‘I’m Not a Victim’: Pamela Anderson Opens Up About Money, Abuse and the ‘Assholes’ Behind ‘Pam & Tommy’
On the first day of shooting “Home Improvement” in April 1991, Pamela Anderson emerged from her dressing room on the Walt Disney Studios lot and found series star Tim Allen loitering in the hallway in a bathrobe. This seemed normal to the 23-year-old budding actress, but it wasn’t. “He opened his robe and flashed me quickly — completely naked underneath,” Anderson writes in her soon-to-be-released memoir, “Love, Pamela.” “He said it was only fair, because he had seen me naked. Now we’re even.”
“I laughed uncomfortably,” she writes.
The incident, which unfolded just 18 months after Anderson left her small-town home on Vancouver Island and quickly became a Playboy goddess (which is how Allen saw her naked), offers a window into the liberties people have taken because they think they know her. The Allen encounter reflects a pattern, in fact, that continued right up until last year, when a group made up of mostly male producers (led by Seth Rogen) felt entitled enough to bring forth a Hulu series about a crime perpetrated against Anderson: the theft and distribution of a videotape that contained footage of her and her then-husband Tommy Lee having sex. It happened during the very early days of the internet, and it changed our perceptions about celebrity and privacy. Naturally, no one asked if Anderson was OK with the series.
So Anderson is no longer laughing, uncomfortably or otherwise. Instead, the “Baywatch” star, who is 55, is taking back her narrative. On Jan. 31, two high-profile projects will launch — the Netflix documentary “Pamela, a Love Story,” directed by Ryan White and produced by her 26-year-old son, Brandon Thomas Lee; and the HarperCollins memoir, featuring haunting vignettes about sexual abuse and jaw-dropping anecdotes like the Allen encounter. (Allen tells Variety in a statement, “No, it never happened. I would never do such a thing.”)
What’s refreshing about “Love, Pamela” is that, despite very consciously reclaiming her power, Anderson doesn’t tell her reader how to think. In the hands of another celebrity, the Allen anecdote would have come with a swift verdict. But Anderson just states the facts and lets the reader decide. “I’m not a very judgmental person,” she says. Later on, she sends me a text: “Tim is a comedian, it’s his job to cross the line. I’m sure he had no bad intentions. Times have changed, though. I doubt anyone would try that post #MeToo. It’s a new world.”
For decades, the industry and the media have mistaken Anderson’s introverted nature for vacuity. When she became an international superstar in the ’90s, playing lifeguard C.J. Parker on “Baywatch,” people associated her character’s New Age cheesiness with her own personality. And even though Anderson has published two other New York Times bestselling books and can quote at length from Proust and Walt Whitman, the bimbo image has stuck.
“Here’s this icon the world thinks they know,” says Netflix VP of independent and documentary film Lisa Nishimura. “The world has tried to create almost like a caricature of who she is. But there’s a depth to this woman and a definite intelligence that she’s ready to really own and to show the world.”
So on a cold and rainy January morning in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Anderson slowly dismantles the myth that she is a one-dimensional sex symbol in a red bathing suit who left behind a trail of failed marriages. Today, in a shapeless linen dress, her feet bare, pink reading glasses atop her head, she says bluntly, “My life has been much more meaningful than a fluffy hat or a sex tape.” A random baby in the next bungalow cries, and she gets up and slides open the curtains to investigate. She turns back to me and adds, “There’s more to me than that.”
Thirty-three years ago, Anderson arrived in L.A. from Canada, a 22-year-old kid escaping an abusive fiancé. Playboy was footing the hotel bill as well as her first-class airfare, hoping that the fresh-faced Labatt’s beer girl might be a potential cover model for the February 1990 edition. In fact, the Playboy scouts had done well: Over time, Anderson would become the next North American bombshell, like Marilyn Monroe before her, and one of the most recognizable women in the world, thanks to a record-setting 11 Playboy covers and “Baywatch.” Along the way, she’d inadvertently usher in the modern tabloid era, with the intrusive glare on her marriage to Lee and that pilfered sex tape that “ruined lives,” as she tells it. Nearly three decades after that debacle upended her marriage, Anderson was forced to relive the indignity with “Pam & Tommy.”
But Anderson isn’t bitter; she’s even extended an olive branch to Lily James, who plays her in the series. “I said to Netflix, ‘I’d love to invite Lily to the premiere of the movie,’” Anderson says, balancing a piece of toast topped with peanut butter on her palm. “I think it’s hard to play somebody when you don’t know the whole picture. I’ve got nothing against Lily James. I think that she’s a beautiful girl and she was just doing the job. But the idea of the whole thing happening was just really crushing for me.”
