It started in spite. When Pamela Anderson was approached to do her first Playboy shoot in 1989 – after being discovered on the Jumbotron at a football game in Vancouver wearing a local beer brand’s T-shirt – her boyfriend at the time forbade her from doing it. “You’re not going to do that! You’re not going to do anything,” he said, furiously.
Anderson did it anyway. To spite the boyfriend, the 22-year-old boarded her first-ever flight, to Los Angeles, and stayed in her first-ever hotel room that didn’t open directly onto the parking lot. Then she posed for the cover of the October edition of Playboy, naked except for a private-school blazer and tie, and a strategically placed straw hat. In the accompanying Q&A, Anderson was asked about her ambitions. She said she wanted to be a “wonderful wife and mother” and to “win an Oscar”.
When Anderson subsequently decided to move to LA to pursue a career in modelling and that elusive Oscar, her boyfriend angrily threw a tray of silverware. Once again, she did it anyway. But this time her rebellion wasn’t so much about spite as it was about chasing down success.
Upon her arrival in California, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner put Anderson up in a Bel-Air mansion with an opera-singing maid and a Bentley in the driveway. LA was made for her, or maybe she was made for it. She was the first Playboy model to have a breast enlargement and inspired a generation of “Playmates” to do the same. “When she got her implants, everybody at the Playboy mansion went straight to the doctor trying to emulate Pamela,” recalls long-time friend Harper Reiss. “It was a phenomenon. It didn’t come before Pam, it was because of Pam.”
In 1991, Anderson landed her first TV show, Home Improvement, and the next year she took on her most iconic role, as the red-swimsuit-wearing, slow-motion-running C.J. Parker on Baywatch. At its peak, Baywatch captivated an audience of 1.1 billion viewers weekly. As Anderson’s fame began to grow, infamy struck.
At a 1994 New Year’s Eve party in Hollywood, Anderson met Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee. She sent him a shot of Goldschläger from across the bar. He responded in turn by licking her face. Six weeks later, he followed her to Mexico where she was doing a photoshoot, and after a whirlwind four days together they married on the beach in Cancun.
The bride wore a white bikini, and the newlyweds tattooed each other’s names on their ring fingers. Anderson’s mum apparently found out about the wedding through a tabloid magazine.
It was the same tabloids that first reported on a bootleg sex tape of Anderson and Lee being circulated in 1996. This was the first celebrity sex tape of its kind; well before Paris Hilton and Rick Salomon in 2004, before Kim K and Ray J in 2007. The VHS tape had been stolen from a safe inside the couple’s Malibu house in 1995 by a disgruntled electrician and shopped around to the highest bidder. At the time, Anderson was seven months pregnant with her first child and was worried the stress would hurt the baby.
She was devastated by the gross invasion of her privacy, but the public had very little sympathy for the actress who had made her name posing nude. The sex tape took on a life of its own: it became a pop-culture reference, spawned copycats and is now the subject of a new TV series, Pam & Tommy, out now. The reignited interest in the story has given pause to the way Anderson was treated back then. If a sex tape was stolen and illegally distributed today, there would be widespread outrage at the violation and possibly a criminal investigation. In a better world, Anderson wouldn’t have been shamed for her sexuality or blamed for making the tape in the first place, she would have been supported as a victim of revenge porn. In Pam & Tommy, a panicked Anderson [played by Lily James] says, “Every second that passes, this tape could be spreading.”
A more relaxed Lee laments, “I’m on that tape, same as you.” “No, not like me you’re not,” Anderson replies. She’s right. While Lee was patted on the back by the patriarchy for having the biggest appendage in rock’n’roll, Anderson was slut-shamed for having sex with her husband and deemed a bad mother. Now, the story is finally being rewritten, with Anderson as the hero and the men who exploited her as the villains.
Before the bouncy blonde curls, the 34DD boobs and Baywatch, there was Pamela Denise Anderson: the brunette. Growing up in small town Ladysmith on Vancouver Island in Canada, her mother worked as waitress and her father was a furnace repairman who had a penchant for poetry – and liquor. Anderson describes her dad as a “bad boy,” and her parents’ relationship as a “volatile, romantic” love affair spiked with alcoholism and abuse. It’s a hard cycle to break, as Anderson would learn.
At the age of 46, Anderson publicly revealed she’d been sexually abused as a child. From age six to 10 she was molested by a female babysitter. At 12, she was raped by a 25-year-old man, and when she was 14, she was gang raped by her boyfriend and six of his friends. As a child, Anderson wished her abusive babysitter would die. The next day, the babysitter was killed in a car crash on her way to her school graduation. “I started believing that I had this special power to kill people,” Anderson later said, explaining that she didn’t disclose the abuse for years because she was afraid she had some sort of deadly ability.
Sadly, the cycle of abuse continued into adulthood. In March 1998, just a few months after the birth of their second son, Lee was arrested for spousal battery and sentenced to six months in prison. Anderson had been breastfeeding the baby when she says Lee violently kicked her several times in the back. She filed for divorce.
What followed is the stuff of daytime soap-operas. The star became engaged to model Marcus Schenkenberg, split, then married musician Kid Rock, split, recoupled with Lee, split, announced a hepatitis C diagnosis, married professional poker player Rick Salomon, split, racked up a million-dollar tax bill, remarried Salomon, split, dated French footballer Adil Rami, split, mock-married film producer Jon Peters, then, inevitably, split in 2020.
“It started out very innocent, and then I turned into a cartoon character. And I started to feel like a cartoon character,” reflects the sweetly spoken Anderson, who has since stopped drinking, taken up Pilates and worked hard to end the cycle of break-ups and make-ups.
It would be easy to tell Anderson’s story through her relationships; easy, but foolish. As Anderson likes to say, she is more than her boobs and boyfriends. In addition to appearing on more Playboy covers than any other model – helming a record-breaking 14 issues – Anderson has starred in the cult-classic film Barb Wire, the mockumentary film Borat, and even in an episode of the American version of Aussie TV favourite Kath & Kim. She’s written three best-selling books and raised her two sons – actor Brandon, now 25, and model and musician Dylan, now 24 – to treat women with respect.
Fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood describes her as a “goddess of beauty”. Painter Ed Ruscha says she has “the mind of a true artist”, and editor Jane Pratt calls her “a really savvy businesswoman. She works really hard. I think she is working all the time, actually, in everything she is doing.”
The beauty of Pamela Anderson is that her sexuality doesn’t negate her smarts. Anderson is a devoted and long-term spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). In France, she campaigned to ban the cruel practice of force-feeding ducks and geese to make foie gras.
In Russia, she met with President Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff in 2015 to stop the capture and captivity of orca and beluga whales. And in Britain, she posed in a lettuce bikini in 2003 to promote vegan eating. It’s this work that Anderson wants to be remembered for – not the stolen sex tape. If she had the power to write her own epitaph, Anderson, now 54, would want it to say, “Here lies Pamela. She was a good girl.”
They say spite is a powerful motivator. But when the spite settles, it leaves room for something more. Satisfaction? Maybe. Contentment? Hopefully. This is the space where Anderson finds herself now, living back in her home town on Vancouver Island at the property she bought from her grandparents with her husband, Dan Hayhurst, a builder from the same town whom she married on Christmas Eve in 2020 after falling in love during the pandemic lockdown.
“I’m exactly where I need to be – in the arms of a man who truly loves me,” Anderson revealed after the nuptials. She may not have won an Oscar – yet – but Anderson has fulfilled her dream of being a wonderful wife and mother. How’s that for spite?
This article originally appeared in the March issue of maire claire.