Earlier last month, Pamela Anderson stood in her kitchen while her mother criticized her and thought: “You should have had the abortion.” She didn’t say it out loud, “but in my head”. “Because since I was born, it’s been my fault — that’s why she married my father. So I’ve always had that on my shoulders, where I felt responsible for everything that went wrong.”

She suspects her mother feels the same way about her. “I do, actually. I don’t think it’s conscious. But I think subconsciously, in her mind, she has the idea of a different life that she could have led if she hadn’t gotten pregnant at that age. It was a shotgun wedding. And I felt responsible, even when I was little. That’s why I’m happy about writing this book, because I just feel, like, we forget that people have stories. And we don’t know where they come from, or what they’ve gone through, and then we’re quick to judge people too.”

For most of her life, by most of the world, Anderson has been judged. Barely 22 when she first appeared on the cover of Playboy, she became a global household name in 1992 by sprinting in slow motion across the California sand in a red bathing suit. The Baywatch star’s whirlwind wedding to the Mötley Crüe rock star Tommy Lee three years later, on a Mexican beach just four days after they started dating, secured her notoriety as the iconic blonde bombshell wild child of her time. She wore a white bikini; her maid of honor was a stranger she’d met at a nightclub the night before; she didn’t even know her new husband’s surname.

When the newlyweds’ safe was stolen from their home less than a year later, and a sex tape spliced together from private home videos was sold — first to Penthouse and then to the planet via the Internet — many assumed it was a trashy publicity stunt contrived by the couple. They tried to sue, but lawyers told Anderson she had no right to privacy after posing for Playboy. Slut-shamed by the tabloids, hounded by paparazzi, her marriage began to unravel and when Lee attacked her in 1998, while she was holding their newborn second son, she left him. He was sentenced to six months in jail; they divorced, they reconciled, they split again.

Twenty-five years, five more marriages and multiple Playboy covers and reality TV shows later, I opened her memoir expecting the breathless vacuity of a pinup. I was not the only one. “People were, like, ‘There’s no way you could write a book.’ Even my kids were saying, ‘Mom, you have to be able to write something that people are going to understand.’ ” She told them, “Guys, have a little faith in your mom, I think I can figure this out.” Her literary agent told her, “Darling, you’re going to need some help.” She thought to herself, “I can write, you stupid shit, give me some credit. And so I wrote it.”

Origin Story

Love, Pamela opens with a hauntingly elegiac portrait of a barefoot tomboy growing up among towering pines and small-town gossip on the shores of Vancouver Island, an outcrop of Canadian wilderness in the eastern Pacific. Teenagers when she was born, her parents were glamorously good-looking, dirt-poor and wildly volatile: “hot trouble, the local Bonnie and Clyde”. Her father was a poet and a chimney sweep, a big-drinking, poker-playing, street-car racing, game-hunting hell-raiser. Her mother was a waitress, homemaker, “magical mood-setter”, a captivating blonde curator of clambakes and beach bonfires and moonlit skinny-dipping.

Her father was also an ugly drunk, viciously cruel, handy with a belt, who terrorized his wife and drowned his daughter’s kittens before her eyes. Her mother was forever in the bathroom, weeping mascara-stained tears, and forever leaving him, bundling Anderson and her younger brother, Gerry, into a car to flee into hiding, to an exile of food stamps, powdered milk and loneliness. Madly in love with him, she always went back.

Anderson was molested by a female babysitter from the ages of six to ten. Her parents thought the babysitter was marvelous; she didn’t dare tell them. She lost her virginity at 12 when she was raped by a 25-year-old man; two years later, her teenage boyfriend and half a dozen of his friends gang-raped her. She escaped into her imagination — “That’s the survival mechanism” — finding solace in fairy tales and imaginary friends.

