We are now at least a half-decade into the era of revisiting popular ’90s and 2000s narratives around famous women and reevaluating their conclusions. And by now, we know what to expect: Nearly always, the conclusions are more cruelly and boneheadedly sexist than society realized at the time.
Still, somehow, Pamela Anderson’s new memoir, “Love, Pamela” — out Tuesday, alongside the Netflix documentary “Pamela, a Love Story” — reveals a side of the onetime Playboy Playmate and “Baywatch” star that feels unexpected. Certainly, she’s smarter and more thoughtful than the person many late-night hosts of the 1990s thought they were talking to, though admittedly that’s a low bar to clear. But what “Love, Pamela” does best is lay bare the fact that the sexpot caricature of Anderson — the mythic, crushingly larger-than-life idea of her — obscured the charms of the real one.
The Anderson of “Love, Pamela” is more wholesomely free-spirited than the one who lives in popular memory.
Anderson, now 55, recounts the story of her life, from her childhood in tiny Ladysmith, British Columbia, to the height of her stardom in the 1990s, to the past few years, during which she mounted a more aggressive global campaign for animal rights and made her well-reviewed Broadway debut.
Along the way, readers learn, she’s cobbled together a personal philosophy from a curiously wide range of sources, pulling in elements from Buddhism, from Kabbalah, from a Pepperdine University minister she met taking walks around Malibu, from the Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson and many, many more. Anderson professes to be a voracious reader, each author citation more surprising than the last: Anaïs Nin, Angela Davis, Goethe. She also collects vintage cars, trucks and boats, and in the past five years, she rather spontaneously moved from Los Angeles to St. Tropez, then to a ranch on Vancouver Island.
Anderson spends much of “Love, Pamela” channeling her inner life into free-verse poetry; her passages are short and simply constructed, interspersed between paragraphs of more traditional prose.
In the acknowledgments, Anderson explains: “This book started out as a fifty-page poem and then grew into hundreds of pages of . . . more poetry . . . from my first memory to my most recent.” An editor, she adds, “enjoyed my original writing style, but she also suggested we add full sentences and paragraphs. I told her I don’t think in full sentences, let alone paragraphs.” Happily, they found a compromise.
Of course, Anderson also embraces the slightly less wholesome, decidedly spicier kind of free-spiritedness that initially made her an icon. (“Hef called me / the DNA of Playboy,” one stanza of poetry claims.) She writes about sexuality in a frank, often funny way: She describes sex with ex-husband Tommy Lee as “always tender, delicious — never dark or weird or trying too hard. We were connected. Sex was fun.”
She details with lighthearted amusement an anecdote others might describe with a grimace: making erotic eye contact with Jack Nicholson while he was otherwise involved with two women at the Playboy Mansion. “Love, Pamela” gets its arguable thesis some three-quarters of the way through when Anderson writes, “I’ve always believed that striving to be a sensual person, or being sexy, should not conflict with intelligence.”
It is abundantly clear, though, that while Anderson wants to complicate her image as a dumb-blonde sex symbol, she wants to wholesale reject any portrayal of her as a tragic figure.
“Love, Pamela” downplays a number of episodes that put Anderson in the headlines for unsavory reasons: Her marriages to and divorces from poker player Rick Salomon and musician Kid Rock (whom she calls Bob) feel like brief, passing mentions, and her stolen home video with Tommy Lee that wound up more or less setting the course for her career gets just five pages. Even a sexual assault that she endured in her teen years is described in just a couple of paragraphs, and an overdose, later on, in a few sentences. (Her parenting philosophy, by contrast, which is informed by Kahlil Gibran, Rainer Maria Rilke, E.E. Cummings and the attachment-parenting theorist Jean Liedloff, gets 13 pages.)
Rather, Anderson makes a point of devoting the majority of “Love, Pamela” to joy. She fondly describes her memories of frolicking around the Santa Monica set of “Baywatch”; of getting an impromptu education in tango dancing from an 80-year-old man in Buenos Aires (“one of the most sensual experiences I’ve ever had”); of throwing an outrageously decadent birthday party for Tommy Lee soon after their wedding; of signing up on a whim to be a magician’s assistant in Las Vegas for three months (and making malformed balloon animals for her friends and colleagues backstage).
The overall impression one takes from “Love, Pamela” is of an unassumingly friendly, fun-loving mom. Yes, a rich and famous one; Anderson details her rewarding, sometimes rambunctious friendships with Vivienne Westwood, Elton John, David LaChapelle and Amy Winehouse, as well as her ambiguous flirtation with Julian Assange, the way many of us might describe our partners in crime from high school.
But interspersed with her celebrity escapades are moments when Anderson describes taking pleasure in what you have to imagine a lot of North America’s other 55-year-old ladies named Pamela take pleasure in. Her dogs. Her two sons. Her garden. Reading in her backyard, watching birds perch on her feeder while drinking from a jam jar. “Love, Pamela” invites audiences to do what might have simply been too tall an order earlier in Anderson’s colorful, eventful life: to laugh with her, not at her. To learn from her as something other than a cautionary tale. To be happy for her.
By Pamela Anderson
Dey Street. 256 pp. $30
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