An inevitable demise, for all the world to see

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Anna Nicole Smith, dead. Shocking? Hardly. Her life was a slow-motion train wreck, and we all had a front-row seat to the inevitable carnage. She was one of those famous-for-being-famous types, a stripper-turned-Playboy centerfold-turned-dubious heiress-turned-reality TV icon who proved an engaging sideshow in the celebrity circus. Step right up and eye the zany blonde with the big boobs and the even bigger dreams!

We have only begun to see the Anna Nicole tabloid frenzy that's destined to continue unfolding over the next several weeks and months. Tons of ink will be spilled and hours of airtime devoted to the tragedy of Smith's life. She'll no doubt be compared with Marilyn Monroe. Same hair color. Similar bust size. Same "candle in the wind"-style naivete and lousy luck in love. And the coup de grace: dying in her 30s for seemingly no good reason.

This is not to say that Smith's legacy resides anywhere close to Monroe's prodigious shadow. Whereas Marilyn was a tortured soul with genuine talent and timeless sex appeal, Anna Nicole was always much more of an opportunist, a pretender who achieved her fame through luck and pluck. Monroe was the real deal, Smith an exhibitionistic cartoon.

But perhaps the greatest contrast between Monroe and Smith was this: Marilyn didn't covet the brass ring, was bequeathed it anyway and never grew fully comfortable wearing it. Anna Nicole desperately wanted the ring, couldn't quite snare it yet strove throughout her short life to convince the world she had it.

Smith proved a pop culture icon in the exact same way Paris Hilton is: a living joke with a knack for the spotlight and an utter blindness to self-aware irony. She was very much Andy Warhol's kind of gal.

It's difficult to detect the precise moment when Smith began her evolution from freakish-but-jovial punch line to pitiable and finally tragic figure, but it was probably sometime in the summer of 2002 following the premiere of her humiliating unscripted "The Anna Nicole Show" on E! that served to glorify the woman's complicity in her own degradation.

While E! tried to play it all for laughs -- complete with jaunty theme music and a dysfunction-is-funny vibe -- the show felt even at the time like a crass exercise in exploitation and voyeurism. Let's all snicker at the vulnerable, unkempt whack job as she colorfully sinks to the bottom. It was an appalling example of TV serving as shameless enabler.

This is certainly not, however, to imply that showbiz killed Anna Nicole Smith. That already is no doubt the popular perception throughout the tabloid media (now a close cousin of the mainstream). That whole victim-of-fame verdict is irresistibly maudlin and heartrending and tidily sums up a life lived in the emotional equivalent of a blender.

Yeah, it has everything you'd want in a sensational story, save for truth.

When you think about it, having Smith's wrenchingly sad demise ascribed to simple fate represents the final blow to the woman's character. It casts her death as the preordained climax of a downward spiral she was powerless to halt, triggered by an entertainment culture that used and abused her with wanton abandon.

But Hollywood has no blood on its hands this time. No matter what the true cause of her passing is determined to be, whether attributed to narcotics or simply a fatal accumulation of heartache, Anna Nicole stumbled through life and sank into the abyss without our assistance. All we did was rubberneck. That, after all, is what we do best.
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