Inside the Surreal, Self-Invented World of Pamela Anderson
Twenty-seven years after she transformed herself from a Canadian model into a bombshell all-American celebrity, Pam Anderson is trying another transformation.
Photo by Luke Gilford
I first meet Pamela Anderson on a Tuesday. She's posing on the deck of a mid-century house in Beachwood Canyon, in the low hills of Hollywood, as afternoon fades gently into evening. It's hard to say what's more striking, when I first walk into the house: Pamela Anderson, or the light on the deck, golden as only LA light can be at the end of a clear afternoon. Beneath the sky, a band of grey smog hangs on the horizon – under that, the creeping 101, the spindly marquees of hotels.
Pamela is wearing black lingerie and a trench coat, and her hair is groomed into a neat bob. All day, she's been a fantasy out of Hitchcock or Fellini: She's posed in tears with a pistol, in silk pajamas, taking drags from ultra-thin Capris while clasping an oversized cordless phone in a convincing semblance of panic. When the camera is doing its work, the small army of assistants, stylists, hair people, and hangers-on all fall silent. All I can hear is the beep-click of the shutter and Lana Del Rey on the stereo, for mood.
Watch the new Pamela Anderson sci-fi short "Connected" on Motherboard.
It's not right to say she is unrecognisable in the photos being taken; she is Pamela Anderson. But she looks small for someone so much larger than life, and somehow modest, miles away from the beach-bronzed rock 'n' roll goddess I was expecting. It's a strange effect. The Pamela Anderson that comes up when I google her name, all smudged eyeliner and wild chemical blonde, feels like another woman. It feels like an invention. In my time with Pamela – beginning here and ending ten hours later, dazed, in an Uber winding back down the hills – I will learn that the line between invention and reality is porous.
As I'm waiting to speak with her, night falls. An assistant pulls the photographer aside. I'm going to get wine," she whispers, "what should I get?" Rosé, chardonnay, champagne; the consultation spreads to Pamela. "Goldschläger?" she jokes. That's how she met her first husband, Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee – she sent him a shot of Goldschläger from across a Las Vegas bar. He licked her face and they were married not long afterward, a modern-day fairytale, on the beach in Cancun, the bride in a white bikini. Their union was catnip to paparazzi, and the Anderson-Lees were rarely out of tabloids throughout the mid-1990s, inadvertently creating the celebrity sex tape genre before bearing two children and divorcing. Much of what I know about Pamela Anderson before meeting her is coloured by the vivid imagery of this era, which I absorbed at an impressionable age. The assistant goes for rosé.
The segue from shot to matrimony sounds improbable, but that's the way Pamela tells stories: as impressionistic collages of names, moments, and places, sometimes daisy-chained into breathless sequences. Each is like a little flower arrangement. David LaChapelle, Las Vegas, bathrobes, glitter on her skin, "visiting Elton in his room." That's how she lives, too. She doesn't have a manager, or an agent; she never really has – "they just give up on me," she says. Instead, she meets people, follows her instincts, gets into pickles, unpickles herself, picks up, moves on. She claims to be both unmanageable and suggestible, demonstrating a combination of freewheeling courage and guilelessness that has led her to who she is today: a newly-single sex symbol pushing 50 with a rolodex full of artist friends and two adult sons, entering what she calls "Chapter Two" of her career.
The way Pamela tells it, Chapter One was one long mistake. Discovered at 19 on the Jumbotron of a BC Lions football game in Vancouver, Canada, she'd never even been on an airplane until she flew to Los Angeles for her first Playboy shoot. The magazine had pursued her intermittently after the Jumbotron fluke led to a Labatt's beer ad and then a photo campaign for the Vancouver gym where she worked. When Playboy called her at home, she was in the middle of a fight with her fiancé. He was throwing silverware. The phone rang. Pamela, this is Playboy – would you consider doing a cover for us? "I was ducking, avoiding forks, knives," she recounts to me, wrapped in a white terry bathrobe after the photo shoot finally ends, holding a long-stemmed champagne glass. "I was on the floor of the kitchen going, 'Yes! Yes! When can I go?'" The magazine proposed a test shoot just as Pamela's fiancé entered a new paroxysm of jealousy, graduating from lobbing cutlery to trays. "That's how I came to LA. I just left. The next day."
She crossed the Canadian border in a bus, then flew from Seattle to LA after spending a night – her first – in a hotel. The Playboy shoot was touch and go. She was so nervous she vomited when a female wardrobe assistant touched her breast. They only shot one roll of film, but it was enough. In a striped Oxford blazer and tie – and not much else – she graced the October 1989 cover of the magazine, her first of 14 covers, more than any other single model.
She credits the magazine for her career and her cultural education. "I always say I went to university at Playboy. I met activists and gentlemen, we talked about art and politics, films and music. I met musicians and actors. That's where I got my information." Not that she came in empty-headed. Growing up in British Columbia, she read a lot. Hugh Hefner teased her because she was the only Playboy model who could recognise his mansion's art collection – none of the other girls could tell the Dalis from the Basquiats.