She became the most accidental of sex symbols. While the world was drooling over her body, Anderson was reading philosophy and psychology, teaching herself poetry, art and activism. Her most important friendships have been with creative spirits — Werner Herzog, Vivienne Westwood, David LaChapelle — and her most important work her activism, campaigning for animal rights, refugees and the environment. She has always known people underestimate her; she is absolutely not who you might think.

Anderson refused to let the publishers bring a ghostwriter on board. “It had to be exactly my voice.” She fought over every line. “If they tried to put even one word in there, change one punctuation mark, I was explosive, my head started spinning.” Anderson’s blue eyes widen and she starts to laugh. “Oh my God, it was so dramatic. Because I was opening … it wasn’t just a can of worms, it was, like, this rage I had in me from a little kid. I was cracking open all this stuff I’ve pushed down. And it was great for me to do it because it showed even me — ‘Oh, that’s why I am who I am.’ ”

While the world was drooling over her body, Pamela Anderson was reading philosophy and psychology, teaching herself poetry, art and activism.

We are in her kitchen in the childhood home she returned to nearly four years ago — a scattering of modest wooden cabins her grandmother used to rent out to Hell’s Angels bikers, in the tiny working-class town of Ladysmith. Inside Anderson’s cottage the aesthetic is whitewashed Scandi chic, the air scented with luxury candles, but traces of a ramshackle blue-collar history endure. The wooded six-acre property lies behind a humble white gate off a busy main road, across from a petrol station, sloping down to the shore of the Georgia Strait and sandwiched between neighbors’ yards cluttered with old pickup trucks.

The 55-year-old is makeup free, wearing a white linen T-shirt, loose faded jeans and white leather clogs, and floats with the lithe precision of a teenage dancer. Both self-aware and artless, there is a lightness in her bearing; she laughs a lot, often at herself, and tends to talk in expansively digressive loops. She has cooked us a complicated roast vegetable soup for lunch, with little glass dishes of finely chopped herbs, and hovers solicitously while I sprinkle them over my bowl, apologizing for not having baked the bread. After we have eaten she cannot wait to show me round the shoreline property — the vegetable garden she has planted, the boathouse she is renovating, the shingle beach she used to play on as a child, the jars of beetroot she has pickled in her garage. There seems to be nothing she won’t show or tell. What, I ask, does full disclosure feel like? “Freedom.”

When Anderson looks at old photos of herself as a young girl, it’s so obvious to her that she’d already been “sexualized”, she can’t believe no one else could see it. “Or maybe they could,” she muses, of the rapists who assaulted her in her teens, “and maybe that’s why I was targeted too.” She thinks virtually every woman working in the glamour industry has been abused as a child. “I really do. I think that it’s almost a precursor. It’s like this vulnerability that you carry with you your whole life, if you’ve been abused in any way. It really does put that tattoo on your forehead that you’re different. You don’t have the boundaries, the healthy boundaries.” Had she not been abused, would her career have looked very different?

“I wanted to be a librarian. But I just went in a different direction.”

Anderson’s first job was waitressing at a local diner until she escaped a violent ex-boyfriend by fleeing to Vancouver, where she worked at a tanning salon and got engaged at 21. “My grandma,” she writes, “always told me I should be married no older than 25, that no one would love me after then, because I’d be an old maid.” When a cameraman picked her out of the crowd at a football game in 1989, wearing a Labatt’s T-shirt, the beer company promptly hired her as a model. Anderson was astonished: ever since her babysitter began molesting her she had hated her face, hated her body. “I thought I looked ugly.”

“It’s like this vulnerability that you carry with you your whole life, if you’ve been abused in any way. It really does put that tattoo on your forehead that you’re different.”

One day soon after, Anderson arrived home to find her fiancé washing his penis in the sink and realised he was cheating on her. At that very moment the phone rang. “Playboy?” she repeated, when the voice on the line introduced herself as the magazine’s picture editor. Her fiancé hurled a tray of silverware across the room. Ducking behind the counter, gripping the phone, she listened in disbelief. Hugh Hefner had seen her Labatt’s posters and would like to fly her down to the Playboy Mansion in LA to pose for the October issue’s cover.

