In “Pamela, A Love Story,” Pamela Anderson proves the importance of receipts

The Netflix doc shows a different side of the “Baywatch” star, and shows she was recording all along

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published February 5, 2023 8:00AM (EST)

Pamela Anderson in "Pamela, A Love Story" (Netflix)
Pamela Anderson in "Pamela, A Love Story" (Netflix)

There's been a trend the last few years that's both as infuriating as it is validating: how the world did women wrong. From Britney Spears to Janet Jackson to Evan Rachel Wood, tabloids in the '90s and early 2000s painted famous women in a certain harsh light, as unstable, promiscuous and somehow deserving of the often-terrible abuse they were enduring, not even really behind closed doors.

One of the era's targets was Pamela Anderson. Launched into a modeling career after being discovered in her early 20s at a football game, she became a global celebrity starring as C.J. in the popular action drama series "Baywatch." Though she continued to act and model steadily, media homed in on her ill-fated romances, particularly her first marriage with rocker Tommy Lee. After Lee was arrested and served six months for spousal abuse, that marriage ended. But not before a private sex tape belonging to the couple was stolen and distributed. 

Any documentary worth its footage is going to try to shed a new light on its subject — and Netflix's "Pamela, A Love Story" does so, presenting a more thoughtful, haunting and emotional side of Anderson's story. What shouldn't be a secret or a surprise: Anderson comes across as really intelligent, funny and introspective. And one of the smartest things she's done? The star made infamous for a video has been recording her life this whole time.

Early in the documentary, Anderson speaks about the importance of words and writing to her life. Anderson has written, publishing four novels, including "Star," a roman à clef, and three autobiographies — a much larger backlist than the average model/actor. Her latest book "Love, Pamela" is a memoir that includes original poetry. It received a starred review from Booklist.

Anderson is also an obsessive diarist. Much of the documentary is filmed in her childhood hometown in Canada, which she returned to during the pandemic in order to live closer to her parents, and then decided to stay. Part of being back home is dealing with your stuff, and Anderson has boxes of it: notebooks which she shares openly with the filmmakers. Anderson wrote it all down, including many of the difficulties as her life shifted. She covers childhood abuse from a babysitter to being raped as a child to disassociating as a means of self-protection to her decision to leave her first marriage. She wrote her feelings and she wrote what happened, keeping a detailed record.  

Diaries are also evidence

We think of diaries as being childish, the realm of overly emotional teenage girls. In their review, Buzzfeed says the documentary organizes milestones "in the same kind of fairy-tale way that Anderson recounts them." But it's not a fairy-tale to record, as Anderson did, observations like, "I always wrote stories about parents deserting their children. I must have been hurting a lot. Life keeps playing tricks on me." Diaries are also evidence. 

Pamela, A Love StoryPamela Anderson in "Pamela, A Love Story" (Netflix)Anderson didn't simply write her life down in pink-covered notebooks and dozens of yellow legal pads, she recorded it too. Anderson is a videographer. Decades before much of the world, famous or not, started documenting minutiae like meals and posting images online for strangers to observe, Anderson recorded her life, filming her TV work on locations, construction being done on her house, her children growing up and time spent with her-then husband Lee. "We filmed each other on vacations and stuff," she says in the documentary. "This was just us being goofballs."

Your undoing can take the same form as your deliverance.

Most people know of the fallout that came from some of those videos, stolen and spliced together into what would become the world's first real viral video, the Pam and Tommy sex tape. But "Pamela, A Love Story" uses the same medium, Anderson's home movies, to set the record straight about the sex tape, that she never consented to it, never profited off it and still doesn't know who stole it. 

Your undoing can take the same form as your deliverance. For anyone who's lived a life remotely in the spotlight in recent years, the footage exists. The receipts are there if you save them and bring them. Taken together, we can understand the patterns clearer than we could in the past. Witness parts of the Britney Spears doc, "Framing Britney Spears," where Spears as a child is asked by a parade of adult talk show hosts about her body. 

"Pamela, A Love Story" has similar montages of male, late night hosts — and Matt Lauer — insistently pressuring Anderson about her breasts. The documentary also includes clips of Anderson deflecting the invasive questions again and again, both trying to use humor and trying to be honest. It's hard not to recall at these times an earlier moment in the documentary where she first talks about learning to disassociate as a means of self-protection.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

With her journals and videos, Anderson left a trail for viewers to find their way to the thoughtful artist she's been all along — and for her, to find her way back to herself. 

"Pamela: A Love Story" is now streaming on Netflix. Watch a trailer via YouTube below


By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

MORE FROM Alison Stine

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Baywatch Commentary Documentary Domestic Abuse Netflix Pamela Anderson Sexual Assault Tommy Lee Tv