Pamela Anderson is practised at the art of “soft vision”. In her memoir she uses the phrase to describe her way of looking to camera during Playboy photoshoots or Baywatch title sequences. The trick, she explains, is to send your gaze past the camera, or through it; never directly at the lens. This is also how the model and actress looks back on her life, from her childhood to her years as the defining pin-up of the 1990s – with a gently blurred focus.
Anderson has kept a diary for many years. The earliest draft of this book came in the form of a single poem more than 50 pages long, which then, she writes, “grew into hundreds of pages of… more poetry”. She refused to entertain a ghostwriter. Her editor “enjoyed my original writing style, but she also suggested we add full sentences and paragraphs. I told her I don’t think in full sentences, let alone paragraphs. The skin on my arms crawled with rage.” Eventually, a compromise was reached – Love, Pamela is a memoir interspersed with fragments of poetry.
The promotional materials declare that Anderson is “taking control of her own narrative for the first time”, framing the book as a rebuttal to the sexist media narrative that engulfed her in the Nineties and Noughties. Reviewers and interviewers have similarly positioned Anderson as “setting the record straight” or telling the story from her “own perspective”. But though Anderson revisits the most-discussed details of her personal life – the Playboy parties, the leaked “sex tape”, her tumultuous marriages to Tommy Lee and Kid Rock – she has little interest in score-settling. Her memoir is stranger and more confounding than that. Its opening words are written in verse: “The lines blur/between dreams/and reality.” The narrative is defined by Anderson’s propensity to romanticise her own life and see the world through a dreamy, gauzy haze.
Surprisingly, some of the most successful passages of the book come from Anderson’s childhood, in the small town of Ladysmith on Vancouver Island, Canada. Even here her memories seem influenced by art and cinema – her young parents’ relationship was “like a 1950s movie. Think American Graffiti. Drive-ins, hot rods, burgers.” She describes a father who wore his hair like Elvis and tucked a packet of Camels into the sleeve of his white T-shirt, and writes of her mother: “I can see her clearly, waving her white silk scarf, playing surrender, acting helpless to the camera, batting the biggest blue eyes you’ve ever seen.” Her parents were in love, but her father turned nasty when he drank, belittling her mother and at times physically harming her. Anderson’s childhood was punctuated by the sound of arguments, sex and her mother’s stifled sobs in the bathroom.
Anderson writes with specificity and striking emotional clarity about this time. She recalls peering through the bathroom keyhole to see her mother trying to “fix her makeup, the mascara running down her face. The mirror was on the wall over the toilet, so she had to kneel on the seat to see herself, with her makeup and hairbrushes, lipstick and pale pink teasing comb, splayed out on the back of the tank. I wonder if she knew I was watching.” As a child Anderson engaged in attention-seeking behaviours: flooding the sink, smearing the cat in butter, eating a bottle of chewable baby aspirin. Her dad’s screams provoked, she admits, an “exciting” feeling. One day her father drowned her cat’s litter of kittens in front of her, as punishment for playing with them inside. “I felt like I died that night, too,” she writes, slipping between prose and prose-like poetry: “It was my fault– /I was bad./I left my body.”
As a young girl, Anderson was sexually abused by her female babysitter. At 12 or 13 she was raped by a man while her family thought she was at the movies, losing the “P” necklace her parents had bought her as a gift for her birthday in the struggle: “I was reaching for it when he pierced my body.” Early boyfriends were physically violent. Her sense of self began to dissolve: she was, she writes “falling apart, molecules, dust, liquid…/My life evaporating.” As a result, she retreated deeper into her “imagination, subconscious, a dream world”.
After appearing on the giant video screen wearing a Labatt’s T-shirt at a football game in Vancouver, Anderson modelled in a popular advert for the beer. Then came a call from Playboy. The magazine offered her the October 1989 cover, and she flew to LA. During that first photoshoot, she learned to see herself from the camera’s perspective. Here, there is a shift in the narrative – Anderson begins to write about herself as if she were the observer, like the woman in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing who is continually accompanied by her own image of herself. She describes her first date with her boyfriend Mario Van Peebles from his viewpoint: “When I opened up the door, I had on my riding gear, black boots, khaki pants. A white billowy blouse and a blue velvet riding jacket with tails, a wide-brimmed hat, freckles, and a shy smile. I looked straight out of a Ralph Lauren ad, wholesome and healthy.” Van Peebles is given a more succinct description: “So handsome.” (And, she quips, probably thinking: “Where is her horse?”)