In 1991, Pamela was cast as Home Improvement's original "Tool Time" girl, and then, in 1992, without an audition, as the Malibu lifeguard CJ Parker in Baywatch. The show was high camp, like most of her major acting gigs: as Vallery Irons in the action-comedy sitcom V.I.P., as the titular character in the universally panned Barb Wire. In leaner years, she did what she could to pay the bills, including working as a magician's assistant in Las Vegas and making cameo appearances on international franchises of Big Brother and Dancing with the Stars. But it's Baywatch, where she first sported a high-cut red swimsuit, that made her an icon. Pam explains her career after that first Playboy cover more succinctly: "I was going to come home, and then Baywatch happened, and then everything else kind of just happened, and I got married, and rock stars, and kids."
Her kids are 18 and 19 now, both in college, both "really well-adjusted, great boys." Her red Baywatch swimsuit is for sale on eBay, along with the 3.24 carat diamond engagement ring given to her by her third – and fourth – husband, professional poker player Rick Solomon, from whom she has only recently divorced. The proceeds will go to the rainforest preservation charity Cool Earth, an organisation championed by her friend Vivienne Westwood. "We all hang onto these things and the world is falling apart," she explains, but "I'm saving half the rainforest in Papua New Guinea by selling that engagement ring. He doesn't care, trust me."
Pamela has been an environmentalist and animal lover since childhood. At 12, she convinced her father to stop hunting after discovering a headless deer carcass in the house, bleeding into a bucket. She never ate meat again. Sixteen years later, she was on a never-ending Baywatch promotional tour, visiting one country after another, and tired of answering the same questions – who are you dating, who are you wearing – she wrote a letter to PETA. It was written on mauve stationary, return-addressed "Mrs. Happy."
I'm in a TV show called "Baywatch" and the press is obsessed with my personal life. I'd really like to divert some of the attention to things more important than my boobs or my boyfriends. Can we join forces? I've been an animal lover and a PETA member since I was a kid, sending in rolled up quarters, and I've always wanted to get more involved. Please use me.
"I said," she recalls now, "do something with me. I want to share this attention with something more meaningful. Give me anything."
Dan Mathews, now PETA's senior vice president of media campaigns, opened the letter; he took her gambit, beginning a decades-long relationship with Pamela, PETA's most successful poster child and advocate. Mathews, the architect of PETA's highly visible "I'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur" campaigns, considers Pamela and PETA a match made in heaven. She remains the organisation's most committed spokesperson, promoting each campaign the way other celebrities might promote a film: doing talk shows, doing junkets, traveling internationally. She's got a really punk rock attitude about [activism]," Mathews explains to me over the phone. "She doesn't care what people think. And because she's so sexy, so friendly and engaging in a positive way, that no matter how challenging the message might be, the messenger is so dynamic that you can't ignore it. I think that's the magic combo."
Everywhere Pamela goes, Mathews identifies local animal rights issues: exotic circus animals in Monaco, chinchilla furs in Paris, laboratory chimps in Florida. Her activism ("my activism," she says, a lot, as though it were a disease) has only intensified in recent years. In 2014, she started her own charity, the Pamela Anderson Foundation, which cites as its goals the protection of "human, animal, and environmental rights," and in 2015 she joined the board of Sea Shepherd, an anti-whaling organisation known for its aggressive direct-action tactics. She calls Julian Assange a friend ("I think he's one of the leaders of the free world") and in December, visited the Kremlin with a delegation from International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Not that all of Pamela's second chapter is wrapped up in politics. Tonight, for instance, after we finish our interview, we're supposed to go to a fashion party. It's not far, in Hollywood – the designer Stella McCartney, an old friend, is showing her fall 2016 collection at Amoeba Records. Everyone is going to be there, I'm told – even Dan from PETA. Pamela disappears into the bedroom and emerges wearing a tailored black-and-white dress, her hair swirled into an updo. She looks impossibly chic and I suddenly feel underdressed. A little more champagne and a black Suburban takes us down the hill, straight to the business end of a red carpet gauntlet. Pamela hoofs it across, photographers howling her name, a storm of shutters; women holding iPads point me down the quieter path, behind the flashes. We rejoin at the entrance, where I immediately lose her in the crowd. I find out later that she left. When we meet again, back at the house, she's apologetic: The lighting was too harsh. Too many people. This is what it's like to be around someone famous.
Pamela became a celebrity in a different age. Although hounded by paparazzi during her rocky and very public marriages to Tommy Lee and briefly, Kid Rock, she retained some measure of inaccessibility. Her heirs to the throne of tabloid notoriety have no such luxury, nor do they desire it. The celebs created by Instagram and YouTube became famous to be seen; what's the point of privacy? Now that every would-be Kardashian can send out a constant, direct-to-consumer stream of staged intimacy and selfies, access – the longtime currency of fame – has been upended. Pamela, whose image was ubiquitous before ubiquity could be juiced with retweets, is left in the strange position of having to renegotiate the nature of her own public image.
