Pamela Anderson Is More Than What She’s Suffered

Her new memoir and Netflix documentary show us who she is beyond a woman exploited by men and the media.

In Depth
Pamela Anderson Is More Than What She’s Suffered
Pamela Anderson and her son Brandon Lee attend the amfAR Cannes Gala on May 23, 2019 in Cap d’Antibes, France. Photo:Gareth Cattermole/amfAR (Getty Images)

The year is 2003 and Pamela Anderson, storied sexpot and several-time survivor of public humiliation by way of a private tape and a parade of seriously shitty men, is a columnist for Jane magazine. Her monthly reflections, titled “Pam, Honestly,” feature piercing examinations of domestic abuse, parenthood, and women’s health. Her prose is simple, and her tone is without judgment. “Be clear with yourself,” she advises anyone deciding whether or not to pursue plastic surgery in the May issue. As it happens, Anderson is not just a pretty face, or the pair of breasts she jests her personhood simply tags along with. She is a proficient storyteller. Two decades later, too few have noticed.

By now, all of the salacious bits of Anderson’s new memoir, Love, Pamela, and Netflix documentary, Pamela, a love story (both released on January 31), have already been spoon fed to the masses by way of previewed excerpts and profiles. Sylvester Stallone offered her a Porsche to be his “number one girl!” Tim Allen flashed his penis at her on the set of Home Improvement! Tommy Lee trashed a set in a jealous rage over an onscreen kiss she shared with a costar! One might think they needn’t crack the book or queue up Netflix to feel as though they possess some deeper understanding of Anderson. Of course, they would be—as much of the public has been for years—gravely mistaken.

As of today, I have not happened upon an interview wherein anyone has thought to ask the 55-year-old Anderson about her fascination with radical politics, of which she writes extensively (sometimes in verse) in Love, Pamela. “A Che Guevara poster hung on my wall, I read The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro, and I loved The Motorcycle Diaries so much, I’d even bought a 1970 Norton motorcycle as a birthday gift for a boyfriend,” she recalls in one passage (nevermind that she then writes of having sex astride the bike). Of her faith in protest, Anderson writes, “There is power in collective movements, fighting together with care and love. I spoke at a few big political events and traveled with activists and comrades, happy to contribute to the dream of Europe and countries around the world existing beyond capitalism. Our message warned that the poor should not be paying for climate change, yet it is the poor who are, once again, paying the highest price.”

Pamela Anderson attends the Premiere of Netflix’s “Pamela, a love story” at TUDUM Theater on January 30, 2023 in Hollywood, California. Photo:Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic (Getty Images)

In her memoir, Anderson also details the inspiration she’s taken from Pablo Neruda, and the “sensitivity” of Anaïs Nin and Frida Kahlo, with whom she’s long felt a kinship—one mostly of distinctly feminine despair. “As with Frida, I craved a person in my own life who might recognize me as an artist, someone who understood that I was a far cry from what people thought of me. I needed someone to see me through the fog. How could they? I was guilty of painting my own self-image,” she writes. But I haven’t encountered a discussion about her prodigious knowledge of revolutionary poetry and artistry, nor one wherein she’s been empowered to speak further about her own exhaustive writing process. She shows it in Pamela, a love story via stacks of diaries and aging legal pads filled with keen observations from years past, but she can’t bring herself to read them in the documentary, and no one has asked why.

It isn’t so much surprising as it is disheartening that the only divulgences from Anderson’s new projects deemed worthy of coverage are those that tell us very little about her and a lot more about her cavalcade of cataclysmic partners—and all the ways she’s been thoroughly fucked by them, the media machine, et. al. This is all parsed out in Love, Pamela, and Pamela, a love story, which prompted the slew of media coverage as if in penance for years of cruelty. Innumerable more pieces could productively analyze the trauma the bashful, bottle-blonde has sustained: from her introduction to sex via molestation at the hands of a female babysitter, to a sexual assault perpetrated by a 25-year-old man when she was just 12 years old, to decades of intimate partner violence. The repeated violations of her privacy, too. But even the dribble of think-pieces to come out of this press cycle have spotlighted her suffering, as opposed to who she is apart from it. Pamela Anderson Doesn’t Need Your Redemption,” The New York Times’ Jessica Bennett recently wrote. Frankly, that much is obvious. Perhaps the most appropriate way to atone would instead be taking greater care of the person Anderson is despite all of her pain: basically, a revelation instead of a reveal.

