Her life was a day at the beach until her sexually charged union with rock-star husband Tommy Lee turned abusive and ended in a split. Now, with her new series and executive-producer title, Pamela Anderson Lee is ready to get back in the swim
October 1998
By Erik Hedegaard
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo Editor Jennifer Crandall


White Lycra one-piece cutout swimsuit by OMO Norma Kamali.

Around the country, lots of people probably think Pamela Anderson Lee is a big fan of Plato. They no doubt think so because it was once reported in a reputable magazine, and now they think she spends much of her free time contemplating, say, the unity of virtue and knowledge as expressed in Plato's early dialogues. But the other day, while sitting outside her gated-community hilltop house, way up curving, winding Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, with a cup of Starbucks decaf nearby, Pamela put an end to that kind of happy, mind-bending speculation. She said, "No, I've never read Plato," and pursed her lips. She frowned. Where did people get these ideas about her? She had done lots of things in her life she had appeared naked in Playboy many times, had for five years amply filled a bathing suit for the TV show Baywatch, had married Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee after knowing him for only 96 hours, had fellated him with considerable gusto on a home video that was then stolen and made public, had two kids with him, had booted him for beating her and had done much else besides that was wild but none of it had been conceived under the influence of an ancient Greek philosopher named Plato.

She leaned back in her chair, sipped on her coffee and yawned. In the valley, quite far off, was Hollywood; on the terrace down below shimmered a swimming pool; and by the house, near a pile of sand, stood Brandon, her 2-year-old son by Tommy He was a spunky-looking toddler in a diaper, which he soon dropped and stepped out of. Pamela laughed. She said that she'd worked until the wee hours last night and was tired and that what she really wanted to do was go swimming with Brando, as she called him. They would both be naked, which would be a good thing.

She laughed again. "Yes, we're - a very free household," she said positively.

Yes, of course, how could it ever be otherwise? But at the same time it was also a very changed household. In the past seven months, Tommy had been sent to prison and Pamela had filed for divorce, and instead of greeting visitors wearing some grotesque rubberized outfit, with her popcorn-white hair blown up big and her makeup drawn on garishly, she now wore but a long, simple dress, her hair combed out straight and no makeup at all. She appeared in plain style and was, as numerous Hollywood observers had recently noted, all the more beautiful for it. There were other indications of change. This wasn't the house she shared with Tommy. That house was dark and Gothic and featured in the living room a swing in which Pamela had often swung naked. This place, conversely, was light and airy and featured no visible living-room swing. And here, in this house, Tommy had been replaced, sort of, by Pamela's parents, Barry and Carol, who'd moved in to look after Brandon and his brother, Dylan, 9 months old, while Pamela worked her long hours on her new TV show. This was a syndicated show called V.I.P., due in the fall, in which she starred as a glamorous but humorously inept Hollywood-type bodyguard and for which she also held the lofty title of co-executive producer. So, there was lots of change about, apparently all for the better.

Naturally, because of this stuff, the tendency was to want to think of Pamela as a kind of movie-of-the-week survivor, the battered wife who breaks free to a better life, leaving her scumbucket husband far behind, rotting in the stink of his own depravity, et cetera. Pamela herself, though, did not think this was exactly how events came to pass for her. What happened mostly happened serendipitously. She shrugged. "People always have to put a spin on everything," she said. "But what I believe is I'm just going with the flow, who knows what's going to happen tomorrow, nothing is negative, it's all positive, all good, and that's just how I live my life. I never think any further than day by day. I just think that everything's going to work out. I am exactly where I should be. Life is short. I'm living it to the fullest. Everything is a blessing."

Such a philosophy, when stacked up against, say, Plato's, may sound a little loopy. But it's what worked for Pamela and made her smile. And it's what, in the movement of time, may just bring Tommy back into the picture and ruin once and forever all that good happy-ending-movie-of-the-week potential.

