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Pamela Anderson: sensual revolutionary

‘My favourite times are when I completely lose the way I look’ – the postmodern artist better known as Pamela Anderson on entering the most radical stage of her career yet

Taken from the 25th anniversary issue of Dazed: 

“When she exits a location, Pamela leaves behind sparks of electrostatic, radioactive biodiversity.” — Ed Ruscha

It’s almost sunset in Malibu. Hidden behind an unsuspecting lane, in front of an imposing treehouse, is a surreal vision of a blonde bombshell rolling in the sand. For a second, the world appears to melt around her: every move is hypnotic, considered and intense, as she morphs between sensual poses and piercing stares transform into infectious smiles. This is a woman who exists in an unknown state somewhere between fantasy and reality, and everyone surrenders to her powers. We’re witnessing the postmodern artist better known as Pamela Anderson at work.

“My favourite times are when I completely lose the way I look and I’m unrecognisable even in the mirror,” confesses Anderson. “Some people still think that I’m a cartoon character from some of the past stuff I’ve done.” Right now, we’re drinking champagne from paper Starbucks cups – an appropriate metaphor, considering Anderson’s penchant for extremes and a career so idiosyncratic, only she could pull it off. “It’s hysterical, some of the things I’ve done…”

Pamela Anderson has been on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (courtesy of Richard Prince), her breasts and other body parts have been immortalised by pop provocateur Jeff Koons, and Ed Ruscha calls her “a true artist”. She’s also famously pole-danced to Elton John’s “Bitch Is Back” in Las Vegas (a routine that saw her pulled from primetime television), stripped live on SNL, and has two perfume lines: Malibu Day and Malibu Night. She was the leather-clad femme fatale in Barb Wire, did a handful of reality TV shows (“the worst decision an actress can make”) including E!’s Pam: Girl on the Loose!, and even danced on ice (demanding £1,000 a second). “Sometimes, you have to laugh at yourself,” she smiles.

For an entire generation, Anderson is the ultimate chemical-blonde centrefold. In fact, she’s done so many Playboy covers, she’s lost count. “Everyone says that it’s 14, but I swear it’s 15,” she exclaims. Either way, it’s record-breaking.

“I really miss the Playboy days,” she confesses. “It was wild… It was my university: sex, art, philanthropy, and just being around really talented, wonderful people. On Sunday nights we would all watch movies and stay around for the jacuzzi. I even used to call Hef (Hugh Hefner) up in the middle of the night and ask him, ‘What are you doing?’ He would say, ‘I’m eating a peanut butter sandwich. Come on over!’ It was really innocent. I mean, we weren’t too innocent… but it was very free, and nothing compares.”

In January, Anderson defined the end of an important era for the erotic title, fronting Playboy’s last-ever nude issue. It was official: the internet had killed Playboy. “It was a real honour,” she says. “I never thought I would do a cover again. I remember when Hef called me, my son was next to me and he said, ‘Mom, you’ve got to do it!’ So I did.” A few weeks later, wearing nothing but a metallic choker that read ‘SEX’, she was shot by Ellen von Unwerth and interviewed by James Franco. Naturally, a moment of such significance demanded special attention: the issue came packaged in transparent, wipe-clean plastic, a reminder that this was an object of sexual significance, to be treasured and never be left to gather dust.

“Pamela possesses a rare combination of beauty, sex appeal and personality, and it’s made her a true pop-culture phenomenon,” explains Hefner, now in his 90s. “I believe she is the Marilyn Monroe of her generation. More important to me is her personally, she is a dear friend and a very special lady. I love her very much.”  

“One time (at the Playboy mansion) my kids said, ‘Mom, do you know what Hef does for a living? He takes pictures of naked girls!’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, let’s get out of here!’” — Pamela Anderson

Hefner has been an influential figure in Anderson’s life, and the two share a powerful bond even to this day. “I remember when I first met him. He walked into the room and stole the show. It was beyond rock-star!” she gushes. “Hef has always been a pioneer, setting the stage for all of us. When I saw him not too long ago it was hard to see him in a walker. He’s always been this strong person – and I know that he’s still strong, but to see his body fall apart is hard.”

“My kids have been going (to the Playboy mansion) since they were born,” Anderson continues. “Hef would always tell them things like, ‘Your mom couldn’t afford clothes when she got here!’ One time, I think they kind of realised what was going on and they said, ‘Mom, I was just at the grotto. Do you know what Hef does for a living?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, what?’ ‘He takes pictures of naked girls!’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, let’s get out of here!’”

Anderson has always possessed an incredible self-awareness. It might be this that intimidates people about her: she’s never apologised for owning her sexuality. Three decades after she first became a sex symbol, why start now? “I flipped the script,” explains Anderson, who revealed in 2014 that she had been a victim of sexual abuse as a child. “I really did. I was trying to take the power back from my life and things which had happened to me in my past. I felt really out of control and felt, not like a victim, but that I wasn’t in charge. When I started posing for Playboy and doing things in LA, I realised I was living my own life. It was really empowering for me to be that girl. I was always so painfully shy, and when I could break through that, it was just like, freedom. Then you couldn’t stop me from walking down the street naked!”

