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Blonde Ambition

Pamela Anderson’s magical mind

There are two things that might be said to define her from the off, and they are not the two things that one might expect. The first is that she is not American, but Canadian, an accident of her birth that seems unthinkable when one considers how American she seems from the outside—how blonde, how nominally plastic, how aspirational and saleable and generally designed to look just right rendered fourteen feet high on a billboard. The second is the fact that there was almost no “her” to begin with: in 1967, her father totaled his green Ford Fairlane while trying to outrun the police, and her pregnant mother was thrown face-first through the glass of the car’s windshield in a smash that might have claimed three lives but improbably ended with no casualties at all. In her recent memoir, she imagines how the scene played out, and the details she includes in her description (her mother’s “pretty head” going through the windshield; the “soft cream interior” of the car being “soaked in blood”) are suggestive of a glamourpuss with an illicit taste for the macabre. This combination—sweet and bitter, with a happy ending invariably following a cruel ordeal—characterizes the entire book, which has the feel of a Grimm’s fairy tale with added sex.

“Life is a series of problems / we must navigate / with grace— / one problem solved / another arises,” she writes in verse in its opening pages, “Again / and again / until we die.” No problematic twist of fate could prevent Pamela Denise Anderson, born July 1, 1967, from becoming Pamela Anderson, model and actress and activist and eccentric, just as being born in Ladysmith, British Columbia, could not prevent her from becoming an icon of souped-up, all-American sex appeal. She is a self-made woman in every possible sense of the phrase “self-made woman,” and her whole career has been defined less by her talent than by her determination. To deny the wattage of Pamela Anderson’s charisma at her peak would be absurd, like denying the existence of the sun; she has never been much of an actress in the strictest sense, but she is an excellent one as far as the role of womanhood is concerned. Her rum-soaked cherry of a memoir, Love, Pamela, paints femininity as a matter of both nature and nurture, at once inherited as a kind of spiritual birthright from one’s foremothers and also worked at, tirelessly and sometimes expensively.

You might also say that she spins the creation of female desirability into a magic trick, making it entirely appropriate that in 2007—in between playing herself in the first Borat movie and appearing at the Crazy Horse in Paris—she performed as an onstage assistant to the square-jawed, lank-haired illusionist Hans Klok, in a show at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas entitled The Beauty of Magic. When the show first opened, Anderson was a month shy of turning forty, an age at which many sex symbols begin to think about how best to transition into being a symbol of something else entirely. Instead, Pamela Anderson chose one of the vampiest, flashiest jobs of all, in one of the vampiest, flashiest cities in the world, and continued to be perfectly content being blonde, augmented, nearly naked, and an undeniable bombshell. In photographs from The Beauty of Magic’s opening night, she looks as hard and golden as a trophy, traversing the stage with the sure stride of a prizewinning thoroughbred in her six-inch-high mirrored heels and her shimmering leotard. “Being Canadian and a gymnast and an acrobat,” she wrote on her website after revealing she’d begun work with Klok, “I always wanted to join Cirque du Soleil—I love it more than anything.” It figures that Anderson, of all people, would have dreams of running away to join the circus, not least because of her adventurous spirit and her taste for tattooed freaks.

Historically, the role of a magician’s assistant has been vexed, owing to the fact it largely exists to allow a very pretty, often silent woman to serve as eye candy for the audience and—if she is lucky—pretend to be sawn in half, or have knives thrown at her while she is in bondage, or be subject to some other thrilling form of pseudo-torture. (One might say that the job amounts to “a series of problems” that the distracting babe in question “must navigate with grace.”) “The audience was not only complicit, but vital in making the magic happen through a connection that felt almost childlike at times,” the feminist academic and researcher Dr. Naomi Paxton recalled in 2019, on the subject of her own time as a magician’s assistant. “They wanted to believe the impossible but were also eager to know how it was done.” Read it carefully, and this sounds like it could also be the job description for an entirely different role—that of the contemporary pin-up, whose admirers accept her honed and modified physique as an impossible work of perfection, and whose detractors want her to admit exactly how she got so impossibly perfect in the first place. In both instances, the woman at the heart of the performance must be a gifted illusionist and an excellent liar; she must make the work she does appear like nothing, while also insisting she is doing no work at all, or that if she is, it does not feel like graft to her. She is less a dove sequestered in the sleeve of a magician than a swan atop a lake: effortlessly lovely on the surface, furiously treading water underneath.

