January 14, 2023
She was the universal sex symbol. But there is more to her story, and she’s finally telling it herself.
By Jessica Bennett, Contributing Editor, Opinion from the New York Times and Sara Cwynar, Video and photographs. Jessica Bennett is a contributing editor in the Opinion section of The Times. She teaches journalism at New York University and is the author of “Feminist Fight Club” and “This Is 18.”
How do you write a profile of Pamela Anderson without falling into all the tropes? And are they really tropes if the person has built a career around them?
These are the questions I was asking myself as I made my way up the Trans Canada Highway a couple of months ago, en route to a tiny town in British Columbia called Ladysmith, population 9000. This is where Anderson — one-time universal sex symbol — lives these days, and is also where she grew up, on a woodsy compound with her dogs and her parents, overlooking the Salish Sea. It was snowing when I arrived, and as I rounded the bend from Victoria, “Let’s Talk About Sex,” the early ’90s Salt-N-Pepa song, came on the radio. Was this somehow an answer to my question?
I’d been thinking about Anderson lately — you remember her, right? The star of “Baywatch”? The one in the red swimsuit? — not just because she has a memoir coming out, or because there is a Netflix documentary about her, or even because of that Hulu series last year, the one that told the story of the sex tape that upended her life. I was thinking about her because it has been 30 years since “Baywatch” made its way to every television set in the world, and it seemed Anderson was overdue for a revisit.
This is what we do for women of the 1990s and 2000s, it appears. We look back on the way we treated them, we declare them wronged, and then Hollywood makes a movie about it, or a TV show, so we can all feel better about ourselves for having been part of the public consumption the first time around. It is a cycle that almost has a formula.
But Anderson, as I’d learn, wants nothing to do with our high-minded efforts to redeem her. She knows she’s “probably a case study for any feminist,” she says — and, by the way, she considers herself one. But whether it’s her or Britney Spears or Janet Jackson or Whitney Houston or Anna Nicole Smith or Marilyn Monroe or … (who will be next?), each with her own Hollywood adaptation that purports to re-examine the tragedies of her life, Anderson is simply not willing to hand over the reins to her life story that easily.
Also, did I mention, her life is nothing like what you might expect?
In my profile this week, Pamela Anderson explains that there is more to her story — but that this time, she’s finally telling it herself.
She was the universal sex symbol. But there is more to her story, and she’s finally telling it herself.
“I’m probably a case study for any feminist,” says Pamela Anderson.Credit…Sara Cwynar
It is hard to overstate the influence that Ms. Anderson had on a particular era of culture, which happens to be the one that I grew up in. She was the distillation of straight male fantasy come to life — a small-town Canadian girl next door who’d been transformed into pure American erotica.
She was already a Playboy model when she helped make “Baywatch,” which was previously canceled, the most-watched television show in the world — exporting the image of a platinum blond, blue-eyed California dream, running in slow motion in a red one-piece swimsuit, to more than 140 countries. Even three decades later, cosmetic surgeons credit Ms. Anderson with ushering in an era of plastic surgery that made them rich. She was the precursor to “Girls Gone Wild,” to the bared abs and sexy baby voices of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, to a whole swath of culture that seemed to argue for objectification as empowerment, as long as you could convince yourself you were the one in control.
Though to say she was objectified almost doesn’t do her treatment justice. To look back on the many, many articles written about Ms. Anderson over the years is to learn that “heads, as they always do, turn” when she enters the room. That many of the words used to describe her “start with the letter B: buxom, blond, babelicious, bombshell, bodacious” and that on the day one women’s magazine sat down to interview her, “her freckles stood out more than her breasts.”
“Am I physically attracted to Pamela Anderson? Of course,” the critic Chuck Klosterman wrote in his low culture manifesto, “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs.” “But the more I see her, the more I realise I’m not looking at a person I’d like to sleep with; I’m looking at America.”
But if you really want to understand Ms. Anderson’s cultural impact, simply try telling people you are writing an article about her. Women say things like, “I starved myself to look like her,” while men suggest, “You should take a selfie with your boobs out,” or ask, “Are you sure you don’t need an assistant?” For years, Ms. Anderson would say in interviews, “I thought the novelty would wear off by now.” It hasn’t. She turns grown men into horny teenage versions of themselves.
And then, of course, there’s that tape. That tape, which helped normalize online pornography and, quite literally, popularize the internet. It was a precursor to the celebrity sex tape as we know it and, ultimately, contributed to many of the privacy and revenge-porn laws that would make it harder to distribute today.
All of which made Ms. Anderson seem a perfect candidate for the kind of narrative reframing “Pam & Tommy” was offering — the kind we’re offering up to all sorts of women these days as we look back on the tragedies of their lives with a newer, more enlightened gaze.
