Perhaps it’s fitting how much Dannielynn Birkhead loves rollercoasters when you consider the tedious climbs and sharp descents that marked her first year of life.
There was the untimely passing of half-brother Daniel Smith, who overdosed while visiting mom Anna Nicole Smith and her newborn daughter in a Bahamian hospital, and the eerily similar death of the larger-than-life former Playboy model just months later. And, of course, the custody circus that ensued with freelance photographer Larry Birkhead, Smith’s attorney Howard K. Stern and even Zsa Zsa Gabor‘s husband Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt staking their claim for the 5-month-old. The weeks-long spectacle finally ended in April 2007 with Larry, paternity results in hand, stepping outside the Nassau courthouse to tell the reporters, photographers and curious locals that gathered, “I hate to be the one to say this but…I told you so.”
So the fact that Larry now describes his little girls as fearless, the type of person who embraces all the twists, turns and heart-dropping falls that come her way? Yeah, that checks out.
Of course, these days, Larry works hard to ensure Dannielynn’s rollercoaster rides are of the literal variety. Despite the stranger-than-fiction events surrounding her birth and first few months, the middle schooler leads a life that’s, by all accounts, fairly standard for any 12-year-old—the age she’s turning today. At their 10,000-square-foot Kentucky home, she has a pet lizard, practices the violin, makes homemade slime and argues with Dad about how much time she spends on her cell phone. (She’s obsessed with Snapchat, obvs.)
Like most parents, especially single ones, the University of Louisville alum, 45, says his days are filled vacillating between various roles. “Sometimes you feel like a bodyguard, sometimes you feel like a chauffeur,” he joked to Us Weekly last year. “It depends on what the day is. But my job is dad and I think I’ve done a pretty good job. She’s adjusted to it and she’s just a normal kid.”
Thrust into fatherhood with one DNA test, Larry made some snap decisions to give his daughter a life befitting your standard kid rather than the fishbowl-like existence some celebrity offspring are subjected to. His first move was to his hometown of Louisville, some 2,000 miles removed from Hollywood’s glare. “It takes away the chase,” he told the Today Show in 2016 of life in the midwest, “it takes away the curiosity, it takes away the false stories.”
His next play: making nice with former foe Stern. As Larry tells it, the dueling dads quickly realized it was time to behave as the grown-ups in the situation and Smith’s former lawyer and lover swiftly dropped any custodial claims. “He just said, ‘Look, you’ve got to get strong. You’ve got to be there for Dannielynn,'” Larry recalled in an interview with ABC News’ 20/20 last year. “The minute after the paternity test was over…he’s helping me change Dannielynn’s diaper, [showing me], ‘This is how you feed her,’…it’s been nonstop since then.”
Larry’s paternal instincts kicked in soon after.
“I just started trying to fly on my own and say, ‘You got to make decisions here,'” he told ET. “Although you might hear the voice in your head…just do the best you can, and I think that has been a pretty good formula.”
So he listens to his instincts. Like the time Guess approached asking if the 6-year-old would like to pose for the brand that made her mom a household name. Defending himself from critics who were quick to cry exploitation, Larry explained the stint was more about connecting with the mother she never knew than testing out future career opportunities. “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,” he said on Good Morning America in 2012. “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.”
And to this day, it remains a one-off gig. “I’ve had companies call me since then and ask me for her to model,” he’s shared, “and the answer is no. She doesn’t show any interest in it. She wants to be a kid.”
Of course, there are moments when it’s clear she’s not your average tween, like when she spots herself on the cover of a tabloid in the supermarket checkout line or asks just one more time, “Daaaaadddd, why can’t I have a YouTube channel?” While the other kids in her class can simply goof around on the video-sharing site or dream about landing on the right shtick that could make them go viral, Larry has to remind his daughter that anything she posted would get massive traction. “I still have to warn her that, you know, your friend might have a YouTube account, but if you have a YouTube account that’s different,” he told Us Weekly, “because people know who you are.”
So, much like any protective father worried about the unknowns his daughter could encounter on the web, he limits her access to the Internet, posts liberally to their shared Instagram account and avoids most public appearances, save for their annual pilgrimage to the Kentucky Derby. The main event, and the night before Barnstable Brown Party are traditions, both because it’s the same bash where Larry first connected with Smith and, well, because it’s close to home and a lot of fun. “She’s my good luck charm,” he told E! News at the 2015 event. “She picks all the winners.”
If Dannielynn had her way, Dad would find a winner of his own. One of her favorite activities involves floating prospective dates for Dad. “Dannielynn tries to hook me up,” he told E! News back in 2013. “She is a matchmaker.” A very determined one. Asked by ET to reenact the prods she gives him, she said, “You, mister, will go on a date or I’ll have to force you.”
It’s not just that she wants to see her father happy and in love more than a decade after his two-year on-off dalliance with Smith ended, though she does. The way Larry sees it, she’s simply craving another female figure in her life.
“She is clinging to the female teachers,” he shared with ET. “She’s clingy to her girlfriends’ moms and she’ll say things like, ‘Do you want to adopt me? Would you be my honorary mother?’ She tends to do that a lot.”