Throughout both projects, Anderson paints with the self-possession of some of her heroes as she layers herself onto the public’s proverbial canvas, somehow still optimistic that she might be known for more than silicon and sex appeal. The documentary’s visuals are particularly striking attempts to subvert long-standing perceptions. Pamela, a love story is an mix of present-day shots that often see a barefaced Anderson performing mundane rituals around her Vancouver Island farmhouse—most notably, riding a lawnmower in four-inch boots and a shapeless linen gown—and archival footage from the mid-’90s to 2010s. While the private home movies (no, not that one) made mostly during her marriage to Tommy Lee are actually quite touching, if not occasional indicators of a toxic bond laden with love-bombs, resurfaced footage of her earlier interviews, especially with certain late-night lechers, offer a bit more insight into the person she is. In retrospect, Anderson is wickedly funny, so quick-witted she often beats her counterpart to the punchline by miles. In fact, it’s Dolly Parton-esque the way she has never not been in on the joke. Only, she’s never had half of the latter’s industry esteem.

Audiences will learn that Anderson has generously given the world plenty of chances to treat her differently. She became one of the most influential animal rights advocates within PETA’s celebrity stable, often traveling overseas on behalf of the underdogs—those that walked on four legs, but others too—to initiate meetings with world leaders that likely just wanted a closer look at her. She successfully negotiated with Vladimir Putin, writing that she convinced the President of Russia to ban the practice of seal clubbing and stop trading whale meat to Japan. In her spare time, she visited historical sites of political interrogation and torture, like the Villa Grimaldi in Chile—trips that were rarely, if ever, publicized quite as much as her countless grapples with privacy.

if there’s one thing the devout mother, well of wisdom, insatiable reader, indomitable romantic, and born raconteur is good at, it’s trying.

Such battles culminated with her 1996 legal bid to prevent further distribution of the stolen footage by Internet Entertainment Group (IEG), setting the precedent for a collective understanding about revenge porn in the dawning digital era. FX’s Pam and Tommy faltered everywhere, but especially in its depiction of that particular dehumanization. Lily James’ Anderson was forced to watch the tape at the epicenter of it all, but as we learn in her book and the documentary, the real Anderson still hasn’t seen a single second of it.

Pamela, a love story’s account of Anderson’s days-long deposition to win the rights to her own private property is searing. “They didn’t have a lot of sympathy for me,” she says of facing the company’s attorneys in the documentary. “‘Oh, she’s in Playboy, she likes being naked in public.’ First of all, it was my choice to be in the magazine. Playboy was empowering for me. But in this case, it felt like a rape.” Ultimately, Anderson dropped the lawsuit against IEG. She was pregnant with her second son, and previous stress had already caused one miscarriage. She couldn’t weather another.

Looking back, she is stoic in her reflections of the deposition period, but one gets the notion that it was perhaps the most traumatizing intrusion. Regardless, the documentary pulses forward, just as she has, avoiding over-indulgence in wrought moments. As Anderson writes of a refrain she’s repeated to her two sons throughout their lives: “Happy is only one emotion. All the other feelings are just as important, even sad, even yearning, surprised, disappointed.” There’s a lot of ground to cover. She honors all of it.

In one moment of sadness in the documentary, Anderson remarks, “If they fall in love with you one way, that is it. I think that solidified kind of the cartoon image. You become a caricature.” Only, she isn’t a caricature. Anderson knows that—which is likely why she’s lasted so long in an industry that opted to traffick her pain like trauma porn. She is more than what’s been done to her, but most of the media’s attempts at atonement continue to miss the point. Her suffering, as a startling many have chosen to latch onto, isn’t the most interesting part about her. Not even close. Fortunately, it seems like she takes a certain amount of pleasure in surprising people. In a revelatory scene from her memoir, the mother of WikiLeaks’ co-founder and friend Julian Assange tells her to stop posting “sexy photos” on social media and instead opt for “authentic ones,” sans makeup or filters.

“She thought that it would help me become a stronger and more serious activist, because my intelligence was being overshadowed. But, I argued, I am who I am, which is a combination of all I know, and I’ve always believed that striving to be a sensual person, or being sexy, should not conflict with intelligence… If the cartoon image of me was what got me through the door, so be it. And so I continued the work the only way I knew how. It was too late to turn back now, I thought—it would take time and effort to try to change people’s opinion of me.”

Whether the public will finally take note of Anderson’s totality remains to be seen. But if there’s one thing the devout mother, well of wisdom, insatiable reader, indomitable romantic, and born raconteur is good at, it’s trying.

“I didn’t think I’d want to spend this part of my life explaining myself to people,” she writes in the memoir’s epilogue. “It would take a lifetime to understand another person.”

In this case, it shouldn’t.

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