“I was painfully shy and I hated that feeling. That’s why I did it. I just didn’t want that feeling anymore.” Anderson had never been on a plane, let alone in a limo, and the Playboy Mansion blew her mind. “Doing that first photo shoot gave me this little kind of portal on what it felt like to be a sensual woman. My sexuality was mine. I took my power back.”

Beauty, sexuality and female power had always been a muddle for Anderson. Her mother and aunts were an inexhaustible source of unsolicited advice on how to deploy feminine charms to get things from men. “It was all, ‘This is how you get this, this is how you get that.’ It was all such manipulation. I felt like, is there a manual for this out there somewhere? Because it sounds like I don’t have it. I just never really knew what the hell they were talking about.”

Anderson hadn’t the slightest interest in feminine wiles, whereas her mother’s favorite mantras were “There’s no such thing as natural beauty, it takes two hours in front of the mirror” or “There’s no excuse not to look good”, and she lived by them. “My mom was very coiffed. She was always telling me, ‘If you’re pretty you’re more powerful. Spend time looking after yourself and you’ll be a better wife, you’ll be a better mother, you’ll be a better everything. People will listen to you if you look good.’ ”

Now, in LA, it was turning out to be true. Playboy stylists transformed Anderson into a glossy blonde — and Hefner adored her. A Hollywood producer, Jon Peters, installed her in one of his Bel Air villas, showered her with gifts and threw movie industry A-list dinner parties for her. For the first time in her life, Anderson felt desirable and awake to her own desire.

“Back then I was thinking, ‘I want chivalry, I want people to open the door.’ I have this very romantic worldview and I thought that I wanted a man to be the man.” Feminism was all very well, Anderson thought, as far as getting the vote went. “But I was, like, let’s not go too far with it.” She used to think third-wave feminists were “paralyzing” men, and even once considered writing a book about saving feminism from them. “As I’ve gotten older I think that was pretty naive and stupid of me. Now I feel a lot differently.” She offers a self-deprecating smile. “We all evolve.”

And yet, at 22, Anderson rejected Peters’s offer to give her double what she could earn at Playboy to stay at home instead. He wasn’t making sexual advances toward her — but some instinct for independence told her to move out of his mansion into a shabby rental apartment and earn her own way. After landing a small part on a sitcom, she was pursued “relentlessly” by the casting director of Baywatch. Within a year of joining the show she was its highest-paid actress.

At 22, Anderson rejected Hollywood producer Jon Peters’s offer to give her double what she could earn at Playboy to stay at home instead.

Her mother told her, “I feel bad for you. You’re never going to have good sex again if you make more money than a man. If you do make more, lie to them. Because otherwise you’ll never have a romantic relationship again.” When Anderson became a mother herself, she told her mom she wanted to be financially independent. “I didn’t want to rely on anybody else, I was going to be able to look after my kids no matter what. She said that was a self-fulfilling prophecy to think like that.”

Rewatching old interviews now, it is staggering to see how the hosts patronized her, talking about her breasts as if she were a literal object. She appeared to collude in their condescension, giggling along coquettishly, but I wonder what she was thinking. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘This is sexist.’ I was just thinking, ‘OK, this is my career, I’ve set myself up for this.’ To be honest I wasn’t thinking about it too much back then, I was just getting through each day. I didn’t even know what a feminist was. I was getting all my feminism from my mother.”

With a gift for understatement, she adds, “To see my mom in an abusive relationship and for her to give me this advice … you can see how there were a lot of confusing signals coming my way.”

The Tommy Years

You can certainly see why she married Tommy Lee. The archetypal bad boy — handsome, hedonistic, lawless, wildly jealous, in other words exactly like her father — had always been her type, and any courtship less recklessly impulsive than her parents’ coup de foudre was unlikely to look to her like true love. On the night before they wed, Lee slipped Ecstasy into her drink — a drug she had never taken before, and which delivers uninhibited euphoria. “Have you ever felt this way before?” he asked. No, she told him truthfully. “Well then, let’s get married,” he said. In a daze of narcotic bliss, she agreed. “Great. Yeah.”

