Blogging about the media, commenting on the cult of celebrity, and critiquing the U.S. feminist movement.

Friday, February 09, 2007

15 Minutes Stretched to 15 Years

In 1992 Anna Nicole Smith's Faux Marilyn Monroe Replaced Claudia Schiffer's Faux Bridgette Bardot in Ads for Guess

. . . Faux Celebrity?

. . . Guess

One of the strangest things about the media's coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's sudden death yesterday is how many commentators cannot pinpoint her celebrity-making moment. What's more, most don't even mention her breakout appearance in Guess's gimmicky (but extraordinarily popular) early 1990s black-and-white ad campaigns evoking sexpots of eras past -- campaigns that in the process turned the Faux Faces into Celebrity Names in their own right. Recall that time period, if you lived through it: Guess had come on strong at the very end of the 1980s as the jeans to have branded on your rear end if you were in high school or college. Buying Guess jeans cost at least double the price of any other brand, and the silhouette was unflattering on most figures (too tight in the wrong places, too short on most legs) but if you were a typical teen you had to have them.

By the early 1990s the Guess juggernaut shifted into high gear with the introduction of its black-and-white sultry-sexpots-of-past-eras campaigns featuring Claudia Schiffer and Anna Nicole Smith. These ads appealed to a young GenerationX that didn't yet have its own Face but longed for the fun and the glamour of such personas, even if they were fakes. (How much more did that prime us and our culture for the entrance and celebration of true original Kate Moss less than one year later, over at Calvin Klein in 1993? Moss's waif look became the look that embodied our own era; the term Supermodel, if already coined, finally entered common usage.)

You can argue that Anna Nicole Smith appearing in that classic Guess ad campaign shouldn't have amounted to even 15 minutes of fame, but it *was* a bonafide celebrity-turning breakout moment (as our society defines celebrity, anyway). Claudia Schiffer's celebrity-turning breakout moment came in that campaign, too, and last I checked Claudia Schiffer is still a Celebrity Name to this day. So is Kate Moss, for that matter. Do any of them deserve it? Have any of them done anything other than run away with their breakout moments and stayed in the headlines?

Okay, from this point on I don't know where I'm going with this, I admit it. But it's bizarre to have so many commentators in the media -- especially during a week when Paris Hilton (she of Guess's current advertising campaign) is splashed on the cover of no less than Newsweek!?! -- "don't get" Anna Nicole Smith's celebrity. Disengenuous much?

Finally, I do want to correct another common misrepresentation of Anna Nicole Smith made by many commentators. They routinely say something like: She dropped out of high school at 16 to marry her sweetheart, have a baby, and work at Wal*Mart. Suddenly she jumped to the cover of Playboy and then roped in an oil billionaire more than 60 years her senior, who promptly croaked one year later leaving her all of his money (a designation still contested in the courts after having gone all the way to the Supremes). Let's at least be fair here: Anna Nicole Smith met J. Howard Marshall, the billionaire, in her early 20s when she was a single mom working as an exotic dancer. Marshall was a frequent customer at the Houston strip club where she worked. Marshall took her in, paid for "photographers, publicists, wardrobe, living expenses, hair and make-up stylists, bodyguards, talent agents, attorneys and a host of other support staff" and encouraged her to get a boob job. Then Anna Nicole Smith's career took off; she famously appeared on the March 1992 issue of Playboy. The Guess contract came next, then in 1993 Smith posed as Playboy's centerfold, called "the next Marilyn Monroe," and eventually became that year's Playmate of the Year. The gold digger didn't marry the old man until June 27, 1994.



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