How Anna Nicole Smith's Daughter, Dannielynn, and More Children of Late Celebrities Are Best Serving Their Parents' Legacies

10-year-old daughter of the late model is living a relatively low-key life with dad Larry Birkhead--but she's in the spotlight just enough to honor the high points of her mom's career

By Natalie Finn Nov 28, 2016 12:00 PMTags
Dannielynn Birkhead, Larry Birkhead, Kentucky Derby 2016Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Churchill Downs

Anna Nicole Smith would have been so proud.

"I've been hearing a lot of gossip in the papers," the model turned reality-TV star and tabloid magnet said on June 1, 2006, in a video message shot on a webcam as she lolled in her swimming pool, one of her beloved dogs offering a few barks in the background.

"'Is Anna pregnant?' 'She's pregnant.' 'She's pregnant by some guy...' Well, let me stop all the rumors. Yes, I am pregnant. I'm happy, I'm very, very happy about it. Everything's goin' really, really good and I'll be checking in and out periodically on the web, and I'll let you see me as I'm growing."

Sadly, her life ended most tragically due to an overdose when she was only 39—just five months after she gave birth to her daughter, Dannielynn.

Stars & Their Mini-Me Kids

While the child herself was too young to be aware that a paternity battle erupted in the wake of her mom's death, the back and forth between, among others, Smith's longtime confidante, Howard K. Stern, and the man who would turn out to be Dannielynn's biological father, Larry Birkhead, consumed the world for weeks in 2007. Finally, DNA testing proved that Birkhead was Dannielynn's real dad, and he promptly took custody of her and set up house. 

After which, life could have gone several ways.

Birkhead could have disappeared as much as was humanly possible with his daughter, not wanting the cameras that, in a way, consumed Anna Nicole alive anywhere near the child.

Or he could have banked on the connection for all it was worth, considering the ongoing morbid fascination with Anna Nicole's life and death and the fate of her little girl.

Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images for Churchill Down

But instead, we've seen option three unfold over the past decade, with Birkhead proving himself a dedicated father, a parent who's committed to his kid's safety and well-being (he wore an eye patch and played "Pirates" with her when she needed to wear one after surgery), while also not attempting to pretend that Dannielynn's mother didn't exist.

The two live a relatively private life in Kentucky and keep media outings to a minimum, aside from their regular attendance at the Kentucky Derby since 2010—both an homage to Anna Nicole, because she and Birkhead first met at the annual Barnstable Brown Gala held before race day, and a reliably classy place to go to give the world a look at Dannielynn as she grows up.

And while Anna Nicole's final years were sadly plagued with scandal, spectacle and tragedy—prescription drug abuse caused her to slur her words and look out of it in public, and her son Daniel died of an overdose in her hospital room just three days after Dannielynn was born—the daughter she left behind is not only a walking reminder of her mother's great beauty, but also a reminder that Anna Nicole was far more than just the sum of what the tabloids made of her in the end.

Dannielynn started modeling for Guess Kids when she was 6, following in her mom's footsteps at the iconic denim brand and showing the same "playful spirit" her mom once had, as Guess creative director Paul Marciano put it.


Of course having the child model was at first slammed by critics as exploitative, but Birkhead explained on Good Morning America in 2012, "Dannielynn has always looked up to her mom's image and...I think that this is kind of Dannielynn's way of paying tribute to her mom in her own special way."

"To see her mom's picture next to hers as a Guess girl and say, 'Hey, I was a Guess Kids girl, my mommy was a Guess girl,' that might be her only connection with her mom," he said.

Fast forward several years, however, and aside from those annual dates at the Derby, Dannielynn is just a regular kid—and Dad is keeping it that way.

Celebrity Kids Celebrate Halloween 2016

They celebrated her 10th birthday in September at Universal Studios Hollywood, a rare trip to California these days. Birkhead, reflecting on the almost surreal way in which he confirmed that he was a dad in 2007, said on Today, "I'm so much of a better person and a stronger person because of all the stuff that I went through, not doing anything but just taking care of my daughter. For me, I look back 10 years, I wouldn't have it any other way.

He said that they moved to Kentucky to stay away from "the chase," and he fields offers all the time to put Dannielynn in a movie or have her do more modeling.

"She didn't care about it, so I say, 'No, she's not interested,'" Birkhead said. What the 10-year-old is into is technology, of course, games and YouTube videos, and hanging out with her friends.

"I do the best I can with what the situation is, and we make the best of it," he added. "I think Dannielynn's best days are to come and she's got such a bright future in front of her."

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Such is what any good dad would wish for his child—and surely Anna Nicole, who would've celebrated her 49th birthday today, would have felt the same.

But as life goes on, there are a lot of other sons and daughters of celebrities who've passed away who, used to the public eye already, are honoring their parents' legacies, not only by keeping the best memories of them alive but also by helping others understand what sort of people their parents really were.