She loved Lee passionately and says their first year together was intensely happy, but the humiliation of the stolen tape (she will never call it a “sex tape”) — his sense of powerlessness, hers of disgrace — was unsurvivable. After enduring days of questioning by lawyers — who had pinned up Anderson’s Playboy centerfolds on the walls and quizzed her on her sexual preferences and favorite positions (“I thought, what does any of this have to do with them stealing or selling our private property?”) — she dropped the legal action for fear the stress would harm her unborn baby. She worried she would never work again; Lee kept getting into trouble for punching paparazzi. Barely able to leave the house, caged by shame and long-lens cameras, the couple tried to fortify one another with their secret code words, “G and D” — grace and dignity — but it could not sustain them.

Anderson had to invoke more G and D last year when Disney+ released Pam & Tommy, an eight-part drama about the tape. She is deeply upset about her ordeal being revived for entertainment value and will never watch it. The show’s makers claimed it was a “positive” portrait of Anderson that would show the world how appallingly her privacy was violated, but when I quote them she allows a quick, uncharacteristically cynical scowl. “I haven’t heard anything good about it.” She writes in her book, “It’s unforgivable that people, still to this day, think they can profit from such a terrible experience, let alone a crime.”

She can’t say if the marriage would have survived had there been no stolen tape. “It’s impossible to guess.” I would say it’s safe to guess it didn’t stand a chance. Lee used to insist upon being on set with her at all times, would wait naked in her trailer and deliberately mess up her hair and makeup, “a tactic used to spend more time together”, she writes. “Because I was his, he’d said. He wanted his ‘wife time’.” Banned from set after punching the producer in the face, Lee would park next door and hop over the fence. Anderson worried constantly about upsetting him. He flew into jealous rages when she had scenes with other men, let alone had to kiss them; the Baywatch crew would have to quickly rewrite dialogue and scenes when they saw him coming. Anderson even wore a pager on the back of her bathing suit on set; “007” meant “call Tommy now”.

Tommy Lee, the archetypal bad boy — handsome, hedonistic, lawless, wildly jealous, in other words exactly like her father — had always been her type.

One day he rammed the makeup trailer with his car, smashed up the makeup studio, threw Anderson into his car, dropped her at home and drove off. That night she tried to down a bottle of pills with vodka, intending to lose consciousness and sink into the bath, but the vodka made her throw up and she passed out on the bathroom floor. When she didn’t show up on set the next morning, her driver came and found her lying in a pool of vomit. He raced her to hospital while Gerry, then working as an extra on Baywatch, tracked down Lee and the pair rushed to her bedside. Lee broke down in tears, Gerry screamed at him that he was killing his sister, and a wild fistfight broke out. The pair were still throwing punches, wrestling on the ground, when a doctor entered the room and broke the news that Anderson was pregnant. “All was forgiven,” she writes, “and we fell into each other’s arms.” She miscarried shortly afterward.

All this happened during their first year together, before the tape scandal. In the summer of 1996 their son Brandon was born, followed by his brother, Dylan, at the end of 1997. In his 2001 autobiography, Lee offered differing accounts of their rows, but wrote: “I used to be at the top of the charts with Pamela. When Brandon was born, I dropped to No 2 … Then, when Dylan was born, I dropped down to No 3 … And I couldn’t deal with that.”

What reads like a textbook case of coercive control and narcissism looked to Anderson like true love. “I thought, ‘God, this man really loves me.’ ” Did nobody try and talk to her? “I was in love with him. So there was no point.”

Lee would wait naked in her trailer and deliberately mess up her hair and makeup, “a tactic used to spend more time together”, Anderson writes.

