When you think of Anna Nicole Smith you think of that face and that body, that scratchy-syrupy voice, those Guess? ads, the dubious diet pills, the centerfolds, the then-delightful and now-cringey chaos of her E! reality TV show, the lawsuits. You think of her tragic death at the age of 39 from an accidental overdose, which occurred only a few months after her 20-year-old son, Daniel, also died from an accidental overdose, which itself occurred only days after Anna gave birth to her daughter. Like so many stories of queer figures throughout history, her husbands and her boyfriends are well known but her girlfriends; not so much. The Netflix documentary Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me brings one of those stories into the light, complicating the image of a woman so often defined by her headline-worthy relationships with men.
Directed and produced by Ursula Macfarlane, You Don’t Know Me is the latest in a set of documentaries and biopics casting a broader, more context-rich eye upon the carefully packaged and ruthlessly maligned women of of the 1990s, such as Pamela Anderson, Britney Spears, Tonya Harding, Princess Diana and Monica Lewinsky. Like the best of those that came before it, You Don’t Know Me manages intimacy without exploitation to analyze a complicated life devoured and disposed of by the media of its era. Beginning with her humble upbringings in rural Texas, Macfarlane traces Smith’s journey through its career highs and tumultuous personal dramas, including her scrutinized marriage with octogenarian billionaire J Howard Marshall and the ongoing battles with drugs that eventually took her life.
It also doesn’t shy away from addressing Anna Nicole Smith’s long-rumored but consistently obscured bisexuality. In You Don’t Know Me, Smith’s ex-girlfriend, Melissa “Missy” Byrum, is one of the primary narrators of Smith’s story.
That means it’s officially time for this gay website to talk about Anna Nicole Smith’s bisexuality.
Anna Nicole Smith’s Relationship With Missy Byrum
Melissa “Missy” Byrum met Vickie Lynn Hogan (later Anna Nicole Smith) in 1987, when they both worked as dancers at Executive Suite, a Houston-area strip club patronized by men flush with oil money. In an interview with People Magazine this week, Byrum recalled that her relationship with Anna began in 1992, and that Anna proposed to her in 1993, with the two holding a makeshift wedding at Anna’s backyard swimming pool. Anna wanted them to have babies together, but Missy knew Anna would never be able to settle down with just one person and didn’t harbor any fantasies of a long-term relationship.
Missy said Anna was the first person she’d trusted since escaping her own abusive family at the age of 13. Eventually, Missy would learn that Anna had begun passing off Missy’s childhood story of abuse and neglect as her own.
She recalls Anna was introduced to pain pills after her first breast augmentation surgery, and through four additional surgeries, she never kicked the habit.
“We got in a lot of trouble together,” Missy remembers in the documentary. “That’s what I always say. it’s like Nicky had gas and I had matches, you know? And when we got together, it was combustable. Shit happened. I was in love with her. She was fun. She had a big heart, and she was kind. You know, she really was kind.”
Their relationship continued after Anna began dating J. Howard Marshall, who bought her a house and a horse. In the early days of Anna’s acting and modeling career, Missy remembers their relationship growing stronger.
“I was really in love with her,” Missy recalls. “I was her first, uh, female lover, I guess. She had an insatiable appetite for sex, just like everything else. She got a lot of practice. She was good at what she did. She was a good lover. A very good lover.”
Eventually their relationship would fracture as Smith grew increasingly reliant on drugs and began treating Marshall, in Missy’s opinion, “like an ATM.”
“I was busting my ass to do everything I could to help her, and she just — she didn’t appreciate none of it,” Missy remembers. “And after everything we’d been through and the things I helped her do, and the secrets I kept for her, I was hurt. You know, I was really hurt. Because my friend that loved me wasn’t there anymore. There was no compassion, no nothing in that woman anymore for me. So I just — I quit. I went home and I didn’t. I was done… we were done.”
Although not mentioned in the documentary, Missy published a book about Anna, When You Wished Upon a Star, in 2008. The book isn’t available online but its descriptions suggest Missy, who was on J Howard Marshall’s payroll as Anna’s personal consultant and manager, positioned Anna as her best friend and rooommate, rather than as her girlfriend, in its pages.
Missy isn’t the first of Anna Nicole Smith’s girlfriends to speak openly of their relationship. That honor belongs to Sandi Powledge, who did not appear in the documentary, but did appear in Anna Nicole’s bankruptcy court papers as “the Potted Plant Lady.”
