What Is It About Pamela Anderson?

The model and actor drove men wild. She’s still enduring the consequences.

A photograph of Pamela Anderson's face, half in color and half in black and white
Netflix; The Atlantic

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When the subject of Pamela Anderson comes up, understatement likely isn’t the first word that comes to mind. And yet, as her entirely self-authored memoir, Love, Pamela, makes clear, it is actually her preternatural calling. She can virtually murder a man with a simple declarative sentence.

By Pamela Anderson

About Jack Nicholson, who she says meets her gaze in a bathroom at the Playboy Mansion, while she’s fixing her lip gloss and he’s carousing with two women against a wall, she writes, “I guess that got him to the finish line, because he made a funny noise, smiled, and said, Thanks, dear.” She recalls Scott Baio (also at the Playboy Mansion) strangely inspecting her toes and ears before making a move, but later getting in trouble with his family “when he let me drive his Mercedes convertible.” Tim Allen, she alleges, flashes her on her first day filming Home Improvement, which she gently categorizes as one of many “encounters where people felt they knew me enough to make absolute fools out of themselves.” (Allen denies the allegation.) Tom Ford, at a Vanity Fair shoot, strips her naked, trusses her up in nude-toned Thierry Mugler, and says, “You have NO organs, you must never leave the house without a corset.”

The lechers, the mommy’s boys, the creeps, the men playing with women like human dolls—Anderson ticks them off as casually as items on a shopping list (from the jerk store, I’m dying to add). After decades of being a sex object, a punch line, a caricature, this is her moment to strike back. To tell her own story—especially after a jaunty Hulu series recently dramatized the lowest point in her life, the career-decimating leak of a sexually explicit tape featuring Anderson with her former husband Tommy Lee. She could have scorched the earth. She could have juiced Hollywood bloviators like pulpy citrus. (There’s a reckoning coming for Jay Leno, who was particularly merciless in mocking her, but you won’t find it here.) But in both Love, Pamela and Pamela, a Love Story, a new documentary on Netflix, Anderson describes her life instead with the measured acceptance of someone who long ago admitted defeat. “I was / and still am / an exceptionally / easy target,” she writes in her introduction. (Sections of the book are written in diaristic verse form, which is more endearing than it might sound.) “My defenses are weak. / I’m not bitter, / I don’t have the craving to be hard, / heard, or taken seriously.”

These projects, for Anderson, seem primarily creative in nature, a way to resurface after a few years meandering around the south of France and her childhood home in Ladysmith, British Columbia. There is a thesis in her book, if an accidental one. Anderson narrates rather than analyzes the events of her life as a model and an actor, and the heft of it emerges between the lines: a devastating portrait of what it’s like to be a person who—almost arbitrarily—drives men wild. I don’t mean this figuratively. Love, Pamela is an account of how Anderson exposed something feral and monstrous in people, long before she became a model, and for decades after. Her particular combination of guilelessness, sex appeal, and determination was just too much for some to tolerate. In the ’90s, Anderson was one of the most famous women in the world, the highest-paid actress on the most-watched television show (that would be Baywatch), her scarlet swimsuit and box-blond curls covering more bedroom walls than Sherwin Williams. But her background as a Playboy model and her frank admission that she’d had breast implants meant, to many, that she was fair game.

What makes Anderson’s treatment in Hollywood so absurd is that her decision to pose for Playboy in the first place, she writes, was an attempt to reclaim her sexuality after years of having it taken from her. She recalls traumatic moments from earlier in her life: A female babysitter sexually abused her as a child; her first boyfriend, she says, tried to run her over with his Buick. When she was 12 or 13, she was raped by a man in his 20s. As she got older, she began to notice that “most of my boyfriends were bad—and progressively got worse. I often wondered why. Did I turn them into assholes? Was I doing something wrong? Did I make them crazy? They would turn violent, mean, cruel, so quickly.” Later, when she worked as a waitress, one of her regulars, a cop, began pulling her over at night on quiet streets to ask her out for coffee, and sitting outside her house to keep her “safe.”

It doesn’t take a degree in sociology to see the parallels between how Anderson was treated by individuals growing up and how she was treated eventually by the media. The way she looked, for whatever reason, made people spiral into the same old patterns of desire and distrust. It made them want to hurt her for their own entertainment.

But: As Anderson says, she isn’t bitter. This is clear in her memoir, and in the documentary Pamela, a Love Story, where she appears in a series of diaphanous white caftans, arranging roses from her garden like a captive Disney princess and making one self-deprecating joke after another. (In the interest of disclosure, the film’s director, Ryan White, and producer, Jessica Hargrave, are both friends of mine.) Anderson is curious, in a sometimes inchoate kind of way, about what revisiting her past might yield. The movie also captures her decision to perform again (including a well-reviewed stint as Roxie in the musical Chicago), and her ambivalence about returning to public life. “If I cared what people think, I wouldn’t be here right now,” she says during rehearsals. She pauses. “But I care enough.”