In a way, she still is. The pair’s repeated attempts to reconcile never lasted, but not long ago she watched an old home video of a birthday party she threw for him and burst into tears. “I said, ‘Oh my God, I actually really love Tommy.’ It just hit me right then, after all this time trying to block out the feeling. I wish him the best now. He’s married and the last thing I want to do is be all, like, ‘pining for Tommy’ bullshit. It’s not that. But I love that our boys were born out of true love.” When the pair talk on the phone, it always “feels just like home. It just is natural. I’ve never really experienced that since. Maybe you only get it once.”

She hoped to find it again when she married Kid Rock, another musician, in 2006. They parted ways just a few months later. “Kid was the star. Tommy was the star. And then they have this blonde chick with them that’s getting attention and taking it from them. I think it’s been a problem in all my relationships, because it’s a weird thing to be with someone who everybody wants a piece of. It’s, like, sharing me with a bunch of other people, and they don’t want to.” She pauses.

“I think that it might also have been about ownership. When you have all this attention you can look after yourself — you can walk out at any moment — and so they don’t have that kind of control over you. They feel emasculated. That’s when you get into dangerous territory.”

In 2007 she married her friend Rick Salomon, a professional poker player famous for having made a sex tape with Paris Hilton. Within three months she left him after her assistant found a crack pipe in the Christmas tree. He denied it was his but the marriage was annulled. They remained friends and surprised everyone by announcing in 2014 that they had married again — but she filed for divorce six months later.

“I know I keep getting married, but I just wanted to recreate a family for my kids. But I also would not allow anyone to abuse me and didn’t want my kids to think it was OK. And so that was always my red line, when I felt like they were witnessing me being treated badly — because they cannot learn to treat women badly. And [as] much as I look like a clown, getting divorced all the time, I can’t let that happen.”

She moved to the south of France in 2018 to be with her new man, Adil Rami, a French footballer, but left him in 2019 after discovering that he was still secretly involved with the mother of his children. When her father had a stroke that year, she returned to her childhood home in Ladysmith, on Vancouver Island, having bought it from her grandmother decades earlier. “I came home with a broken heart. I felt like a spawning salmon. I was coming home to die.”

“I know I keep getting married, but I just wanted to recreate a family for my kids. But I also would not allow anyone to abuse me and didn’t want my kids to think it was OK.”

In January 2020 she announced she had married her old friend the Hollywood producer Jon Peters, but five days later he finished with her by text — “This whole marriage thing” had “scared” him, he messaged — before legal paperwork had been filed, so no divorce proceedings were necessary. Anderson set about renovating the semi-derelict property in Ladysmith and writing her memoir. “And then I got involved with the contractor, and that was stupid, and I do regret that.”

After all her famous boyfriends and husbands, Dan Hayhurst, a local builder working on her renovation, was meant to be Mr Normal. “But it was worse than any of them. And I realized, oh my God, I’m caught up in this whole thing, what am I doing? It just struck me, this is another disaster.” They had married in a private ceremony on Christmas Eve 2020. She gained 25lb while they were together. “The culture here, people drink. I was drinking wine coolers and didn’t even realize I was getting heavy. And I was cooking for everybody, all the time, because his whole family was here. I was just like a short-order cook. And they ate meat! I was paying for everything, cooking, cleaning for everybody. And so I just got out of it as soon as I could.”

In early January last year she told Hayhurst her mother had just tested positive for Covid and she would need to test herself, so he should stay in one of the other cabins that night. Then she rang her assistant, a local decorator — “I found the only gay guy in Ladysmith,” she jokes — and told him to collect her and her golden retriever at 5am. “We’re getting out of here.” They drove to LA, where she intended to stay for only a month, but Hayhurst “wouldn’t leave”. In spite of a prenup, she ended up paying him to go.

