Larry Birkhead answers the phone on a crisp autumn afternoon, just as he’s headed out the door to pick up Dannielynn from school. The scholastic schedule is back on track after the COVID anomaly, and Birkhead is once again in his happy place — cruising through the daily commute, savoring the tranquil rhythms of fatherhood.
Dannielynn is 15 now — a sophomore — tucked away in the rolling hills of rural Kentucky. It’s been more than a decade since this father and daughter abandoned the panopticon of L.A. and excised themselves from the tabloid morass; today, they’re barely an afterthought in the culture. I can’t remember the last time Birkhead’s visage stared back at me from the tawdry newsprint of the CVS checkout lane, and he has long left those breathless, contentious Inside Edition reports in the rearview mirror. In fact, I reckon that most people under the age of 20 barely remember that maelstrom of paternity tests, courtroom battles and histrionic gossip — the incredible, overwhelming gravity that accompanies any salacious brush with Anna Nicole Smith — that briefly made Birkhead one of the most famous people in the world. That, he says, is by design. He worked long and hard to become officially, definitively scandal-free. Now, his little family can reap the rewards in peace.
“When we were in kindergarten in California, we were chased out of the school. We had to duck into ice cream shops. They were shooting cameras through the bushes at the preschool,” he says, as the rumble of the road flecks his Appalachian accent. “In Kentucky, you don’t have anyone following you, or running you off the street, or asking what your Halloween costume is going to be this year. It’s a totally different tone and vibe.”
We still don’t know the whole story. We probably never will, but I can tell you the narrative we’ve learned to accept. Larry Birkhead was a freelance photographer who met Anna Nicole Smith at the Kentucky Derby in 2005. The two dated — in the most liberal sense of the word — for six months before unceremoniously breaking things off. Smith spirited away to the Bahamas in order to give birth to her daughter unrestrained by paparazzi intrigue. A season later, when Dannielynn was only five months old, her mother died of a prescription drug overdose at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel in Florida. Allegedly, the last words Smith ever said to Birkhead occurred over AOL Instant Messenger: “Don’t fall in love again,” with a crying emoticon.
Smith wasn’t a woman blessed with peace in either life or death, so inevitably, the ambiguous parentage of Dannielynn quickly spiraled out into the papers. Four different men — including Smith’s own lawyer, her bodyguard and the sexagenarian husband of Zsa Zsa Gabor — claimed to be the father. Birkhead was a civilian when he offered his testimony on February 27, 2007, but when the DNA test came back with a 99.9 percent genetic match, he found himself consecrated as the one true guardian of Smith’s prodigal heritage. Birkhead’s life would never be the same. “I hate to be the one to say this but, I told you so,” he said to the reporters flocking the courthouse following the verdict. The lineage was confirmed, and Birkhead took his first tentative steps into single parenthood.
Birkhead has kept a low-profile since then. Yes, he is consistently available for any interviews about the tragedy of Anna Nicole Smith; if Wendy Williams wants Birkhead live in the studio — with his shaggy brown hair and crystal blue eyes — he will happily oblige. Dannielynn also had a few brushes with her celestial birthright (at the age of six, she was already a Guess Girl). But by and large, Birkhead says he defers to his daughter whenever the forces of Hollywood clamor for her attention. Reality TV shows, movie roles and soft-focus cable featurettes must pass the stringent Dannielynn audit before earning her participation. Birkhead explains that she’s a tough, disciplined arbiter of her own image; something that simply wouldn’t be possible if they were still living in a media crucible.
“That’s the nice thing about being out here. If something comes up, we can say, ‘Oh that sounds fun, I’ll consider it.’ We can do things on our own terms, without being thrown into the fire,” he tells me. “Dannielynn is still figuring out what she wants to do in life. She dabbled in acting classes, and now she wants to do music, playing the violin and guitar. You know how kids are. They change everyday.”
In fact, the Birkheads only make one reliable public appearance each year. The two always attend the Kentucky Derby — the same venue where Birkhead first sparked his tryst with Smith — like a tribute to the careening unpredictability of human life. They dress up in their best clubhouse regalia, all frilly and campy, and line up for the photo shoot. Their most recent trip, from the spring, became something of a sensation when Birkhead uploaded the snapshots to his Instagram account. There is Dannielynn, in a turquoise blazer, sparkling flats and a swooping white flower nestled in her hair, like a spitting, uncanny image of her mother. “She cleaned out the chocolate brownies, ice cream and nachos while at the same time critiquing my outfit,” writes Birkhead in the caption, who counters his daughter with a cerulean suit of his own.
The post racked up more than 32,000 likes, and quickly circulated through the E! juncture. There was no real news here beyond a family enjoying a day at the races, but I think we were happy to see that they were happy. There is so much heartbreak in the layer of fame that Anna Nicole Smith occupied; back in 2007, it seemed like a lock that the Dannielynn saga was going to end in a horrible, technicolor catastrophe. But there is no debasement or avariciousness in the Birkhead estate. He has opted for a small, quiet afterlife and a years-long celebrity detox.
“The Derby became a growth chart for her over the years. Most of the photos out there of us are from the race because that’s really the only place we go that’s around the press,” he says. “People are watching and waiting for that moment. How does she look? Is Larry a good dad? I teased Dannielynn that we might be done now, because I think we’ve run out of colors.”
Did that public reticence come from trauma? Who’s to say. Birkhead reminds me that he used to be a journalist, and therefore, he’s one of the rare people who’ve been both the subject and propagator of white-hot controversy. Editors have rearranged his words and opted for tacky headlines to chase the zeitgeist, says Birkhead, and his status as a reporter occasionally drove a wedge between him and Smith during their abbreviated liaison. Smith, of course, had every reason to be suspicious of the media. Imagine existing under the microscope of the tabloids for your entire adult life, and then coupling off with a freelancer who has everything to gain and nothing to lose. It’s a total paradox.
“Anna had been burned so many times,” Birkhead says. “During our time together, I was always fighting to reassure her that I wasn’t any of those people she’d dealt with before.”
In retrospect, there never should’ve been any suspicion that Birkhead was a grifter or a predator. In fact, over the course of our 45 minutes on the phone, I realized that he fits into one of the most enduring phylums in American masculinity — the handsome, disarming rando hunk who, fleetingly, catches the eye of a celebrity in their supernova period. Case in point: Birkhead tells me that a handful of years back, he crossed paths with Kevin Federline at the Derby. The two broke bread over their shared fraternity — civilian men who found themselves catapulted into the tabloid stratosphere due to a glorious romance with someone who is far more famous and successful and interesting than them. The rest of their lives, whether they liked it or not, would be spent in the dazzling eclipse of their beguiling, singular exes. That’s the price of admission to the whirlwind.
“We were both unknown people in the relationship, and we got the bad rap,” says Birkhead, speaking about Federline. “People think there’s ulterior motivation. Much later, people realize that they were wrong about you.”
Birkhead has been fighting upstream for the last 15 years to convince people that he is who he always aspired to be — an ordinary dad in Kentucky, raising a kid the best way he knows how.
And yet, as our conversation draws to a close, he has raised no acute grievances, unsettled scores or sour open wounds. This is a man who was sucked into Anna Nicole Smith’s irresistible orbit — who lived the transient, delirious life of a socialite boyfriend, a candle in the wind — before getting spit back down to earth by unspeakable tragedy and unshakable responsibility. No regrets. The past is the past. After coming this close to the sun, all that’s left to do is be forgotten.