Boobs! Boyfriends! Baywatch! Pamela Anderson is iconic for her role as the ultimate babe. Now she would like you to know there are brains inside that body, thank you very much. But is this a woman on a quest to find her true self—or has Pam been one step ahead of us all along?
“Omigod!” Pamela Anderson ducks behind the steering wheel of her Aston Martin, eyes widening beneath her Twiggy-blond pixie cut. “I think I just saw my ex-husband.” Slipping on her oversize sunglasses, she rises up until her eyes are level with the windshield, then quickly dives back down, like the heroine of a screwball comedy. “It is! It’s him! Look!” I look. Outside, another white convertible circles the parking lot of Malibu’s Point Dume Plaza. The driver is wearing the obligatory beanie and sunglasses, but the long nose and weak chin are a dead giveaway: Kid Rock. His car is nearly identical to the white Aston Martin we’re in, which—rather poignantly—recalls the matching white T-shirt and bikini ensembles he and Pam wore for their wedding eight years ago. Apparently they also have the same taste in juice bars. And to think it only lasted four months! Though the marriage may have been short, the bad feelings have lingered. “He’s the only person I don’t talk to,” she explains. “We blew it, and the kids suffered.” Anderson has two sons from her infamous marriage to rock star Tommy Lee—Brandon, 17, and Dylan, 16, the most consistent men in her life—and Kid Rock also has a son. “It just kind of turned their lives upside down, and it made us bitter. How do we have the same car?” she says, fingers tapping the dashboard impatiently. “We’ve got to get out of here.” She peers in the rearview mirror at another car blocking the exit. The sunglasses, combined with her customary white ensemble—a camisole and shorts so teeny she might as well not be wearing them at all—topped with a large Aztec-print cardigan (because even Malibu gets cold in January) make her look like a tiny, glamorous ghost. “Let me out, you dumb car,” she growls. “Oh my GODDDDD.” Sweet relief comes and she peels out of the parking place, shivering. “I got that tingly feeling,” she says.
The joke is obvious, and once we’re a safe distance away Anderson is the first to make it. “Pamela Anderson has been married so many times she can’t leave the house without running into an ex-husband,” she says, laughing as we barrel down the Pacific Coast Highway. One of the best things about Anderson is that she is always in on the joke, and this one is especially funny because it’s true: Pamela Anderson can’t escape her ex-husbands. She was saying as much the night before, at Crossroads, a vegan restaurant in West Hollywood. “It’s like, there is more to me than my boobs and my boyfriends,” she told me. To be fair, boobs and boyfriends are what made her famous. Ever since she first put on a Baywatch bathing suit back in ’92, Anderson has reigned supreme as America’s Rock Babe. A whisper-sweet naïf from the Canadian provinces with wild blond hair, a baby voice, and an ever-expanding chest, she out-Kitaened video vixen Tawny Kitaen when it came to keeping company with the bad boys of rock—and not just the bad boys, the worst boys. Over the years, her romances with leather-clad rock stars like Bret Michaels, Kid Rock, and her Great Love, on-again, off-again husband Tommy Lee—the Mötley Crüe drummer with whom she pioneered the celebrity sex tape—somehow became an integral part of her career. Sure, she did other things: She has worked as an actress, a model, a pinup, a magician’s assistant, an activist; she is even a best-selling novelist. But her most frequently recurring role, even according to IMDb, is as Herself. For the past two decades, Anderson’s life has been an ongoing soap opera to which almost everyone from Calgary to Calcutta was unwittingly tuned in. Who was she walking down the red carpet—or the aisle—with now? And what was she wearing? Or not wearing? Even more entertaining, at the end of every romantic episode—and there was always an end— Anderson picked herself up, dusted herself off, and announced in one way or another that she was starting anew.
With its ladylike vegan cuisine, Crossroads is one of those restaurants that draw a lot of starlets, and a lot of the people who walk in are staring at Lea Michele, the star of Glee, who is sitting a few booths away. But Anderson smiles tentatively at everyone who walks by, inviting them to recognize her. Some do. Others don’t, for good reason. The famous bosoms have been put away for the evening, tucked demurely into a gray wool cocktail dress. More notably, that beachy, bouncy, just-spent-the-day-thrashing-around-on-top-of-a-Trans-Am mane has been recently replaced by a sleek pixie cut. “At first I thought I looked like Anderson Cooper,” she says. “Or like a Q-tip or something. But now I feel really powerful. I have a friend who is an awesome, studly man, and he goes, ‘You know, some women cut their hair and it makes them look more masculine, but you look even more feminine.’ ”
It’s true, actually. Manelessness suits her the way it does a female lion; without it, you can see the features that make her a genuinely beautiful woman. Anderson is tiny and fine featured, with extraordinary cheekbones and the kind of skin with flaws that serve only to call attention to how amazing it is overall, especially for a 46-year-old woman who has logged significant time with Mötley Crüe. The lines and sun spots fanning out from her eyes make believable her claim that she hasn’t had surgery; the lips that look like Goldie Hawn’s in The First Wives Club in pictures are naturally full seen up close. “I thought it would be weird having sex with short hair,” she says. “But then I kind of got into the mode.”
