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Friday, February 9, 2007 - Page updated at 02:01 AM

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Living and dying in the spotlight

Anna Nicole Smith's media-hyped journey of celebrity ended at a venue as colorful as her life when she collapsed in Hollywood, Fla., and died later at a hospital.

Smith, 39, was found unconscious by her private nurse at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino around 1:39 p.m. Thursday and died about 2:49 p.m. at a local hospital, Seminole Tribe Police Chief Charlie Tiger said.

Smith's attorney, Ron Rale of Los Angeles, confirmed the death but did not comment on its cause.

"We don't have confirmation on how she died," he said.

The cause of death would be determined by an autopsy to be performed today. Final results could take several weeks.

Tiger said Smith was a regular patron at the Hard Rock and arrived Monday with attorney Howard K. Stern. Smith has said Stern is the father of her 5-month-old daughter, Dannielynn.

"She checked in Monday at 8 p.m. as a guest," a hotel spokeswoman said. Smith was due to check out today.

A nearby resident, Karen Stenzel-Nowicki, has complained to the hotel about noise from Smith's parties going back to November 2004, when Smith did a commercial for TrimSpa, the diet company for which, as a paid spokeswoman, she lost 69 pounds.

"We were being blasted out," Stenzel-Nowicki said of one publicized pool party that could be heard almost two miles away.

Embroiled in an epic court feud over hundreds of millions of dollars left behind by an elderly oil tycoon she married at 26 but never lived with, Smith cultivated a Marilyn Monroe image with her breathy singsong voice and va-va-voom figure.

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The former stripper-turned-Playboy Playmate of the Year, diet maven, reality-show star and prospective multimillionaire pursued fame with a dignity-be-damned abandon, and her life unfolded in lurid headlines, tragedy and triumph in outsize measure.

Her fight over the inheritance of J. Howard Marshall II took her to the Supreme Court last May. Paparazzi were on the steps as Smith walked past in a form-fitting suit.

Her death came only five months after her 20-year-old son, Daniel, mysteriously died at her hospital bedside in the Bahamas, where Smith had given birth to a daughter whose paternity immediately became a matter of legal dispute.

Rale, Smith's attorney, said his client had not felt well in recent days, suffering from flulike symptoms.

"I don't think anybody should have to endure what she's endured, having lost her son, people attacking her left and right," he said on MSNBC.

"I felt like Anna was the underdog, having all of this thrust upon her. And she really just wanted to be a mom, and she was a good mom."

Her baby was not in Florida, police there said, and was believed to still be in the Bahamas, where Smith set up housekeeping pending a formal inquiry into Daniel's death. An American medical examiner hired by the family has said her son's death was an accident caused by the reaction of methadone and two antidepressants.

A former boyfriend, Larry Birkhead, has filed a paternity suit claiming he fathered Dannielynn, and a Los Angeles judge had ordered Smith to have the baby undergo a DNA test by Feb. 21.

Shortly after Dannilelynn's birth, Smith identified Stern as the father, and the two staged a white-dress "commitment ceremony" they later admitted was nonbinding. They celebrated with champagne and buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Her life had been one of extremes ever since Vickie Lynn Hogan escaped the high-school-dropout life of teen bride.

First married to a fry cook named Billy Smith in Mexia, Texas, she worked at Wal-Mart and waitressed at Red Lobster before heading to Houston to pursue her fortune as a topless dancer. It was as a stripper that she met Marshall, 63 years her senior.

While in Houston, a friend urged Smith to send photographs to Playboy, which featured her as 1993 Playmate of the Year, and the persona of Anna Nicole was not so much born as invented.

She became famous as a Guess jeans model, her curves and sleepy-eyed gaze conjuring the ghosts of Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. There were soon other memorable photographs, as well -- of Anna Nicole burying the wizened head of the wheelchair-bound Marshall in her ample bosom.

The unlikely pair married in 1994. After the ceremony, the bride told her husband -- whispered, according to People magazine -- "Bye, darling, I'm off to Greece."

Smith parlayed numerous Playboy videos showing her in fancy cars and bubble baths into B-movie roles, cameos in sitcoms and, later, her reality TV show.

Marshall's 1995 death triggered a long contest for the estate between Smith and her 60-year-old stepson, E. Pierce Marshall. At one point she was awarded $474 million, later reduced to $89 million and then overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Supreme Court last year sent the case back to the 9th Circuit to resolve several remaining questions, but the stepson died soon afterward.

Despite Smith's death, the suit is likely to continue in the name of her daughter, lawyers for both sides said.

When a biography segment about her on E! Entertainment Television brought high ratings, the network gave her a program in 2002, "The Anna Nicole Show," one of the first so-called celebrity reality series. It aired for two years despite a beating from television reviewers.

Before the show's debut, she touted it in a press release. "People won't be able to stop watching once they tune in," she said. "My life is a roller coaster, so hold on and enjoy the ride."

Background on Smith's court case was provided by the Los Angeles Times.

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