Was there a defining moment that changed her perspective? “Yes. The first Playboy cover I did (in October 1989),” Anderson replies. “(At first) it wasn’t nude, but I had someone reaching in and adjusting me and I was violently ill. I was really sick. Then it hit me, right there. I was like, ‘I can do this.’ It’s just what society puts upon us. It wasn’t like I was doing anything graphic. Then, I started appreciating all the nude pictures of women on the walls and I thought, ‘They’re so beautiful – what is wrong with this? There’s nothing wrong with it.’”

“I hope to find a great director to take me away – but also promise to bring me back. That’s a fear of mine... I’m creating my own myth, but I’m not in control” — Pamela Anderson 

Recently, Anderson has entered the most radical stage of her career. Taking on a series of unexpected projects that are worlds apart from her one-dimensional ‘plastic’ persona, she’s been exploring the malleability and fluidity of her own identity. Not only is she consciously unravelling the mythology of the sex symbol; she’s subverting the concept entirely.

Her most extreme project to date is Luke Gilford’s dystopian short “Connected”, where Anderson goes make-up free to have a mid-life crisis. The film is a brutal commentary on ageism, but that didn’t stop the 49-year-old from taking the lead. “We really went for the crazy,” she enthuses. “It was really broken down… (Luke) was lighting me with these overhead ultraviolet lights and sniggering in the corner – I’m like, ‘You have no idea.’” When stills from the film surfaced online in February this year, a string of headlines followed – one even began with “Pamela Anderson battered and bruised…”  

“I really wanted to deconstruct (with ‘Connected’),” continues Anderson. “We showed it in a lot of art galleries and got a great reaction. Now I feel like I’m coming out of that. We’re in the reconstruction phase. I want to show that women can be glamorous at any age. We’re not all just looking for that pill or SoulCycle that’s going to make us younger. You can still be sexy at 49 years old. I get (magazines) that come up and they’re like, ‘OK, you’re going to be in a dirt room with no make-up.’ What?! So why would I do that? Why would I put myself in that situation? Who’s this good for?”

Legendary director Werner Herzog also wants to work with Anderson. “I remember when I told my friends Ed Ruscha, Richard Prince and Jeff Koons that I’d gotten a letter from Werner Herzog, they were like, ‘Pamela, you have to do this!’” she recalls. Originally looking to cast her in Vernon God Little, a darkly comedic film adaptation of DBC Pierre’s 2003 novel about a Texan loner who kills six classmates and then himself, Herzog now wants to write an original film for her.

“(In the letter) he told me, ‘Don’t ever audition for anything,’” Anderson explains. “‘If someone can’t see what you’ve accomplished and what they can pull out of you, what are they gonna do? Mediocre directors, people that don’t know you, are going to consider you a B(-list) actress or think that you’re not able to do these things, but I can see it. I want you to know that good people can see it.’ I was like, ‘Yes!’ I couldn’t have dreamed up something more fabulous than that, or a director I’d want to work with (more)… apart from maybe David Lynch.”

As Pamela Anderson has been immortalised by pop culture, the art world has followed suit. In fact, she possesses a greater understanding of visual culture and aesthetics than most of her celebrity counterparts. Plus, she’s an avid collector.

“What we see in the magazines is a mask, a blow-up doll, but underneath is a very beautiful, empathetic, mature person,” said artist Marilyn Minter in 2007. Interested in deconstructing the illusion of Pamela Anderson fabricated by magazines like Playboy, she created a series of intimate, hyperreal portraits of Anderson drenched in water and in the raw. “I have so much respect for (her)… Sure, Pam is a product of her culture, but she’s not a victim. Instead, she uses her circumstances to be successful. She lives from the way she looks.”

“I don’t believe in borders. Don’t follow the bewildered herd. Just think for yourself. Stand on your own and don’t fall into all the propaganda” — Pamela Anderson 

For Ed Ruscha, Anderson is both postmodern art and a postmodern artist. “(She) has the outlook of a person who is wide-open to the world, which defines her as a true artist,” he says. Naturally, as an adopted American icon (Anderson was born in Canada), she’s also been the subject of his work. “He’s said so many nice things about me, I don’t even know how people get hold of him to ask,” laughs Anderson. “He did (a piece with) my name, P-A-M-E-L-A, speeding out of a window with skid marks because he said I was always going too fast! Richard (Prince) also gave me ‘A Study of a Nurse’ (from his Nurse Paintings series). It’s a showgirl nurse. (It says something like), ‘She is demanding. She is passionate. She’s easy,’ or whatever it was. I don’t know if it was describing me, but it’s perfect.”

But Anderson has never settled for being a silent icon. She’s outspoken and a fearless activist – some might call her a threat, but that’s all part of her appeal. For several decades, she’s campaigned for human, environmental and animal rights through the Pamela Anderson Foundation – last year, she even auctioned the engagement ring given to her by ex-husband Rick Salomon to save the rainforest in Papua New Guinea. “Have you read The Shock Doctrine?” she asks. “Naomi Klein is a friend of mine, I helped her release her last film on climate change. We had these conversations about fear and it being a way to control people. I don’t believe in borders. Don’t follow the bewildered herd. Just think for yourself. Stand on your own and don’t fall into all the propaganda.”

