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Where does Anna Nicole Smith fit in?

Story Highlights

• Smith took unorthodox, but distictive path to fame
• Expert: You can't be famous for your celebrity

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(CNN) -- Robert Thompson, head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, hates the phrase "famous for being famous." You can't be famous for your celebrity, he says; you have to somehow achieve fame in the first place.

But what, then, of Anna Nicole Smith, who seemingly had no talent beyond her physical assets and an ability to get in gossip columns?

Ah, but Smith did have some claims to fame before she became a household name. She was a Playboy centerfold and Playmate of the Year, not the usual route to celebrity, but certainly distinctive. She married a elderly wealthy man, and Smith became part of lawsuits for his riches after he died. (Book looks at the quest for fame)

Most important, she milked it all.

"[Her story] would have had little legs, but once she got there she got our attention," says Thompson. "Her personality was ethereal ... almost extraterrestrial. There was no room for 20 of her, but room for a few. ...

"She did to celebrity what Andy Kaufman did for comedy," he adds, though noting it was probably unknowingly in Smith's case. "She flitted around the edges, around places where it tumbles off into meaninglessness."

What's even more fascinating for Thompson, however, has been the wall-to-wall coverage of her death -- her demise becoming, ironically, "her magnum opus," he says. In the beginning, news networks covered her death. Since then, Thompson notes, the stories have been as much about covering the Anna Nicole coverage are they are about the woman herself, an inevitability in the echo chamber of the Internet and 24-hour news.

He's not surprised about the desire for fame. Even with all the media outlets, it's still "a rare commodity," he says. It has to be: the more people who become famous, the more devalued the quality becomes.

But what of the 15 minutes of fame promised each of us by Andy Warhol?

Thompson is unequivocal.

"Andy Warhol was absolutely wrong."


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Anna Nicole Smith leaves the U.S. Supreme Court in February 2006.

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