For better or for worse, “Pam & Tommy” became a pop culture sensation and scored 10 Emmy nominations, putting Anderson firmly back into the public eye. Even as the media clamored for her reaction to the series, she remained mum, having already moved back to her tiny hometown of Ladysmith on Vancouver Island. “Assholes,” she says when asked to describe the people behind the Hulu series. “Salt on the wound. … You still owe me a public apology.” She hasn’t watched a single minute of the show, but she couldn’t escape the billboards promoting James in prosthetics and Sebastian Stan as her heavily tattooed, pierced partner. “It just looked like a Halloween costume to me,” she says.
These days, Anderson is living the mirror version of her 22-year-old self. She wakes up at 4 or 5 a.m., around the same time she used to head home after a night of partying with Lee. She bought the property in Ladysmith from her grandmother decades ago. Her parents take care of her five dogs — adopted from all over the world — when she’s traveling. She’s alone for the first time since she can remember. No famous man with whom to share the remote control.
“I’m retracing my childhood steps,” she says. “The trees have known me since birth. My feet touched the ground first where I’m living now.” It’s where she wrote “Love, Pamela.” “I like to call the book my Hail Mary,” she says. “It was important to go back and see what I remember and tell one whole story.”
“Love, Pamela” is “Fabelmans”-esque in its ability to capture the wonders of childhood in a temperate rainforest abutting a beach, at the same time that it illuminates the pain that Anderson and her younger brother endured while witnessing parental betrayal — in this case her father physically abusing her mother. (The couple, in their 70s, separated when their children were small; they later reconciled and now live together on Anderson’s Ladysmith property.)
This early exposure to domestic violence shaped Anderson’s choice in men and taught her how to protect herself. Her first serious boyfriend in high school kicked her out of a speeding car. “He pushed me with his foot so hard, I had no choice but to open the door when the car was moving and rolled straight into a ditch,” Anderson writes in “Love, Pamela.” “Mind you, I landed a perfect gymnast dismount — at high speed.” Another time, he tried to run her over as she walked along a sidewalk. “As I matured, I noticed most of my boyfriends were bad — and progressively got worse,” she writes. In the book, she details three harrowing incidents of sexual abuse in her life, all before the age of 18. A female babysitter repeatedly molested her as a child. A 25-year-old man raped her when she was 12. And a high school boyfriend and a group of his friends sexually assaulted her.
“Predators look for somebody to do things to that are so humiliating you’d be embarrassed to tell somebody,” she says, sitting before a crackling fire, a dog at her feet. “Those kinds of things really color the rest of your life. You block things out or you’re gonna deal with it later — and I’m dealing with it now.”
Though she never again endured sexual abuse, incidents of domestic violence continued. Lee famously served six months in jail for kicking Anderson as she held their 7-week-old son, Dylan (now 24). While it marked the only time Lee physically abused Anderson, she filed for divorce.
“I’m not a victim, and I’m not the damsel in distress,” Anderson says. “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.”
Given everything she’s endured, Anderson drew criticism when she said in a 2018 interview that the #MeToo movement “is a bit too much for me.” But people process trauma differently. After we speak, she sends me a memory that she’d blocked out of overt sexual harassment on one of her first jobs as a swimsuit model. She sat next to the photographer on the flight to Hawaii, and he kept putting his hand on her leg. “He was much older and ruddy, drooly, lecherous,” she says. “Then he whispered to me that I’d be the only girl, that he chose me … that it would be intimate, no need for hair or makeup people or photography assistants. Just him and me. I was sick to my stomach. I knew it was not good.”
As soon as they landed, Anderson flagged a flight attendant, who hid her in the airline’s back office until she could get on a flight to Los Angeles alone. “I hope anyone in danger understands they can go to people for help if they are in an unsafe or uncomfortable situation, especially around a lot of people,” she says. “You can get to a safe place.”
Anderson has never lost her wicked sense of humor, which shines through in the book. She describes one night — wearing acid-washed jeans, a rock ’n’ roll T-shirt, sneakers and those athletic socks with little cotton balls sewn on the back — when she was more of her usual observer than a participant at the Playboy Mansion.
She stumbled upon Jack Nicholson having a threesome in a bathroom. “Mr. Nicholson had two beautiful women with him,” she writes. “They were all giggling and kissing up against the wall, sliding all over each other. I walked by to use the mirror, bending over the sink to fix my lip gloss. Trying not to look, but I couldn’t help myself and caught his eye in the reflection. I guess that got him to the finish line, because he made a funny noise, smiled and said, ‘Thanks, dear.’”
