In the first scene of her Netflix documentary Pamela Anderson, A Love Story (out on January 31), Anderson inserts a video into the VCR and says mischievously that she hopes she doesn’t appear naked in it. The actress is alluding to her sex tape with her then-partner, Tommy Lee – which destroyed her career, upended the internet and made her an icon. Clearly, the idea is to send the elephant in the room packing immediately. The story of the Anderson-Lee sex tape is part of pop culture and was recently been told on the Hulu miniseries Pam & Tommy.
But now Anderson herself wants to reckon with her past. She will do just that in her book Love, Pamela – a blend of autobiography and poetry that will also be released on January 31 – and in the Netflix documentary, over which she had complete control; her son Brandon Lee is a producer. For the viewer, that is not necessarily a positive thing. In the documentary, to which this newspaper had access, Anderson offers a sweetened, friendly, almost idealized version of herself. But she also lets loose and delves into personal stories that range from the tragic (being raped at age of 12, her abortion while filming Barb Wire and being assaulted by Tommy Lee to the funny. She has a sense of humor and knows how to laugh at everything, especially herself. “Except for the dye job, the boobs and the shoes, I’m the real thing,” she says. She is, or at least she looks it in the documentary.
Pamela Anderson went from a small town in her native Canada to Playboy magazine covers and the Playboy mansion. In 1992, she started Baywatch and became the most famous lifeguard in history. She had barely any acting experience but became the main attraction of a show that relied more on the characters’ physiques than on the scripts. Anderson herself is quite aware of that fact. Of her time on Baywatch, she says “I don’t know if I was a good actress, I didn’t know what I was doing. The director would tell us: ‘Pretend it’s real. Action!’. If a scene didn’t work, they’d say, ‘More seagulls’, and someone would throw biscuits.” Still, she remembers it as a fun and exhilarating experience. She spent the day at the beach. She made a lot of money. And, she went out with her cast mates David Charvet and Kelly Slater.
In all her Baywatch scenes, she wore a skimpy swimsuit; in every interview she did, she was asked about her breasts. “I always say it was my boobs that had a career, I was just part of the package,” the actress jokes now. Pamela Anderson was sex. Or at least the oxygenated, plastic, waxed and satiny version of it. The kind of sex that doesn’t smell or stain. The kind of sex that sells. That was until a home video showing her having sex with her then-husband, rocker Tommy Lee, was leaked. Then it was real sex; the kind of sex that sinks a career.
According to Rolling Stone’s definitive 2014 story about the tape, a disgruntled bricklayer broke into the couple’s safe and upon discovering the video tried to profit from it. These details are omitted from the documentary. At first, Anderson and Lee sued (their attorney was Erin Brockovich’s boss) but, tired of the media exposure and the trial, they ended up settling. The agreement prohibited selling the physical tape, but allowed for its sale on the internet. It was 1995, and no one knew the web’s potential. According to Rolling Stone’s estimates, in legal sales alone, the video earned adult websites and distributors some $77 million (€71 million) in the first 12 months. Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee say that they have not seen a cent of that.
The Anderson-Lee tape was the first viral video in history. It redefined the way sex was consumed, condemning DVDs to their fates and turning the internet into the new oasis of porn. Other videos followed (featuring Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and Colin Farrell, to name a few), but none had the same social impact of Pamela and Tommy Lee’s video. The legal and privacy ramifications of the couple’s video remain chilling decades later.
In the press, Tommy became a rock star with a crazy life and a huge penis; while Pamela was considered the slut. Pamela Anderson fell from grace and, as she explains, became the butt of late-night shows, a caricature. Fame overwhelmed her. She did not know how to manage her fortune and ended up ruined a few years later; she herself admits in the documentary that she is not good with money.
Over the years, the actress has become an environmental activist. Last year, she starred in the Broadway musical Chicago to fairly flattering reviews. These two details are used in the documentary, accompanied by thunderously emotional music to underscore the happy ending of which Hollywood is so fond, the final redemption of Pamela Anderson, who has, the story goes, become a serious and committed actress.