By the time she was performing in Las Vegas, Pamela Anderson had undergone a cruel, slow-motion media trial after the release of her famously stolen sex tape twelve years earlier, an experience that would have made being pinned with throwing knives seem like a cinch. Somehow, she had successfully remained afloat, floundering once or twice but ultimately retaining the unflappable, parodic, throwback sexiness she had projected from the moment she became a public figure. Her swift rise to fame—which began with a fresh-faced appearance on the jumbotron at a British Columbia Lions game in 1989, a star-making moment as immediate as Lana Turner’s discovery in a malt shop in Hollywood in 1937—took her from beer advertisements to Playboy, and from Playboy to a role on the TV comedy Home Improvement, and from Home Improvement to the dumb, delightful swimsuit sleaze of Baywatch. What made her ubiquitous during this period was not necessarily the quality of her work on television but the quality of her work as a model and a public figure: What else could Pamela Anderson, a living doll with the figure of a mud-flap girl and the bawdy sense of humor of an old-school broad, be but famous? Late night hosts perpetually inquired about her breasts, her breasts, her breasts; when she was not actually appearing on set, they made filthy jokes about her in their opening monologues, as if not having her most famous assets in their direct line of sight made it even easier to dehumanize her. A professional who knew it was a sin to break character in the middle of a show, she simply laughed, or played along, or rolled her eyes. “My breasts have had a brilliant career,” she has often joked. “I’ve just tagged along for the ride.”

And so, yes, when that ride required her to climb onstage at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas in a tiny glittering leotard just a month before she turned forty in order to perform tricks with towering flames and all the other trappings of casino magic, she did so without complaint or hesitation. (That the show was originally meant to star Carmen Electra, and that the Las Vegas Review-Journal implied that Electra dropped out because some of the illusions made her queasy, speaks volumes about Anderson’s athleticism, to say nothing of her inner strength—her gut may not always have led her in the right direction, as evidenced by her marriage to Kid Rock, but it did not fail her when it came to gastrointestinal fortitude.) “My favorite parts of the [magic] act,” she recalls in Love, Pamela, “were when I was levitated and when I had fire spikes driven through me. It was dangerous, but my double-jointed shoulders and flexibility came in handy.” Her flexibility has always come in handy in the tightest spots of her career, too, as if she were capable of folding herself into one half of the coffin-like confinement of her public image to escape the blade; time after time, she has been threatened with reputational dismemberment and still returned to the stage smiling and unscathed.

“In a traditional male-female double act where the man is considered to be the magician and the woman only a decorative mover of props,” Paxton writes, “there is enormous scope for misdirection and playing with presence and status.” The lovely assistant, in other words, takes the audience’s underestimation of her as a comely woman and uses it for her own ends, turning a disadvantage into a professional boon. In another universe, Pamela Anderson might have gently inverted the generic title of the Vegas show and called her memoir The Magic of Beauty, and it might have documented her self-engineering and her rise to fame in a style that was less soft-hearted and more hardboiled than Love, Pamela’s—it might have been a how-to guide on surviving and exploiting the attention of an audience primed to see a blonde, large-breasted woman and assume the worst. For Anderson, the magic of beauty is that it has given her both a saleable asset and a mask to hide behind.

A few terrible things have befallen her over the years; she has personally ensured that a greater number of good things have fallen into her bikini-clad lap since the early 1990s, however, and to suggest that hers is simply a tragic tale of victimhood at the hands of men and the media is to trip into the same trap a naive viewer falls into when they assume that the beautiful woman standing next to the magician has no purpose outside that of decoration. In fact, the trajectory of her life, both before and after the cathecting incident which at once traumatized her and momentarily made her one of the most famous women in the world—namely, the theft and the distribution of the sex tape she produced with her then-husband, Tommy Lee, in 1995—forms a fascinating case study about consent, the connection between sexuality and empowerment, and the relationship that the public has with female sexual icons. In effect, it is a perfect illustration of the difference between being a willing, active participant in a carefully orchestrated illusion, and simply being tricked.

