“I always thought my life is kind of an experiment,” Pamela Anderson tells me on a recent Tuesday morning in Toronto. We’re side by side on her hotel suite sofa, and she’s hungry for the toast she ordered half an hour ago (she likes it a bit burnt). Since she first popped up on the Jumbotron at a BC Lions game, the Canadian-born actress, 55, has projected a larger-than-life image as a sexual fever dream with five ex-husbands, the record for the most Playboy covers and a talent for running in slo-mo on Baywatch, one of the most-watched TV series in the world. But for years her two sons, Brandon, 26, and Dylan, 25, urged her to tell her own story. “They’re sick of people not knowing who their mom is,” she says.
That Anderson – devoted mother, passionate animal activist, avid reader, unconventional thinker – is now remoulding her image with a new memoir, Love, Pamela; a Netflix documentary, Pamela, A Love Story, (co-produced by Brandon); an HGTV series, Pamela’s Garden of Eden, in which she restores her family’s property on Vancouver Island; and an upcoming Food Network Canada series, Pamela’s Cooking with Love.
In person, she’s astonishingly petite, with high cheekbones, graceful hands and prominent knuckles. She meets me barefoot, wearing jeans, a white T-shirt and minimal makeup, her blond hair loose. She radiates a fascinating energy: charming, down-to-earth and also terribly nervous. She speaks rapidly, punctuating her sentences with a staccato, self-deprecating hahahaha. She tucks her feet up, and for the next 16 minutes she unleashes a barrage of thoughts that veer from subject to subject like a pinball in a Barb Wire machine. Here are highlights from our conversation.
You seem to be assessing everything you learned during your many phases – pastoral childhood in Ladysmith, B.C.; adolescence tainted by sexual assault; wild Hollywood years – and deciding to embark on a healthier, saner chapter.
Hopefully it’s always been warm and generous, but maybe this part of my life is a little more sane. I definitely feel I’ve been going to some kind of school. A long life of ups and downs. I’m a sponge. I soak it all in.
Why write a book now?
I never knew I’d be able to tell my story. I was just living the best way I could, and being the best mother I could, within this wild lifestyle. I think that’s my Canadian upbringing [laughs]. Now I’m in this full-disclosure part of my life, but I’ve always been brutally honest. I don’t want to dwell on the bad things, because I didn’t dwell on them then. But I wanted to tell my story in an authentic way.
How are people responding?
I love these book signings I’m doing [including one at the Eaton Centre]. I’m hearing so many stories from women about their own lives. A lot also buy one for their mom [laughs]. I’m signing a lot of books for moms, it’s surreal.
Women are telling me, “I want to tell my own story!” And you should tell your story, it’s freedom. But this is not an easy thing to do. Because it comes with a lot of other people’s processes. I’ve stirred the pot. I’m seeing these wounded people rise to the top, people I didn’t expect. So it’s full of surprises.
I always say to my sons, “When you’re in a tug of war with someone, you just have to let the rope go.” I’m doing a lot of that lately. I’m hearing a lot of blame, shame, denial, sadness and anger, and I’m responding with loving words, even if it hurts. And it hurts. Trust me, it hurts. But we’re all just human beings, doing the best we can.
[Anderson writes that Tim Allen flashed her on the set of Home Improvement, where she played Lisa the Tool Time girl, and that Sylvester Stallone propositioned her. They’ve both denied it. I assume they’re two of those humans.]
How do you process people sucking up oxygen with small complaints, when you’ve endured genuinely terrible things: From age 6 to 10, you were molested by a female babysitter. At 12, you were raped by a 25-year-old man. At 14, you were gang-raped by seven young men, one of whom was your boyfriend. I’m sorry those things happened to you.
I have great people around me. My circle is small, but the people who work with me are my friends, too, and my therapists [laughs]. Sometimes it shocks me, yes. But I’m holding a space for people to have their process. Including my mother. She’s never been in any kind of therapy in her life, she had a rough childhood, and all these things are coming up for her. She tells me having a famous daughter is really annoying [laughs]. But I’ve been writing my whole life, so maybe this is part of my purpose.
Your dad, Barry, a furnace repairman, is a vivid character in your book. Glamorous, but prone to anger and sometimes violence. He and your mum, Carol, a career waitress, married young. She left him and came back a few times, and they’re still together.
