It began—all of it, really—when an old, sad man decided to give his life one last go.
J. Howard Marshall II was sitting in the backseat of his Mercedes sedan one afternoon in Houston in October 1991. He was 86 years old and in the throes of a terrible mourning. He was, his staff worried, suicidal.
Dan Manning, Marshall’s friend and personal driver, was particularly concerned.
“J. Howard,” Manning said, looking up at him in the rearview mirror, “I’ve been thinking.”
There was a pause. “Go ahead.”
“I’ve been thinking maybe it might be time for a new young lady.”
J. Howard looked at Manning in the mirror. He said, “You might be right.”
The Mercedes pulled into the parking lot at Gigi’s, a windowless stucco box ten miles from downtown. Manning helped J. Howard into his wheelchair and pushed him inside, down a small entryway and past a huge fish tank, at which point they entered the club proper, and their eyes struggled to adjust. With the exception of the colorful lasers dancing in squiggles and the multicolored spotlights on the small stage, it was exceedingly dark. Manning pushed J. Howard to a spot beside one of the purple couches, where they ordered a drink. The stage was empty. It was afternoon.
And then the spotlights kicked up. A dramatic ballad began; it was her signature dance. In the middle of the stage, she wore a short, skintight, spaghetti-strapped red dress. Over the speakers: Never seen you lookin’ so lovely as you did tonight. I’ve never seen you shine so bright …
She moved. Relatively quickly it became clear she was, at best, a mediocre dancer. Nevertheless, as she continued, as she teased, she became unexpectedly compelling, even vulnerable.
There’s nobody here; it’s just you and me; it’s where I wanna be …
And now her tiny dress was gone, and she stood there, naked but for her red G-string, her giant breasts unfurled.
Though she went by the stage name of Nickie at the time, she came into this world as Vickie Lynn Hogan, on November 28, 1967, in Houston, the second child born to then-16-year-old Virgie. Her father was her mother’s second husband, and Virgie divorced him as well after he pleaded guilty to the statutory rape of Virgie’s 10-year-old sister. She would remarry four more times and have two more children.
Virgie worked for almost three decades as a deputy with the Harris County Sheriff. She regarded herself as a strict but devoted mother, and would maintain that Vickie Lynn’s childhood had been happy and safe. Vickie Lynn would remember otherwise. “You want to hear my child life?” she would ask a television interviewer years later, trembling in anger. “You want to hear all the things she did to me? All the things she let my [stepfather] do to me, or let my brother do to me or my sister? All the beatings and the whippings and the rape? That’s my mother.”
From an exceedingly early age, Vickie Lynn demonstrated a strong if vague ambition to become someone other than who she was. At 5 years old, she declared she wanted to become a model. Not long after, her dream took on more specificity: She was in the living room, lip-synching the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” scene from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She did not say she wanted to be like Marilyn Monroe. She said she wanted to be her.
Initially, at least, she did not look much the part. En route to growing five feet eleven inches tall, she was flat-chested, chunky, and had big, mousy-brown hair. She attacked her schoolmates when they made fun of her mannishness. She continued to lash out, and by the time Vickie was 15, she and her mother agreed she should move to her aunt and uncle and cousins’ sagging shack on Nigger Creek Road, in the intensely rural town of Mexia, two hours north of Houston.
Vickie dropped out of Mexia High School after failing her freshman year. She took a job at Jim’s Krispy Fried Chicken, where she met Billy Wayne Smith, the scrawny 16-year-old at the fryolator. They were married within a few months, and at 19, she gave birth to Daniel Wayne. Three months later, she and Daniel were in a car heading back to Houston; she claimed her husband had abused her.
She separated from her husband and took jobs at Wal-Mart and Red Lobster. On her way home one night she spotted a sign off the interstate of a woman in a bikini and high heels. She went in seeking a waitressing position; she was told there was none, but was invited to audition and was loaned a reinforced G-string. Onstage she was awful—and particularly self-conscious of her small breasts, an unrelenting source of consternation. Nevertheless, she was offered a spot on the day shift.