Pamela Anderson eerily hovers over a table, seemingly lifted telepathically by a man in the background.
Pamela Anderson and magician Hans Klok, 2008. (Shutterstock)

Basic Instincts

This has been a major year for Pamela Anderson as a public figure—perhaps the most notable year since the release of that fateful tape, in fact. In addition to Love, Pamela, which she produced without the aid of a ghostwriter, she also provided access to decades of her personal VHS recordings to a documentary maker, Ryan White, and produced a film entitled Pamela: A Love Story for Netflix. Given that home videos are a loaded medium for Anderson, their use here as a ballast for the reclamation of her image feels especially fitting, and sometimes subtly funny. A bit of honeymoon footage in which she and Tommy Lee ride in a gondola in Venice and Anderson complains that her husband is blowing cigarette smoke in her face is an accidental mirror of the shot in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon of the movie’s central character doing the same to his new wife in the back of a horse-drawn carriage, a notably bad omen for a marriage.

One clip, though, stands out especially, and it is not one from Anderson’s private collection but one from an unspecified magazine show. In the segment, it is nineteen ninety-something, and Pamela Anderson is sitting on the pale sands of a beach that is presumably in California, dressed down in a pair of flip-flops, a white vest, and a sarong. She looks impossibly radiant and very young, and she is being interviewed. “Where’d I get my boobs done?” she asks her off-camera interlocutor, her forehead crinkling into a small, foxed frown. “Geez, that’s a personal question!” It is a personal question; it is also one that she has probably already answered in a number of other interviews, and God knows how many untelevised and unrecorded conversations, and her irritation makes it obvious that she is not keen to answer it again.

“But,” she adds, “let’s talk about this.” She lifts up her flip-flopped feet and swings her legs open in one aggressive movement, swift and pointed, until suddenly the camera is directly pointed at her sarong-covered crotch, the moment taking on the simultaneous air of a come-on and a tongue-in-cheek sexual threat. It is difficult not to think of another 1990s blonde using her genitalia to her tactical advantage, perhaps even in the same year this interview was filmed—the cool sexpot murderess Catherine Tramell in Paul Verhoeven’s 1992 film Basic Instinct, portrayed by Sharon Stone. The scene in which Tramell is being interrogated by a room full of men in cheap suits is one of the most iconic in contemporary cinema, and part of this is obviously because it is a scene that encourages the audience to picture the vagina of a beautiful and famous woman, but part of it is also that Stone makes it menacing, an exposure that challenges those observing her rather than leaving her defenseless. Unlike Basic Instinct, the short clip of Anderson does not show us the reaction of the man she’s speaking to—we don’t see him sweat, or squirm, and in this edit we don’t hear him reply, either—but it’s clear she is not merely being cute. Seeing as how we both know what you want, she seems to say, here it is.

What else could Pamela Anderson, a living doll with the figure of a mud-flap girl and the bawdy sense of humor of an old-school broad, be but famous?

Hidden in that gesture is the real reason that it was necessary for Pamela Anderson to offer up the one-two punch of a documentary and a memoir: because we seemed to have let it slip our minds that she was always knowing, funny, and entirely in on the joke of herself, and accordingly we needed a reminder. In 2022, the fictionalized TV series Pam & Tommy presented a nominally feminist and moralizing take on the events surrounding the theft and release of her sex tape, and its version of Pamela Anderson had not been accurate, exactly; the series’ obsession with making Anderson stainless somehow results in its making her appear to be entirely brainless instead, and as portrayed by the English actress Lily James under a thick layer of silicone and spray tan, this imagined Pam does little more than simper, lisp, pout, graphically fuck, and look befuddled. As it had with the real Pamela Anderson, a great deal of effort went into constructing the exterior of the character: a fembot shape, and eyebrows plucked to permanent suggestiveness, and lips so plush they seem to kiss themselves. What is missing is a spark of life, of electricity, so that even this Pam’s horniness seems somehow dumb and inauthentic, as if she were playing the sexual equivalent of a junkie in an anti-drug PSA. In order to enhance her martyrdom, the show’s creators seemed to feel that the best way to garner the audience’s sympathy was to present her as a passive woman whom things happened to, and not a woman who more often made things happen—one who had spent much of her life making herself into exactly the person she desired to be.

