachelor, America’s Next Top Model. Meanness was baked into the premise of most of these programs. Although they followed different formulae — game shows, backstage views, slices of life — they all invited viewer contempt. Survivor rewarded ruthlessness and backstabbing; American Idol offered ordinary people a shot at stardom, while offering its audience a chance to laugh at ordinary people foolish enough to consider themselves exceptional. The more brazen Superstar USA was an Idol parody enacted by unwitting contestants — the judges praised and advanced the worst performers while cutting the best — while The Surreal Life gathered washed-up celebrities into a human pen, where they carried on like horny babies.

Hating the talentless was in some ways a mock reversal, and ultimate re-inscription of class dynamics — it sprang from a sense of contempt for the desperate

At the time, the reality star was a scapegoat figure whose role was not only to entertain but to absorb the audience’s malice. Shows like The Surreal Life were an extension of 1990s tabloid culture, which turned troubled people into freaks, and freak shows into morality plays. Reality TV cut the moral scaffolding: the sin wasn’t adultery, or drug use, or public masturbation, but attention-seeking itself, and the spectacle was trial and punishment enough. Reality TV offered viewers illusory power over these performers, who were so indiscreet in their hunger for attention that they consented to participate. The “famous for being famous” were characterized by need: Unlike the truly gifted, they were entirely dependent on public interest, and would take what the public dished out. Audiences were invited to indulge their deepest resentments as well as their cruelest impulses, projecting onto them fears of their own mediocrity. Hating the talentless was in some ways a mock reversal, and ultimate re-inscription of class dynamics — it sprang from a sense of contempt for the desperate.

Anna Nicole Smith, long a tabloid staple, was a prime candidate for reality stardom. Entertainment Weekly called her show “an obscene train wreck,” which is more or less how it was already marketed. The fact of the show was as much a part of its narrative as anything shown; its existence confirmed that Smith had become so desperate for attention, and most likely cash, that she’d allow cameras to document the carnage of her life.

Nowadays, Smith fits more neatly within a different narrative: martyrdom, part of a repudiation of the cultural attitudes that made her such a pariah in the first place. Though North American culture is not any less cruel now than it was in the early aughts, as consumers we’re more conscientious in our tastes, or we have developed a taste for the conscientious. But Smith’s redemption itself is part of a meta-narrative that includes her debasement. The carnage of her life, both real and projected, continues to make her an object of fascination, no matter what our moral orientation toward it.

The Anna Nicole Show was reportedly pitched to Smith as an “unscripted sitcom.” The idea, presumably, was that her life was a dark comedy to begin with, though it’s unclear whether she agreed to be laughed at or with. According to a 2011 New York magazine feature by Dan P. Lee, most of her confidants told her to decline, most vehemently her 16-year-old son, Daniel. But as she told USA Today then, “it came along at the right time.” Smith’s health, mental and physical, had declined through the years of her courtroom battles over her husband’s estate. “I was in litigation for seven years. I was all depressed, and I lay in bed all day and gained weight. It got me out of bed and got me moving.”

The show, like the Osbournes, featured Smith and her family — personal assistant Kim Walther; lawyer Howard K. Stern; son Daniel, and dog Sugar Pie — playing house and partaking in pre-planned activities. Anna goes house-hunting and hires interior decorator Bobby Trendy to primp up her bedroom with pink feathered pillows and fun fur; competes against her entourage in an eating contest; gets drunk in Vegas; goes on a date with a fantastically dorky millionaire. The scenarios are contrived, but the household dynamics are raw, strange, and hard to parse; the show’s slick, boingy production only underscores how uncomfortably they translate to a mass audience.

Smith’s lifestyle is not that of a “real” person but of a “star” — it’s a “behind-the-scenes”-style show, of the kind meant to showcase both how similar and different the lives of the rich and famous are. But these shows were supposed to show difference in familiar ways. Smith has access to makeup artists and drivers and personal chefs, but the distinguishing features of her fame are more uncanny, and have to do with the nature of her relationships: her closest associations are mediated by cash and power difference.

“I saw him as a coattails-riding ambulance chaser,” Bobby Trendy later said of lawyer Howard K. Stern, but Stern’s dedication to Smith extends far beyond the potential for winning her case. They seem less rational than pathetically infatuated. Quiet, deferential Kim has her boss’s face tattooed on her arm. Everyone seems to be in love with Anna, who lolls around in her life as though it’s a giant waterbed. She crawls on the floor, rides Kim’s lap, winks at the camera, and cries out for a pickle in the back of a limousine. The disquietude is akin to a cursed image. Like any other messy home, the clutter might make sense to the occupant, but it’s distinctly not right for anyone else.