The cut wasn’t a spontaneous decision. “I had two friends over, and they grabbed two halves of my hair, and one cut one side and one cut the other. It was pretty symbolic,” she says. “I feel that I’m more exposed now than I’ve ever been.”
Hold up, you say. It’s just hair. But remember: Pamela Anderson’s hair is not like yours or mine. Pamela Anderson’s hair was an entity unto itself. “The hair,” she says, “had a life.” But it had spent too much time hanging out in dark places, taking in dangerous chemicals and absorbing secondhand smoke. When it fell to the floor, Anderson looked down. “It looked like a train ran over it,” she says. “It wasn’t special. It was unhealthy, fried, terrible. I thought that was huge.”
When pictures came out of Pam and her brother running in the New York City Marathon last fall, viewers of the long-running Pamela Anderson show were so blown away by the haircut they nearly forgot to ponder what running a 26-mile race with a pair of double Ds must have felt like. Clearly, Anderson was sending a message. By cutting off her hair, she was announcing that she was sick of being typecast. She was cutting her ties to the Playmates of the world and aligning herself with a different kind of woman: the Robin Wrights, the Mia Farrows, the Carey Mulligans. “Pam is really mixing things up!” wrote the blog Hollywood Life.
“She is truly reinventing herself!”
I mean, she could have just put on some glasses. “I like making bold moves,” she says, delicately picking up an artichoke appetizer. “It works out well for me.”
The haircut was part of a reinvention that this time, she says, is for real. It’s not like the time that she removed her breast implants only to put them back in or the time she swore off domestic abuser Tommy Lee only to get back together with him at least twice more. Anderson has been through rough patches, and the last one, she says, was the roughest of all: After the marriage to Kid Rock ended in scorched earth (“His name is actually Bob,” she says; not his main betrayal, but a small one), she found herself a single mom, sick with hepatitis C, and over a million dollars in debt to lawyers, to the IRS, to contractors on her Malibu home—problems that she exacerbated by partying and self-medicating with alcohol. But after a long, dark night of the soul, she says, she found the light. She stopped drinking and started doing more meditation and Pilates. She gave up e-mail, Facebook, Twitter (though she still calls in tweets to an assistant), and even her cell phone, and she has spent much of the past several years working hard on jobs she was less than crazy about, in order to pay her debts and finish building her dream house. “I don’t like reality television,” she says, “but it pays so much money.” Now she says she’s healthy and happy and has earned enough freedom to rededicate herself to things that matter, such as her Pamela Anderson Foundation , which supports a variety of causes close to her heart, like PETA and Sean Penn’s J/P Haitian Relief Organization. She has also begun mulling professional projects that offer challenges beyond bouncing around in a bikini. Anderson has always gravitated toward higher forms of art. “My grandfather was a poet, my father was a poet,” she tells me. Though she may have the body of a mud-flap girl, her high-camp image has found its own niche within the high-fashion crowd, and over the years, she has cultivated a circle of artistic friends, like photographer David LaChapelle, milliner Philip Treacy, and designer Vivienne Westwood. “Pamela has the mind of a true artist,” says one such friend, painter Ed Ruscha. “The way she thinks is like an artist. She’s interested in loony ideas, like all of us.” Among the loony projects on the horizon: Werner Herzog’s Vernon God Little, a film adaptation of the Man Booker Prize–winning novel in which she’s been cast alongside Russell Brand. There’s also a guy who has been after her to play Roxie in a production of Chicago. LaChapelle has invited her to come live on his ranch in Hawaii. “He’s like, ‘You can have your own hut and your own papaya stand and have sunblock on your nose and a big sombrero and live happily ever after,’ ” she says, laughing. But she’s working on getting together a space for a glassblowing studio with some friends, and is talking to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art about coming on as a docent. “I see myself as being like a tour guide, in a turban and a muumuu,” she says.
