It was, without question, one of the great love affairs. And civilization is damn lucky to have permanent documentation of that love: 54 grainy minutes that rival, in terms of historical importance, Thomas Edison’s five-second-long kinetoscope, Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894). Maybe even the recently discovered, remarkably high-quality footage of Queen Victoria riding in a horse-drawn carriage in Dublin (1900), holding a parasol and wearing sunglasses.
Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee are not wearing sunglasses, or indeed anything else, in the not very high-quality private sex tape (1995) that was eventually officially released as Pam & Tommy Lee: Stolen Honeymoon, among other titles. Nor, one assumes, are Lily James and Sebastian Stan, the actors who portray them in the upcoming eight-part (!) mini-series Pam & Tommy, on Hulu and in the U.K. on Disney+. (Episode One, “Drilling and Pounding,” drops on Wednesday.)
The original home video was stolen along with guns and jewelry from the couple’s safe by a disgruntled electrician whose plan was to disguise himself in yak fur to resemble a dog crossing the property—long story, but it’s Seth Rogen in the mini-series. It was then illegally distributed via this crazy new thing called the World Wide Web, pre-dating similar X- and R-rated frolics involving Kim Kardashian, Tonya Harding, Hulk Hogan, Paris Hilton, and Verne Troyer (separately, to be clear).
The tape was a very big deal at the time. It didn’t start the Internet, but it certainly jump-started it, attracting countless new users. “Anderson and Lee’s hardcore home video was the first celebrity sex tape to go viral,” wrote Jane Mulkerrins in The Times of London last week. “Moreover, many believe, it set a precedent that the rich and famous are, by virtue of their profiting from said fame, less entitled to privacy than us proles.” The couple were caught off guard, and a tangle of lawsuits followed, though they eventually gave their blessing to an official version.
“Anderson and Lee’s hardcore home video was the first celebrity sex tape to go viral.”
While the tape’s cultural impact was undeniable, rather more deniable was its value as art. On that question, most tend to demur. One reviewer on IMDB did call it “[a] cinematic triumph.… Nothing but buoyant fun,” an opinion one fervently wants to take at face value but, alas, probably shouldn’t. Another posted: “Let’s give a rundown of what occurs in this film.… Pamela Anderson has sex with Tommy Lee in a moving car. Pamela Anderson has sex with Tommy Lee on a private boat. Pamela Anderson has sex with Tommy Lee in her private trailer.… If your idea of a good time is watching some druggie rock star bonking a famous Playboy bunny then this ‘movie’ will certainly fulfill you.”
In fact, only about 8 of the 54 minutes are considered highly explicit.
The mini-series, which is based on a 2014 Rolling Stone article, is causing its own advance stir. Already we’ve been treated to headlines such as ‘There was pushback’: Pam & Tommy makers open up about show’s animatronic talking penis scene (The Guardian), referring to an episode in which Lee has a conversation with his penis—a groundbreaking tête-à-tête, as it were, that the series writer claimed was adapted directly from the musician’s autobiography. Further revelations have included the fact that the garrulous genitals in question “are voiced by actor Jason Mantzoukas.”
For those too young to have experienced the Anderson-Lee escapade in real time, too old to remember it more than vaguely, or simply too busy living their lives to have remotely cared, here is a précis of the events leading to, and stemming from, this singular confluence of sex, world-changing information technology, cheesy television, heavy metal, and VHS.
When the couple met, Pamela Denise Anderson (born 1967; Ladysmith, Canada) had already been a Playmate of the Month (she holds the record for appearances on the cover of Playboy), had appeared regularly on the hit TV show Home Improvement, and starred in Baywatch, which eventually became the most watched television series in the world. Thomas Lee Bass (born 1962; Athens, Greece) was the twice-married (the second time to the actress Heather Locklear), once again engaged (to the model Bobbie Brown) drummer for the notorious and successful 80s band Mötley Crüe.
Lee has a conversation with his penis—a groundbreaking tête-à-tête, as it were.
