Leopard Colony

"I DRESSED IN THIS SAME OUTFIT LAST WEEK FOR A SHIELD audition as a crack ho," said Cookie Crawford about her rhinestone-cowgirl number with leopard-skin Spandex. Cookie was about to audition, along with 30 other drag queens in various stages of plausibility, for a role in Anna Nicole Smith's new movie, Wasabi Tuna, as Anna Nicole Smith — in drag. With only 30 minutes' notice, the slender Cookie had thrown together what she called her Centerfold Anna outfit — "Anna before she got a chef" — and made her way down to the darkened bar of the Abbey restaurant.

The auditions were only one part of a dizzy afternoon spotlighting Ms. Smith herself. Tuesday had been proclaimed "Anna Nicole Smith Day" by West Hollywood's officials in recognition of the money that Wasabi Tuna's shooting will bring to the city. As Smith's pending visit to the Abbey drew near, photographers, reporters and the plain starstruck jostled for viewing position on the sidewalk out front. But when a rented, leopard skin-painted limousine pulled up — and stayed parked, forcing traffic on Robertson Boulevard to creep around it — it became clear that her handlers realized this would be a problematic photo op. Thanks to a roller-skating mishap that had left her with a bum leg, the hefty actress would need to be lifted out of the car and into an awaiting wheelchair. A brief standoff ensued while the Smith group announced that only when all the TV crews placed their camcorders on the ground, and all the still photographers pointed their Canons downward, would Anna leave her faux-fur-lined sanctuary.

"No shots until she's in the chair!" barked one handler.

The men and women standing in front of the limo, however, had turned into a short-tempered throng. "With all that's going on in the world, y'all be here, sucking up to Anna!" one disgusted man complained about the media's mounting frenzy.

But the ploy worked, and for a few minutes paparazzi and big media alike lowered their weapons and parted the ranks on the sidewalk so that Smith could be hoisted onto her chair and wheeled into the Abbey.

Inside, the crush of photographers worsened until they were divided into groups that were allowed to shoot the diva up close for a few minutes before the next group was brought in. Stragglers were summarily dealt with.

"I just saw you!" an event organizer shouted at one photog who'd stayed behind after his group had been hustled away. "Now step outside!"

"She says I'm good!" the man shot back when another organizer said he could linger a bit longer.

Then, with her wrapped leg placed on a leather ottoman, Smith received her proclamation from Councilman John Heilman and posed for pictures with the drag queens.

THE SCENE IN THE ABBEY SEEMED LIKE A PARODY OF THOSE moments in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, when the frantic Roman press canaglia chase buxom Anita Ekberg around their city. But why? Anna Nicole Smith is a well-worn joke of her own making, a person whom the BBC named the worst-dressed woman of 2002, ahead of Kelly Osbourne. (Indeed, the BBC was here, as was German artist Angela Dorrer, who specializes in getting celebrities to leave their dental imprints in cookie dough.) The Anna Nicole Show on E! TV is so thorough a descent into vulgarity that she makes Kelly's parents, Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, seem like a pair of crusty Windsors.

The truth is that Smith is wily enough to recognize that celebrity creates its own mass and its own velocity. Better than many, she understands the new relationship between fame and the public: Whereas we once placed movie actors on pedestals, today we prefer to watch them roll in the sawdust with their track marks and cellulite exposed. Today we point to venal celebrities as examples of flawed people who have thrown away gifts the rest of us would have put to better use. Smith's special crime is that she allowed herself to get fat; her genius has been to stand unrepentant before an outraged public that feels ennobled by her excesses.

There are other, quite different crimes held against Hollywood celebrities. The day after the Anna Nicole auditions, Martin Sheen, Anjelica Huston and some others held a news conference at the Bel Age hotel to promote the Artists United To Win Without War campaign against the looming attack on Iraq. When the actors finished reading statements, reporters pounced on them, eager to ask whether they would support American troops once hostilities began and why they hadn't addressed the issue of three Iraqi ships that were supposedly cruising the world packed with plutonium and anthrax. Inevitably, the question arose about the effectiveness of such star-endorsed peace campaigns. One AUWWW member, Janeane Garofalo, became increasingly ticked off.

"It's unfortunate that celebrities are the focus of media coverage of the peace movement," she said. "Actors' opinions are not held in high regard and are used by the media to marginalize the peace movement. I'm tired of hearing about 'limousine liberals' — as though anyone who makes more than $30,000 a year shouldn't be taken seriously. I don't know if you've noticed, but George W. Bush is a pretty wealthy guy."

After the official briefing, when some of its participants fielded questions in smaller groups, Garofalo's exasperation became more evident.

"Celebrity bashing has become a way the media have manipulated the debate on the war," she told the reporters around her in a quickening voice. "I have had death threats because of this, there are Web sites that say I should be shot in the head — but you never cover that. Instead of discussing the New York peace protest, we got news about how two police horses were hurt, how delighted Saddam was, and how the demonstration cost the city $5 million."

Garofalo, of course, was discovering that there is no place on that sawdust floor for stars with political opinions, and that celebrity activism rates as a more serious sin than gluttony.

Anna Nicole Smith was at least in no danger of becoming a pundit's piñata. At the Abbey I'd asked her what she planned to do with her proclamation.

"I'm going to take it home and hang it on a wall," Smith said in her faraway voice. "I feel like a person now."


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