When an unnamed source discussed Anderson’s feelings about her portrayal in Pam & Tommy with a journalist at Entertainment Tonight last year, one line stuck out. Pamela, the source said, “has no regrets about her life.” It feels plausible that this phrase in particular came directly from her, largely because it suggests a typically Andersonian mix of optimism and pragmatism: a shrug; a proud upwards tilt of her delicate chin; an acknowledgement that her life was always going to be characterized by boom and bust. (The statement also makes perfect logical sense: Why would Anderson regret making a consensual, often quite romantic sex tape with her husband, meant for private use? The sex crime—and it was a sex crime—that took the tape global was not any fault of hers, making the idea of regret irrelevant here too.) In Love, Pamela, she expresses some sadness at the modification of her body— “I agreed to amplify my chest like everyone else [in Playboy],” she writes, “then endured years of sordid attention I wasn’t ready for. Then came complications, the unexpected injuries that led to more surgery, a vicious cycle. I was fine the way I was”—but also suggests that her “un-thought-through” decisions are “a part of [her] charm.” Does she occasionally contradict herself? Very well then, she contradicts herself; she contains multitudes as well as four-hundred-odd ccs of silicone, and in her memoir, she suggests she finds it heartening to be misinterpreted because it means that her image and identity are fluid. In its title, “Love” is a command as well as a sign-off; in the subtitle of Pamela: A Love Story, the love story is between Pamela Anderson and her children, and arguably between Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, but above all else it is between Pamela Anderson and Pamela Anderson.

The Grand Illusionist

The word victim appears only once in Love, Pamela, in a passage about Anderson’s portrayal of Roxie Hart in a revival of Chicago. (She insists she played the character “not as a victim” but as the “hero of [her] own story.”) The word magic, or a variation on it, appears fifteen times, and the most notable use is in a passage where Anderson reveals that she was molested by her babysitter as a child. She leaves the details vague, and instead chooses to focus on the moment in which she finally snapped and chose to fight back: “I hope you die! I screamed through tears. Then I ran for my life,” Anderson writes. “Soon after, she died in a car accident. I couldn’t tell my parents that I’d killed her with my magical mind, or that she was touching me and making me touch her in ways I don’t want to remember.” If this is an especially dark introduction to the idea that she might be possessed of some kind of thaumaturgic power, it is interesting for the way it links her so-called magic—for good or for ill—with her sexuality, and that theme recurs even when the word is not literally being used. Anderson often suggests that the outline of her life has been shaped by the ability to manifest her dreams and her desires; when she speaks about doing her first nude shoot for Playboy in her Netflix documentary, she presents it as a mystic transformation, a shucking off of the trauma of her molestation and her rape at around the age of twelve by an older friend of a friend, and thus a reclaiming of her body. “That was the first time I felt like I’d broken free of something,” she explains. “That’s where a wild woman was born. I felt like it was kind of a gateway to another world. Now I was going to take the power of my own sexuality and take my power back. And I did it—I think in a really big way.”

Does she occasionally contradict herself? Very well then, she contradicts herself; she contains multitudes as well as four-hundred-odd-ccs of silicone.

