In late 2009, I witnessed Pamela Anderson descend gently from the rafters of London’s New Wimbledon Theatre on a sequinned swing, clad in a red ribbon and stockings and not much else. The “most recognizable icon of the new millennium,” as the program notes described her, was playing The Genie of the Lamp in the pantomime version of Aladdin.
The excitement was too much for the man in front of me. He insisted on snapping surreptitious photos of the goddess, despite the signs around the theatre warning that no pictures of Ms. Anderson were to be taken. The theatre’s burly security guards warned him once. They warned him again. Then, when he tried to take a third shot, they hauled him bodily out of his seat before my astonished eyes.
Why, I wondered as he was dragged away, never to return. Why risk everything to take a photo of a woman whose every inch of skin has been surveyed, chronicled, and digitally splayed across the Internet? She has that effect, though. She was too much sun for a dreary London winter. The poor man had been Pam-struck.
It’s fair to say that Canada has also always been Pam-struck, unsure what to do with the wild, glamorous, unpredictable force it unleashed on the world that day in 1989 when a roving camera captured her at a B.C. Lions game and detonated a bombshell.
She was born on July 1, 1967, in Ladysmith, B.C., on precisely the day our dull country turned 100 and shook itself out of a colonial stupor: Hippies rampaged through the streets of Toronto; Leonard Cohen had shaken the literary establishment the year before with his novel Beautiful Losers; feminists threatened to storm Parliament Hill unless Prime Minister Lester Pearson struck a commission to study the plight of women in Canadian society (he wisely caved to their demands.)
Even with all that, we were still a country too provincial to contain the fireball that was Pamela Anderson, and she fled to California at age 22 – her first airplane ride – to find sanctuary under the leathery wings of Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion. If she was so anxious at her first Playboy shoot that she threw up on a photo assistant, who could blame her? The nerves of a confessed exhibitionist were soon soothed and she returned to Playboy 13 more times, including the cover of the final print issue in January 2016.
As Canada struggled with its identity over the past 50 years, so has Anderson. Our struggle meant transcending the fissures of history, and hers required transcending the assets that biology provided and science augmented. Or, as she wrote recently on her blog in the beatnik, blank-verse style she favours:
“It may be hard to imagine for some—
that I have other assets—
of equal or greater value.”
If turning 50 is a challenge for most women, consider how much greater that challenge must be for a woman most famous for her “bazoombies,” in the inimitable words of the Sydney Morning Herald, and for wearing a red bathing suit and running in slow motion through the California surf. Anderson starred for five years as New Age-y lifeguard C.J. Parker on Baywatch, and while the show may have been a joke, it was a joke imprinted on the inside of countless male eyelids. In 1996, the sex tape she made early in her marriage to Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee was stolen and sold for the consumption of millions of hungry gazes. Her skin, for many people, is more familiar than their own. This is not an easy thing to age out of gracefully.
So what is a bombshell to do? If beauty is a springboard, eventually it’s also a trap. “Aging is something we all deal with,” Anderson told W Magazine in May 2016. “You’re searching for answers. If I do all these things to look younger — the creams, the classes, the supplements, the procedures — I’ll be more accepted by my kids, my friends, men. You’re dealing with so much loss at this age. It seems like everything is behind us, so what’s next?”
The answer is obvious: reinvention. Anderson, for someone who has looked remarkably similar for the past 30 years, is actually very good at reinventing herself. Today, her life would be familiar to that of any divorced single mom struggling to makes end meet: She’s stitched together a patchwork of odd career bits and volunteer work, while pining for a partner to hold her hand. Okay, she does it in five-inch stilettos, unlike the rest of us. We’ll have to imagine that part.
Her acting career was never destined to rival Judi Dench’s (just check out the eye-blistering reviews of her one big-screen starring role, 1996’s Barb Wire.) Instead, she’s trying to carve out small, artsy parts. She’s hoping to be cast by Werner Herzog (seriously.) In Luke Gilford’s 10-minute 2016 short Connected, released in 2016, Anderson is an affecting, makeup-free presence in the role of a soul-damaged spin teacher at the end of her rope.
It’s clear that her heart – given recklessly to so many unworthy men over the years – belongs to activism. The Pamela Anderson Foundation supports dozens of causes, most involving the environment and animal rights. Look at what this PETA-supporting vegan has accomplished: She is quite likely the only Playboy centrefold to have spoken at France’s National Assembly (criticizing foie gras) and at Cambridge and Oxford universities (“in regards to activism and making love.”) “There she is too in the Wall Street Journal with co-author Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, condemning pornography and inviting “a sensual revolution,” part of an upcoming book project.”
And while she is hardly an icon of women’s-rights activism – “I am not a feminist,” she wrote in Raw, a book of photographs by Emma Dunlavey – she can at least be claimed by feminists for her ability to battle, and survive, adversity. She overcame Hepatitis C, financial calamities, domestic assault, childhood sexual abuse, and a list of husbands she has publicly come to regret. There was Tommy Lee, father of her two sons, who served jail time for physically abusing her; and Rick Salomon, a professional card player she married twice, who reportedly called her “ugly old bitch” and tried to suffocate her, and whose engagement ring she sold for charity. As for Kid Rock, the less said the better. Like those glamorous icons of suffering Elizabeth Taylor and Whitney Houston, her man problems are our man problems; her woe our woe.
Which brings us to the strangest chapter of what is already a reality-defying, blockbuster life: the Julian Assange cliffhanger. We don’t know the precise nature of Anderson’s involvement with the controversial cyber-hacker, who has been hiding in the Ecuadorean embassy in London since 2012 to avoid being questioned over sex-assault allegations in Sweden. Anderson regularly visits Assange in his hidey-hole, and proclaims him “the most intelligent, interesting, and informed man in existence.”
This coupling – if that’s what it is – may baffle the world, but it will not surprise the veteran Anderson watcher. She is a serial drinker of romantic Kool-Aid, drawn to the illusion of the next great affair. “I’m tormented and love sick always,” she told People magazine in April. “It’s hard to find relief sometimes. I’m trying to not feel lonely. But, I hurt a lot about so many things. I’m a romantic – it makes my stomach hurt.”
It defies expectation, as so much about Anderson does: the goddess, alone and suffering? As always with her life, there is an intriguing balance between everything being visible on the surface, but much hidden in the depths. Why else would that man have risked life and limb to take pictures in that London theatre years ago, except in the hope of witnessing a glimpse of the true Pam? She is now, as she was then, at once exposed and inscrutable, delicately trapped in a frame of her own design.