by Hayley Doyle
She’s been making headlines. Again.
But this time, it’s on her terms. It’s rich with honesty. And for once, we are seeing the woman behind the bombshell, that heavy black eyeliner removed and her beautiful freckles in full view. Whilst renovating her childhood home on Vancouver Island, Pamela Anderson has allowed documentary makers unrestricted access to boxes and boxes of old photographs, memorabilia, videos and diaries in her very own bubble-style handwritten format. “This is it,” she said. “Make what you want out of it, but I’m not going to exaggerate anything.”
My sister brought this new Netflix documentary, Pamela, a Love Story, to my attention recently. It was the usual convo: what should I watch next? When this was suggested to me, my instant reaction was, nah. Not interested. I was a teenager in the 90s. Every boy in my class had Pammy pinned to their bedroom wall. Surely this was going to be another helping of trashy telly, showing a two-dimensional Ms Anderson via talking heads and old clips. How wrong I was. My sister urged me to watch it, telling me that I was about to fall in love with the woman who used to show up on our TV screens on Saturday afternoons opposite David Hasselhoff. Within minutes, I was smitten. Even at the school gates when I drop my kids off, parent pals have been saying, “Have you watched it?” Followed by, “Isn’t she just wonderful?”
When you read her name, it’s impossible not to see the iconic image of Pamela Anderson in the cherry-red bathing suit. Even if you weren’t one of the 1.1 billion people across 148 countries who watched Baywatch weekly during the 90s, you will know who she is and likely have an opinion about her. Pamela Anderson is as much an icon of the 90s as she is a painful example of how toxic it was to be a female celebrity during that time. But, “I’m not a victim,” she says. “I’m not the damsel in distress. I’ve made my choices in my life. Some obviously were made for me, but I’ve always been able to find myself again. And it’s created a strong person and a strong parent.”
Pamela’s two sons, Brandon and Dylan Lee, are the force behind this Netflix documentary. They wanted her to do it. With the deepest respect for their mother, they were sick and tired of people seeing her for what she’d been painted as, and not who she truly is. They’ve spent their lives defending her, fighting for her honour as far back as in the playground. A true credit to her, Pamela proudly describes her sons as, “perfect gentlemen,” who “…didn’t deserve all the drama.” She divorced their father, rockstar Tommy Lee, when his raging jealousy turned violent towards both her and the boys, then babies. Yet, it’s all too common to just associate Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee with that sex tape. Yes, the stolen one. The one that went viral in 1996 and made way for its illegal distributors to pocket $77m. Pamela never saw a single cent.
When the Hulu series Pam & Tommy was released last year, I had no desire to watch it. It’s all fun and games watching an entertaining drama based on the downfall of those who have done wrong, but in the case of Pamela Anderson, she was exploited. The stolen tape ruined her career, and almost her life. She did not consent to Hulu making that show and honestly thought it was a joke when she found out that Lily James had been nominated for an Emmy for the portrayal of herself. In Pamela’s words, that TV series “rubbed salt in the wound.” She told Variety, “They shouldn’t have been able to do it without my permission. This feels like when the tape was stolen.”Unlike the Netflix documentary, Pam & Tommy fails to make any kind of principled stand against misogyny, so what was the point? To indulge our titillated fascination with old scandals?
It’s horrendous to think that people are okay with making a fortune out of another’s misery. Of course, it’s naive of me to think that everybody is so nice they wouldn’t dare. If that were the case, there wouldn’t be any billionaires, right? But in the case of Pamela Anderson, a girl plucked out of a small island town and catapulted into Playboy, who strived to be loved and use her past traumas to build strength and self-confidence, she has been played like a doll time and time again. She baffled men with her beauty, and in many ways, it was too much for them to tolerate. They treated her like a caricature. A punch line. They were happy to hurt her for their own entertainment.
Late night chat shows from the 90s and 00s have dated, shall we say, very badly. And rightly so. Alan Carr giggled on his sofa and said, “It’s fun being screwed, isn’t it, Pammy? I’ve seen the tape.” An NBC interviewer said to her, “I’ve never sat across from an interview subject before and said, ‘May we talk briefly about your breasts?’” And Larry King asked, “Have you ever had work done?” Then demanding an answer, quite aggressively wanting to know if she’d had implants, he said, “Well, are they or aren’t they?” Pamela’s documentary sheds light on these moments and as we drop our jaws in outrage at how this was once allowed to be aired, we also gulp and sit back in silence, knowing that we all let it happen. We all watched. We all laughed. We all bought into what we were sold. We didn’t see celebrities as human. We took what we were given and ran with judgement, rather than asking questions. When the media got their claws into Pamela on her first date with her husband after giving birth, she was attacked with pepper spray outside the Viper Rooms. As she tried to defend herself and fight back, the paparazzi told her she was drunk and patronisingly called her “sweetie”, demanding to know where her baby was. Nobody dared to ask Tommy Lee - the father - where his child was.
So are we living in more compassionate times now? Would the career and star status of Pamela Anderson shine differently if she had risen to fame during a more understanding era? What’s remarkable is how she confidently has no regrets. How she loves an experience. How she lives by living in the moment. Documentary director Ryan White has called her “a total free spirit…not calculating in any way.”
In this day and age, there aren’t many things I’ll re-watch. We’re spoilt rotten. My list of must-sees is so long and ever-growing that it won’t be possible to get through it in my lifetime! However, I will watch Pamela, a Love Story again. I enjoyed her, for being her. A survivor. I admired her strength and her ability to always find love, and continue to believe in love, especially with herself. Without exaggeration, exactly as she wanted, it reminds us of a previously toxic culture and gives us hope that women’s voices are now being heard.