Smith rarely, if ever, seems sober. She slurs her words, distracts herself with her own body, and loses her balance. Her relationship with painkillers began long before the show premiered — as Lee reports, she had been taking them since her strip-club days, and then for chronic pain caused in part by complications from her breast-augmentation surgeries and the weight of her legal troubles. No one in Anna’s orbit, despite their obsequiousness, seems actively concerned with her overall health; certainly not the show’s producers, who were capitalizing on it. Daniel, who appears on the show only reluctantly, is the clear exception: In later years, as Lee writes, he would steal her pills to flush them down the toilet. The most uncomfortable part of the show is not the way it exploits its star, but the way it seems to enable her; worse still is the inferred effect on her son.

The show was built around the idea of Smith as a train wreck; her exploitation was part of its conceit

“By the time the series premiered, the act of simply inhabiting [her body] seemed to exhaust her,” Sarah Marshall wrote in an excellent essay for Buzzfeed. “Regardless of whatever prescription drugs she had or had not become dependent on by that time, she was often, for whatever reason, not entirely there: vacant or nonresponsive or simply half-asleep. She could no longer do the things she had to do to be her.” Is it terrible to suggest that vacant, half-asleep Anna was being herself?

“It’s not supposed to be funny. It just is,” reads the DVD tagline, which simply isn’t true: Smith is often funny on purpose; and the off-ness is difficult in hindsight to classify as funny. The show was built around the idea of Smith as a train wreck; her exploitation was part of its conceit. But it’s not at all clear that Anna was ashamed of herself, or that she felt she was being used. In spite of it all she is charismatic, playful and plainspoken in her appetites and opinions, magnetic in front of the cameras. In one scene, as she sits with Howard outside a coffee shop talking about her plans to buy Kim a car for her birthday, a woman approaches to say, “I think you’re great, but I think you’re being exploited. Without missing a beat, Smith replies, “Oh yeah, well, I don’t mind. As long as I’m getting paid for it.”

Reality television remade spectatorship in the likeness of a relationship: You loved your favorite contestants like friends and hated your least favorite like enemies — the thrill of a reality villain was the permission to hate a “real” person and not just a character in fiction. I watch The Anna Nicole Show with warmth and affinity, and I arrived at it with morbid fascination, like everyone else. But I was 19 when I saw it first on DVD, and my friends and I didn’t behave so differently. Some of our friends preferred Jackass, the franchise featuring adult men torturing themselves for adoring crowds.

Smith’s death changed the context significantly. Four years after the show aired, she gave birth to a daughter in the Bahamas. Daniel — who’d been struggling with mental health issues of his own — flew out to visit. That night he slept in Anna’s hospital room, and when she woke up his body was cold. His death was ruled as an accident, the result of a toxic combination of Lexapro, Methadone, and Zoloft. Smith was hysterical; Lee writes that, at his funeral, she attempted to pry his body from the casket, and had to be sedated. Five months later, still sick with grief and suffering from a major infection caused by vitamin and drug hormone injections, she took a combination of painkillers, and ingested a sleep medication from a baby bottle. She stopped breathing in her sleep.

“My 15-year-old called me from school to tell me that Anna Nicole Smith had died, and he was laughing,” reads an obituary in Texas Monthly by Mimi Swartz. The tone conveys less schadenfreude than fatalism. Smith’s death was predictable; the show itself had been, in hindsight, a kind of pre-mortem — as Marshall writes, “the media’s reaction to Anna Nicole Smith’s death also betrayed the unspoken belief that there was really only one way for the story to end.” Reporters turned their attention from her life to its sensational aftermath: the paternity of her newborn daughter, and, eventually, multiple criminal charges faced by two of her doctors and Howard K. Stern, around Smith’s prescriptions. (All charges were eventually cleared, save for one doctor whose remaining conviction was reduced to a misdemeanor.)

By then reality TV had gone from a genre to a medium, and traditional celebrities competed for magazine covers and talk-show airtime with the famous for being famous for being famous. The moral outrage and disgust that had marked responses to figures like Anna Nicole had given way to callousness. Audiences were used to consuming people’s lives as entertainment; when the entertainment lagged, they changed the channel. “She died as she had lived,” reads the obituary, “as a bit of tabloid ephemera, sandwiched between a diapered, love-crazed astronaut and Britney Spears’s new skinhead ‘do.”

