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Newsletter: Pamela — A Love Story Rights Pam & Tommy's Wrongs

Manik Sharma contrasts two recent approaches to Pamela Anderson's life and times, and finds one is markedly better, more nuanced and insightful than the other.

Newsletter: Pamela — A Love Story Rights Pam & Tommy's Wrongs
Promotional still for Pamela: A Love Story. Netflix
  • Manik Sharma

Last Updated: 07.56 AM, Feb 07, 2023

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This column was originally published as part of our newsletter The Daily Show on February 7, 2023. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)


IN A SCENE from Netflix’s Pamela: A Love Story, the actress, seated in a car, ventures a philosophical statement: “Just once, I’d like to be in love with myself,” Anderson, the gold standard of pinups to millions all over the world, announces.

That a celebrity of her stature can clutch at poignancy with all the tenderness of a teen, underlines why Pamela Anderson became the sort of global icon she is. It wasn’t just the body, the sensuality or the messiness of her relationships with famous men — it was also her effervescent disposition, which in many ways undercuts thse sombreness of all that she has been through. In this new documentary that serves as a rebuttal to the excesses of Hulu’s Pam & Tommy, Anderson finally opens up, reclaims herself and remains defiantly — even impossibly — cheerful.

Anderson has already expressed her disapproval of the Hulu series, which (replete with a tiresome second half and manipulative writing) exploits her stardom rather salaciously. Pam & Tommy, at least over its first three episodes, was a ridiculously over-sensationalised depiction of sex and excess in the lives of a spectacularly dysfunctional couple. Talking penises, over-the-top debauchery were all fair-game for a series that was provocative for the heck of it. But in Anderson’s case, the “product” unfortunately also became the price.

Bombshell Exposé
Still from Pam & Tommy. Hulu
Still from Pam & Tommy. Hulu

AS THE RED swimsuit-clad CJ Parker in Baywatch, Anderson symbolised the seductiveness of the “American Way” to audiences elsewhere, such as post-globalisation India. But in Pamela: A Love Story, Anderson confesses to the cynicism of the show’s approach. “I still don’t know what it’s about,” she says, bluntly. For one of the most talked about TV shows around the world, it’s impressive how the woman who gained stratospheric levels of fame from it (even if not actual money; her residuals are quite measly) has recalibrated her lens to view it objectively. To someone who is seen as a public commodity, it probably takes a retrospective mirror to paint a life fully-lived, but only half-understood.

In contrast, Pam & Tommy tries to relegate Anderson’s life to a scandalous nutshell, coming out of which she can only either be a victim or a complicit schemer. It has often been argued that the leaked tape was the couple’s way of attracting media attention, a trend that for better or worse, attached itself to the idea of overnight stardom. Let’s not forget, this was back in the ‘90s when a celebrity’s elusiveness made their controversies all the more intriguing. Such a moment possesses the nightmarish quality of eloping with the public’s suspicion rather than their trust. It’s precisely what happened with Anderson but it’s not, as this documentary tells us, the only thing that has happened to her.

Much like Marylin Monroe’s troubled tryst with motherhood, Anderson has gained and lost in the womb. It’s a side of her we’ve rarely been offered, and it’s a side that poignantly filters through in this two-hour film. Miscarriages, difficult relationships and false dawns of hope, paint a more empathetic picture of a global icon who has rarely been allowed to helm a life, beyond the many, accurate or insulting myths around her. In retrospect, everything around Anderson feels like a craven form of obsession. Late night hosts asking her about her breasts and her broken marriages without the empathy of wanting to find out if/how she has made it through all of that. It’s uncomfortable to watch even all these years later. It’s why Pam & Tommy’s pornographic catharsis falls flat in the face of a more sensitive gaze.

Pamela’s subtitle — “A Love Story” — is apt because Anderson has obviously been in the throes of love. “I think she likes the idea of being in love. I think she likes the idea of falling out of love as well,” her son Brandon Lee says. Five marriages (two of those to the same man, Rick Salomon), rekindled romances (including with Tommy Lee) and other partners later, Anderson displays a jovial resistance to gender norms. Had a man lived the same life — a la Charlie Sheen — he would be classified a ‘player’, but here Anderson must refer to herself as the ‘ho’ because that is really the only vocabulary available to us. There is a tragedy here, but it isn’t the casualness with which Anderson has shrugged off her objectification. Rather, it is that her openness has deprived her of agency. How could a woman love and live so ecstatically and still hold onto her dignity, or the right to re-evaluate her past? It’s a question Pam & Tommy never cared to ask, but Pamela: A Love Story thankfully, does.