Given the opportunity, she would make that same plea to a few Hollywood types, citing the likes of Nicki Minaj, Britney Spears and Ariana Grande as her top choices. Because what tween wouldn’t want a pop star as a step-mom?
Or, absent that, just one with access to a steady stream of sugar?
“She told me today, ‘I think you need to go out with Kylie Jenner,'” Larry relayed to ET last year. “I said, ‘Well, she’s a little young,’ and she said, ‘OK, what about Kim? I said, ‘Well, she’s married,’ and she goes, ‘OK, what about the mom, Kris? I [asked why she’d] say that and she goes, ‘I remember she had a frozen yogurt machine in her house.'”
Though her step-mom wish list isn’t limited to bold faced names and multi-millionaires. After all, Dannielynn still holds out a shred of hope that the Internet chatter is right and that she’s secretly ultra-wealthy. “We saw a video on YouTube that she was one of the 10 richest kids in America,” he revealed to Inside Edition. “Then she wanted to go to the mall. And I’m like, ‘No, it’s not that. Trust me, it’s not that.” While the duo “do okay,” as Larry says, it’s been four years since Smith’s lawyers lost their final request to obtain money from the estate of her former billionaire oil tycoon husband J. Howard Marshall.
So the designer garb will have to wait, but more than anything Dannielynn just wants a mother figure to browse the racks with. “We went to a swim party and it was a bunch of moms and I felt out of place, sitting there going, ‘I can do this,’ [while] they’re all gossiping,” Larry recalled to ET. “Then Dannielynn comes over, takes my foot and slides it next to the mother’s foot next to me. She says, ‘Y’all need to get to know each other.’ It’s cute when she tries to push me out of the house and get me to date and do things.”
He’s not uninterested in finding love. After all he willingly signed on for a stint on The Millionaire Matchmaker back in 2014. It’s just hard to date as a single parent. Tougher still when prospective girlfriends know every last detail about your ex. “I’ve been on a few dates and the thing is that, early on, it’s too much commotion [with girls] thinking [I was] looking for [another] Anna Nicole,” he told ET. “I had one girl come and try to try on Anna Nicole’s jewelry; I had one girl show up and try to look like Anna Nicole. And, they just want to talk about the whole situation.”
And that’s a conversation he’d prefer to leave between him and his little girl.
They’ve certainly had some awkward ones, like the time Dannielynn asked why her Wikipedia page says her surname was Stern when she was a baby. (Discussing the facts and fiction on one’s Wikipedia page: You know, your average father-daughter stuff.) But mostly Larry likes to keep his explanations of Smith and her passing as light as possible. “The way I’ve told Dannielynn in the past is that, ‘Your mom took some medicines and she…might not [have] taken them correctly or the right way, and the doctors couldn’t help her, and they tried,” he explained to 20/20.
As for anything she might discover on her own, “I have a block on her [computer],” he told Wendy Williams last year. “We sit down and I have a talk with her and I say, ‘You’re going to see these things about your mom and not everything is true.” He sees each chat as a learning opportunity: “I take a little bit of Anna’s life and I put it into lessons.”
It’s undeniable that the 12-year-old misses the mom she never knew, that she craves a fuller house so much that she once handed Larry a stack of adoption brochures and told him, “Just surprise me when you get home. Bring the best one home.” But she also seems to have accepted the idea that she has a different type of relationship with her mom.
She sees her in the Smith-crafted portrait that hangs in her Peter Pan-themed bedroom, in the butterflies that chase her around (a family friend having once told her any she spots were sent down by her mother) and she envisions her as a guardian angel watching over not only her, but anyone and anything that may cross her path.
“The other day, she had a friend whose fish died and she said, ‘Don’t worry about your fish, it’s up there with my mom. My mom’s taking care of your fish and it’s gonna be OK,'” he shared with ET. “It was something that she came up with. It was true from the heart and that’s how she deals with it and I’m proud that she is who she is.”
And if he’s being really honest, and a little less humble, he’s pretty proud of the job he’s doing as Dad.
“I think [about] how far she’s come, and all the craziness that swirled around her and that she was just, really none the wiser. Just a little kid doing her thing like she’s supposed to be,” Larry told ET in 2015. “That’s the one thing that I’m most proud of that I’ve done—trying to keep everything as normal as I can, in just a really crazy, crazy situation.”
Her backstory is a lot for anyone to handle, much less a 12-year-old who has to worry about things like passing math, navigating the middle school social scene and whether or not boys are gross. So outside of a sojourn they made to the Bahamas last year to mark what would have been Smith’s 50th birthday, Larry works to keep the focus on homework, video games and Girl Scout meetings.
“She’s a good kid,” he says, “and we laugh and have the best times and she wears me out.”
Because, much like Mom, she sprints toward life with no fears, ready to roll with the ups, the downs and the loop-the-loops. “I’m going on amusement park roller coasters doing 200-foot drops holding on to her and she says, ‘I told you the last time, do not hold on to me!'” he marvels. “Sometimes you just have to say, ‘I gotta let you go and become your own person.’ You can only do so much. Sometimes I’m amazed by the way she handles things.”