Bindi Irwin, daughter of "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin—a global pop culture phenomenon thanks to his infectious energy and the way he gleefully talked about the creatures of land and sea he showcased on his hit Animal Planet series—was only 8 when her dad was killed by a stingray on the job in 2006. 

She was already a TV star from being Steve's daughter and hosting her own show about animals, Bindi the Jungle Girl, but it's the great love and respect for nature and wildlife preservation instilled in her by her parents that has defined who she is.


She delivered a eulogy at her dad's televised funeral that was watched by an estimated 300 million people, in that moment becoming the face of her dad's legacy for the next generation. Moving forward she continued to take hosting gigs on TV and starred in the direct-to-video Free Willy: Escape From Pirate's Cover, but she also took on a larger role at Australia Zoo, a onetime 2-acre wildlife park that Steve had revamped into a world-class attraction.

Bindi was named Conservationist of the Year by the Australian Geographical Society in 2014 and became a full-on smash in the U.S. at 17 when she competed on Dancing With the Stars—and won the mirror-ball trophy with Derek Hough.

But despite the Irwin family—Bindi, brother Robert and mom Terri—being in demand for appearances all over the world, home remains Australia and their No. 1 priority is carrying on the Crocodile Hunter's work.

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"I'm getting ready to buckle down, work full-time and help out with the management of Australia Zoo," Bindi told Queensland's Courier-Mail in January. "As I've been getting older I've been getting more and more involved in the workings of the zoo. There's a lot to do. Wherever I go, Australia Zoo will always be my home and I'll always work there." 

Luckily she looks fabulous in khaki.

Gregg DeGuire/FilmMagic

The last two years have been tough for Zelda Williams, the actress daughter of Robin Williams, whose suicide in 2014 was, fair to say, universally devastating.

It was soon revealed that the beloved entertainer, who had battled depression and drug abuse over the years, had been suffering from Lewy body dementia—also something that almost no one beyond his immediate circle knew—when he decided to take his own life.

Rock Star Kids

Zelda has gone on a few breaks from Twitter and Instagram since, sometimes due to the at times toxic commentary she's seen on social media, and most recently right before the two-year anniversary of her dad's death on Aug. 11 because it was just going to be too hard to engage.

"For those who always ask why, it's so people can memorialize Dad on the anniversary of his death however they wish without me having to feel bombarded by it, or pressured by the expectation put on myself or my family to publicly acknowledge or join in doing so," she wrote beforehand.


Last year on Today, Zelda talked about the imprint her dad left on the world and how important it was to him to feel that he was making others feel good--including, in hindsight, people who might have been suffering in silence as he did at times.

 "He didn't like people feeling like the things that were hard for them they should go through alone," she said. "And that's the big legacy for him, and for me, and for my brothers, is that he somehow had an enormous number of people in this world who felt that he made them feel a little less alone."

Zelda has been on a hot streak, career-wise, meanwhile, starring this year in the Freeform series Dead of Summer, the Lifetime movie Girl in the Box, and the indie drama Never. 

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Talking about how she was first drawn to acting, Zelda told Smashing Interviews this summer, " I think it was a pretty natural progression for me. I grew up on a lot of sets." Her parents did tell her "'hell no'" until after high school, she added.

"My parents just wanted me to try and be happy and work hard," the now 27-year-old actress said. "That was what dad always told me. He said for me to be early to set and the last person to leave if I have to, and that even if you're having a really hard day and everything is falling apart, actors can't usually fix the stuff that's falling apart. Usually it's a number of things like scheduling or things that have gone awry. He said that it's an actor's place to not become part of that problem. You have to step back and find help or offer to help and make people happy if you can.

"He was so good at that even when everything was falling apart. Dad would make everyone happy again. The actor has to try and not be a part of the problem. As funny and as simple as that sounds, you'd be shocked how hard it is for some people (laughs). My dad was, and my mom is someone that tries to help people. He wanted people to be happy. As naive as that sounds, that's very much what I took from him."

Paul Marotta/Getty Images for Sundance

Frances Bean Cobain never really knew her dad, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. He committed suicide in 1994, when his daughter was only 1 1/2 years old.

Her relationship with mom Courtney Love has been rocky, but Frances Bean—a model, singer and artist who interned at Rolling Stone and posed at 14 in Elle wearing the brown cardigan and pajama pants her dad wore at his wedding—has lately been increasingly focused on her father's legacy, having had to spend her life learning about from other people and balancing the man with the larger-than-life legend.

Parental supervision

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She served as an executive producer of the 2015 documentary Montage of Heck and spoke out about Kurt for the first time, admitting that she actually wasn't a huge Nirvana fan.