Besides her kids, the other main thing in Pamela's life right now was her TV show; and surrounding her, in a professional capacity; were a number of highly respected Hollywood people who thought she really did have the goods as an actress - her performances as the first Tool Time Girl in the Tim Allen sitcom Home Improvement, as lifeguard C.J. Parker in Baywatch and as battling bombshell Barb Wire in the awful 1996 movie Barb Wire notwithstanding.

"If you crossed Meg Ryan with Goldie Hawn, somehow Pamela Anderson Lee might be the offspring," said Sidney J. Furie, who directed Pamela in one V.I.P. episode and also directed Superman IV, Lady Sings the Blues and Iron Eagle. "She can play that quality that Meg has but with that sparkle that Goldie has. And yet in fact the greatest comparison is to Marilyn Monroe. Pamela's got that kind of quality, but for the '90s. Plus she's got a better figure. Amazing!"

"She has a natural comic ability and a certain kind of sweetness and innocence about her," said Barry Primus, who directed a V.I.P. episode and gave Pamela a few acting lessons, just as he also once gave lessons to Bette Midler. "Of course, this show has not tapped her darker side, because it's not that kind of a show. But it's all there, I suspect. I was very impressed with her. No bulls--."

"With most actresses, when you get to the lingerie or bikini scene, it becomes a kind of delicate thing," said J.F. Lawton, who wrote the Richard Gere and Julia Roberts movie Pretty Woman and who is V.I.P.’s creator, another of its co-executive producers and one of its directors. "But Pam's not like that. She's not shy, and she knows what's sexy. And for the first time, she's able to have input. She's saying, 'I think this is are ally sexy bikini,' and 'People like to see me in these kinds of bikinis,' and 'We should do more scenes at the beach.'"

What Pamela said about Pamela was, "It's about time I exploit myself!" And then she laughed, stroking some hair off her forehead and looking sunny, with her sunny splash of freckles and her sunny row of ultrawhite teeth. Crossing her legs, she went on to talk about V.I.P. for a good while, not only because it was her current meal ticket but also because Columbia TriStar Television, which was distributing the show, preferred it that way, that she speak only about V.I.P., not about her controversial, corporate-no-no, advertiser-freakout life. Of course, the TV show had not yet begun its 22-episode first-season run, while the Truman Show-like Pamela Anderson Lee show, ever enduring, ever public, ever popular, had been running for years. So, naturally, the water-cooler population, and those who served it, much preferred to pore over Pamela's life as it was being lived, even though she said that if she herself did, Columbia TriStar would "skin me alive!"

So she steered clear. But not for long. With just a little prodding, she sighed and said that since separating from Tommy she had not been dating around. She had recently gone with some friends to a popular, swinging nightspot called Skybar, where many of the town's most happening men tended to slither, and the experience had so unnerved her, because the men were so gross, that at home she sobbed into her sheets all night long, wondering, "Is this what's out there for me?"

She stretched her legs, peering at her toenails, which were painted a kind of wedding-dress ivory. "One thing is," she said, "it's going to take a certain kind of man for me to ever get involved with, because he'll have to realize I don't have two children, I have three. Tommy is always going to be a part of my life." She paused. "For us to move on with anybody else is going to be difficult."

She said, additionally, that she had no regrets about her time with Lee: "No regrets at all, none, zero. Because everything has led me to here, and this is where I'm supposed to be. It was all a learning experience and also a really wonderful time in my life. I'll never forget it."

She then, for unknown reasons, refused to say what Lee loved about her. Giggling, she said, "I don't know. You'd have to ask him." Giggle. "Who knows? I mean, he's said, but I don't want to speak for him." Giggle. "Oh, I don't know - a couple of things, mayyyyybeeee. " Snortish giggle, kittenish, coy. Followed by silence. Then she giggled softly once more and looked at her wedding-dress toenails, and it all seemed to be good.