As we revisit that night, she grins at the memory of that lost world. “It was just complete freedom,” she says. “It was full of artists, philanthropists, intellectuals, chivalry, beautiful women. It was really an experience.”
From the minute she set foot on U.S. soil in 1989, Anderson began dating high-profile men, which became part of the Pamela mystique. She was infatuated with Mario Van Peebles, who she says now was one of her two best boyfriends ever (professional surfer Kelly Slater was the other). One day after her arrival, she met the mogul Jon Peters at the Playboy Mansion and began living at his Bel Air estate, next to the Reagans’ mansion. Peters showered her with expensive clothes, jewelry and cars. She insists Peters never made a move on her during those early years in Los Angeles, a fact that he confirms for this story.
By the time she married Tommy Lee in 1995, at the height of her “Baywatch” fame, she required security whenever she traveled. While introducing her film “Barb Wire” at the Cannes Film Festival three months after the wedding, boats nearly collided as cameramen tried to land a shot of the actress. She was nearly crushed by a mob when an appearance in Uruguay turned into a riot.
In many ways, the “Baywatch” phenomenon — exported to some 150 countries around the world — rested on her shoulders. There were so-called Pamela clauses in the licensing deals, with many of the international broadcasters interested in buying only the episodes in which she appeared. And yet she was never properly compensated. A C.J. Parker Barbie became a bestseller based on Anderson’s likeness, but she reaped not a penny. She says she made just $1,500 an episode in the first season of the show, and while she reportedly earned $300,000 an episode near the end of her run, co-star David Hasselhoff, who was also a producer, was making more and had an ownership stake that proved to be lucrative once Amazon Prime licensed the remastered series for its library in 2019.
“The producers of ‘Baywatch’ made a fortune,” she says. “I just didn’t have the representation back then. Or the know-how. You don’t realize when you’re doing a TV show that it’s going to be that popular, so you kind of sign your life away.”
Her older son is less forgiving. “She was definitely being taken advantage of. And it still feels weird how there hasn’t been some sort of discussion with Amazon or the ‘Baywatch’ producers to get her her fair share,” says Brandon, who put together the HarperCollins and Netflix deals. “It’s funny how it works with Dave Chappelle with Netflix; he can somehow go back and get paid for a show that he didn’t own anything of. And with the Amazon library deal, we didn’t get a penny.”
Adding insult to injury, the “Baywatch” movie producers made a paltry offer for her to cameo in the 2017 film. They called nonstop. “It was becoming really, really awful,” she says. “They said they wanted me to do it as a favor. I said, ‘I do favors for animals, not for Paramount.’ There was just so much bullying to do it. They wanted me to do it for free, as an homage or something. I said, ‘Come on, guys. I mean, really?’”
But she acquiesced and appears in a brief cameo in the film. No dialogue, just walking in slow motion. “I ended up OK,” she says. “No complaints.”
Still, Anderson paid the price for her “Baywatch” fame. After divorcing Lee in 1998, she was living alone in Malibu with her two young sons when she found a French teenager squatting in a rarely used room of her home, wearing her red “Baywatch” swimsuit. The girl was holding a letter that said, “I’m not a lesbian, but I dream of you.” As the police arrived, the girl slit her wrists. She survived and was deported.
Anderson was shaken. “The police said, ‘Well, you really weren’t in that much danger because she was a girl,’” she says. “I was like, ‘How does that make it less dangerous? Women can still murder people.’ It’s kind of been an interesting, reoccurring theme with me and women. My babysitter was female, and people would never assume that she was molesting me. It shouldn’t make a difference. Everyone’s capable of horrible things.”
The stalker incident proved to be a turning point for Anderson. She began to retreat from the public eye with her sons. A self-described romantic, she continued to give marriage a go — some of the men being famous (Kid Rock in 2006) and some mere civilians (Vancouver Island local Dan Hayhurst in 2020). She married professional poker player Rick Salomon twice — once in 2007 and then again in 2014 — though only one of the marriages was legally binding.
And in a plot twist no one saw coming, she married Peters in 2020, right before the pandemic hit. It, too, didn’t last. (Also unofficial, the union was over after just 12 days.) “He’s great and has been a huge influence on my life. I love him to death,” Anderson says now. Peters remains smitten. He tells Variety: “I will always love Pamela, always in my heart. As a matter of fact, I left her $10 million in my will. And she doesn’t even know that. Nobody knows that. I’m just saying it for the first time with you. I probably shouldn’t be saying it. So that’s for her, whether she needs it or not.”