After years of playing Herself, it seems as if Pamela Anderson is finally ready to find out who that is. “It’s been a wild 20 years,” she says, sipping a vegan cappuccino. “But I feel more myself than the girl who came here.”
And no more bad boys, then?
“Well…” she says.
Pamela Anderson started out the same way so many of our iconic blonds have: as a brunette. “I was a Sun-In experiment gone wrong,” she says. Or right. Growing up in British Columbia, she’d had thoughts of being a model—a boyfriend who fancied himself a photographer had taken some shots of her that she’d sent to various agencies. But it was an image of her in a Labatt’s T-shirt that was projected onto the JumboTron at a British Columbia Lions game in 1989 that kicked things off. The beer manufacturer hired her for an ad campaign, and she soon caught the eye of Playboy, which invited her down to L.A. for an audition. At first she had some reservations. “I thought they were going to take me to the mansion and throw me in a pit with mud and oil, and I was going to have to fight someone,” she says, eyes widening. But the magazine persevered. They were dazzled by her, and she was quickly dazzled by Hollywood. “The first person I saw was Shirley MacLaine,” she says, exhibiting the kind of giddiness over a certain type of icon that has caused friends to call her “a gay man in the world’s hottest body.” “And then I saw Rick James,” she says. “And I thought, I found the coolest place on earth!” She called her mom from the hotel. “This is outrageous what’s over here on the mainland!” she told her. “I just felt like I fit in.”
Anderson’s recollection of her early years in Hollywood hews closely to the experiences of Star Wood Leigh, the heroine of the novel she published in 2004, about a small-town girl invited to pose for a magazine owned by a castle-dwelling publishing magnate named Marsten Mann. “The Bel Age Hotel was as close to perfect as anything could possibly be,” Star thinks, especially “for a girl who’d never stayed anywhere the rooms didn’t open directly into the parking lot.” Anderson’s roots were similarly humble.
Her dad may have been a poet in spirit, but he was a furnace repairman in point of fact, and her mom was a waitress. “I never had any money growing up,” she says. “We were fine, but we drank powdered milk and stuff like that. I actually have a recurring nightmare where I open up my fridge and it’s all Velveeta cheese.” She shudders. “And Fresca.”
Barry Anderson was also an alcoholic who was occasionally violent with her mother. “My dad was like the bad boy,” Anderson says. “He and my mother are very much in love, but they had this kind of volatile romantic relationship. They were apart and then got back together. And if you look at my track record, it’s similar.” For instance, there was her boyfriend back in Canada, who was not pleased with her decision to move to L.A. “He was crazy,” she says. “He threw a tray of silverware!”
Like Star, Anderson was absorbed into the magazine’s glittering world. “I told Hugh Hefner, ‘I have this crazy boyfriend,’ ” she says in her Betty Boop voice. “And Hef was like, ‘You’re not going anywhere with a crazy boyfriend,’ and so he put me in a mansion in Bel-Air with an opera-singing Chinese maid, and I was driving a Bentley, and a friend of mine came by and was like, ‘What is going on? Why are you living in this mansion?’ And I was like, ‘Isn’t this what happens when people move to L.A.?’ ”
Anderson tells me she loves fairy tales, and her stream-of-conscious, almost lyrical reminiscences have that quality. It’s not likely that things happened exactly this way, but you don’t want to probe too deeply for fear of ruining the magic. In her telling, Hollywood was a land of enchantment, and she was the ordinary girl who arrived and soon found herself crowned princess. Things just seemed to happen. Like landing her first show, Home Improvement. “I didn’t even audition!” Or Baywatch: “They were just like, ‘Are you Pamela Anderson? You have the job.’ ” And then there’s the now legendary story of how she met Tommy Lee on New Year’s Eve in 1994. She sent him a shot of Goldschläger from across the bar. He licked her face. Then he “followed me to Mexico,” where they famously got married on a beach, with Pam in a white bikini, not for the last time. It was around then that Anderson’s fairy tale started to turn less Disney and more Hans Christian Andersen. Or as she puts it: “That’s when the craziness started.”
The next few years—wait, it’s better when she tells it: “There was all this hype and we were running around in rubber outfits and he’s puffing my dress with cigarettes and I get pregnant and then I had a baby, and then all of a sudden he wasn’t paying attention and it became this crazy thing and that blew up,” she says, as though even now she doesn’t even really know how a small-town girl like her could end up in a place like that.
