Her face was beaming down from giant billboards up and down Sunset Boulevard but the person sitting on the bed opposite me was barely recognisable from those glossy images.
Wearing pink polka-dot pyjamas, her platinum hair tied back in a ponytail, Anna Nicole Smith might have been globally famous as the Guess jeans girl and 1993’s Playboy Playmate of the Year, but she was preoccupied by persistent worries.
As we talked into the early hours, Anna wanted to talk about her ‘obsession’ – Marilyn Monroe – and her belief that the movie icon was ‘haunting her’.
The fact that we were sitting in Monroe’s former house in the Los Angeles area of Brentwood – which Anna’s billionaire boyfriend J Howard Marshall had rented for her (they would marry the following year) – only added to the model’s belief that Marilyn was ‘guiding’ her from the spirit world.
‘I feel like she’s here with me, like she’s haunting me in the nicest way,’ Anna said staring at one of the many posters of Marilyn hanging on her bedroom walls.
‘I have this feeling that whatever is going to happen to me will happen. It’s not something I can control.’
Anna Nicole Smith is pictured on the runway at the 2004 New York Fashion Week.
Anna Nicole Smith, a former Playboy Playmate of the Year, is pictured with her husband, Texas oil billionaire J Howard Marshall
Anna’s meteoric rise and tragic fall – she died of a drugs overdose at 39 in 2007 – has been well-chronicled, turned into an opera and is now retold in a new Netflix documentary titled Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me, which is its second most popular show in the UK.
Netflix has touted it as her definitive story but, as someone who knew Anna, it felt distressingly exploitative.
The documentary claims to contain ‘new’ revelations about Anna’s father allegedly raping her and carries interviews with so-called friends – including one woman who claims she and Anna were in a long-term lesbian relationship.
However, one of Anna’s lovers, Larry Birkhead, who had a daughter Dannielynn, now 16, with her, last night slammed Netflix saying: ‘We declined to participate as I did not want my daughter in an overwhelmingly poorly reviewed cesspool of a project about her mother, where people were allowed to invent things and rewrite history.’
Birkhead, who is making his own film about the woman he calls ‘the love of my life’, added: ‘Anna deserved better and that day will come.’
It is hard not to agree with him. As I watched the Netflix show, I wondered how many of those interviewed – a random uncle, a woman who danced alongside Anna at a Houston strip club – really knew her? After all, Netflix has form – not least with The Crown – when it comes to fabricating narratives about real people’s lives.
The documentary is described as ‘facile’ by the New York Times’ critic, who accused the filmmakers of ‘lurid voyeurism’.
I got to know Anna Nicole in the 1990s. She burst on to the Hollywood scene and quickly became the hottest ‘It’ girl in town. She was on the front of newspapers and magazines globally and there was an insatiable appetite to know everything about her.
Anna Nicole Smith’s rise and tragic fall has been well-chronicled, turned into an opera and is now retold in a new Netflix documentary. She is pictured with her husband J Howard Marshall
Anna Nicole Smith died of a drugs overdose at 39 in 2007 Her story is now retold in a new Netflix documentary titled Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me
Anna Nicole Smith is pictured on her wedding day to Texan billionaire J Howard Marshall in 1994. She is pictured with her son Daniel
Netflix’s depiction of a manipulative airhead who used men to get ahead doesn’t tally with the woman I knew.
As the West Coast correspondent for a major British newspaper, I interviewed Anna several times, went out for dinner with her (she would only ever order steamed spinach) and occasionally visited her at home. First at the ‘Marilyn house’ and later at a relatively modest bungalow in Bel Air, which she bought after, at the age of 26, she married 89-year-old, wheelchair-bound oil tycoon J Howard Marshall in 1994.
There were memorable photoshoots where she would turn up – often hours late – bleary-eyed from partying the previous night away. But point a camera towards her and she immediately ‘came alive’.
If people ask me who the most beautiful star I’ve met during my three decades here in Los Angeles is, there is always surprise when I don’t reply Angelina Jolie or Catherine Zeta-Jones – but Anna Nicole Smith.
In person, without make-up, she was pretty. But in front of a camera she had that magical ‘X’ factor. She was luminous. She also had street smarts in spades. Netflix covers her transformation from small-town Mexia, Texas, where she was born plain Vickie Lynn Hogan, into a Hollywood bombshell and portrays her as a victim of abuse, poverty, men, grasping Hollywood agents and the press.
But the Anna I remember was no victim – she knew what she wanted and went all out to get it.
She loved Dolly Parton’s famous quote: ‘I’m not offended by the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb – and I’m not blonde either.’
Anna moulded herself on her idol Marilyn. She once said: ‘I just feel a connection with Marilyn Monroe. I just love her.’
At the age of 26, Anna Nicole Smith married 89-year-old, wheelchair-bound oil tycoon J Howard Marshall in 1994
Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me (pictured still) is Netflix’s second most popular show in the UK currently
Anna Nicole Smith puts her head in her hand in footage from Netflix’s new show Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me
She was smart, sassy and curvaceous at a time when ‘heroin chic’ models such as Kate Moss ruled fashion catwalks. Like Monroe, she suffered problems with prescription drugs, which began after she underwent several breast-enhancement procedures.
One memorable night she told me her left breast was leaking silicone and she was in agony, saying: ‘I think it’s exploded.’ Within days she was having more surgery and being prescribed even more painkillers.
Yet, Anna was funny, feisty and nobody’s fool. I visited her hometown of Mexia, a godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere about 90 minutes south of Dallas. I briefly spoke to Billy Smith, her first husband and father of her son, Daniel, who met her when they both worked at Jim’s Krispy Fried Chicken fast food restaurant in the town.
Billy said he never stopped loving her and Anna ‘always had big dreams’. He never wanted to hold her back.