With the distance of a few years, Smith’s public rise and fall obtained the gleam of pathos. In February 2011, the opera Anna Nicole, based on Smith’s life and death and commissioned by the Royal Opera in London, premiered at Covent Garden. In four years, her life had gone from tabloid fodder to the subject of formal tragedy. “If you took the same story, same scenario, same psychodrama, but instead of calling it Anna Nicole it was La Contesse de Nicole and took place in 19th-century Paris, there’d be no problems at all,” librettist Richard Thomas, who also wrote 2003’s Jerry Springer: The Opera, told the New York Times. “It’s a perfect story for opera: farcically tragic, utterly excessive. And opera deals well with excess.” Thomas continued: “I do actually take the business of putting these people’s lives onstage seriously. It gives me nightmares. But I console myself with the fact that if it were me, I’d just love someone to put me on that stage. And if I could be sung by Gerald Finley, I’d be very happy.” The show, according to reviews, features a moment in which Daniel emerges from a body bag to list the pills he consumed before he died.

The tragic recasting feels a little like a long-term project, of which The Anna Nicole Show was only one leg, as if her audience were always building a tragedy for its own consumption. Theatrical acts of mourning can seem like acts of pathetic sadism: an audience pitying the victim for the harm they’d done her. We can peruse the contents of a life like a book, and we cultivate the same rich, safely intimate imaginary relationships with strangers as we do fictional characters. But fiction is a device by which to take pleasure in pain; it turns suffering into tragedy. When the lines between entertainments are blurred, so are those between compassion and cruelty.

Messiness doesn’t preclude self-awareness. One might compare Smith to Cat Marnell, who wrote frankly about her addictions in her wildly popular beauty column for XoJane, and then in her book, How to Murder Your Life, which was well reviewed. Like Smith, her messiness became central to her public image, but unlike Smith she had the inner and outer resources to frame her own narrative. There is a market for “train wrecks,” one that builds from affinity as often as cruelty or morbid interest. Not everyone can relate to the aggressively sane.

Smith was at various times both everything audiences covet and everything a bigoted audience condemns: beautiful, big, a “gold digger,” an addict, a former sex worker, a single mom. She more than satisfied an evergreen taste for the ruination of beautiful women — the erotic appeal of the fallen beauty, enacted in genres from operas to slasher flicks.

When the lines between entertainments are blurred, so are those between compassion and cruelty

Today, it’s clear how viciously Smith was persecuted. She suffered from the kind of misogyny and classism now generally condemned when made explicit; she also speaks to a general ambivalence about making a go of it under capitalism and patriarchy. Smith is, up to a certain point, a case study in modern entrepreneurialism: a self-made woman who hustled a career being herself. Since her heyday, self-broadcast has introduced famous-people-problems to the non-famous: invasion of privacy, harassment by strangers, the pressures of being consistent before an audience. This encourages an empathy for those “talentless” celebrities so maligned before being public was normal.

If Smith were alive today, she might have recovered enough to participate in her own redemption story. In recent years a number of ’90s icons ill-served by the decade’s prejudices have been recuperated in light of better attitudes. In 2014 Sarah Marshall published a long reevaluation of Tonya Harding in the Believer, dissecting the ways in which the press vilified her and exploited her pain; the sympathetic biopic I, Tonya was released last year. Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, who rose to fame as teenagers and were hounded relentlessly by paparazzi through the depths of their breakdowns, have been served some compassion; more recently, Monica Lewinsky, who for years was skewered for Bill Clinton’s sexual incontinence and abuse of power, has seen some form of mass apology. This redemption process can be an important one, an ethical one — a worthwhile project that serves a little retroactive justice, provides a useful example, and tells a good story. But public redemption is as much a spectacle as public disgrace, which is the first stage in its cycle; and we can’t remove ourselves from the dynamics of mass spectacle, no matter our intentions.

Two decades after the birth of reality stardom, “famous for being famous” is no longer pejorative. The talent required to put yourself in front of strangers is revered as much as any other performance skill; self-marketing is a talent just as impressive to a general audience, and more relevant, than the ability to sing, dance, or act. YouTube, launched two years before Smith’s death, is in some ways a dedicated medium for what reality stardom became. It’s also a medium capable of forging entertainments out of feelings too granular, or too intimate, for media like broadcast television to reach. On YouTube, reality narratives are reduced to gesture and affect, the smallest units of affinity.

What many of us are looking for, at least sometimes, is a quick hit of relatability, the ambient sense that other people exist. This isn’t necessarily bad. It cuts to the chase of what we so often ask of art, and people are just as interesting as anything they might produce — a personality itself can be read as a work of art, producing the same range of joys and intriguing discomforts. But real and imagined people demand different moral configurations, and observing a life as theater can create a narrative riptide on reality.

Alexandra Molotkow is a senior editor at Real Life magazine. She was a founding editor of Hazlitt and an editor at the Hairpin. She has written for the Believer, the New York Times Magazine, the Cut and the New Republic.