Writer and editor

Unpicking the Pamela Anderson Fascination

Added on by Hattie Crisell.

First published by The Pool on 26 September 2016

Pamela Anderson and I, to be honest, have very little in common. She’s a Canadian pin-up with a history of wild, rock-star affairs (Tommy Lee, Bret Michaels, Kid Rock); I’m a British journalist who has never tried cocaine. She personifies glamour; I haven’t washed my face today. She has huge, pneumatic breasts; mine are several inches lower. Speaking of things that are close to my heart – did I mention that I love her? 

I’ve been aware of Pammy since around 1992, when I was nine years old and she joined the cast of Baywatch. I’m probably the only person who ever watched that show for its plot, and not for the boobs – but somehow, Pammy made an impression anyway. Unbeknownst to me, she was already a Playboy cover girl by then; she’s fronted over a dozen issues of the magazine since 1989, including its final nude issue at the beginning of this year. By the time I knew her name, she was already well on her way to becoming one of the biggest stars of the 1990s.

The word “icon” is enormously over-used, but Anderson’s look is, I believe, iconic. Her mega-fame spawned thousands of imitators – women whose big blonde curls, cartoonish breasts, lip implants and string bikinis made them almost indistinguishable from one another – but hers is the image that endures. On photoshoots, she has usually been polished into a glossy, plastic sexuality, but bare-faced, she’s a strikingly beautiful woman. Her Instagram feed is a stream of black and white photos, some of herself and some showing stars of the 1950s and 1960s: Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe. She sits among them quite comfortably.

In the years that followed Baywatch, Anderson remained famous, but her tumultuous personal life took the family-friendly shine off her career. She married Lee four days after meeting him; they divorced three years later, but reconciled and split twice more. A honeymoon sex tape was stolen from their home and widely circulated – a distribution company cashing in, unauthorised, on Anderson’s sex symbol career (she was eventually compensated). Later, she had a broken engagement, and two further failed marriages. 

In the course of all of this, she gradually evolved from being a mainstream celebrity to a cult star. There is a campness and a darkness to her life story that has made her an underdog and a subcultural hero. She’s posed for the artist David LaChappelle (who photographed her nude and apparently orgasmic on a speeding motorbike); her body is said to have inspired a lot of Jeff Koons’ work. She is friends with Vivienne Westwood and the pop artist Ed Ruscha; she likes to be around creatives, and they love to be around an icon. In a photo shoot and interview in Dazed magazine this month, she is gushingly referred to as a “post-modern artist”. 

It is clear that Anderson’s life so far has been hard; in 1998, Lee was convicted of battering her. In 2002, she announced that she’d contracted hepatitis C from him (she is now cured). She said she’d have preferred to keep the information private, but Lee, without her consent, had told people, so she decided to announce it herself. Then, giving a speech at a charity event in 2014, she revealed that she’d suffered considerable sexual abuse as a child and teenager, from more than one attacker. She is a survivor of horrible exploitation, in more ways than one.

It’s shattering to have to share these things publicly, but Anderson has shown dignity and strength. Her interviewers seem to unanimously find her charming and self-aware: she makes jokes about her love life, and neutralises what people think about her by saying it herself. She has remained resilient through triumph and disaster, both personal and professional, because she seems to “treat those two imposters just the same”: she sighs, laughs and moves on to something new. 

There is always a new Pamela Anderson project – last year she starred in the short sci-fi film Connected, exploring ageing and unhappiness, and this year she’s in the movie The People Garden. Last month she co-wrote a Wall Street Journal essay about how online porn consumption can damage intimate relationships; she’s also a longterm and fierce campaigner for animal rights. In 2014 she chopped off her famous hair to a pixie crop; she cited Jean Seberg as an inspiration, and said it made her feel powerful. 

As a kid, I also loved the movie Some Like It Hot, so the other famous blonde who wedged herself in my mind was Monroe. There are obvious parallels to be drawn: both came to fame by walking the line between wholesomeness and overt sexuality, and both, probably, got the shoddy end of the deal. Anderson is still a pin-up, but she is also a middle-aged woman whose life has always been about striving and searching. Where Marilyn eventually lost herself, Pamela keeps moving. Like millions of others, I still count myself as a fan.