Pamela Anderson, in her own image
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There are so many versions of Pamela Anderson.
The Labatt Blue Zone Girl with the megawatt grin, who got her big break on the jumbotron at a B.C. Lions game. The 11-time Playboy cover girl. The blond bombshell who bounced across the beach in slow-motion in a red swimsuit on Baywatch. The fantasy.
And then Anderson became tabloid fodder. A bimbo caricature. A sex symbol who was only ever asked about her boobs and her boyfriends. And then, following the theft and release of the infamous sex tape featuring Anderson and her then-husband, Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee, Pamela Anderson became a punchline.
Now, after decades of being turned into an object and exploited for other people’s bank accounts, Anderson, 55, is taking back her image, her narrative, her sexuality, and her power via a new Netflix documentary, Pamela, A Love Story, which was released in tandem with her memoir Love, Pamela. Pamela, on her terms.
Filmmaker Ryan White’s documentary comes as part of a larger cultural reckoning of how certain women — Britney Spears also comes to mind — were treated in the 1990s and 2000s, an overdue re-examination of the casual degradation, objectification and misogyny they were subjected to.
Anderson is a compelling documentary subject, and not just because of the life she’s had. For a woman who is no stranger to baring it all, she’s never been this naked. In the doc, she’s often barefaced — a stark contrast to her ‘90s looks — her freckles visible. At one point, we accompany her to a drugstore, back in B.C., where she buys boxed blond hair dye. She’s down to earth, warm and funny, offering up her softest and most vulnerable self — an act of bravery, considering her fraught relationship with the media.
What’s most striking about the doc is just how much material White had to work with. As it turns out, Anderson has the receipts. She is a meticulous archivist of her own life, with stacks of neatly labelled VHS tapes and a library’s worth of journals, filled with her looping handwriting.
These journals are a documentarian’s treasure trove. They detail, in her words, her traumatic early life in small-town Ladysmith, B.C., where she was molested by a babysitter who later died in a car crash — an accident for which young Pamela blamed herself, thinking she caused it with her “magical mind” — and raped by a 25-year-old man at the age of 12. There are breathless entries about how she felt when she was at the Playboy Mansion for the first time (self-conscious and “average”) and when Tommy Lee crashed into her life like a horny wrecking ball in 1995, proposing to her after four wild days in Cancun. They got married on the beach. The bride wore a white string bikini.
But Anderson also loved making playful home videos, which not only provides tremendous B-roll for a documentary, but also offers insight into why the “sex tape” exists in the first place. The Pam and Tommy Sex Tape is not really a sex tape at all but rather a 54-minute home video documenting the first days of a new marriage. Eight minutes of it features the couple having sex. It’s the kind of marital artifact that isn’t meant for an audience.
The theft and leak of that tape was a violation that Anderson likens, in the doc, to her childhood sexual assault. She felt violated again during the subsequent courtroom proceedings, where it was contended she had no right to privacy because she had posed for Playboy.
And she felt violated again in 2022 when Hulu released the limited series Pam and Tommy, a fictionalized retelling of the sex-tape saga based on a Rolling Stone article that details the story from the point of view of Rand Gauthier (played in the series by Seth Rogan), the disgruntled carpenter who stole the safe that held the tape to get back at Lee, who hadn’t paid him. “They should’ve had to have my permission,” Anderson says of Pam and Tommy’s creators. Here, again, some of the worst moments of her life were being sold as salacious entertainment without her consent. (The series features a talking penis, for heaven’s sake.)
But Anderson refuses to be called a victim, and Pamela, A Love Story is a portrait of a woman who has an incredibly deep well of strength and courage. She divorced Lee after he kicked her when she was holding their seven-week-old son and was sentenced to six months in jail. She had a string of bad marriages and divorces after that. She got back up on her feet again, and again, and again.
Last year, she took a risk and made her Broadway debut in an eight-week run as Roxie Hart in a revival of Bob Fosse’s Chicago. In many ways, it’s the role Anderson was born to play: a woman who thought she wanted her name in lights, but really just wanted to be seen.
Pamela, A Love Story is streaming now on Netflix.
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Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.