I have never met a celebrity less concerned about money. She knows friends have stolen from her over the years and says valuables went missing from her Ladysmith home, but seems sublimely relaxed about being robbed. “I just think, well, they must just need it more than I do.” By her own admission, she has always been hopeless with money. “I never made any. I was always getting sued for everything I had. I’ve been sued all my life.” She doesn’t say by who — “It was just endless, just crazy” — but she also spent a lot, and by 2009 owed more than a million dollars and was living with her sons in a Malibu trailer park, albeit a rather glamorous one that’s been home to Minnie Driver and Matthew McConaughey. She turned down a lot of work in order to be with her boys, but at 13 they went to boarding school on Vancouver Island and she worked her way out of debt through a series of reality TV shows, which she loathed. “They were awful. Awful. I hated it, because I knew I had so much more to give.”

The memoir was her sons’ idea. Now 26, Brandon has worked as a model and actor, starred in a reality show and launched a clothing line; Dylan, 25, has also modeled, makes music and trades in cryptocurrencies. Their mother’s indifference to money maddens them. “They’re, like, ‘You make us crazy, you have to care about money!’ They don’t get that complete-faith-in-the-universe kind of thing that I have. It’s driven everybody that’s around me nuts my whole life. But I like the mysterious part, to just kind of see what happens. I always have 100 percent faith that something great is coming around the corner.”

“I never made any [money]. I was always getting sued for everything I had. I’ve been sued all my life.”

The past 12 months appear to have vindicated that philosophy. Early last year, out of the blue, she was offered the role of Roxie in Chicago on Broadway. With no musical theater experience, and only six weeks of rehearsal time before an eight-week run of eight shows a week, it was an extremely tall order — and a triumph. “I just wanted to prove myself. I also wanted to show my kids I can do something.” During the standing ovation on the opening night she could see Dylan’s eyes on her. “I thought it’s probably the first time he’s ever looked at me with pride.”

Brandon has co-produced Pamela, a Love Story — a Netflix documentary about her life, which was released this week — and she credits him with transforming her finances. “He is a miracle, he’s completely turned everything around, I am set up for the rest of my life.” She has been single for the longest time in her life since leaving Hayhurst and “It’s been the best year of my life. I just don’t think I’m cut out for relationships anymore.”

The one man about whom she’s somewhat coy is Julian Assange. Anderson was a regular visitor to the WikiLeaks fugitive while he was holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and writes of one “slightly frisky, fun, alcohol-induced night together” when she stayed over. She has never confirmed the exact nature of their relationship and when I ask if it was romantic, she giggles. “No. Well. Nothing major.”

The big relationship preoccupying Anderson today is with her mother. She has persuaded her parents, who are still together, to sell their house and move into her property, and had “imagined everyone here and happy. But it’s just, like, knife-throwing. Mothers and daughters, right? Bizarre digs and jabs and cruel little things.”

Her mother knows she’s a vegan, but fills her fridge with eggs anyway. She’ll tell her daughter that her front tooth looks as if it’s rotting — “And I’m, like, what? I’m running to the mirror all day. Then she’ll go, ‘Oh, maybe it was the light.’ ” In her mother’s eyes, “my brother is the saint. He is so talented, but it just hasn’t happened for him and he has this resentment towards me. And he talks to my mom and I think their connection is how terrible I am, and how much trouble I’ve caused everybody. And now she’s all, ‘How dare she, you know, write about her own life? How dare she?’ ”

Her mother has read her memoir and is not happy. “She said some horrible things. So it’s going to be very difficult for her to have that out there. I’m not going into this to hurt anyone’s feelings. She usually only cares about her hair and I said, ‘Come on, Mom, I talked about your hair in great detail!’ But none of this is going to be easy for her. So this is our big year, our battle year, and I’m kind of curious to see how it’s all going to unfold. I hope we can be closer.”

After three hours together she won’t let me call a cab, but drives me back to my hotel herself in her little white electric Smart car plastered in “Free Assange” and “End Speciesism” bumper stickers. On the way, I ask if anyone has ever treated her with complete and utter respect. She thinks it over.

“Hugh Hefner.”

Decca Aitkenhead is the chief interviewer for The Sunday Times