Anna Nicole Smith Dying in My Hometown Gave Me a Religious Awakening

Ten years ago this week, a pop culture earthquake erupted when Anna Nicole overdosed in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino a few blocks away from my mother's house...

by Mitchell Sunderland
Feb 7 2017, 4:35pm

Collage by Callie Beusman

This Week in 2007 is a weekly column looking back on Lindsay Lohan, the first iPhone, George W. Bush, and everything else we loved about the year 2007.

I don't recall where I was when my grandfather, childhood dog, or best friend died. Either the deaths were so traumatic that I blocked the memories, or their passings weren't as vital to my emotional development as I'd like to believe. But I remember exactly where I sat when Anna Nicole Smith died.

It was February 8, 2007, a Thursday afternoon in South Florida. I lay out on a row of seats in the back of the theater at my expensive private school, which was called American Heritage and located in a ritzy suburb called Plantation. (The gross appropriateness of the school's name was lost on everyone.) I had signed up to stage manage the school's production of Cats, and I was watching a rehearsal with my friend Jolene, who was working as the spotlight operator. Jolene wore Juicy Couture sweatsuits, had long red hair that fell down to her butt, and bullied other girls. She was gossiping with another theater girl via text on her Sidekick.

Read more: How 2007 Became a Meme

During rehearsals, I was, as always, bored out of my mind. To me, the Sunshine State was a peninsula of ennui; I lived in a beach town called Hollywood, Florida, also known as Hollywood, Not California, and even though I lived in a neighborhood populated by outrageous figures—my mom claims Timothy McVeigh held me as a baby—I found my life dull. Every night, I watched Inside Edition and fell asleep dreaming about salacious events taking place in New York and LA. Some nights, after reciting my "Our Father," I even prayed to God for drama. (I'm agnostic, but years of Catholic mass have locked me into tradition.)

In retrospect, I only needed to look a few rows ahead at my theater professors for outrageousness. Mrs. Chao, the band teacher, leaned forward, while my theater professor, Mr. Russell, tried to roll his eyes. (His Botox made him struggle to make common facial expressions, and he was pissed about a dancer fucking up her choreography.) He whispered his complaints to Carole, the dance instructor who had previously worked as "a Las Vegas showgirl." Carole and Mr. Russell had reinvented Cats as a musical set in World War II London. Instead of meeting in a junkyard, the felines congregated in a bombed-out cathedral, waiting to find out who would make it to "the heaviside layer," which is Andrew Lloyd Webber–speak for "heaven."

Midway through "Prologue: Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats," Mrs. Chao leapt from her seat and held her silver T-Mobile Sidekick in the air like a saber. "Stop the show!" she yelled, waving her phone back and forth. "Stop the show!" I jumped up. What was going on? Mr. Russell grabbed Mrs. Chao's arm, trying to yank her back to her seat, and Carole sprang to her feet, nearly knocking her bedazzled eyeglasses off her face. How dare Mrs. Chao interrupt Carole's musical number? Mrs. Chao pushed them aside. "Anna Nicole is dead!" she cried. "Anna Nicole Smith is dead, and she died at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino!"

Gasps echoed through the auditorium. Carole cut the music. "Turn on the lights!" Mr. Russell shrieked. Mrs. Chao put her palm on her forehead. I cheered. Three years earlier, the Seminole tribe had opened the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino a few blocks away from my mother's McMansion in Hollywood, and now Anna Nicole Smith and her diet-drug butt injections had brought real Hollywood scandal to my hometown. As Jolene said, "This is, like, a big deal."

Photo by Carlo Allegri, courtesy of Getty Images

Looking back, I am unsure exactly why I thought South Florida needed Anna Nicole's corpse to give my life a glittery scandal. For one, my mom, the owner of South Florida's biggest puppy store, had left my dad, her pet shop manager, for a dog breeder, whom I later discovered was my biological father. (Like Anna Nicole's daughter, Dannielynn Hope, I went through an epic paternity battle, except mine happened in college.) At school, I socialized with countless girls who claimed their dads' fortunes stemmed from "owning rose gardens," and I watched kids regularly show up to first period still rolling from after-hours parties in South Beach. But I lacked the context to see the depths of Florida's darkness. Years of attending Catholic mass—where priests chided devotees through judgmental homilies, in stained glass–covered churches that were flashier than the Fontainebleau—had infused me with penchants for both rebellious celebrities and tacky interior design. Of course I considered the Hard Rock glamorous—the casino kept Elvis's white pants in a frame on a wall!