“[I was] shy at first,” she wrote in her journal at the time. “[But] by the end of the week you had to stop me from running out the door naked . . . I could kind of see myself from the camera’s perspective in my head. Once I got it, I had a blast.” This version of Pamela Anderson is entirely at odds with the one brought to life by Lily James in Pam & Tommy, and her ability to see her objectification as both a blessing and a curse—a source of disempowerment and empowerment depending on its context—makes it difficult to fit her into the tidy, orderly brand of feminist-revisionist history that is so popular at present, which too often insists that the famous woman being “rehabilitated” behave like a sacrificial lamb. Think, for instance, of the sequence of events that followed the release of the 2021 documentary Framing Britney Spears, which depicted Spears experiencing years of abuse, both legal and emotional, with such martyring brutality that its narrative arc suggested a biopic of the singer made by Lars von Trier. Few who watched it could deny that she had suffered terribly, and yet many fans complained when Spears, newly freed from conservatorship after a groundswell of support and a major legal victory, later began posing naked on her Instagram account. In Spears’s mind, this self-orchestrated nudity was no doubt meant to achieve the same thing Pamela Anderson achieved by posing for those early Playboy shoots: a taking back of sexual power on her terms. Many of those who left comments underneath her pictures disagreed, choosing instead to see the gesture as a cry for help, an embarrassing violation of her duties as a mother, and a confirmation of her madness. Yes, she should be free—but should she be free like that?

“When I was little, I wanted to be a nun or a showgirl,” Pamela remarked to Ronan Farrow in Interview magazine in February of this year. “Why can’t [women] be both?” Certainly she is no saint, but she has never claimed to be one, either, and there’s nothing holy or innocent about her near-supernatural command of her body and charisma. To suggest that every element of her hypersexualized public persona is purely exploitative is to suggest that being a sex idol in itself is de facto humiliating or inhuman, and that she is not especially powerful or bright—a position that might be perceived as being just as antifeminist as simply calling her a slut, given its implication that no woman could possibly choose to live like Pam. Better to think of her as both the skilled magician and the glamorous assistant in the conjuring act of her own life, taking full advantage of our gaze being focused on her outsized props in order to conduct her business.

In Ann Patchett’s 1997 novel The Magician’s Assistant, a former assistant named Sabine learns that her late husband and stage partner, a magician who once performed under the name Parsifal, has a secret past. That past—a hardscrabble childhood in an unglamorous place, with a violent father and a distinct lack of money—is at odds with her perception of him as a gorgeous, charismatic, and sophisticated Californian. Parsifal was also gay, and Sabine acted as his beard as well as his assistant, both jobs requiring her beauty to act as a lure and a distraction. “There was no such thing as being a magician’s assistant without knowing the trick,” Sabine says, explaining why it can be advantageous to be underestimated when you’re trying to sell a lie. “People are misguided by the assistant’s surprise, the way her mouth opens in childlike delight as her glove is turned into a dove. But if you didn’t know how it would all turn out, you wouldn’t know where to stand, how to turn yourself to shield the magician’s hand or temporarily block the light.” Just as her former husband hid behind a new self he’d produced as casually as a rabbit from a hat, Sabine prides herself on being able to comport herself onstage with grace even as she fights to keep from swaying in their levitation act, “every muscle rip[ping] apart from its neighbor.” “People long to be amazed, even as they fight it,” she shrugs. “Once you amaze them, you own them.”

For those few months in 2007, Pamela Anderson amazed Las Vegas nightly, Thursday through Saturday, and as a result she came to briefly own Las Vegas, as if she were an interim monarch or a minor deity. She occupied the top floor of the Planet Hollywood Casino and held court backstage as she was visited by friends like Amy Winehouse, Thierry Mugler, and the drag queen Lady Bunny; she flew back to Malibu four times a week to drive her sons to school, occasionally catching sight of her reflection in the window of her car and realizing her face “was covered in glitter,” her eyes “blackened by last night’s show’s eyeliner.” As ever, she lived two lives: as the pneumatic, hedonistic sex goddess Pamela Anderson, and as Pam, a kooky, frazzled single mother who allegedly never missed a kindergarten play, a PTA volunteering opportunity, or a karate tournament. She was capable of toggling between high glamour and the school run, public glitz and private grind, with such speed and ease that she appeared to be performing an illusion—one accomplished with mirrors and timed carefully to the second, allowing her to disappear from one spot and then rematerialize in another to the sound of thunderous applause. “The truth was,” she writes in Love, Pamela, “I really did not like Vegas—but Vegas loved me. I had my own slot machines and poker chips with David LaChapelle images on them at the Palms. They would even take the ‘L’ out if I was in residence, so the sign up on high read PAMS.”