In recent years, there have been many documentaries seeking to redeem famous women who fell from grace, be it from drug abuse or mental health problems. Perhaps that’s because society wants to apologize or at least offer an explanation for their role in judging and bringing down these figures. Most of these documentaries conclude by indulgently pointing out how much society has changed since then. It happened posthumously with the terrible documentary about Amy Winehouse (Amy, 2015). Then came a documentary about Britney Spears and her father’s conservatorship (Britney vs Spears, 2021). Now, it’s Pamela Anderson’s turn.
Grown men spoke to Pamela Anderson as if they were horny teenagers. Larry King asked her about her boobs on CNN. When she appeared on the tonight show, Jay Leno made raunchy jokes about her; the rest of the time, he used her as a recurring joke. The documentary shows numerous scenes that have aged poorly. At the time, no one said anything about the comments. Everyone laughed at the joke, even Anderson.
Anderson herself got into the game, which, she says, served as a form of female empowerment. She describes her 1989 debut on the cover of Playboy magazine as the first time she felt free. She appeared on it 13 more times and became the magazine’s most-featured cover model ever. Naturally, she talked about her operations, her nudity and her relationship with sex. That didn’t stop the discussion but rather magnified it. She talked about her boobs over and over again. “I thought, ‘Really? This is what we’re talking about again?’ But I went along with it. I was very naïve.”
Pamela and men
Pamela Anderson, A Love Story also talks about her relationships with men. To help us understand her, she takes us back to her past. Before she became a sex symbol, she was a traumatized child. Three stories mark her childhood and adolescence. The first has tinges of magical realism. Anderson describes how she plotted revenge on a babysitter who molested her. “I tried to kill her – tried to stab her in the heart with a candy cane pen,” explains the actress. She didn’t succeed, but she put a curse on her that seemed to work: “I told her I wanted her to die, and she died in a car accident the next day… I was sure that I did it, that I’d wished her dead and she died… I lived with that the whole of my young life.”
Anderson also tells of a boyfriend who threw her out of a moving car; she ended up in a ditch. This was the first in a series of stormy relationships with men. But the most traumatic story is that of her first sexual experience. “I went to a friend’s boyfriend’s house and when she was busy the boyfriend’s older brother decided he would teach me backgammon, which led into a back massage, which led into rape. My first heterosexual experience. He was 25 years old, I was 12,” she explains. She didn’t tell anyone. “My mom was always crying, dad didn’t always come home, leaving us in tremendous pain and worry. I couldn’t bear to give her more disruptive information so I couldn’t break her heart any more than it was breaking.”
Pamela’s father was a poker player and chimney sweep, as well as an alcoholic. He separated and reconciled with her mother a million times. Her mother used to tell Pamela that she was setting a bad example for her daughter and to get away from the jerks who mistreated her. Pamela took her mother’s advice. Pamela has been divorced five times, the last of which occurred during the filming of the documentary.
In the film, she wittily and ironically enumerates all her relationships, the several times she walked down the aisle only to later end up in a courtroom. She memorably summarizes her marriage to Rick Salomon, a professional poker player, like her father. He turned out to be a drug addict; she says she found a crack pipe under the Christmas tree. “He still to this day denies it and says it was somebody else. Who else would have a crack pipe in the Christmas tree? It wasn’t me,” says Anderson.
After telling all these stories, she makes it clear that Tommy Lee was the great love of her life. “I’d rather be alone than not be with the father of my kids… It’s impossible to be with anybody else. But I don’t think I could be with Tommy either. It’s almost like a punishment,” she reflects. Their romance began with an evening of champagne and ecstasy in Cancun, Mexico. Both ended up so high that they spent the night making out and planning their wedding. They were married four days later in their bathing suits on the beach. “I was dating Kelly Slater at the time and I was supposed to go see him in Florida and meet his family… My first phone call was him to tell him I was married. He’s like, ‘What?!’ That was horrible.”
Their love story ended with Pamela filing abuse charges against Tommy Lee, who spent six months in jail for battering his then-wife. Anderson was adamant: she reported it and disappeared. She took her mother’s advice and got rid of Tommy Lee. Then she married a few more times and left more husbands. “She loves getting married,” her son says in the documentary. “Maybe it’s her favorite thing in the world, falling in love.”
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