Theirs was a whirlwind romance. Lee recounted it in a memoir: “I met Pam on New Year’s Eve, 1994. I went out with some of my best bros to a [Los Angeles] club called Sanctuary. We all sat in a booth popping E, drinking champagne and being fucking maniacs.… Suddenly, a waitress came over and said, ‘Tommy, here’s a shot of Goldschläger. It’s for you, from Pamela Anderson.’” Much like Peter Sellers spotting Catherine Schell across a crowded bar in The Return of the Pink Panther (“Waiter! Another Kahlúa and ginger ale, please”), Lee was profoundly intrigued. He slammed the Goldschläger. He guzzled some more Cristal. He was ready. “I pushed my way into [her] booth, slid over her girlfriends’ laps and forced myself a space right next to her. Then I grabbed her face and just licked the side of it, from chin to temple.”
Introductions thus dispensed with, Lee suddenly turned bashful. “On Ecstasy, Joan Rivers looks like Pamela Anderson, so imagine what Pamela Anderson looked like,” he later wrote. “She was so beautiful, I couldn’t even bring myself to think of defiling her with thoughts of lust. I just stared at her all night, and she just stared back.”
The courtship had begun—at least from his perspective—although they didn’t see each other again until six weeks later, when he followed Anderson to Cancún, and where they were soon spotted drinking Cristal together at a string-bikini contest. Four days into the trip, on February 19, 1995, they were married on the beach. (She in a white bikini, he in shorts; they tattooed each other’s names on their ring fingers.) Then came the honeymoon, and the infamous sex tape.
Although, for the record, “that was not a sex tape,” Anderson clarified not long ago on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen. “It was a compilation of vacations that we were naked on.”
Their marriage lasted three years. The couple had two sons, and Lee spent six months in the Los Angeles County jail for spousal abuse. They divorced in 1998, re-united briefly when he got sprung and again some years later. But mainly they got on with their lives.
Both published books and became animal-rights supporters, with Anderson also getting involved with various environmental and political causes. (“Activism is sexy,” she said.) Her most significant cause célèbre in recent years has been the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whom she visited at London’s Belmarsh prison and whose release, and pardon, she has campaigned for aggressively, referring to him as “the world’s most innocent man” and asserting that “Julian is being charged with journalism.” Inevitably, there was media speculation about a romance, which neither party exactly put to rest. (Anderson: “He’s a great guy.… Let’s say we’re just good friends.” Assange: “She’s no idiot at all.”)
Lee re-united with Mötley Crüe, released several solo albums, and starred in a reality-TV show called Tommy Lee Goes to College. He got engaged to Prince’s ex-wife Mayte Garcia and then to the singer Sofia Toufa, and while no weddings materialized there, in 2019 one did, to the Internet (full circle!) personality Brittany Furlan. They announced their marriage on Instagram.
Anderson was even busier. She got engaged to the model Marcus Schenkenberg; they broke up. She got engaged to Kid Rock; they broke up. Then they married, and then divorced. She married the poker player Rick Salomon (who’d already been married to the actresses Elizabeth Daily and Shannen Doherty, and co-starred in his own sex tape, with Paris Hilton), had it annulled, then re-married him. And, yes, divorced him. She dated the French soccer star Adil Rami before marrying the Hollywood producer Jon Peters; that one lasted 12 days. (Anderson later tweeted that she and Peters had never been legally married: “It was just a bizarre lunch.”)
In December 2020, she did marry her bodyguard, Dan Hayhurst, though last week, having found him “unkind and unsupportive,” according to what the New York Post called “a source close to the doomed couple,” she filed for another divorce. “Pamela realized Dan is in fact not the one,” said the source, leaving an “either” hanging in the air. Anderson somehow also found time to star in a sitcom called Stacked, compete on Dancing with the Stars, and, playing herself, appear as the object of Sacha Baron Cohen’s obsession in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. In 2005 she was named the most powerful Canadian in Hollywood.
Full lives. Yet, fairly or not, a certain decades-old honeymoon sex tape remains the former couple’s most memorable hour, or most memorable 54 minutes. Or, anyway, eight minutes.
As for Pam & Tommy, neither of the originals was involved with the mini-series. According to Us, Anderson “won’t be watching.” And Lee? “I know Sebastian, he’s playing me. From what he’s told me, it’s a really beautiful story … it’s a cool story,” he told ET. “People need to know.”
History suggests he’s got that right.
George Kalogerakis, one of the original editor-writers at Spy, later worked for Vanity Fair, New York, and The New York Times, where he was deputy op-ed editor. A co-author of Spy: The Funny Years and co-editor of Disunion: A History of the Civil War, he is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL