Ten years after her death, Diana retains the power to fascinate. Three weeks after her death, at least, the same can be said of Anna Nicole.

At Sunday's Academy Awards, to no one's surprise, Helen Mirren won Best Actress for her portrayal{vbar}http://www.thequeen-movie.com of an out-of-touch monarch befuddled by the outpouring of public grief over the death of a princess.

Mirren's Oscar arrived the same month that we across the pond have been mesmerized by the death of the ultimate commoner.

With Princess Di and Anna Nicole Smith, to paraphrase Marx{vbar}http://www.bartleby.com/66/53/38153.html, celebrity repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.

The public obsession with Diana -- and by public, I mean female public, for DianaMania was overwhelmingly a girl thing -- is easy to explain. As my late friend Marjorie Williams wrote{vbar}http://www.womanatthewashingtonzoo.com/ after Diana's death, "Diana brought to life, on the grandest scale, the archetype of the princess inscribed on every girl's heart."

Feminists though we might have been, we woke up early to watch her fairy-tale wedding, even if we tutted about those overdone sleeves. Mothers that we had become, we wept at the card, inscribed "Mummy" in a child's hand, nestled amid the flowers on her coffin.

The public interest in Smith -- for all her all-too-obvious appeal to men, the posthumous AnnaMania feels to me like another mostly female obsession -- is a far less attractive phenomenon. The hawkers of Anna Nicole Inc. understood this perfectly: "America's Guiltiest Pleasure!" proclaims the DVD cover of "The Anna Nicole Show{vbar}http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0328732/."

Now that she is dead, we can't stop watching, like rubberneckers at a grisly car crash. Or, for that matter, talking about it. Dannielynn, who's your daddy? It's turned into a low-rent game of Clue: The faux prince in the Bahamas with Viagra? Howard Marshall from the afterlife with a turkey baster?

The difference between our attitudes toward Diana and Anna Nicole is the difference between dreaming and gawking. Diana tapped into our desire to dress up and play princess; Anna Nicole evoked our inner Mean Girl, allowing us to feel oh-so-superior. She was everything our mothers warned us against, a slutty object of ridicule rather than desire.

But our derisive interest in Anna Nicole is leavened with a dollop of "you go, girl" admiration for her unbridled, up-by-her-bootstraps moxie. The stripper not only married a billionaire customer 63 years her senior -- she wore her wedding veil to his funeral 14 months later. The former Jim's Krispy Fried Chicken waitress litigated her claim to his money all the way to the Supreme Court -- and won{vbar}http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/01/AR2006050101271.html.

I confess: The helicopters-whirring, wall-to-wall cable coverage of Anna Nicole's death took me by surprise. I felt rather like the Queen holed up at Balmoral, mystified by all the hullaballoo.

If, like me, you didn't pay much attention to Anna Nicole when she was alive -- if it took you, too, a while to figure out that she wasn't with that Howard Stern{vbar}http://www.sirius.com/howard -- you may have also recently found yourself drawn to the latest episode of the Anna Nicole Show.

The court hearing on what to do about Anna Nicole's body -- I was home sick, wallowing in the cable coverage -- was the most mindlessly compelling television since the O.J. car chase. And, like that drama on an L.A. freeway, it was a quintessentially American spectacle, presided over by a Bronx-taxi-driver-turned-probate-judge who made Lance Ito look like Felix Frankfurter.

For all the British proclivity for public toe-sucking, embarrassing endearments (one of Diana's lovers called her "Squidgy") and bizarre sex scandals, only America could produce an Anna Nicole Smith.

If Diana was England's rose, Anna Nicole was America's daisy -- or Daisy Mae. Like the L'il Abner character{vbar}http://www.lil-abner.com/daisymae.html, she embodied the "White Trash Nation." New York Magazine illustrated a cover story{vbar}http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2007/02/anna_nicole_and_new_york_a_nol_1.html of that title with a pouty photo of Smith wearing a tight halter top and white cowboy boots and with a bag of Cheez Doodles positioned strategically in front of her crotch. In true American fashion, she sued for defamation.

By the time of her death, Diana's life had veered far from the storybook princess plotline. She'd had her share of noble causes -- AIDS, land mines -- but also her share of ignoble cads, starting with the not-so-handsome prince who cheated on her (and vice versa).

Anna Nicole was, of course, a pathetic case, addled by drugs, surrounded by users who feasted off her largess, enveloped by tragedy. A self-styled knock-off Marilyn, she was destined to suffer Marilyn's fate, but more as laughingstock than legend.

Happily ever after was never in the cards, for the princess or the Playmate. Celebrity ever after -- well, in an "Entertainment Tonight" culture, that may be more easily achieved.

marcusr@washpost.com