And yet isn’t it all a bit patronizing, this notion that a TV show should swoop in and correct the cultural record on her behalf? At the very least, it’s awkward. “I mean, I’m probably a case study for any feminist,” Ms. Anderson acknowledges, and she considers herself one, by the way. But she’s not dead. Isn’t it sort of weird for someone else to re-examine her story while she’s right here?
‘I just blocked it out’
For the past few years, Ms. Anderson has been doing something of a re-examination herself.
She sold her house in Malibu during the pandemic and moved back to her tiny hometown on Vancouver Island, on a woodsy property next to the sea that she bought from her grandmother two decades ago. Save for a brief relationship with a construction worker who was working on her house (you can read about that one in the tabloids), she says, this is the longest period she has ever been alone.
It was here, in a modest house next door to her parents — she moved them onto the compound last year — with her three dogs roaming the garden, where she began writing down her life story. (Want to do something awkward? Ms. Anderson jokes when I first meet her. Write a book about your life and then move your parents in next door.)
At first, she thought she might post snippets on her website — a website, by the way, she only recently gained control of after years of impersonators using it to sell fake merch and cheap Viagra. Then, she thought, she might just write it all down for her sons, Brandon and Dylan Lee, who are now grown and living in Los Angeles. But eventually — at the urging of her elder son, Brandon, the unofficial keeper of his mom’s legacy (“I work for him,” she jokes) — she decided to publish it, really publish it, in memoir form. “Love, Pamela” will be released this month, in tandem with a Netflix documentary co-produced by Brandon, that provides a kind of visual accompaniment.
The book is a mix of narrative and poetry (yes, Pamela Anderson writes poetry), a chronology of her life “beginning to end, my first memory to my last” that she hopes will, if not exactly set the record straight (she is hesitant to use that phrasing), just explain her to a world that has long assumed it already understood her.
If you grew up thinking Ms. Anderson had an upbringing as sun-kissed as her hair, you would be wrong. She grew up poor, with a violent father she says has softened in his older age and a mother who tried to leave him more than once but always returned. Her childhood was at times “unbearable,” she writes, checkered by abuse: She writes that she was molested by a babysitter she eventually stood up to, telling her she hoped she died — only to learn, not long after, that the girl died in a car accident. She couldn’t tell her parents, she writes, because then they’d know “that I’d killed her with my magical mind.”
Her first sexual experience with a man, at around age 13, was with someone more than a decade her senior and ended in rape. She had a high school boyfriend who once kicked her out of a moving car and another who let his friends assault her in a back seat. “I didn’t tell anybody,” she writes. “I just blocked it out.”
Ms. Anderson was working in a tanning salon when she was discovered in her early 20s at a local football game: the Jumbotron panned to a fresh-faced brunette in a Labatt’s beer T-shirt, and the company promptly hired her as a spokesmodel. Playboy quickly came calling; it wanted her for a photo shoot in Los Angeles, and fast.
She decided to do it in part to defy her fiancé at the time, who forbade it. (That same guy, she writes, once told her she was “too sexual to be trusted” — while having an affair.) She threw up during the first photo shoot, after a makeup artist touched her breast. “I couldn’t believe a woman had touched me there, I just couldn’t,” she writes. She would go on to pose for more covers of Playboy than anyone else in the magazine’s history, including its last nude issue, published in 2015, in which she wore nothing but a gold choker spelling “sex.”
That Pamela Anderson, hypersexualized creature, was the subject of sexual trauma is not coincidental, of course. She writes that learning to see herself as sexual was how she took back some control. “It was my choice,” she writes of her decision to pose nude. But it also “gave some people the impetus, sadly, to treat me without respect.”
Ms. Anderson parlayed Playboy into bit acting roles, like Lisa the “Tool Time” girl on “Home Improvement.” But it was playing the lifeguard C.J. Parker on “Baywatch” that truly imprinted Ms. Anderson onto the cultural memory. “Baywatch” was one of the most widely distributed shows in history, and many of its international deals had Pamela clauses to ensure she would appear in them, she writes. Soon came the products: Baywatch Barbie, a Pammy-Cola. Her face and body appeared on trading cards, prepaid phone cards, stickers and blow-up pool floats. “I’ve had so many people tell me, like, ‘I just wish I could bottle you up and sell you,’” she tells me. “It’s like, I’m not a thing.”
Even before the sex tape, “Pamela Anderson” was among the most searched terms on the internet. By 2000, Guinness World Records named her the “most downloaded star” of all time. (It sent her a plaque, she says.)