When Anna bailed on their marriage and went to Houston – and then to Los Angeles – she took Daniel with her.
When I told her I’d been to Mexia, she winked and said in her Texan drawl: ‘Betcha you know why I left there in a hurry?’
Daniel was the great love of her life and she was a devoted mother. She would tell me: ‘I want to give Daniel everything I never had.’
One morning I woke up at 5am after accidentally falling asleep at her house. Daniel was also awake and asked for toasted frozen waffles, which I happily made him.
When Anna came into the kitchen she asked if he’d thanked me and told him to draw me a picture as a ‘proper’ thank you.
She insisted on good manners. Daniel addressed every woman as ‘ma’am’ and every man as ‘sir’.
Smith and Marshall – each dressed in all white – married at the White Dove Wedding Chapel in Texas in 1994
Anna Nicole Smith and her husband J. Howard Marshall are pictured in front of a Christmas tree in 1995, shortly before Marshall’s death
Anna Nicole Smith initially to fame as pin-up girl in the 90s following photoshoots for Playboy and Guess
Sure, Anna had her problems. It was obvious she was on pills. There were containers of painkillers next to her bed and in her bathroom. She would slur her speech late at night. But she never neglected her son.
Daniel was always immaculately dressed. She made him clean his bedroom, although he was usually to be found in hers. He would sleep in her bed well into his early teens, something that might sound odd, but wasn’t when you saw them together. They were devoted to each other. She called him her ‘little protector’.
When Anna became emotional, it was Daniel who sat beside her with a box of tissues with his arms around her. She told me, more than once, that Daniel was her life.
Sometimes she would cry, particularly after the champagne or chardonnay had been flowing. Whatever dramas were going on in her life (and there were many), she would eventually dry her tears and say: ‘I have to be strong for Daniel. He needs me. I love my boy.’ Even when she talked about her ‘psychic’ connection to Marilyn Monroe (something I never fully understood), she would say: ‘I can’t go. I would never leave Daniel and he would never leave me.’
There are moments in the Netflix documentary that left me baffled. A woman who gives her name only as ‘Missy’ claims she had a long-term lesbian relationship with Anna and said they lived together as a couple, raising Daniel together.
Of course, this could be true but it’s strange that in the hundreds of interviews she gave and the hours and hours she spent with friends, Anna never mentioned this person.
Anna was never shy about discussing sex. She was never ashamed to talk about her sexual conquests and openly said she ‘experimented’ with girls. But she preferred men.
We once went to a famous celebrity restaurant, Le Dome, on Sunset Boulevard. As we entered the dining room, a waiter carrying a tray of drinks was so spellbound he walked straight into the back of an empty chair, dropping the lot.
Wherever she went, all eyes were on her. She knew it and she loved it.
I remember a party at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion. The patio was filled with gorgeous girls, including, I believe, Pamela Anderson, then at the peak of her Baywatch fame.
Netflix has touted the documentary as Smith’s definitive story. The former Playboy model is seen with her arms in the air in footage from the programme
Smith smiles at the camera in footage seen in Netflix’s new documentary series Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me
When Anna, all 5ft 11in of her – and even taller in the towering heels she was wearing – sashayed in, the place fell quiet. Hefner immediately walked across to greet her and didn’t leave her side for the rest of the night.
When she married J Howard Marshall in 1994, the jokes were brutal. In the Netflix show, Anna is accused of spending freely on his credit cards. Sure she did.
But I genuinely believe their love for each other was real. After Marshall died, she sobbed uncontrollably for weeks.
I remember asking her why she loved him: ‘He’s the only man who never wanted anything from me. He’s the kindest man I’ve ever met. He’s never hurt me.’
It was her greatest regret that Marshall died before adopting Daniel, which he had promised to do.
For the rest of her life she was embroiled in a bitter court battle over Marshall’s $2 billion fortune, a fight she ultimately lost.
I lost touch with Anna in the late-1990s, when she went on to have her own reality TV show, a precursor to shows such as The Kardashians. But as her drug problem worsened her work started to suffer and her career waned.
She became pregnant by Larry Birkhead, a handsome photographer, but then fled LA for the Bahamas with her lawyer Howard Stern, who said their flight was to escape the relentless paparazzi.
Anna Nicole Smith died from an accidental drug overdose in February 2007 aged just 39. She is pictured in 2004
One of Anna’s lovers, Larry Birkhead, who had a daughter Dannielynn, now 16, with her, last night slammed Netflix’s series (a still from the programme is pictured)
Netflix has released its series Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me, which is its second most popular programme currently
By then, Daniel was 20 and had appeared in some of his mother’s TV shows. His half-sister, Dannielynn, was born on September 7, 2006.
While visiting his mum and her newborn, Daniel died three days after Dannielynn’s birth of an accidental overdose of methadone and antidepressants.
I remember hoping against hope that Dannielynn’s birth would give Anna the strength to survive Daniel’s death. Sadly, it did not. Anna spiralled into depression and addiction and died of an accidental overdose on February 8, 2007. She was 39. Marilyn Monroe was 36 when she died of an overdose.
I regret never taking a picture with Anna but it was before the time of iPhones and selfies. In any case, as a friend, it wasn’t something that felt appropriate.
Today, looking at pictures of Dannielynn – who has been raised in Kentucky away from the lights of Hollywood by her father Larry – its’s hard to reconcile that the vivacious woman I got to know never celebrated her 40th birthday.
Anna Nicole Smith’s ultimate tragedy is that, after having the daughter she longed for, she lost the son she could not live without.
It is a tragedy that Netflix, by treating her as a ‘hustler’ who married an octogenarian billionaire, brutally diminishes a complicated woman and very proud mother.