Anna Nicole Smith, who died on Thursday aged 39, was a former stripper and Playboy centrefold and became a star of American reality television on the strength of her eye-popping figure and her brief, notorious marriage to one of the richest oilmen in Texas; although she endured tabloid obloquy as "the queen of trailer trash" she revelled in her claim to rank among the best-known widows in the world.
In 1991, as a penniless 22-year-old, she was pole-dancing at a seedy club in Houston when she caught the eye of J Howard Marshall II, a Yale-educated, wheelchair-bound tycoon almost four times her age. He had a reported $1.4 billion fortune in oil stocks and "a strong yearning", as his son later put it, "for large breasts".
By the time Marshall had wooed and won her — they were married in June 1994, the bride absenting herself afterwards with her handsome black bodyguard — Anna Nicole's 42 DD charms had also caught the attention of Playboy magazine; she was a cover girl in March 1992, posed naked for the centrefold (as Vickie Smith) in May and in June 1993 (as Anna Nicole) was named Playmate of the Year.
During their courtship Marshall flew her to New York where, in less than an hour, she spent $2 million on jewellery, charging it to his platinum American Express card; by the end of his life Marshall was said to have lavished a total of $6 million on her — $4 million in jewellery and the balance on property, cars, furs and spending money.
Her marriage to Marshall (or "Poopsie Baby", as she called him) lasted only 403 days and ended with his death in August 1995 from a heart attack at the age of 89; told by her husband's family to stay away from the official funeral, she held one of her own, dressed in her spectacular white wedding gown which struggled to contain her precipitous embonpoint: "It plunged so deep," noted one observer, "it almost struck oil."
For most of the last decade Anna Nicole Smith was embroiled in a bitterly-fought court case in which she claimed half her late husband's estate, now reported to have swollen to $1.6 billion. In 2002 she made her debut in a short-lived reality series on American cable television, The Anna Nicole Show. The programme focused on her increasingly rackety private life, but, while achieving a certain cult status (particularly among college fraternities), its initial record ratings quickly fell away, and the show was cancelled in February 2004.
She was born Vickie Lynn Hogan on November 28 1967 at Mexia, Texas, and was, she claimed, abandoned by her father. Her mother, a deputy sheriff who once wrestled her headstrong daughter to the floor, clapped her in handcuffs and locked her up for drink-driving.
Having dropped out of high school, Vickie Lynn worked as a fast-food waitress, and was briefly married to Billy Wayne Smith, a short order chef, by whom, at the age of 18, she had a son. Moving to Houston, the mousy, flat-chested teenager took a job as a cashier at Wal-Mart and another as a waitress before reinventing herself as a peroxided, silicone-enhanced vamp, and announcing that she planned to become "the next Marilyn Monroe".
When her modelling career took off following her exposure in Playboy, Anna Nicole replaced the supermodel Claudia Schiffer as the face of a jeans company, in a campaign series of black-and-white photographs that emphasised her voluptuous blonde appeal.
Glamour shoots like these led to film parts, although her appearance as a gold-digging bimbo in The Hudsucker Proxy and as Tanya in Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (both 1994) were critically mauled. In the same year her image was further tarnished when an American magazine featured her on the cover eating crisps while squatting in a short skirt and cowboy boots, under the headline "White Trash Nation". Anna Nicole's lawyer launched a $5 million lawsuit against the magazine, claiming unauthorised use of her image and damage to her reputation.
This action, however, was dwarfed by the lengthy and ongoing legal battle that Anna Nicole Smith launched after the death of her husband for a share of his fortune. The case of Marshall v Marshall quickly degenerated into an unseemly tussle over Marshall's will, providing Americans with a daily television sideshow in which Anna Nicole, frequently dabbing her eyes and clasping his small, framed photograph to her bosom, disputed her husband's estate with his son, E Pierce Marshall.
The case exacted a heavy toll; her acting career stalled, and she put on weight; that was remedied by full body liposuction which required pain relief, medication she ingested in a haze of drink and Valium. Her personal life disintegrated. In 2001 she was stalked by a dumped, obsessive boyfriend who eventually came after her with a knife, which he held to her throat, and who later threatened to shoot her (he was given a lengthy jail term).
Following further indifferent film roles (in 2005 she appeared as herself in Be Cool opposite John Travolta and Uma Thurman), Anna Nicole Smith's public appearances became increasingly bizarre: on Australian television in 2005 she pulled down her dress to reveal both breasts, each sporting the MTV logo, and had earlier slurred her way through a live radio broadcast, when she invited the presenter to take off his trousers.
She was twice treated in hospital for depression; piled on (and then lost) 80 lbs in weight — thanks, she said, to TrimSpa slimming pills, for which she was a paid spokeswoman; and took to turning up in court wearing theatrical make-up, fierce black eyebrows and kohl-lined eyes, big hair dyed white, heels high, cleavage low. "As you watched," noted a writer for The Sunday Telegraph, "you had to wonder: was she just a visual phenomenon or was she, like many a 'dumb' blonde before her, a truly gifted character actress?"
The labyrinthine twists and turns of suit and countersuit reached what appeared to be the endgame last May, when a decision by the US Supreme Court on a question of jurisdiction affirmed Anna Nicole's right to pursue her share of the Marshall millions in a federal court. E Pierce Marshall, her principal opponent, died suddenly the following month aged 67, leaving his widow to represent him.
Anna Nicole Smith divorced her first husband in 1993. Last September, 11 years after the death of J Howard Marshall, she went through an "informal commitment ceremony" with her long-time lawyer, Howard K Stern; at the same time, Stern's name appeared on the birth certificate of Anna Nicole's new-born daughter, although paternity is disputed by her former boyfriend, Larry Birkhead, a photo-journalist. In September, her 20-year-old son, Daniel, by her first husband died of a suspected drug overdose three days after the birth of Anna Nicole's daughter, Dannielynn Hope.