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Family, friends grieve loss of tabloid star

Story Highlights

• Smith was centerfold, billionaire's widow, reality TV star
• Faced suits on inheritance, baby's paternity, weight-loss ads
• Visible in recent years as spokeswoman for TrimSpa
• Guess Jeans CEO recalls "drama" around Smith
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(CNN) -- Anna Nicole Smith, the voluptuous former model whose life as a Playboy centerfold, billionaire's widow and reality TV star made her the center of tabloid attention, is dead.

She was 39.

Smith was found Thursday "unconscious and unresponsive" in her room at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino & Hotel in Hollywood, Florida, according to Hollywood Fire and Rescue. (Full story)

"I am very saddened to learn about Anna Nicole's passing," a statement from Playboy founder Hugh Hefner said. "She was a dear friend who meant a great deal to the Playboy family and to me personally." (Watch Anna Nicole Smith's improbable, tragic story Video)

A statement from Smith's sister, Donna Hogan, said the family was "saddened and heartbroken" by the actress's death.

"We feel that the death of her son left her deeply saddened, a sadness she hid from everyone," part of the statement read. "As a mother of three children, I am anguished by this tragic event and the fact that her new baby daughter, Dannielynn Hope, is now without a mother."

Smith's death comes after a year of controversies that kept her in the public eye. ( Anna Nicole storiesexternal link)

Last February, she attended U.S. Supreme Court arguments over her claim to a portion of her late husband's billion-dollar fortune. The justices unanimously decided in her favor in May.

On September 7, she gave birth to Dannielynn Hope at a hospital in the Bahamas. Three days later her 20-year-old son, Daniel, died of an apparent mix of antidepressants and other drugs in Smith's hospital room.

Pathologist Cyril Wecht, who obtained test results from a Pennsylvania laboratory, told CNN that Daniel Smith died from a combination of methadone along with antidepressants Lexapro and Zoloft.

Later that month, Smith's attorney, Howard K. Stern, told CNN's "Larry King Live," that he was Dannielynn's father and that he and Anna Nicole planned to marry. "Based on the timing of when the baby was born, there really is no doubt in either of our minds," Stern said.

But entertainment reporter and photographer Larry Birkhead also claimed he was the girl's father, saying in a statement given to CNN that Smith had told him he was the father. Birkhead had waged a legal fight to determine the child's paternity, attempting to have a DNA test done.

On Tuesday, Smith was included in a class-action suit against a company, TrimSpa, for which she had worked as a spokesperson. TrimSpa makes a product it claims leads to substantial weight loss.

The lawsuit alleges the marketing of the product, TrimSpa X32, was false or misleading. Smith had battled with her weight for years but had slimmed down recently. (Full storyexternal link)

"Anna came to our company as a customer, but she departs it as a friend," read a statement from TrimSpa CEO Alex Goen. "... We pray that she is granted the peace that eluded her more recent days on earth, and that she find comfort in the presence of her son, Daniel."

Rise to fame

Smith was born Vickie Lynn Hogan in the small Texas town of Mexia -- about 90 miles south of Dallas -- on November 28, 1967. She was raised by her mother, a police officer.

She married her 16-year-old boyfriend, Bill Smith, in 1985, quitting high school after 11th grade. According to Biography Resource Center Online, after her husband became abusive following the birth of Daniel, Smith left, supporting herself as a waitress and by working in a discount store. The couple divorced in 1987.

Smith was working as a topless dancer in Houston, Texas, when she made her first appearance in Playboy. The magazine put her on the cover in March 1992 and made her Playmate of the Month in May. In 1993 she was named Playmate of the Year.

Not long after, Smith appeared in ads for Guess jeans and had a small part in the movie "The Hudsucker Proxy." That led to appearances in several movies, including "Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult" in 1994.

"She had something magic," Paul Marciano, CEO of Guess jeans, told CNN. "People still ask me about Anna Nicole."

Marciano recalled his first encounter with Smith, for a 1992 Guess photo shoot.

"From the first day I met her, every moment was filled with excitement and drama," he said.

"Her personality was very complex, but yet she had a charming, sexy, and seductive side," he added.

Marciano said he was the one who changed Smith's name. "I did not like Vickie Smith," he said.

In June 1994, the then-26-year-old Smith married Texas oil baron J. Howard Marshall II, 89, a wheelchair-bound tycoon whom she met while working as a dancer. According to People magazine, after their wedding at Houston's White Dove Wedding Chapel, Smith kissed her husband and told him, "Bye, darling, I'm off to Greece."

Marshall, who was worth $1.6 billion, died 14 months later. The lack of a prenuptial agreement set off a huge, 12-year legal battle between Smith and Marshall's son, E. Pierce Marshall.

At first, Smith was evicted from the Marshall ranch and her money -- a $50,000 monthly allowance -- was cut off. She filed for bankruptcy in 1999.

In 2000, Smith won a $474 million judgment, but that was scrapped when a Texas state court ruled that Pierce Marshall was the sole heir. In May 2006, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Smith could pursue her fight in federal court. Pierce Marshall, 67, died in June. The Marshall family said at the time they would continue the legal battle over the fortune.

In 2002, Smith launched a reality television program, "The Anna Nicole Show," on the E! Entertainment network. At one point, the show -- featuring Smith, Stern, Daniel Smith and Anna Nicole Smith's Prozac-laced dog, Sugarpie, was the network's highest-rated program.

CNN's Larry King interviewed Smith several times during her career.

"She was a special person; she was an unusual person," King told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on "The Situation Room" on Thursday. "She was genuine; she was funny; she had some class.

"I feel very, very sorry for everybody concerned, but mostly for that little girl."

King said Smith reminded people of late movie star Marilyn Monroe. Monroe died at 36 of a drug overdose in 1962.

Smith "had a very troubled life," Lenard Leeds, a former lawyer for Smith, told the Web site

"She wanted to be like Marilyn her whole life and ironically died in a similar manner," Leeds told the site.



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