One year ago, coverage of Anna Nicole’s death tended to go in one of two directions. Either she was memorialized as a breathtaking beauty who was little more than a victim of a cruel culture, or she was mocked for having made one laugably bad life choice after another.
These two views stem from opposing interpretations of her life and death. Was she a victim of a culture in which her only hope of social mobility was leveraging her sex appeal for fame and money and then leveraging that fame once the sex appeal and money ran out? Or was she just an idiot who simply made bad choice after bad choice? If her rise and fall is structural, we are all to blame; if its due to her own agency, then we owe her nothing but scorn.Both of these readings are premised on the assumption that Anna Nicole was a tremendous failure. Yet, the fact that we are still writing about her, a year after her passing, should be proof enough that this is simply not the case. In fact, Anna Nicole was that rare “strong celebrity” who is actually able to transform the terrain of popular culture.
Rather than simply appearing on the radar and then vanishing after her 15 minutes were over, she redefined what it means to be famous, in part by misreading the cultural legacy of her idol, Marilyn Monroe.
Whereas Marilyn’s nude photos surfaced only after she was a movie star, Anna Nicole was introduced to us in the pages of Playboy. Marilyn became famous in Hollywood and then married/had affairs with baseball stars, playwrights, and the president; Anna Nicole became famous after marrying a billionaire and then starred in a reality TV show. Marilyn died at the height of her popularity, still the beautiful icon we remember her as; Anna Nicole forced us to pay attention through the weight gains, weight loss, supreme court cases, and paternity struggles.In doing so, Anna Nicole invented a space in popular culture for the B-list celebrity, pioneering the “Celebreality” genre at the same time as Ozzy Osbourne.
She showed that it is possible to stay in the limelight even after most people have forgotten why you were famous in the first place. Without her, we wouldn’t have Flavor of Love, Paris Hilton, or the ongoing media circus that is Britney Spears’s life. It is up to you whether you hate her or love her for this legacy, but to fail to acknowledge it is to do her a grave injustice.