Canada is where Pamela came to her philosophy of life. She grew up in British Columbia, arriving in the small town of Ladysmith,then moving to the small town of Comox, and for part of that time living in a three-room cabin that overlooked the Pacific Ocean and in which she shared a bedroom with her younger brother, Gerry. The Andersons were not rolling in money. Her father, Barry, was the furnace-repairing impresario behind Barry's Furnace Service; during that period, he had a bad drinking problem. Her mother, Carol, was a waitress at Smitty's pancake house. When he was drunk, Barry abused them all. Pamela would yell back at him while her mother sobbed behind the bathroom door and Gerry found a hiding spot downstairs.

Other than that, things were OK, and Pamela felt loved. In high school, she was a promising volleyball player and a promising creative writer. But really she had no ambitions. According to her high-school yearbook, her only aspiration was "to be a California beach bum." "I didn't want to do anything," she once said. So, after moving to the city of Vancouver in 1988, she got a job as a fitness instructor. One day, though, quite out of the blue, she went to a B.C. Lions football game, where a IT camera picked up her image and broadcast it to the stadium's giant screen; the crowd went berserk. Pamela happened to be wearing a LaBatt's Beer T-shirt. No bunch of idiots, the LaBatt's people immediately signed up Pamela to hawk their beer. This in turn led to Playboy's calling and, eventually, to six Playboy covers. In 1990, she packed up, moved to Hollywood and within a few months got her Tool Time Girl job. For $ 1,500 an episode, she basically had two lines to say, which she said over and over again - "Does everybody know what time it is?" and "Here's Al" - though no doubt the way she said her lines was much less important to her future than the tight T-shirts in which she customarily spoke them. In any case, Baywatch soon stole her away and with her help went on to become the most-seen TV show in history, with a fifth of the world's population, in 140 countries, tuning in every week to watch Pamela scamper about in her blazing red low-cut Speedo swimsuit - the audience lolling there in wonder, befuddled, all agog at her sunny, perky, bosomy beauty.

It was some kind of wacky trip, and none of it would have happened without Pamela's paternal grandfather, Herman, a Finnish immigrant and a real interesting fellow. He was a logger, and it was said that he talked to the trees and that the trees talked to him, one tree one time apparently telling him that when a tree falls in the forest with no one around, it does not, after all, make a sound. Among other things, he believed in dream work and sometimes locked himself in his room for three months at a stretch, writing down his dreams. He taught Pamela how to meditate; and using fairy tales and the language of metaphor, he poured all of his notions about life into young Pamela's head.

He said things like "Just take every opportunity as it comes!" and "You are your empire; your body is your temple!" and all the rest of it. He died when Pamela was 11; his dying wish was that she not go to his funeral - which she honored, which no doubt spared her considerable suffering, turmoil and trauma and consequently may have allowed her grandfather's words, his spell, to live on in a way they might otherwise have not.

So, Pamela's life in Hollywood was like something out of a fairy tale. "I moved here," she said. "I got a house in Bel Air. I lived right next to Ronald Reagan. I had these maids who sang Chinese opera in the garage, though I thought it was a squeaky door. I had a Mercedes and a bunch of money in the bank. And I remember saying, 'God, this is amazing. This happens to everybody that comes to Los Angeles: They get discovered; they get a mansion, a Mercedes, all this money, a deal with a studio..."

She laughed, because for the longest while it was just that simple. But then, after dating Happy Days pretty boy Scott Baio, Baywatch actor David Charvet, action hero Sylvester Stallone, rock singer Bret Michaels, movie producer Jon Peters, Superman star Dean Cain and professional surfer Kelly Slater, Pamela hooked up with Motley Crüe drummer and notorious L.A. bad boy Tommy Lee, a scrawny, tattooed dude with a big, well-known johnson. Their union was such a made-for-tabloid outrage that they quickly became a public laughingstock, by turns pathetic and far-fetched. There was Tommy's initial pickup line, which amounted to a lick across Pamela's face in a bar; the quickie four-day romance in Cancùn, Mexico, which ended with a hitching, the bride in a white bikini, the groom in shorts; the subsequent rumors about Tommy concerning womanizing, excessive boozing, and physical and emotional abuse, all denied by both parties; Pamela's filing for divorce in 1996, which she dropped when Tommy crooned his love to her from atop a white stallion in front of their house; the renewal of their vows; the embarrassment, first, of the Tommy and Pamela home-video sex tape, which showed up on the Internet in late 1997 after apparently being stolen from the Lee household safe, and then, more recently, of the Bret Michaels and Pamela home-video sex tape, made when the couple were still an item.

