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With Hank Stuever
Sunday, March 25, 2007

As the details of Anna Nicole Smith's death (you may have heard about it already) were being orgiastically reported in print and on TV, I was spending time at a spiritual retreat house in New Mexico that is staffed by nuns, one of whom, for reasons I'll never have enough space to explain, is my 73-year-old mother. Over dinner one night, the sisters asked me who, exactly, Anna Nicole was, and why everyone was so interested in her. I did my best to explain the basics of the "famous for being famous" dilemma, and also some of the essential Vickie Lynn Hogan narrative: from Mexia, Tex., greasy spoons to Playboy centerfolds to Guess jeans ads to . . . Well, I cut the biography short, and instead focused on the myriad legal issues, and opined that what might be interesting to people is the underlying tragedy of a beautiful woman's messes. Thus informed, the sisters reacted with sadness and their characteristic withholding of judgment.

Outside this peaceful cocoon were two sources of noise: the constant Anna Nicole coverage and the far more irritating outcry over the constant Anna Nicole coverage. Media watchdog groups started releasing statistics of just how much airtime was going to Anna Nicole, in lieu of news from Iraq. This pious nagging has become the usual accompaniment whenever a bizarre or shocking celebrity occurrence briefly hogs all the air time and news hole: How far has America fallen that it is helpless to resist such pap? How dumb are we? How dumb are our media? These are not altogether bad questions, and as the Anna Nicole show moved into the courtroom, it was indeed possible to feel that we'd collectively reached a nadir: How hard would it be to look away? Is there some sort of nationwide cultural rehab for so many minds in the gutter?

The argument falls apart. Those tut-tutters fail to understand that partakers of celeb gossip aren't all one dumb herd, but include many -- maybe a majority -- who view meta-mythological goings-on smartly, through a knowing prism (or so we tell ourselves). They also miss the most obvious fact: Anna Nicole was interesting alive, and fascinating dead.

I left the retreat house on a Saturday, driving the long way to Hollywood, to write about the Oscars. I stopped at a Shell mega-station and bought the largest diet soda possible, and a People magazine. "You look like you need your caffeine, so I'm not going to tell you 'Good morning,' " the clerk remarked. I grunted in assent.

"But would it cheer you up if I told you Britney Spears has shaved her head?" she asked.

Oh, immensely.

E-mail: celebrity@washpost.com


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