But the lady may protest too much: “I don’t think she just stumbles upon things,” says Jane Pratt, who hired her to write a column for her magazine, Jane, in 2002, when Anderson was coming off at least her third breakup with Tommy Lee, who served four months in jail for assaulting Anderson while she was holding their second son, Dylan, in her arms. The column was Anderson’s idea. “It was part of the whole plan she had of changing the image people had of her,” says Pratt. “She’s actually a really savvy businesswoman. She works really hard. I think she is kind of working all the time, actually, in everything she is doing.”
In her Jane column, Anderson urged women to avoid the kind of relationship she had with Tommy Lee. But then they got back together. Anderson’s mother blamed herself. “She didn’t want me to put up with things that she put up with,” says Anderson. “But that’s kind of what we do, don’t we? They’re a model. No matter what. Even when I knew better, I still thought, Well, maybe it’s still going to work out. And then I went too far.” The next few years became a greasy-haired, champagne-slurred, pyrotechnic blur of breakups and makeups that ended in an engagement to Kid Rock.
“The rock-star thing became very destructive, like, wow,” she says. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I just kind of became that thing. The hair, that rock-star kind of lifestyle, just living a dream. It kind of took over. It started out very innocent, and then I turned into a cartoon character. And I started to feel like a cartoon character.”
While Pam may not have partied as hard as the notorious Tommy Lee, Courtney Love once joked that her own low point was “snorting blow up Pamela Anderson’s ass,” and while the logistics of this provoke curiosity, it’s probably better for all of us if they remain unexplored. “I did things I’m not proud of,” Anderson says quietly. “I don’t really want to get into all that.”
Anderson says being diagnosed with hepatitis C in 2001—which she claims she got from a tattoo needle she shared with Tommy Lee on vacation in Tahiti (though Lee has claimed not to have hep C himself)—put her on a downward spiral. “I think I just got rebellious,” she explains. “I was never a really big drinker, but they told me I was going to die. I think that affected me and scared me. I don’t think in the moment I thought, I’m going to hurt myself. I think it was a real emotional thing. I was really torn,” she finishes with a dramatic flourish, “because I thought I would die because of the man I loved.”
Anderson did not die from hepatitis C, but by 2007, she was on the cusp of 40 and wearing a silver thong onstage six shows a week, working as an assistant to Dutch illusionist Hans Klok at the Planet Hollywood casino in Vegas. She was also single. And Pam doesn’t like being single, says LaChapelle. “She likes the security of having a partner.” Security drifted in in the form of Rick Salomon, a dissolute owner of a gambling site best known for making a sex tape with Paris Hilton. “He was just always there, and I was like, you’re always here,” Anderson recalls. So one night, in between shows, she married him.
“Yeah, what was that?” I ask at the restaurant, picking at the freebie vegan dessert the chef has sent over. “That guy seemed like a real dick.”
I am reasoning, as I say this, that she knows it was a mistake—after all, they’d gotten the marriage annulled just a few months later, and I mean, the guy is best known for making a sex tape with Paris Hilton. Anderson gets a little quiet, which at the time I assume is because this is the rock-bottom part of the story. “Yeah, at that time it was a bad idea,” she says. “But I love Rick. I love him to this day. And my kids love Rick. Out of everybody I know—as crazy as he is—I trust him the most.”
These days, she says, she isn’t really dating anyone, although there is one Mr. Big—the guy who gave her the Aston Martin. He put it in the driveway with a bow on top and everything. But he’s a bit elusive. The next time she gets into a relationship, she says, she wants to break the pattern. “I want to be married and have a traditional committed relationship for my kids and represent that for them,” she says. “I don’t want any more wild and crazy. I don’t want any more silly. I want something real.”
Dylan and Brandon left right after New Year’s for boarding school, which is probably why their bedrooms at Anderson’s house in Malibu are so neat. I’m not supposed to say where the school is, but it’s the kind of place that delights their mother’s sense of fantasy. “It’s like this magical school in the woods,” she says excitedly. “And they all wear these suits, uniforms, and ties.” You wouldn’t expect someone who once presented an MTV Video Music Award wearing a pink ostrich bucket hat to be a major aesthete, but Anderson is one. Her penchant for white outfits is second only to Tom Wolfe’s, and the house, which she designed herself and is located in a charming gated community near the beach, is like a warm white cocoon, simple but cozy, with tasteful fine art and large white cushions everywhere, as if for spontaneous lounging. “This is Brandon’s room,” she says, pausing in an airy, light-filled bedroom that looks out onto the Pacific Ocean. “I think he is going to be an artist. He loves Shepard Fairey.”
