WE'RE ALL PART of the pop culture world. Whether you think you are or not, whether you want to be or not, no matter how aloof and superior you feel, even if the Atlantic and Foreign Affairs are the only things you keep in your bathroom, you're as much a part of the celebrity culture as the booker on The View. Deal with it. As Gregory Peck said to David Niven in The Guns of Navarone, "You're in it now . . . up to your neck."

That doesn't mean you can't be out of the loop. And truth be told, you can't be much farther out of the loop than I am. I've never seen Survivor, or American Idol, or the dancing show. My wife, on the other hand, who's the most brilliant person I know watches all of them. She's watching one now, and it's just loud enough for me to hear the roiling host introducing a high-stakes, high-tension, someone-will-get-thrown-out-of-here-but-not-me segment urged on by edgy, needy music. I can't hear his actual words, but you know that's what he's doing. The whole thing probably wouldn't annoy me as much if I thought they hired real violinists.

Of course, The Divine Mrs. M. is not alone in eating up these shows. A large part of our country watches them, too, and loves them, and relaxes with them, and is entertained by them; and these are all virtues. I'm glad for everyone on both ends.

We're all part of it, though, on some level, and that's the point. It seeps in. We all see, we all hear; and this may be fanciful, but, in a way, even if you and I are sworn, detached non-observers, we're also right in the curl of the tidal wave that carries our pop-stars racing along, faster and faster, toward their own shores of good or ill.

AFTER PRINCESS DIANA was killed in that terrible accident, I couldn't help but feel that most of the people who mourned so histrionically were the same ones who'd spent the decade before salivating over every photograph taken by the very people who chased her to her death. Well, all right, I suppose. We all have a lot to be forgiven, because, you see, like it or not, we're all part of the mob. No: We are the mob.

No one who wasn't in a fugue state for the last year could have missed the most recent, and it turns out final, iteration of Anna Nicole Smith's public life. In the last year she had a daughter born and a son die. Her lawyer decided to come around the other side of the desk and take her in his arms, and, you know what? They seemed happy, and I hope they were. Then an ex-boyfriend took time off from eating Cheetoes to sue somebody for something, but what does it matter anymore?

Similarly, you had to have known she married the rich old guy a dozen-or-so years ago and was unpleasantly embroiled ever since with his first loving family over--what a shock--the money. When I heard the old fellow passed away, I read about his son suing her over the will, and I remember thinking, "His son? What is he, 60?" Sixty-seven, it turns out, and he's gone now himself. Since yet another of the heart-broken offspring has gallantly appeared to pick up the cudgels and continue contesting it, I'd like to offer two choices of what I think is some pretty good advice: (1) Get a job. You didn't earn that money and you don't deserve it. And, by the way, every penny of it should go to Anna Nicole's daughter. Or, (2) Try your best to get reincarnated as a sexy woman.

I guess I'm biased though, because I've got a story about her. I had a chance to meet her and like her. And I mean like, not like.

I DID the Tonight Show back in '93 or '94, and she was on it. Leno came in before and said, "She's a nice girl. See you out there." And she was. I've never had the slightest problem digging the different gifts people bring to show business and beauty is a gift as much as anything else. Anyway, it was a good show. And, frankly, sitting next to her wasn't exactly a chore.

But that's not the story. The story happened just a month or two later.

My wife and I were invited out to dinner with two friends of ours, other writers. We were newly married and they took us to one of the fanciest places in town. There were a couple of well-know folks there, but the place was so swank that no one even noticed. Then, very suddenly, the room got quiet. Hushed, in fact. My back was to the door, and my wife said, "Oh, wow . . ." and tapped me, and I turned, and, of course, you know who came in and stopped the presses.

Anna Nicole Smith, in a shattering red gown to the floor. And everything else you'd imagine goes with it. The newspapers I've seen in the last couple of days haven't printed any of her pretty pictures. They use the ones of her much heavier, or eating something, or sad, or coming out of court with her mouth twisted in the middle of a sentence. I'd like to have seen one of those Guess jeans ads instead.

Some women try to arch an eyebrow when they make an entrance, or look sullen or regal, and I don't think I like any of those, but all she had to do to stop the show was be there. Whether you liked her or not, if there's an "it" factor in modeling, she had it. Maybe it flies away, or maybe it's hard to hold onto, but she sure had it then. In spades. And it was murder.

The maitre d' led the way, and he was smart enough to leave plenty of room between them so everyone could look, which, let's be honest, has been the point of the exercise since another blond some time back launched a thousand ships.

