MEXIA, Texas (Reuters) - Nikki Hart stares out of the Mexia High School’s 1985 year book, an attractive but unsmiling young woman with a sullen look.
Long-time teachers in this small Texas town -- population 6,563 -- vaguely recall the unspectacular student who grew up to be tabloid queen Anna Nicole Smith, Playboy Playmate and billionaire’s widow who died on Thursday at the age of 39.
“I remember her but she went by Nikki Hart then. I really remember her more as the girl who worked at the fried chicken restaurant in town,” said math teacher Glenn McGuire.
“It’s not like we’re proud, you don’t see signs when you come into town saying ‘This is the home of Anna Nicole Smith,'” he said.
Born Vickie Lynn Hogan in Houston, Nikki Hart was one of the many names Smith acquired over the course of a tumultuous and tragic life that saw her outlive her son but not survive long enough to lay undisputed claim to the estate of her late husband, billionaire J. Howard Marshall.
And contrary to popular belief, it seems that she did not actually grow up in Mexia and only attended school there briefly. The perception of small-town girl who made it big was one she cultivated, her mother Virgie Arthur said on ABC’s Good Morning America show.
Teachers at Mexia High School said transcripts showed that she had transferred there from a Houston school, attended at least one semester of ninth grade in Mexia, but did not complete a whole term of tenth grade.
At Jim’s Krispy Fried Chicken -- a popular local take-out place -- locals said she found work and as a teenager married cook Billy Smith, who fathered her son Daniel.
Daniel died, possibly of a drug overdose, last year in the Bahamas in a hospital room at the age of 20, three days after Smith gave birth to a daughter.
The town she left behind -- a friendly but nondescript place set in flat cattle and natural gas country -- has mixed feelings about its famous former resident.
“There are better things to be known for. It is not a path that I would recommend to our students,” Mexia High School Principal Johnnie Cotton said.
That path included stints as a stripper, a model and actress.
But much of her notoriety sprang from her 1994 marriage to the tycoon Marshall, when she was 26 and he was 89.
Marshall, who was worth $1.6 billion, died 14 months later and Smith spent much of the following decade battling his family over the estate. Marshall’s family called her a gold digger and the tangled legal fight remains unresolved.
Some people in this town 80 miles (130 km) south of Dallas gave her credit for doggedly pursuing her goals.
“Some people have it that she disgraced this town,” said Alan Campbell, a burly trucker in the local natural gas industry.
“But I don’t think that she did. She had a goal and she did it,” he said as he tucked into lunch at a Mexia restaurant.