She made little on those offshoots, of course. At the time she negotiated her contract with “Baywatch,” she said, she had no agent and no management; she’d hardly heard terms like “syndication” and “merchandising rights,” let alone knew how to negotiate for them. “I was a little girl from Canada coming here and running on a beach. Like, how would you think that would make any money?”
Sex tape or no sex tape, there was not much variation to the Pamela Anderson brand from that point forward. She had been a babe with tools, then a babe on a beach. She’d go on to play a babe who was a bounty hunter (“Barb Wire”), a babe mistaken for a bodyguard (“V.I.P.”), a babe who works in a bookstore (“Stacked” — get it?), one of two blond babes in a film called “Blonde and Blonder” and a babe playing herself, the American obsession of a Kazakh reporter named Borat.
But she was also in on the joke, at least to a point — undressing on “S.N.L.” to overcome her stage fright; marking off her body parts like slabs of meat for PETA; embodying the role of an animated cartoon in “Stripperella,” created by the Marvel legend Stan Lee, about a superheroine who could cut glass with her nipples. (He wanted to make the cartoon nude. Ms. Anderson said no.) “My breasts have a career,” she once joked in Esquire. “I’m just tagging along.”
Sure, she has things she wishes she could do over. The breasts (implanted, then deflated, then implanted again — “a vicious cycle,” she writes), the marriages (a handful of them, to men who seem to “progressively get worse,” she jokes), the bad career choices (reality TV), worse financial decisions (including a hefty tax debt), leading to even worse career choices (“Dancing With the Stars”). But that’s not the same as having regrets. “I guess the sex symbol-y thing is part of what people think of me,” she says. “And it’s not like I’m trying to change it.”
It’s just that if anyone is going to tell the story of Pamela Anderson’s life in 2023, it’s going to be her.
A collage of Ms. Anderson’s life, put together as part of her book-writing process.
‘I’m not a damsel in distress’
There was a certain dance that we expected from women who made a living, in part, off being beautiful in the 1990s (or maybe that we have always expected from sex symbols). We expected to talk about their bodies in front of them and have them laugh along. We expected them to embody perfection but resented them for conforming to an unattainable ideal. We expected them to have higher aspirations — but sneered at any suggestion that they could.
Ms. Anderson, for the most part, did this dance effortlessly: She was grateful for the hand she was dealt, happy for the opportunity, humbled by her sliver of success, even if she never had the chance to “really show what I am capable of,” she says.
But now there is a new dance we expect, often from these same women: If they’re among those who, in the past, were treated particularly unkindly — those for whom there was a sex tape, a conservatorship, an affair, a drug overdose — we offer them redemption, in exchange for their publicly living through it all again.
Pamela Anderson does not want to do this dance.
She is telling her story, yes, and that story may confirm many of the things people assumed about her. But in the years since that tape was released, she also didn’t collapse. She raised two sons, who are her staunchest defenders. She has designed vegan accessories, published a series of novels, co-wrote a book of relationship advice, produced a documentary about meat, started a foundation and became something of an art muse.
Last year she made her debut on Broadway in “Chicago,” playing the role of the misunderstood seductress Roxie Hart — a character with whom she said she felt a particular kinship. Her performance was surprisingly well received. But that’s the thing about that whole dumb blonde trope, Ms. Anderson says wryly: “I can only surprise people.”
For years, she says, she resisted offers to do projects about her life, unconvinced anyone needed to hear from her, content with her mark on the culture without wanting to challenge it. She isn’t after validation or affirmation and is not particularly concerned about her legacy.
But the book, she says, stirred something primal in her. She says it’s the first thing in her life over which she has had complete control — down to the copy edits, which she insisted on transferring into the manuscript herself — and losing that control was not an option. “It really was life or death,” she says. “I felt I need to tell my story. And I really couldn’t let anybody do it but me.”
We forget sometimes, when we talk about the idea of agency, that it’s as much about the stories we tell ourselves as it is about the actions we take. It’s not just about what happened to us; it’s about the role we feel we played in what happened. It’s the difference between posing for Playboy and a stolen sex tape. It’s why hearing someone recount your life to you can make you feel sick, while telling your own story, in your own words, can feel like a matter of survival.
In the trailer for “Pamela, a Love Story,” Ms. Anderson and her son Brandon present through a series of clips how she was exploited, lost control of her image, had to make a career out of the pieces left. But the trailer is ultimately defiant.
“I’m not the damsel in distress,” a barefaced Ms. Anderson declares at one point, then suggests she’ll do all the interviews naked.
The tone, as always, with Pamela Anderson, is light and charming, but the message is clear: You spent years gawking at me, drooling over me, reducing me to a punchline. Don’t you dare feel good about yourselves for rescuing me now.