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Anna Nicole Smith, American

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Anna Nicole Smith, 39, died today. She wasn’t a TV star, exactly, though CNN describes her as that; by the time she made her reality TV series she was already disturbingly down the path of dissolution and collapse, and it made her show excruciating to watch even for somebody paid to watch excruciating TV. [Update: Biography Channel doesn’t waste any time–they just announced a special for Saturday night.] She wasn’t a supermodel, exactly, though she became famous as a Playboy Playmate and Guess jeans model. If I have to sum her up, she was an object, and an object lesson. She was somebody we spent a lot of time looking at, and then judging.

There was plenty that was tragic about Smith’s life–tragic in the common sense of “sad”: being entangled for over a decade in an ugly legal battle over the nine-figure estate of her late, octogenarian husband, her son dying just after the birth last year of her baby, and, of course, dying young herself and leaving her baby daughter in the midst of a paternity dispute.

But there was also plenty that was tragic in the classic sense of ambition, overreach and downfall. She made herself into Marilyn Monroe, right down to the collapse and early death–that will probably be a line in all her obituaries–but then Marilyn Monroe made herself into Marilyn Monroe. Judge it all you want, there is something essentially American about all the body sculpting and image-crafting. America is about new starts and self-invention, and the pilgrims and noble refugees don’t have a monopoly on it. Smith was more self-made than most of us who call ourselves that.

Flame me, or flame her, if you want, but if Smith messed up her life, she did so through wanting the things that so many Americans want–fame, fortune, success, notoriety–wanting them worse and single-mindedly and clumsily and ultimately self-destructively. She was no role model, but she was America supersized and gone sour. And I don’t feel like judging her for it.