Dying to be divas

Kathleen Parker

2/23/2007 12:01:00 AM - Kathleen Parker

Between hourly updates on the decomposing body of Anna Nicole Smith and the balding of Britney Spears, we can confidently declare that the Jerry Springerization of America is complete.

The travails of these two tragic characters would be of little interest in a normal world, but ``celebrity'' is the new normal. Like it or not, we're all in this together.

Britney and Anna Nicole, after all, are our inventions. We made them celebrities, awarded them icon status, gave them life. Now, like Dr. Frankenstein upon realizing he's created a monster, we've become instruments of their undoing.

Anyone who has turned on a TV the past few days has been witness to the spectacle in Ft. Lauderdale, where hearings have been in progress to decide what to do with Anna Nicole's body.

In death as in life, it's all about the body. Who gets it?

I confess that it took a few minutes watching the probate proceedings to realize that it wasn't a spoof or a soap opera. The posturing and pontificating of Judge Larry Seidlin, clearly enjoying his 15 minutes of fame, makes Lance Ito, of O.J. Simpson trial fame, look like Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Also at issue is the paternity of Anna Nicole's 5-month-old baby girl, Dannielynn. The subtext to the entire mess is, of course, money -- the other defining concern of the former Playboy model's short unhappy life.

Anna Nicole spent most of her public life trying to get millions from the estate of her deceased oil-tycoon husband, J. Howard Marshall, who died in 1995 at age 90. Now that same money is up for possible grabs among her survivors.

Wednesday, titillation merged with the macabre as mortals clamored over the bombshell's remains like the ravenous widows in ``Zorba the Greek.'' The weird got weirder when the disembodied voice of the Broward County medical examiner was piped into the courtroom via speakerphone to issue a decomposition status report.

Better hurry up with that funeral, he said. Things are deteriorating fast around here. No kidding. And then everyone took a lunch break to visit Anna Nicole at the morgue.

While you're mulling that image, we switch channels to the other coast, where Britney has shaved her head and checked in and out of rehab.

Theories vary as to why Britney clipped her hair. The most recent is that she was reacting to estranged husband Kevin Federline's alleged threat to have her hair tested for drugs in a custody battle over their two children. If Federline indeed wants one of those strands, he'll have to take a number and bid on the sheared tresses, now for sale by the owner of the salon where the shearing took place.

At ``Buy Britneys (sic) Hair Dot Com,'' bids start at $1 million.

``This is the Ultimate Britney Spears Experience!" boasts the site.

At the same time we might recoil from these prurient displays, we're also involuntarily mesmerized. The human wrecks of Britney and Anna Nicole transcend the usual roadkill metaphor, however, because we're participants -- not just spectators, but also instigators.

We are the mirrors to their vanities.

For former child stars like Britney, who didn't get to develop a normal sense of self, identity comes from what is projected by the audience. What happens when the projection stops, or when it shifts from admiring to critical?

If you're Britney, apparently, you take out the shears and turn the rage on yourself.

Anna Nicole, who was without talent except the ability to attract our attention, existed only as an object. She posed; we ogled. But what happens when no one's looking? If you're Anna Nicole, apparently, you take more drugs and make a spectacle of yourself as a slurring, stumbling bimbo with her own reality TV show.

The parallel sagas of these two sad divas -- one dead and one self-destructing -- have the feel of reality TV that has spiraled out of control. Too much exposure. Too much celebrity. Too much attention -- if never enough.

The desperation that drove them both to extremes, and then to the brink, may have been born of the truth that reveals itself to all celebrities eventually: What the public giveth, the public also taketh away.