It was the kids that kept Anderson in check when she was at her wildest. “If I didn’t have them, I would’ve gone off the deep end,” she says. “But I didn’t, thank God.” Even during the worst times, when she was out late, or working in Vegas, or out with The Guy Best Known for Making a Sex Tape With Paris Hilton, Anderson maintains she never missed a baseball game. “Once, I was picking up the kids and I looked in this other parent’s car and was like, God, their car is a mess,” she says. “I was being judgmental, because I’m very clean and orderly. And then I caught a glimpse of myself in the window. And I had, like, an eyelash on sideways, glitter falling down my cheek. And then I felt like, just because I’m always covered in glitter doesn’t mean I’m a bad parent.”
That said, she has deprived her children of one thing: Every teenager’s basic right to deny, or at least never to think about, their parents’ sex life. “I don’t know if they’ve seen it,” she says of the infamous sex tape, “but they know about it. They know about everything. Stupid Internet. I don’t know why everyone’s so impressed with it.”
After they found out about it—in school, of course—Anderson and her children had the talk that Kim Kardashian can one day look forward to having with her children. “I just had to say, ‘I’m sorry if I’ve embarrassed you, I’m sorry if I’ve made your lives difficult in any way, shape, or form,’ ” she says. “It was never my intention. I wasn’t thinking that one day my kids were going to suffer for it. I said, ‘Your parents are your parents, and we’re not changing. Dad is Dad; I’m me, you know?’ ”
Later, when she found out she owed an estimated $1.3 million between debts to the IRS and to the contractors who were building the house, it was her kids who sat her down. “My son said, ‘Mom, I have a lifestyle I am accustomed to,’ ” she says. So she cleaned up her act and made some money. “David LaChapelle and I decided that what I should do is say yes to everything,” she says. She said yes to Dancing With the Stars, and yes to Dancing on Ice. She said yes to Celebrity Big Brother, and the Indian Big Brother, and the German Big Brother, and she even played a genie in a Liverpool theater’s production of Aladdin, during which she pulled out a balloon and twisted it into a poodle, right there onstage. Another LaChapelle idea. “He said I should learn how to make balloon animals,” she says, “so I would have something to fall back on.” She expected all of the work to be demeaning. But it wasn’t, really. “I got to go to frickin’ India!” she says. “I was thinking I’d turn that down. David says, ‘You can’t turn that down! That’s a lot of money, and you paint yourself blue and put a sari on and enjoy it. It’s performance art.’ ”
She pads downstairs in her booties, which she designed and had made from recycled TV screens. The house is green too, with solar panels and sustainable wood, which is what made it so expensive. “That’s a million worth of teak right there,” she says, pointing at the deck, which overlooks a little wonderland containing a glittering, tiled swimming pool, an organic garden, and more giant white pillows. In the very back on a platform sits a humongous tepee looming over everything, like a hat.
Sliding the glass doors shut, she pulls down a drawing Vivienne Westwood gave her of a tree unfurling its branches, which are made of words like sustainability and stability.
“Vivienne did her store opening here, and I couldn’t come because my younger son was having a fit,” Anderson says. “So she was like, ‘Okay, we’ll come see you.’ ” When she arrived, the flame-haired 72-year-old designer, as formidably British as the Queen, asked to see Dylan. “So I’m thinking, Oh, this is going to be good. She walks in there, and she says to him, ‘That was so great that you drove your mother nuts,’ ” she says with a laugh. “ ’Keep doing what you’re doing! Never listen to authority.’ ”
Anderson laughs again, then looks reflective. “I know they’ve had a different kind of life,” she says. “And they know what I’ve done, but I do insist on good manners and especially treating women right. I don’t want my boys to be disrespecting women. They know I set boundaries. I’ve had to say to people like Rick, ‘You cannot call me that name.’ I really demand respect. It’s because of the past. I’m not going to go through that again.”
Anderson looks tired. She was supposed to fly to Dubai today, to talk about a possible business deal, but the trip was canceled at the last minute, giving her a little much-needed time off. When I leave her in her cocoon, she’s talking about getting a facial, maybe running a few errands, and I’m hoping she gets in some lounge time on some of her white pillows.
Two days later, I read in the paper that she got married. Rather, remarried. To Rick Salomon Who Is Best Known for Making a Sex Tape With Paris Hilton. At first I am disappointed—this is not how I wanted it to end! But that’s Pamela Anderson, the author of her own fairy tale. “Our story is a romantic tale,” she writes via fax from Israel, where the Salomons have decamped for their honeymoon. “Despite our path of bad choices—youth, fame, addiction, money (it all led us here). A confusing space to find love in Hollywood…But it does exist…and even more precious for it.”
This article appeared in the April issue of ELLE magazine.