The book and the movie share many of the same anecdotes: Anderson’s parents’ turbulent marriage, her discovery by a JumboTron operator at a football game and a wily publicist for a beer company who put her on posters in a branded T-shirt, and then by someone at Playboy who saw her star potential. When the magazine came calling, Anderson writes, she was in the middle of a fight with her fiancé, who, she casually mentions, “threw a tray of silverware at my head” when he heard her answer the phone. The photo shoot in Los Angeles offered her a way out of both an uninspiring job and what she describes as an unsafe relationship. (She notes that the magazine was eager to bring her to L.A. in part for her protection.)

Anderson has not a bad word to say about Playboy, which she describes as a kind of white knight/fairy godmother hybrid, eager to usher her out of a bad situation and into a dazzling realm of opportunity. (It’s almost sweet now, in our glitchy world of choking and gang bangs and other grim keywords of male desire, to think that people once hid this gauzy cleavage catalog under their mattress.) Once she arrived in Hollywood, things began to happen, things she assumed were normal but was told firmly were anything but. A record executive—“I think it could have been Jimmy Iovine?” she muses—comes over while she’s eating at a restaurant and asks if she can sing. The movie producer Jon Peters offers her a free house to live in in Bel Air and starts sending daily gifts, no strings attached. (He occasionally wanted a head rub.) Her first Playboy centerfold shoot, at a “lush, rambling estate in Pasadena,” is a dreamily sensual experience during which Anderson taps into a fantasy version of herself. In a darker context, we might call this disassociation, but Anderson finds freedom in being “the girl next door, pushing boundaries, naturally coming into her sexual existence. For Playboy, that’s exactly what they wanted.”

Her Playboy success led to acting jobs and, eventually, to Baywatch. The show’s producers based the character of C.J.—sweet, woo-woo, hopelessly romantic—on her, and, Anderson writes, “the scripts were easy, and my silly photographic memory came in handy.” She also started getting cast in B movies, where she embraced the Method approach and enjoyed “tapping into observation and empathy. Even as a secret-twin concubine. We all have to start somewhere.” Then, as is well known, she fell intensely in love with Tommy Lee, the drummer for Mötley Crüe, after he licked her face in a nightclub to thank her for a shot of Goldschläger. (Who among us?) Their marriage gave her wild highs, two handsome and grounded-seeming sons, and an even more vaunted spot in the pecking order of tabloid obsession. “Tommy was the man of my dreams—so handsome, tall, fun, covered in a thoughtful story of tattoos,” she writes. “His patchouli fragrance comforted me.” But eventually, like so many others, he became violently jealous: of the men she interacted with on acting jobs, of her fans, even of their children, who claimed time and attention he wanted for himself.

Their marriage was also colored by an event Anderson describes in minimal detail, only to observe that it more or less ended her career: the theft and widespread sale of a compilation of home movies that showed her and Lee having sex. It was, her son Brandon observes in Pamela, a Love Story, “the first viral video.” Hearing the news, she writes, was like leaving her body. The public response to the tape was governed by the same two forces that had defined her life: sexual desire and the desire to watch her be humiliated. When she sued the company distributing it, she recalls that lawyers said she had no legal right to privacy, because she’d exposed herself in Playboy. The documentary includes clip after clip of late-night hosts and radio personalities eating the scandal up and relishing her degradation. “It’s not funny,” Anderson tells Leno, during one appearance. “This is devastating to us.” “It is?” he replies.

Certain shades of limelight, as Holly Golightly observes in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, can wreck a girl’s complexion. Anderson kept acting, but her public persona had been mangled into something she didn’t recognize. “You become a caricature,” she says in the documentary. The projects she got pitched almost always had a sexual bent. She sometimes catches herself “living more like that than myself.” The movie documents her reaction to learning about the miniseries Pam and Tommy, which was made without her consent. “This feels like when the tape was stolen,” she says. “Basically, you are just a thing owned by the world, like you belong to the world.” Her objections meant nothing at all.

The response to the series, though, was more nuanced. Many critics parsed the ethical jumble of things it represented: a sensitive, sympathetic depiction of Anderson’s victimization that was also, essentially, a comedy; a work of historical revisionism that tried to unpack the origins of online misogyny while also dubiously portraying the supposed thief of the tape as an everyman folk hero. That’s show business? We’ve evolved, but not much: The pain of some women, still, just makes for good entertainment.

At one point in her memoir, Anderson describes walking past the Paris home of the singer Dalida, who had died by suicide. “Her story reminded me how awful celebrity can be, how some women are painfully targeted, and how much it hurts to be exploited,” she writes. “Used and objectified constantly.” It’s the rawest note in the book. But it isn’t the end. The epilogue is a tribute in verse to home, to comfort, to art, and to the physical state of middle age that she seems grateful for because it asserts something she can’t take for granted: her survival.

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