Morality Tale:

As millions today celebrate a celebrity who started out sleek and sexy and wound up puffy and bloated, it's a good time to pay homage to another star who is following the same trajectory. That's right, folks: Anna Nicole Smith.

Unlike Elvis, however, Smith has no discernable talents, save an insatiable desire for fame that overrides any sense of shame she otherwise might feel. Star of her own reality TV series, The Anna Nicole Show, Smith won E! television the largest premiere audience for any cable show when her series debuted two weeks ago. This week's offering lost some viewers -- and that's a pity, because Smith's show imparts some important, cautionary lessons about the tragic price of pursuing fame.

E! execs jumped on the celebrity reality TV bandwagon after witnessing the meteoric success of MTV's The Osbournes. That surprise hit chronicled the doddering ways of Papa "Prince of Darkness" Osbourne and his menagerie of naughty pets and family members. Digging around for their own has-been celebrity to stalk, E! found former fried chicken hut employee, Playmate, and alleged gold-digger Anna Nicole Smith (née Vickie Lynn Hogan).

Smith's life is True Hollywood Story perfect -- a stripper-rags to inheritance-court riches tale. In 1991, Smith was working at a Houston strip club when she caught the eye of billionaire J. Howard Marshall II. They married three years later, when she was 26 and he was 89. When he passed away after a mere fourteen months, Smith was horrified to find that he had left her nothing, and sued Marshall's son for the inheritance. After years of court battles, a federal judge granted her $88.5 million, but the money has yet to surface.

On E!, Smith manages to have fun without her fortune. So far, we've accompanied her and her entourage (usually assistant Kim Walther and ever-present lawyer Howard K. Stern) on a house-hunting trip, a Guess? gala, and a home-decorating spree. Along the way, Smith throws tantrums, weeps, humps beds and her assistant, gets her overstuffed ottoman of an ass stuck between table legs, and bitches and moans about not getting laid in two years.

Just looking at her is a trip. Smith's fake-blonde 'do and Brobdignagian breast implants make for a disconcerting vision, especially when paired with her babydoll voice and drugged-out demeanor. She's a roaring, turbo-engined, impossibly voluptuous vehicle for sex -- but she's so out of it, so incompetent, you almost wish someone would take her keys away.

Not surprisingly, the show has attracted all manner of critic-turned-church-lady outrage, and I had my own horrified reaction after seeing the first installment. I had been hoping for something like The Eyes of Tammy Faye (a documentary that was so effective in its affectionate treatment of its televangelist subject that I couldn't help but see the rather sweet woman behind the mascara). Instead, I got a show that didn't spare its blowsy, hard-up, seemingly not-too-bright subject one moment of humiliation.

But just as I was puffing myself up to full righteous indignation, I remembered that I was watching E! -- that home of celebrity gossip, slobbery interviews, and the pleasurable evil that is Joan and Melissa "Who Let the Cats Out" Rivers, whose commentary hit moral rock bottom when they hissed that then-preteenage singer Charlotte Church's butt looked a little chunky. E! is one of the prime media engines for promoting and feeding off vapid stardom. That they dared show the roadkill on the road to celebrity, the consequences of lusting after fame, struck me as almost a little daring.

Because lust after fame Smith does. Her usual expression is either blank or pouty, but when Smith gets dolled up for her Guess? party, her entire demeanor changes. She narrows her eyes, licks her lips: "Come on. I dare you. Bring it on, big boy." On the receiving end of this display, I felt like she had reached out and molested me. She coos, "I love my paparazzi. It feels so good to have everyone calling my name," and she'll do almost anything to get that high.

Everyone around her encourages her dependence on fame: Their livelihood depends on it. And they, too, will do anything to make Smith feel worshipped. Long-suffering assistant Kim has an Anna Nicole tattoo on her arm. Smith's dog -- in perhaps the lowest form of flattery -- mounts a stuffed animal and boffs away. Evidently Sugar Pie saw Smith "fucking a guy" one day; the next, the poodle was getting it on with a teddy bear.

Worst of all is Bobby Trendy, a designer whom Smith hires to outfit her new home. As he attempts to sell her on a style that can only be described as Haute Whore, he pushes a mirrored table, "so you can look at yourself and the view all day." Then he proposes putting pictures of her on pillows and quells her mumbled protest with the declaration, "It's about celebrating the owner of the home."

"Hmm," she quavers, not quite sure about all of it. "I could sleep with myself."

But then came an unexpected moment. Just when I thought I had the show figured out -- it was a morality tale, required viewing for celebrity wanna-bes everywhere -- I got my Tammy Faye scene. At one moment Smith weeps as she watches her Larry King interview; she's explaining her relationship to her husband. "Nobody did things for me and my son [a bright sixteen-year-old from a previous relationship] like that, and cared about me....I never knew love like that," she says, declaring that she truly loved Marshall and "felt safe" with him despite not feeling any physical attraction. Later, she brings home her half of her husband's ashes (his son has the other half), walks him through her new house, shows him that she still has his gifts to her, and cries the whole time.

And suddenly I saw Smith not as a desperate, embarrassing pop tart, but as a remarkably needy woman -- someone who calls her son and asks, "You love me...more than all the fishes in the sea?" and treats her assistant like a playground ride. She almost seems terrified to leave her house of mirrors -- her fans, her entourage who watch her and reflect her back to herself. Stepping past a flotilla of stuffed animals, she gently places the urn containing her husband's ashes on the TV in her bedroom. "There," she says. "Now he can watch me sleep."

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