One of Anderson’s biggest female role models has been fellow activist Vivienne Westwood, who describes her as “a tremendous woman”. The British designer invited her to be part of her SS09 fashion campaign, shot by Juergen Teller in Malibu. At the time, Anderson was still building her house, so Teller and Westwood stayed on a blow-up mattress in her trailer. The shoot captures candid moments of Anderson at home in the trailer park, reading Plato, hanging out with Queens of the Stone Age, and even posing with her own laundry. (Yes, you read that correctly. Pamela Anderson does her own laundry – could she be any more fabulous?)

“I wish there were more people like (Pamela) in this world, because then the world would be a better place,” says Westwood. “I’m not talking about her looks, I’m talking about her spirit. Pamela is one of the most intelligent women I ever met. She’s extremely sexy, and what’s wrong with that?”

“One time I couldn’t go to Vivienne’s store opening in LA because my kids were driving me crazy,” says Anderson of her sons, Brandon and Dylan. “So Vivienne came over, went into Dylan’s room with her orange hair and said, ‘I’m so proud of you. Never listen to authority. You made your mother completely insane. I want you to keep doing that to every adult you ever meet.’ I was like, ‘Noooooo! That’s not what I wanted you to say.’ They all went to the Arctic together on a Greenpeace mission and Vivienne was yelling at everybody. Brandon said, ‘Who is this woman you keep sending me on things with?’ And I said, ‘One day you’ll figure it out.’ Now he’s like, ‘Mom, Vivienne created punk rock.’ I was like, ‘I told you one day you’d figure it out! These are all very colourful, wonderful people that Mom knows and that are going to colour your entire life.’”

“Sure, I have a good time, but I mean, I have kids. I’ve rolled out of bars covered in champagne before, but sorry, you know, who hasn’t? Who hasn’t, right?” — Pamela Anderson 

It’s fair to say, Pamela Anderson has always been interesting. But in person, it’s her unique ability to laugh at herself that has the power to draw you in. “I don’t look at the tabloids, but they can be really ruthless,” she says. “Sure, I have a good time, but I mean, I have kids. I’ve rolled out of bars covered in champagne before, but sorry, you know, who hasn’t? Who hasn’t, right?” Naturally, we’re in fits of laughter.

Anderson has openly referred to herself as “a work in progress”, a feeling that shines through more than ever. There are no limits to what she can achieve. “I’ve always wanted to write erotic short stories,” she confesses. “People tell me I should. Everyone says I’m a pretty good sexy storyteller!”

When she’s not speaking out against domestic violence or teaching you how to be a sensual vegan (also the name of her inaugural cooking show), Anderson enjoys railing against what she sees as a desensitised generation. “The least sensual thing is a computer,” she said in an interview last year. “How does anyone learn to make love? We need to start a sensual revolution. To start feeling our feelings again.” This declaration turned into a personal social experiment. For six months, Anderson went without a computer and mobile phone. Would she ever try online dating? “Even if I never date again, I will never go on the internet to find somebody,” she quips. “I’m like, ‘What’s going on? Isn’t this supposed to be fun?’ I’ll do anything for it! I’ll dance around naked. Let’s play characters! Let’s talk in different accents. Why is this so serious? It’s hard for me to stay in a relationship that isn’t like what I experienced at Playboy. It’s like, ‘Relax. Have a glass of champagne!’”

Next on Anderson’s agenda is a cameo in a film adaptation of Baywatch, the TV show that turned her into an American sweetheart. “I still have one (red swimsuit) and it still fits,” she says. “I try it on every once in a while.” After that, she has a role in a James Franco-directed horror film, tentatively called The Institute. In it, Anderson plays a patient at a mental institution. “As far as I’m concerned, my husband dropped me off at a country club,” she says of her character. “I’m numb and vacant – medicated. I may as well be on the Titanic, (I’m so) oblivious to the deviousness of the doctor (played by Franco). It’s like Groundhog Day, starting over and over. I’m inspired by (Franco’s) voracious appetite – I wish I could segue mine into something more productive than sex and love.”

“I’m trying a few different hats on now,” Anderson continues. The champagne has run out, and she’s neatly scrunched up her Starbucks cup. “I hope to find something in film where I can trust someone, a great director to take me away – but also promise to bring me back. That’s a bit of a fear of mine. I live in a dream. I’m creating my own myth, but I’m not in control. I tend to overanalyse things. So this probably means nothing at all to anyone else…”

Hair Marki Shkreli at Tim Howard Management, make-up Fara Homidi at Frank Reps using NARS, nails Marisa Carmichael at Streeters using Formula X, photographic assistant Katelyn Reeves, fashion assistants Ioana Ivan, Virginia Fontaine, Sam Schwartz, production Connect the Dots