My dad loves my mum to death. But they had a volatile relationship. My mum still dances on eggshells around him. She doesn’t want him to read the book. She’s managed her way of handling things, and I’ve disrupted it.
You write that you equate love with danger. Did that come from him?
I can look back and see that he was my role model, my modelling. I like that my dad drove fast cars and was handsome. He played poker, he was cool. He’s in Mensa, he’s got one of the highest IQs ever recorded in Canada I think. When he wasn’t there I missed him, even though I saw their relationship. He doesn’t say many words. A lot of silent drives to school without a word. So I was always curious about him – what is he thinking?
You kept stacks of diaries, and you are one of the most photographed women in the world. As you researched yourself, what rose up that you didn’t expect?
I didn’t realize how strong I was. I had a lot of dark moments where I believed what people were telling me about myself. But reading the diaries, I realized I was always learning, always trying to figure out how to be a better parent, a better partner. I was amazed at my strength in some moments, and how I used my imagination. I realized that I walked away from some relationships not because I was running away, but because I needed to get out of the way. I can’t own or change a person. The only thing I’m responsible for and can change is myself. I know that’s a cliche, but cliches are true.
What bad things did you believe about yourself? You did this fascinating dance –
Dance is a good word.
Yes! Of being in on the joke, but also maybe damaging yourself, by going along with the denigrating stuff. People were cruel to you, and perhaps you were a bit too lighthearted in how you treated yourself?
I smiled my way through a lot, didn’t I? I always had a sense of self. I knew that they just didn’t know me. It was hurtful sometimes, but I also thought it was interesting. Hey, I did Playboy, I set myself up for it. Sometimes I would blame myself – maybe it’s my fault that people don’t see me the way I do. But I also always felt like I was playing a character, a caricature – that this was an armour, a personality I could put on that was protecting me.
But did it protect you?
I always say I’m like Mr. Magoo. Over and over again I didn’t take the wrong “almost.” Believe me, I’m not an angel, I did a lot of things [laughs]. But I always, just in the nick of time, knew when to get out. I had a survival skill ingrained in me. The times where I was behaving irresponsibly, I could always find myself again quickly. When people were doing dangerous things around me, I knew to go home. I knew not to get into a car with someone who had bad intentions. Sometimes women feel like, “Oh, I have to get in that car or go to that hotel with this person, because it will be rude if I don’t.” But something inside me said no, don’t do that.
This line from your book devastated me: “Some men hate you for being capable, and it can become violent. Sometimes they start grabbing you by the hair and throwing you into walls and stripping your clothes off.”
I’d seen a lot in my young life. That helped me navigate my adulthood. I probably would have been in a lot worse trouble if I didn’t listen to that voice inside me.
We in the mainstream media are re-evaluating how badly we demeaned women in the years before #MeToo, including you, Monica Lewinsky and Harvey Weinstein’s victims. Matt Lauer, Larry King and Jay Leno, to name just three, conducted entire interviews about your breasts, pretending it was journalism. What were you thinking in those moments?
I said what I was thinking to Jay Leno: “I wish I was you, so I could torture you like you’re torturing me.” I would be thinking, “Is this ever going to end?” I almost feel like I was living my life to write about it one day. Like, if I could just get through it all, I’d have an interesting story to tell.
Your childhood is so vivid in the book. Ladysmith, the seaside, is the place where you were most yourself, and knew yourself, before this train sped you away. And now you’re returning to that place and that person.
I did this exercise: Imagine yourself at five years old. Picture her from head to toe. Embrace her, tell her how much you love her. That was a profound experience for me. That was me, before the bad stuff started happening. I wanted to tell that little girl, “You’re gonna be okay. It’s gonna be a roller coaster, but you’re gonna get through it.”
When you played Roxie Hart in Chicago on Broadway, you taped a picture of five-year-old you on your dressing room mirror. Is that why?
Yes. I taped up that picture and I said to her, “It’s your time, I’m just gonna get out of the way.” Like, how dare I get in the way of her reaching her full potential. That’s how I felt on stage every night, like that five-year-old girl. People really responded to that. It was my own little weird experiment going on in my head, but it was powerful for me. I’m proud of myself for putting it all out there.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to explain that references to two actors came from Ms. Anderson’s writings and not the interview.
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