There are debauched parties at the Playboy Mansion – she recalls locking eyes with Jack Nicholson in a powder room mirror while he was receiving attention from two other women: “I guess that got him to the finish line, because he made a funny noise, smiled, and said, ‘Thanks, dear.’” She stays rent-free at the empty Bel-Air home of an admirer, next door to Ronald Reagan. Baywatch repeatedly begs her to audition before she gives in – the show makes her internationally famous. John F Kennedy Jr won’t stop calling. Anderson’s style becomes more prosaic under the weight of these anecdotes, and at times she seems lost in a whirlwind of events, but the readers have come to the book for precisely these stories.
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Tommy Lee crashes into her life on New Year’s Eve in 1994. The Mötley Crüe drummer “came bounding over to my table, wallet chain swinging, no shirt on, just tattoos and nipple rings”. He licks her face by way of a greeting. He follows her to a work trip to Cancún in Mexico, calling every hotel until he finds her. After a four-day whirlwind romance fuelled by champagne and ecstasy, they are married on the beach, Anderson in a white bikini. On the plane home she asked him what her new last name was. She recalls the experience as blissful: “We were in heaven”; “Our lives were a living, breathing Fellini film.”
They quickly had two sons. But Lee could be angry, jealous and controlling, refusing to let her go to work without him. One day, he arrived on the Baywatch set by driving his car into the make-up trailer, punching up the cabinets inside, throwing Anderson on to the back seat and speeding away. That night, she washes a bottle of Advil down with vodka in the bath. A suicide attempt, then, though she doesn’t describe it as such. Again, she seems to witness the scene as if an outsider. “I threw up everything, all over the stone floor, and then fell asleep in a pool of Advil-red vomit. It must have looked scary.”
It seems obvious to the reader that this marriage was troubled from the start, but Anderson describes them as “so in love”. For her, their “hell began” when private home videos the couple had recorded of themselves were stolen from their house and leaked. Here, she uses similar language to the sexual assaults of her childhood. “I felt strange,/liquid,/melting…/Leaving my body once again.” She and Lee tried to cope, reminding each other to have “G and D” (grace and dignity); Anderson made a family photo album emblazoned with the words “Everyone Sucks But Us”. But it eventually “ruined” their relationship. In 1998 an argument ended with Lee kicking Anderson as she held her seven-week-old son; she called the police, and Lee was jailed for six months. They divorced, but continued to see each other. “The rest of my life, my relationships paled in comparison… My relationship with Tommy may have been the only time I was ever truly in love.”
The leak, and the sexist media coverage of it, also killed her acting career, but Anderson is refreshingly equivocal about that. She had little desire to be a “serious actress”. Friends affectionately describe her as “the least ambitious person on the planet”. This memoir has been located as part of a wider cultural reassessment of unfairly maligned female figures from the turn of the millennium – from Britney Spears to Monica Lewinsky. Anderson has a right to be angry, and there is a vague feminist gloss to some of her writing, which she hopes will “empower” other women. “I was/and still am/an exceptionally/easy target,” she writes. But “I’m not bitter, I don’t have the craving to be hard,/heard, or taken seriously.”
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Anderson rattles through subsequent love affairs, photoshoots and jobs at speed: her disastrous marriage to the rapper Kid Rock ends when he calls her a whore at a screening of Borat, in which she had a cameo. She is bolstered by colleagues who treat her as an equal – a roll-call including Vivienne Westwood, Amy Winehouse and Julian Assange, who she claims is “not a physical threat to anyone” (despite her own experience of sexual assault, she clearly believes the charges of rape against him are false). In one paragraph, she recounts phone calls with Werner Herzog; in the next, she is proudly describing her “famous waffles”.
She is most interested in her two sons, and their home life together. She realises her addiction to intense, all-consuming relationships, her tendency to cast herself as the lead of her own tragic romance. She reads Anais Nin, Carl Jung and countless therapy books. She concludes: “Men are my downfall. And I’ve tried all kinds. The common denominator is me.”
Still, Pamela Anderson cannot separate her fantasy life from her day-to-day existence, nor does she think she should. “Living cinematically/And dramatically/Is what I have always aspired to/Why not?” She imagines herself as Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot and Jean Seberg. “I dream I am the woman in Valentino… Desperate, alone, glamorous,/misunderstood.” She ends with an image of herself weighed down with the vegetables she has grown in the garden of her waterfront home in Ladysmith, a veritable Eden. “Walking barefoot through my garden, I feel free. Silhouetted in sheer white linen, a lilac sunrise bursting from the ocean behind me.” Happy and relaxed but oversaturated, posed – captured through a lens.
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This article appears in the 08 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Silent Sunak