When I arrived home from Cats rehearsal, I kicked my baby brother, Andrew, off the leather couch, where he played Nintendo, and dove into CNN's marathon of Anna Nicole news. The deceased Playboy model was to cable news in 2007 what Donald Trump is today. They ran through how the Texan stripper had married oil billionaire J. Howard Marshall, graced the cover of Playboy, posed pouty-faced in a stack of hay in an iconic Guess jeans ad, wore a wedding dress to her hubby's funeral, filed lawsuits against his son for the money she claimed she was owed, descended into drugs, lived with her lawyer (the aptly named Howard Stern), starred on reality TV before it was cool, had her case heard at the Supreme Court, and then gave birth to a daughter three days before her son Daniel died. And now the drama had come to Hollywood, Not California.

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My dad asked me to go to the Publix on Griffin Road to buy fried chicken for dinner, and I protested. I wanted to watch the story unfold. I pouted the whole drive to the grocery store, but when I arrived, I found rows of news station vans, with satellites on their roofs, parked across the street near the Irish pub. Down the road was the Broward County Office of the Medical Examiner and Trauma Services, where the city kept Anna Nicole's body for nearly a month. Traffic jammed on Griffin Road for weeks. It took me an hour to drive to school.

I loved every minute of it. I would listen to the radio, hearing reports about how several men—Anna Nicole's attorney, her bodyguard, her photographer ex-boyfriend Larry Birkhead, and Zsa Zsa Gabor's husband, Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt—each claimed to be the father of Dannielynn Hope. (In April 2007, a DNA specialist declared Birkhead the father.) One day, a girl named Belle showed up to French class exhausted. "My stepmother kept me up all night," she said. "She was crying because she related so much to Anna Nicole Smith." I struck up a conversation with her, and we became close friends.

After school, my friends all obsessed over Anna Nicole's death at Cats rehearsals. Both students and the theater teachers even began referring to the school's smaller performing space as "the Anna Nicole Smith Theater for the Performing Arts." One night before showtime, while dressed as cats, a few kids huddled together. "As we dance tonight, Anna Nicole, please bless us with your light," they prayed. Prayers to Anna Nicole became commonplace. When my friend Molly couldn't come to a party because her dad grounded her, Jolene and I got on our knees and prayed to Anna Nicole.

I can only guess at why my friends turned the Playboy Playmate into a deity. For me, the ritualistic behavior went a little deeper than a simple appreciation for ridiculousness. My Catholic schoolboy adoration for rebellion had made me a Madonna fan in second grade, and Anna Nicole was a natural progression.The reality TV pariah led a life revolving around judgment and justice, court battles so big they landed her, an uneducated Texan stripper, at America's biggest court.

Anna Nicole also blessed me with awareness of my home state I had previously lacked. While watching a TV replay of the court battle over Anna Nicole's body (not to be confused with the paternity debacle), I saw Florida Circuit Court Judge Larry Seidlin cry when he decided custody of Anna Nicole's body would go to the five-month-old Dannielynn (who would be supervised by a court-appointed guardian), meaning she would be buried in the Bahamas with Daniel. Even though Seidlin's tears were far less outrageous than incidents I had seen in school, seeing him cry on TV made me wake up, and I began to see local spectacles all over my supposedly boring hometown. The people who wore spandex as jeans, the highway's purple neon Cheetah Gentlemen's Club signs, the people who sell machine guns out of their trucks at the market—they were there all along. Ten years later, I still occasionally catch myself with my eyes closed, thinking of the Texan stripper in her white wedding veil next to her husband in a wheelchair, praying, "Dear Anna Nicole..."

*Some names and identifying features have been changed.