“Because I feel like you’re on one side of the magic or the other, and I always wanted to be on that side of the magic.”

Earlier this year, she appeared on Jimmy Kimmel to promote the dual release of Love, Pamela and Pamela: A Love Story, and the footage showcases her ability to use her image as a bimbo for personal gain. (“I’m so impressed that you wrote everything, all your experiences down in a journal so religiously, so diligently,” Kimmel says regarding the material used for the documentary voiceover, his tone suggesting for a moment that the sentence might end after “wrote.”) Seeing an opportunity for mirth, Kimmel mentions her residency in Las Vegas. “You, at one time—and I remember when this happened, and I remember thinking, that’s a strange thing that she’s doing, you worked at a magic show in Las Vegas,” he points out. “At that time, you also learned how to make balloon animals.” “Well, I didn’t want to waste any time, so when I was getting my makeup done I hired a clown to teach me how to make balloon animals,” Anderson deadpans, before adding with crackerjack comic timing: “Something to fall back on.” Kimmel pulls out a long red balloon and Anderson tries to demurely deflect before taking the balloon and shaping it with some degree of confidence. “The funny thing about balloon animals [is] that they can pop at any moment,” she says, an arched eyebrow evident in her voice even if it is not technically evident on her face, before producing a “poodle” that is definitely, no bones about it, actually a dick, and brandishing it at Kimmel. In that instant, it appears to hit her that the object she has made is accidentally lewd, and Pamela Anderson—who turned fifty-five last year, and whose laugh combines the kittenish mannerisms of a schoolgirl with the throaty cackle of a woman who has seen a lot and lived to tell the tale—throws the balloon onto the desk and puts her palms up to her cheeks, mock-horrified.

When Kimmel expresses some astonishment at the idea of Pamela Anderson, “a huge star,” wanting to act as the assistant to a magician, she reacts as though it had been the most self-explanatory career move of her life. “It was one of my favorite things I’ve ever done,” she says, proudly. “Because I feel like you’re on one side of the magic or the other, and I always wanted to be on that side of the magic.” Obviously, she is being self-deprecating—she has never really been on our side of the magic. For more than three decades we have collectively allowed ourselves to be amazed by her, even though we’ve sometimes fought it, and whether or not we realize it, she owns us; she owns all of her own sexed-up and controversial and sometimes embarrassing shit, too, and that’s the true trick. Even after replaying the Jimmy Kimmel interview numerous times, it is not entirely clear whether this bit of business has been scripted and rehearsed, or whether it works out just as perfectly as if it had been because Anderson takes one look at that red balloon and knows exactly how the play is going to go. If you are Pamela Anderson and the host of a talk show offers you a long, bright-red balloon, pressing it into the famous French-manicured hands that most of America remembers being wrapped around a famous drummer’s penis, of course what he wants is for you to produce a phallic symbol—to appear as if whatever you are doing, you can’t help but bring the subject back to sex. Give the nice man what he wants, and the audience will cheer and holler, and your memoir will end up on the New York Times bestseller list, so who here is really the illusionist, and who’s the mark?

“If, in some impossible, unimaginable circumstance, the trick was not explained to the assistant,” Sabine suggests in The Magician’s Assistant, “she would get it sooner or later out of sheer repetition: The egg comes out of your ear, the rabbit is between your breasts, your head is sawed off, it happens over and over and over again.” Figuratively speaking, Pamela Anderson has pulled a great number of rabbits from between her breasts for us, her audience, knowing—like a good assistant, like a good magician—the real secret of the thing, which is that nobody can saw your head off if the one you’re offering them is a decoy in the first place.