'We could have saved the entire rainforest in the entire world,' she tells me, 'with that stupid sex tape.'
"I never really paid attention to those tabloid stories," she says dismissively. All of her old signifiers are gone: The Playboy Mansion, her first destination in Los Angeles, her incubator and university, is currently on the market for $200 million. Hef is 89. The magazine itself is changing format; Pamela was the cover star of its last nude issue. Although Baywatch is trudging inexorably towards a movie reboot, Pamela – as of now, anyway – is not slated for so much as a cameo. And her sex tape with Tommy Lee, the great scandal of her public life, is hardly shocking anymore. For the record, she tells me – she insists – the couple didn't sell their video to anyone. Dirty money. "We could have saved the entire rainforest in the entire world," she tells me, "with that stupid sex tape."
The Pamela of the present is not the Pamela of the past, but she knows how to exploit the fame that the swimsuit brought her. She is nothing if not self-aware. "I don't know how I turn boobs into trees and whales and oceans, but I do," she says. "Whatever attention I've gotten, I've used it to get in the door of a lot of places." In campaigns for PETA, she models lettuce-leaf bikinis; she owns a shoe company, Pammies, that sells a vegan version of the shearling Ugg boots she made famous on Baywatch. She plays her present against her past like she's casting it against type; every charitable, intelligent, or daring thing she does is newsworthy precisely because it breaks with her public image as a bimbo party girl. A few days after I met her, she was in Paris, speaking to the National Assembly of France about the practice of force-feeding geese to make foie gras. French politicians were less than generous about the credibility of Alerte à Malibu 's star lifeguard, but her presence made headlines internationally. How long she'll be able to play this line remains to be seen. Eventually, even the past eludes us.
Pamela did a short film recently, Connected, directed by her friend and collaborator Luke Gilford. (VICE's tech channel Motherboard is debuting it.) She plays Jackie, a lonely spin instructor who lives in Venice Beach and is obsessed with the usual Southern Californian alchemies of youth and beauty: She juices, she applies creams, she meditates. The film surprises in many ways, not least with Pamela's performance, which is subdued, vulnerable, even raw.
In one scene, she faces herself in the mirror, pulling and pushing at her body, showing her age; in another, she weeps on the floor next to her stationary bike. No makeup, no skimpy outfits. Just a quiet voice, stripped of much of its SoCal affectation. Pamela has never presented as being less than perfect in a film – she's never been asked to – and the role was difficult precisely because of its familiarity. As a single mother of two facing the realities of ageing in Hollywood, it hit close to home.
She felt self-conscious on set, but listening to music helped her get into the zone. Particularly "End of Innocence," by Enigma; Pamela gave birth to her first son, Brandon, to "Age of Innocence." It's still a favourite of hers, she says, because it reminds her of a time in her life when she was happy. "I was at the height of everything," she says:
"I'd just gotten here, I was working, I had Baywatch, and then I met Tommy, and we got married, and we had babies. You never feel like that dream is going to end. I never felt like I would ever be divorced. I never thought everything would fall apart. I never thought I'd be a single mom. I never thought I'd be in other relationships. I just felt so good at that time, when I was listening to that music. To hear it again and realise what's happened in the last 20 years, how all that was taken away. It happens to so many women."
When I speak to Gilford – full disclosure: I call him a friend – about this, he goes quiet. She was going through a divorce during the shooting of the film, and they are close enough for him to know the details. He even encouraged her to use that pain in the film's more emotional scenes. His fascination with Pamela mirrors mine; Connected is an attempt to scratch at the surface of a sex symbol's mythology to get at the human being beneath. Her age works in his favour, in that regard. Although she's still stunning, she's no longer being cast in the sexpot roles that have bankrolled her career, and that very real questioning – what next? – reveals Pamela's vulnerability, her soulfulness, attributes that may serve her during Chapter Two, whatever that may be.
She invented herself in the first place. She was a flat-chested brunette from Canada who evolved into a blonde bombshell American icon.
"What is the trajectory, or the evolution," Gilford asks me, "of someone who's really made her mark on the world with her body, something that inevitably depreciates with age?"
Perhaps it begins with truth. In 2014, when Pamela launched her foundation, she spoke for the first time publicly about a history of sexual abuse in her childhood and adolescence. Around the same time, she cut off all her hair. They were not equivalent acts, but they were related.
"I felt people didn't really understand there's a human being behind [my image], a person," she tells me. "You really can't judge anybody. Everyone's gone through hard times." Naming her suffering and chopping away at her image, she revealed a willingness to be public in a new way. She has always been visible, but she wanted to be seen. Gilford agrees. "She invented herself in the first place. She was a flat-chested brunette from Canada who evolved into a blond bombshell American icon. She invented that. And now, at almost 50, she's ready to be reinvented. To show more truth."
I leave Pamela Anderson late, not far from where I first saw her. She's curled on a low couch, stilettos kicked off on the rug. I'm tired, I look tired, my makeup has smudged, but she's still Pamela Anderson. I shake her small hand, wish her well, and I mean it.
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