And right behind her was her companion, a guy who . . . well, who had to be--Okay, I'm sorry to have to say it this way, but there's no getting around it, so I'm just going to say it and be done--the shortest Arab in history.

He was out of uniform, so to speak, and couldn't--just couldn't--have been more than five feet. And she was a big girl, you know. That guy, though, bless his heart, had his head tipped up high, and the biggest smile I've ever seen in my life.

They sat down at their table, along the wall, next to each other on the booth side, a few tables away from us, and the room resumed it's life and din--but at a much lower level.

Then my wife said to me, "Why don't you go over and say hello?" I said something about, oh, no, I couldn't, and she said, "No one else is going to do it, and you just worked with her. Say hello." So I put my napkin on the table, stood up and walked over.

It wasn't a far walk. Which was lucky, because I was already starting to get flashbacks to junior high dances and wondering what I should say.

I decided instead to speak very quickly (the same approach I used in eighth grade), and walked up and said, "ExcusemefolksI'msorrytobotheryouAnnahiLarryMillerwejust--" and she smiled and said, "Oh, hi, good to see you, sure, that was a good show," and before I could answer she continued, "This is"--I can't remember his name--"and he flew all the way from Saudi Arabia to meet me and give me this. Isn't that amazing? Isn't it beautiful?"

She touched her chest with her hand (which was very sweet of her), and I looked down at what she was touching, a diamond necklace. Not a small one. Immense, actually, and they were spread all over her--what's the word?--d├ęcolletage. Then she continued, "But isn't that amazing? I mean, he came all the way from there, and just for tonight, one date, he's going back tomorrow. And just this, too, dinner."

She added a tiny, significant look, and after a slight pause I said, "Ah."

This seemed to state things pretty well, so I put on my best State Department smile and cleared my throat, and turned to him and said, "Well, it's a beautiful gift, and you have magnificent taste, not only in diamonds but in women. What an extraordinary and romantic trip, and I congratulate you."

And his smile got even bigger, and he nodded royally, which is when she said, in a slight whisper, "Oh, he doesn't speak English." My own smile froze a bit now, and I looked at her, then back at him, then back at her, and just said, "Ah," again. Then I held my hand out to him and said, "Well, it's a pleasure to . . . uh . . . well," and he took it in both of his, as warmly as I've ever been greeted. So I decided it wasn't the right time to bring up Israel.

She laughed then, looking right at me, and clapped her hands (probably seeing something I didn't think was showing), and it was a good laugh, a life-is-funny-isn't-it? laugh, and I like to think I know something about laughs, and that's when I decided I liked her. And I nodded and smiled and said, "Take care of yourself," and she said, "You, too."

No one else went over to her that night. But I'll tell you what I really remember.

As I walked away from their table I turned around and took one more look back, and they had returned to . . . I don't know. Just being there, I guess. Two people smiling, as happy as could be. I don't know what they could've talked about. He didn't speak English, and, I'm sorry, but I think it's a fairly safe bet she didn't speak Arabic.

That's the image I took with me, though, that look back at them. I've remembered it over the years each time she came onto the "news" (whatever that even means anymore) and it's the one I remembered when I heard she died last week: this shockingly-beautiful, startlingly-built creature next to a man the top of whose head didn't go above her bicep. But they were both happy; and I liked her. Oh, hell, I guess I liked them both.

WE'LL HEAR A LOT about her and those left around her in the weeks and months to come. Years, probably, since so much money is involved. It won't be pleasant for those of us who don't have a taste for it, but that's the way it goes.

I liked her, and so did you, even if you didn't. No one in the public eye dies without making us stop and think. Shall we turn up our noses at her because she wasn't Katharine Hepburn? She did pretty well with what she was given, so let's not scoff because she wasn't a great poet or leader. Will I mourn more deeply, say, when the sad day comes and Jimmy Carter passes away? Less, I think.

It didn't go well for her, you see, because that kind of beauty isn't a gift at all, it's a burden. I guess she's back with her son again. That's good. Hey, I'll bet that old fella from Texas has wandered over, too, with a big grin and said, "Now, now, don't want to bother you, honey. You two just keep hugging. I know what! How's about I come by every so often? How'd that be?"

I'll bet you something else. I'll bet you there's a short guy in Saudi Arabia who cried when he heard.

Larry Miller is a contributing humorist to The Daily Standard, a writer, actor, and comedian living in Los Angeles, and author of Spoiled Rotten America: Outrages of Everyday Life (Regan Books).

Next Page