If asked as a child who the most beautiful woman in the world was, I’d answer with complete sincerity: Pamela Anderson. She had global popular culture in a chokehold throughout the 1990s, thanks to her role as the hippie romantic on the lifeguard soap Baywatch, which had a weekly audience of more than a billion in its heyday. Her rise, from being scouted at a Canadian football game to Playboy cover girl and TV star, was meteoric. Her look – the bouncy blonde hair, thin eyebrows and breast implants – made her into the designated sex symbol of a generation. Right at the cusp of her popularity the private sex tape she had made with her then-husband Tommy Lee was stolen from their property and commercialised through the nascent internet. It was the first viral video and became irreparably entangled with her name.
There is a dismissiveness reserved for women whose careers and bodies are intertwined. The hotness tax. Described by media as a “sultry sex goddess” and the “most famous blonde on the planet”, Anderson was merely the sum of her parts, her body deemed public property. Her breasts became a regular conversation point when she gave talk show interviews.
Decades later, in the Netflix documentary Pamela, a Love Story, Anderson is pottering around her kitchen in a town on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, in a billowy white dress and says to the camera: “Nobody wants to look at my body anymore.” Pamela Anderson, the image, the body, was the pin-up of a generation, a direct descendant of the bombshell that in the 1950s took the form of Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. Hers was a hyperfemininity considered both aspirational and fake. The inner life of Pamela Anderson, the woman, the person, has rarely been considered. The glossy TV series Pam & Tommy, released last year, was made without her knowledge or consent. It told the story of the sex tape scandal as a lizard-brained heist and put Anderson on the front line of pop culture once more, making her experience the ordeal all over again. But the documentary, and Anderson’s forthcoming memoir Love, Pamela, ask us to see things from her perspective for the first time.
There is an abundance now of pop culture dedicated to redeeming humiliated or wrongfully maligned women such as Britney Spears, Monica Lewinsky and Tonya Harding. There are TV shows, podcasts, documentaries, articles and books. Seldom are those pop artefacts actually made by the maligned women in question. Pamela, a Love Story and Anderson’s book arrive in the midst of a boom of celebrity memoirs, scanned for nuggets of gossip that become headlines before the book even hits the shelves. Documentaries like this one are ultimately marketing tools. But refreshingly, Anderson doesn’t attempt to bestow any grandiose cultural importance on her work in retrospect (Baywatch was a silly show, and she knows it). Nor is she oblivious to the image people have of her. She simply demands that we consider her a person, and not just a punch line. It’s high time we did.
[See also: Is there a woman out there who likes her body?]