For these things, the press trashed the Lees, writing that "she is famous for being famous, a kind of pure celebrity, unsullied by accomplishment," and that she and Tommy were "third-rung celebrities ...nitwits" and that "they are as fascinating and as empty as pond spiders skittering upon the surface of celebrity, feeding and mating..." Wrote one reviewer of Barb Wire, which closed after five weeks and earned a domestic gross of only $4 million: "It's more apparent than ever that Pamela Anderson Lee is a constructed goddess, a creation of synthetic hair, synthetic attitude, synthetic God-knows-what."

It was ugly, mean-spirited stuff, and it just kept on coming, and everything Pamela and Tommy said or did only seemed to make it worse. Was it not virtuous to satisfy your man - no, not your man, your husband - with fellatio? Did it not take a certain kind of expert knowledge to do so? And were not these two things, virtue and knowledge, perfectly united in Pamela, and thus should she not be held up as an exemplar of what the perfect wife might be? Sometimes, Pamela tried to make this kind of argument to the press, and the words were dutifully printed, and they just lay there, reasonable but flat and somehow incomplete.

One recent night, Pamela dreamed that she'd accidentally shoplifted a shopping cart full of boiled peanuts, which for some reason led to the kidnapping and death of a few people. In another of her dreams, she was walking across a waterfall and told her friends that it was safe to follow her; they slipped and fell. She had her theories about what these kinds of dreams meant. "They're about me just getting in over my head," she said, musing.

But of course, that's an incomplete explanation, for in her dreams it is not she who suffers for her actions but those who follow in her footsteps, just as in the future it will be her sons who suffer, far more than she, for her and Tommy's past carelessness with a videotape. One can only imagine the boys' learning of the tape, maybe at school, and the sudden reddening of their faces, and the anger and shame they will then feel. Given Pamela's philosophy of life, it is difficult to see how she can prepare them for this and with what language she will explain it to them. Will it all still be good? Can it all really be a blessing?

Tommy had a fondness for gardening and an encyclopedic knowledge of the world's trees. When she was asked about Tommy's softer side, those were the two things Pamela most often pointed to. Mainly, though, he was volatile. He yelled at Pamela a lot; Pamela yelled at him a lot. That's how they were, as a couple, and it never, according to Pamela, went beyond that. This past Feb. 24, however, soon after Dylan was born, Tommy crossed the line. He drank his customary two glasses of red wine and was in a rotten mood. The kids were bugging him. Pamela spent more time with them than with him. He was bored. He wanted her attention, and because he'd been a rock star since he was 16, his wants were always met as if they were demands. But no longer. Pamela had to take care of the kids, and she wanted Tommy's help. Tommy didn't want to help. Pamela said maybe she should get her parents to come over.

This made Tommy angry. According to Pamela, he said, "They're here all the time! You don't give me any attention, and you don't love me anymore!"

"That's not true," Pamela said. "I do love you. You need to calm down."

He sat on the floor with his head in his hands. Pamela thought it best to just walk away, but that only upset him more. He started throwing pots and pans around. He started hitting and kicking Pamela. He didn't seem to notice or care that watching all this was Brandon - and that in Pamela's arms, protected there, was 7-week-Old Dylan. Even for Pamela this was too much. She called the police. She had welts on her body; one fingernail was bloody and ripped; the kids were in danger. Tommy was arrested; pleaded no contest to a felony charge of spousal abuse; had felony charges of child abuse and unlawful possession of a firearm dropped; was sentenced to six months in the L.A. County Jail (which he was scheduled to leave in early September), to be followed by fours years of probation; was ordered to stay off booze and drugs during that four-year period; was ordered not to own a gun; was ordered to undergo a year's worth of anger-management counseling; and so on.