This is how Anderson feels about “Pam & Tommy” catapulting her back into the zeitgeist: It distracted the world from her real accomplishments, such as starring as Roxy Hart in “Chicago” on Broadway right after the finale aired. “It was just shocking,” she says of the series. “Tommy probably thought it was funny. I remember Tommy writing me a note saying, ‘Don’t let this hurt you like it did the first time,’ because he had heard through the kids that I was kind of struggling with the idea of bringing this all up again. I don’t think he was portrayed kindly. I just know that I refuse to watch it.”
To calm herself down, she repeats a mantra she used to chant in the grocery store: “Hold your head high. Walk out the door. I know everybody’s seen me having sex, but I’m just here to get some cereal for my kids. Just keep on going.”
One source of comfort has always been her relationship with animals. The longtime PETA activist and vegan beams when she notes that she rescued 50 cats and 30 dogs following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Her rescue work has put her in the room with some powerful people, including high-ranking Russian politicians. She lobbied them to ban the import of seal products.
“I’d be at the Kremlin, sitting at the table, and everybody would be there. And I would be rustling my papers with my dolphin pictures and my beluga whales getting hypothermia and pleading across the table to these people that actually did things in real time,” she says. “Putin was only in the room once, but he heard of everything. I would get messages from other people that he was pleased that I was there — he kind of got a kick out of me.”
She stops talking because she’s well aware of the fact that discussing anything Russia-related has become the third rail. “I don’t know what the right thing is to say right now,” she says, “because it’s horrible.” And she quickly notes that she voted for Biden in 2020. Her politics are simple: “Just keep supporting human beings.”
Another unlikely friendship of Anderson’s is with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Anderson visited him on multiple occasions at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he sought refuge. He’s now facing extradition to the U.S. on 18 counts relating to WikiLeaks’ release of U.S. military secrets, among other alleged transgressions.
“It’s just heartbreaking because he’s in a supermax prison in solitary confinement while he’s awaiting a trial, and all of these other people are breaking the law all over the place and no one’s in jail,” she says. “It’s an interesting hypocrisy.”
As for the question that many have wondered over the years — was the relationship strictly platonic or was there more? She describes one mezcal-filled night at the embassy as “frisky” but is otherwise vague.
“It was romantic because it was so inspirational,” she says. “He’s so passionate about life and about everything. There’s just nothing that he says that isn’t fascinating. So there was definitely a connection. We would just talk through the night and drink mezcal and laugh and tell stories.”
Anderson is devastated that she can no longer see Assange. But she says a member of his legal team reads her letters to him behind bars.
These days, Anderson is comfortable not knowing her next step. She has talked to her friend Werner Herzog about doing a film called “Vernon God Little,” based on DBC Pierre’s Booker Prize-winning coming-of-age novel. But who knows?
In a few days, she’ll travel back to Ladysmith. She’s eager to reunite with her dogs and take walks on the beach in her Crocs. She can’t get her HBO to work in Canada, so she’s missed the new season of “White Lotus,” but she’ll get to it. She likes to binge on docs, like “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen,” about another Canadian icon. “It’s been a year since I’ve been with anybody, and it’s been the best year of my life,” she says. “It’s been every day writing and reading and just thinking about all the things that make me happy.”
The fire is dying down. The breakfast plates sit empty. With that, Anderson shares one last epiphany: “No one can ever take me away from me. I’m always going to be OK. No matter what happens, I’ve proven that theory. I know that I can live with nothing. I know I can live with something. I can live in an apartment. I can live in a trailer. I can live in a mansion. I can live in a castle. I’m just OK right here where I’m at.”
Producer: Alexey Galetskiy; Stylist: Rebecca Ramsey; Set Design: Lucy Holt; Make-Up Artist: Eileen Madrid/Sharleen Collins Cosmetics; Hair Stylist: Sara Tintari/Balmain Hair Couture; Manicurist: Natalie Minerva; Look 1 (Purple Dress): Dress: Saint Laurent; Shoes: Jimmy Choo; Look 2 (Trench Coat): Coat: Chanel/Aralda Vintage; Shoes: Versace; Look 3 (Pink Dress): Dress: Vivienne Westwood/Aralda Vintage; Look 4 (Telephone): Top and skirt: Saint Laurent: Shoes: Jimmy Choo; Look 5: (White Dress): Dress: A.L.C.