Anna Nicole Smith’s Relationship With Butch Lesbian Gardener Sandi Powledge
In 1999, Sandi first spoke to The Dallas Observer about her relationship with Anna, which she said began at local gay bar “The Hill” in Harris County, Texas in 1991. Anna courted Sandi — buying her drinks, sending her roses, plying her with gifts, picking her up in a limo and taking her to a steakhouse. “During the day, [Anna] dined with Howard at the River Oaks Contry Club,” writes The Observer, “and at night, Anna would do her thing with Sandi at the Hill.” They had a tumultuous relationship, with Sandi later saying of Smith, “she was just hungry for love, hungry for approval — just like a bucket with a hole in the bottom.”
After Anna was named Playmate of the Year, Sandi moved with her to New York and subjected herself to a makeover because Anna “couldn’t be seen with butch companions.” But Sandi quickly tired of the lying and returned to Texas. Like Missy, she remembers Anna’s visits to Texas, during which time she’d stay at Marshall’s estate, as unruly occasions dominated by Anna’s drug addiction. Sandi would give Anna foot rubs while she popped pills and watched television topless. Sandi got Anna’s face tattooed on her back at Anna’s insistence, and Anna tattooed Sandi’s initials on her thigh. When Anna married Howard in 1994, their relationship changed. After nursing Anna through another surgery, Sandi implied that Anna had begun hooking up with her driver, and Sandi left her.
Much of Sandi’s story appears to occur during the same time period that she was dating Missy, although neither story acknowledges the other’s existence.
More Stories of Anna Nicole Smith’s Bisexuality
Previous works about the star have handled her bisexuality in different ways. The book Train Wreck: The Life and Death of Anna Nicole Smith, written by her half-sister Donna, described Vickie as “cheating on [Marshall] at every turn, having sex with household servants, girlfriends, and married men,” including a radio personality Kristy Lee. Hogan also mentions Anna’s “long-term girlfriend” Sandi, and a “wild night of lesbian passion with a sexy barmaid” at Hamburger Mary’s, a very gay eatery in West Hollywood.
In Sex Bomb: The Life and Death of Anna Nicole Smith, former co-workers of Anna’s at various strip clubs allegedly report that “half of Houston already knew” that Smith was bisexual but preferred women, and dated men just to buy stuff for her girlfriends. She dated dancers, and butches, and sometimes went to Houston lesbian bar Bacchus. The book also details her relationship with Sandi, describing Sandi’s photo album of their relationship and recounting a “wedding” by a pool and an exchange of rings. It also claims that Smith’s ex-boyfriend Clay Spires (a frequent source of stories about Anna’s sexual relationships) told the Globe that Anna Nicole once drugged J. Howard Marshall to hide another lesbian lover when he came out to California for a visit.
In the hastily-produced 2009 biopic The Anna Nicole Smith Story, starring Willa Ford as Anna, the character of “Cassie” seems to have been inspired by Missy — Anna and Cassie meet working at the same strip club, spend all their time together and eventually move in together. It’s clear in the film that Cassie is in love with Anna, but Anna’s feelings for Cassie are ambiguous. There’s even a scene where they kiss, but Anna pushes her away, complaining of tenderness in her breasts, upon which she recently had surgery.
The 2013 Lifetime movie Anna Nicole, from director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho), depicts Anna, newly crowned Playboy’s Playmate of the Year, presenting a trophy at a car race and later sharing drinks and pills with another woman at the afterparty. Anna then returns to the hotel wasted, where she proceeds to show her breasts to a crowd of onlookers and then has sex with the woman in a hotel elevator, an encounter cut short when the doors open to find her young son waiting there.
The most fascinating collision of stories can be found in the 20/20 special Tragic Beauty: Anna Nicole Smith, which uses Missy’s ex-husband, Rick Duncan, as one of its talking heads. He relays his ex-wife’s impressions of Anna when she first began working in the club and also chimes in on the bit of the narrative about Sandi, recalling that they had a “very very serious” relationship complete with wedding rings. “It wasn’t unusual for Anna to have several girlfriends and boyfriends at the same time,” Rick recalls. “She didn’t hide it, and it didn’t bother her.”
The 20/20 episode also uses the blurry black-and-white photo of Anna and “Missy” used in the Netflix documentary in a montage of photos of Anna and Sandi, although the woman in the photo is clearly not Sandi.
In the aforementioned People Magazine feature published this week, Smith’s friend Pol’Atteu described Anna as someone who was not straight but also not gay. “I would say she was fluid,” he told People. “We just didn’t have a name for it back then.”