And yet, after all that, Tommy was still a flower in Pamela’s mind. For instance, while Tommy was in jail, she wrote him tons of letters full of life-affirming advice, even though she never sent them. Most everyone thought Tommy was a dark figure. All those tattoos. That rat-skinny body. His earlier divorce, in 1993, for infidelity (rumor had it), from Heather Locklear. "I had some mixed emotions when it began, because I knew his track record in terms of women," Pamela's friend Hugh Hefner, the Playboy kingpin, said. But if Pamela knew what Hef knew, it didn't bother her, or she didn't believe it, and she still didn't, not really.

"I've met a lot darker," she said. "But people see certain things, and the way fate just has it in for him, it's sad, because he's chemically dependent, and he did do something stupid. But he wants so badly to be able to control himself and to be a good role model and to get control of his alcohol problem. And he really, really wants to be a good person."

Pamela paused and sort of flinched. "I mean," she said, "he is a good person. " 

She paused again and cocked her head. "Uh-oh," she said. "Crying. Brandon. He probably wants to come outside."

Shifting in her chair, she went on, "What I want is for Brandon and Dylan to be in a really loving, safe environment, to be able to flourish as little creative people; and if that means me not being able to be with a person I'm in love with, then that's something I'm willing to give up for their safety and happiness."

So, there it was, spoken in the moment, a few things set straight. Maybe.

"You know, I am moving on with my life, and I have kind of detached myself from him," Pamela said after a while. "But I love him, and I want him to be happy, and though I'm not sitting here missing, yearning or wishing he was here, we'll just have to see what happens."

This seemed to leave a lot of room for a lot of things to happen in the future, and Pamela did nothing to fill up the space with some of the possibilities, just as she had done nothing about the tattoo that still encircled her ring finger, the one that said TOMMY'S, the apostrophe quite clearly as possessive as ever.

She was seeing a couple of therapists, one who believed in guardian angels and one who prescribed for Pamela her own personal mantra: "Shut the f--- up," to be said repeatedly whenever the world was too much on her case.

Some things that Pamela's therapists may know: She had no irrational fears. Sometimes when Brandon said to her, "I love you, Momma," tears sprang to her eyes. She was a frequent fainter. ("I've fainted my whole life," she said. "It's the worst feeling. It's stress and stuff building up.")

Some things that Pamela's therapists may want to explore: Of the rock band Nine Inch Nails, Pamela once said, "They want to f--me like an animal." Of Brandon's penis, seen in utero during an ultrasound exam: "I was very impressed!"

Other interesting Pamela things that may or may not belong in her file: On the official Pamela Web site,, which is run by 27-year-old brother Gerry and features lots of pictures of Pamela in bathing suits and a few of her in the nude, Pamela will soon be selling a signature bikini bottom the likes of which the world has never seen. "It's the most flattering, most insane little tiny bikini," she said. "Do you know how many bikinis I've worn in my life? I've worn so many, and this is the most amazing, so amazing that we've patented it, actually!"

As co-executive producer of V.I.P., she had lots of official duties but preferred not to enumerate them, on the theory that no one would believe her: "Whatever I say, you'll probably go, 'Yeah, right."

She was a big fan of PETA and would not allow the writers of her show to make fun of animal-rights advocates: "I don't think people are aware that when they wear a fur coat, probably 160 animals have been anally electrocuted to make that coat. I've seen the videos. They hold them up, and they stick a rod up their butt, and they electrocute them and throw them in a pile, and they're not even dead yet when they're skinned."

When she looked in the mirror, all she saw was too many freckles. "I don't usually veg out on myself in the mirror," she said somewhat irritably. "I see what I see."

She claimed not to know if she had any flaws that Playboy's airbrush department may have covered up.

She said that she had no stretch marks. "I never got one stretch mark from having babies -none!" she murmured happily, and waited for what next would come her way.