"For me, the film provided a lot more factual information about my father—not just tall tales that were misconstrued, misremembered, rehashed, retold 10 different ways," Frances Bean, now 24, told Rolling Stone. "It was factual evidence of who my father was as a child, as a teenager, as a man, as a husband, as an artist. It explored every single aspect of who he was as a human being."

William B. Plowman/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

After longtime Meet the Press host Tim Russert died suddenly of a heart attack in 2008, Luke Russert dove right into the family business.

At 23, the only son of Tim and journalist Maureen Orth became a political correspondent covering youth issues for NBC a month after his father's death. A graduate of Boston College, Tim covered the 2008 Democratic and Republican Conventions and would go on to be featured on NBC Nightly News, TodayDateline and various MSNBC shows. 

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Luke resigned from NBC earlier this year, the 31-year-old reassessing his career path after eight years, and by the looks of his Instagram he's taken the opportunity to do some globetrotting—most recently to South America.

Since his dad's passing, though, he's remained active in charities that were important to Tim, such as the Boys and Girls Club, and in 2014 he penned a new forward to a reissue of Tim Russert's memoir Big Russ and Me.

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"For me, on Father's Day, I do a lot of self-reflection and I remember a lot of the good times," Luke told David Gregory in 2014, appearing on Meet the Press that holiday Sunday. "And interestingly enough, 'cause it comes so close to the day he actually passed, it's sort of a double whammy for me." Talking about how much it meant to him that his inordinately busy dad always made time for him, he added, "My father, no matter what the burden of his job was, always made sure that his time for me was there--at least part of his day. And it wasn't fake...he wanted to. And I felt that as a young kid, and it made me such a better person."

Will Reeve suffered double the tragedy—he lost his father, Superman star Christopher Reeve, when the actor died in 2004 of health complications from the 1995 horseback riding accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Then his mother and Chris' widow, Dana Reeve, died of lung cancer two years later at 44.

Will was only 14 when his mom died and respectfully he wasn't thrust into any spotlight before he was ready. But the now 24-year-old—who looks a lot like his screen-idol dad—is making a name for himself as an ESPN reporter, and he made headlines when he raised more than $35,000 for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, which benefits spinal cord injury research with an eye on finding cures to reverse paralysis, when he ran the 2016 New York Marathon.


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"The fact that he was paralyzed did present its own set of challenges because we couldn't be spontaneous," Will told People in September. "That could be difficult, but my parents did such a good job of staying true to their values that I never felt deprived of a normal childhood, even though my experiences, at face value, were inherently different from other children my age

His older half-brother and sister from his dad's relationship with Gae Exton, Matthew Reeve and Alexandra Reeve Givens, are also on the board of the Reeve Foundation.

Courtesy: Roger Keller/Help for Heroes/Invictus Games/Facebook

Prince William and Prince Harry were 15 and 12 when their mother, Princess Diana, died in a car crash in 1997—and to this day the royal brothers are a walking embodiment of her golden legacy. 

A global celebrity, Diana was both the "people's princess" and a true humanitarian. She traveled, advocating for children stricken with HIV/AIDS in Africa, landmine cleanup in war-torn countries, leprosy patients, homeless teens, palliative care for the terminally ill and the welfare of families of prisoners who had become marginalized in their communities.

Diana's spirit remains alive in William, a rescue ambulance pilot and an advocate for wildlife preservation, and Harry, a tireless supporter of military veterans and soldiers dealing with injuries suffered during their service.

Tim Graham/Getty Images

"All I want to do is make my mother incredibly proud," Harry told People in May. "That's all I've ever wanted to do."

"When she died, there was a gaping hole, not just for us but also for a huge amount of people across the world. If I can try and fill a very small part of that, then job done. I will have to, in a good way, spend the rest of my life trying to fill that void as much as possible. And so will William."

William has talked about being aware of his mother's good works when he was little because of the stories she would tell about her travels, but he didn't understand until he was older just how unusual his mother was.

"I never realized quite how much of an impact she had," the father of two said in an interview earlier this year. "You can feel and see [in videos] when she's talking and visiting that she really connects and cares about what she's doing. I applaud her for all her dedication and her drive in doing that. I think that infectious enthusiasm and the energy that she had really rubbed off on me for causes such as this [wildlife preservation in Africa].

"What I'm doing in Africa is not probably obviously related to what she did, but it's about helping the needy and the vulnerable. At the end of the day, you have to care and you have to feel for the causes you believe in. If you don't, then it's hard to get it across to anyone else how you feel and what it means to you."

Harry, who had visited the same hospital in Lesotho where Diana went to help publicly fight the stigma against AIDS patients, told Good Morning America in March, "We'll all do everything we can to make sure that she's never forgotten, and carry on all of the special gifts as such that she had and that she portrayed while she was alive. I hope that a lot of my mother's talents are shown in the work that I do."