Her breasts, of course, had long been the main if not sole source of her earning power. She'd had them enhanced, in 1989, following her first Playboy photo shoot. Without them - well, what can one charitably say? In the future, if V.I.P works out, she may prove that she has other assets to bank on. But so far, that's not been the case, and this has caused a certain amount of fretting among Pamela watchers about the future of her breasts as their bearer, age 31, entered and passes through the mothering years.

A while back, for instance, an English newspaper quoted a spokesman from the National Hospital for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery as saying of Pamela's breasts, "They will go from a full 34D to looking like two oranges hanging in an old sock - or worse still, like spaniel's ears." Though unusually cruel and memorable, this statement was, perforce, only educated speculation. You had to be in her presence to know for sure; and even if you were in her presence, you really couldn't tell, given her dress and certain foundational-looking undergarments. That being the case, and because in her still-in-the-works autobiography, Pamdemonium, she planned to include a chapter titled "The History of My Breasts," it might seem plausibly fair, even necessary, to ask, "Have your breasts retained their full height and whatever else?"

"I think I'm actually in better shape now than I was before either baby," she said smoothly. "Do you want a croissant? A bagel?" She got up. "I'm going to use the restroom," she said, and then she disappeared into her house.

There were those surrounding Pamela in Hollywood who thought that, in a way, her very public suffering could only do her good, that it could only accrue to her benefit as an actress and a possible star.

"Ultimately, to be a star, a star has to have flaws - a flawed private life, in this case - to be more appealing," said director Furie. "The public doesn't want a star that's wonderfully happy and content, because they, the public, are not. You want your idols to be fallen."

"Acting is about making real the experiences of a character," said director Primus, "and if you don't have the life experiences - well, art is all about life experiences, and art is all about memory, and if you don't have them, you have less to draw on."

This bit of highbrow theorizing made a kind of sense. But it was also true that if the public thought Pamela suffered, maybe it was only because in her situation they would have suffered. Maybe Pamela herself didn't suffer. Maybe she'd gone through the flaw-making life experiences, perhaps even cried over them, but had never been truly moved or shaken by them. Maybe those experiences hadn't become an indelible part of what she would remember and could never forget, and thus they did nothing to deepen her humanity.

It could be.

"I don't really think about anything too much," Pamela said earlier in the day. "I live in the present. I move on. I don't think about what happened yesterday. What happens are just experiences, and they are just experiences. They're like pictures imprinted on your mind, and you just kind of move forward and do other things. If I think too much, it kind of freaks me out."

When she returned, with baby Dylan in her arms, she didn't look like the woman who'd been sitting here before. She wasn't smiling. Her features had clouded over, and her cheeks were flushed. She held the baby up and made him dance a little. "He's here to protect Mommy," she said; then she pulled him close, cupping him there, sort of like she did on that night Tommy hit and kicked her. She frowned.

"Most of the people who come here to talk to me are nice," she started in. "I don't usually get, Are your breasts saggy after you have a baby,' and stuff like that. I'm just not used to being treated that way."

Her mom came outside with a hat for Dylan.

"Mom," Pamela said. “Are my breasts saggy?"

Mom snorted and made a display of looking shocked. "God, what a question," she said.

"My mom will beat you up," Pamela said.

Mom said, "A woman's breasts never sag after having babies."

This was a good, classy answer - deflective yet witty enough to carry the moment.

Pamela waited until her mother left. "I've had enough trauma in my life," she said. "I'm just a mom, and I've gone through some stuff, and I have my beautiful children, and this could be beautiful. If you don't want to be pleasant and nice, this is probably over."

Only, of course, it wasn't over. If this was a Friday, Monday always had a way of arriving, and with it, inevitably, somebody who would not be pleasant and nice. That's the way it was, and it was now clear that Pamela was pained, and that she felt the pain and maybe even felt it at the core level, no matter what she said or how she sometimes liked to pretend that it was all good, all a blessing, when in fact it never has been and never could be.

Erik Hedegaard wrote about Chris Farley for the September l997 issue.