Getty Images; Bella Geraci/Allure
Unbeknownst to her, Pamela Anderson and I had a relationship even before we met on a Zoom call last week. It was a relationship that, for me, had been a disappointing one: I’d been shafted. Not by Anderson, but by her wildly devoted fans, who seemed convinced that I’d treated her in a less than loving and respectful way.
Last fall, I was asked to write a story about Anderson’s decision to attend Paris Fashion Week without makeup. The resulting brouhaha about her choice — you remember? — had settled over reporting of the season’s shows like a cloud of beige tulle; you could hardly find a video without first seeing an image of Anderson’s pale, wide-eyed, Euro-centrically beautiful, makeup-free face.
Her decision was unusual. (Though not original: In 2002, Jamie Lee Curtis posed for More magazine in her underwear with no makeup and no retouching; in 2016, Alicia Keys ditched her concealer and mascara — on red carpets, for an Allure cover, even when surrounded by HD cameras on the set of The Voice.) What seemed to have generated the huge response was that Anderson, in a video for Vogue France, spoke convincingly about the importance of being able to make a choice about her presentation, about unrealistic beauty standards, about being rebellious in the face of certain aesthetic expectations, and about the freedom she enjoyed being able to experience Paris without the burden of an entourage of stylists.
I suggested in the story I wrote a few days later that she seemed to have discovered the joys of choosing to be the “looker” rather than the “looked at.” In other words, she had recognized and implemented her own agency: No longer tethered to the imprisoning template of Pamela Anderson: Object of Desire, she was Pamela Anderson: Person. Hooray for her!
I also suggested that maybe — just maybe — the move was a stunt. Though I found Anderson’s message laudable, I was skeptical of her intention. When asked by a reporter why she had eschewed makeup, she said, among the other reasons mentioned above, that she wanted the focus to be on the clothes she wore, not on her. Which was, obviously, the exact opposite of what happened. And so I suggested that what Anderson had done was not only a message about the deleterious effects of beauty culture (good job!), but also something of a well-calculated publicity move. Which seemed a not unreasonable conclusion, considering that Anderson is a performer and that she had just introduced a swimwear line. No big deal, right? Performers, they perform.
They also, evidently, sometimes harbor hundreds of thousands of fans who don’t like it when it might be suggested that their intentions are not pure (or even just complex). After my byline appeared under the headline, “Was Pamela Anderson’s Makeup-Free Fashion Week Just a Stunt?,” I noticed a faint, unpleasant rumbling of discontent on Instagram which very soon exploded into an overwhelming stink of rage aimed at me for doubting the nobility of Anderson’s intentions. The gist was: You are a hater, leave her alone, she’s doing something great for womanhood, how dare you suggest she’s playing on our devotion. Also, I couldn’t help but notice a kind of name-calling to which I’d never been subjected. (Think of the worst thing you could call someone. Then think of things you’d never call someone. All those things.)
That might’ve been (for me, at least) the sad end of this tale until news broke a couple of weeks ago that Anderson had “officially entered the beauty space,” by buying, with her sons, the skin-care line Sonsie. I wondered, then, if some of the fans who defended her felt a little like when you suspect your partner might be having an affair, which they deny, and then you discover on their credit card bill they’ve bought an engagement ring for another person. In other words, betrayed?
If you trust the responses on Instagram to that news, some of her fans did feel betrayed — So it was just all about money, Still using beauty standards for her own wallet and benefit — but many found no issue with it. The woman deserves to make a living! What’s the big deal? So: Was Anderson’s no-makeup look a big con? I just realized I’ve spent a long time to get to my point, which is, Does anyone really give a sh*t?
I think what the response to all of it demonstrates is that marketing, and maybe especially beauty marketing, is so baked into our culture that we don’t even know or care whether we’re being conned or sold out. When nearly everyone with a social media account is selling something — at the very least a curated version of their life — why would we object to being manipulated by a performer?
Marketing is so baked into our culture that we don't even know or care whether we're being conned or sold out.
And in the case of Pamela Anderson, a performer who’s in the very public process of trying to redefine herself? Her most recent incarnation portrays her as a back-to-basics kind of gal, aiming for simplicity and clean-living. “My name gives [even] me a false impression of myself,” she said, on our recent call. She was, of course, bare-faced as far as I could tell, in a comfy-looking white robe, with her hair pulled back messily. “Without context my name [suggests] a wrong image. I’ve been on this journey, from Playboy to Baywatch — all these Halloween costumes, I like to say — and now come back home to self-love and self-acceptance, I just feel like it’s OK. [What I’m into now] is a conscious choice. I’ve always felt like there’s a little monster inside of me that I need to get out, I need to share. I’ve been trying and I’ve begun to feel closest to it… and it’s peeling back everything and trying to remember what my original thoughts are… It’s not just about makeup, taking off the mask, but it’s about why am I here, what’s my purpose, why do I resonate with people, can I help in any way?”
Please excuse the ellipses. “I tend to ramble,” Anderson says.
That monster, I ask, what is its name?
“It’s just like, little me,” says Anderson. “Little Pamela Anderson that’s always been very mischievous and creative and lived in her imagination. [That feeling] it’s just volcanic. I was painfully shy…I wouldn’t [even] wear a bathing suit… I knew I had to jump off a bridge to get to… [release it]. It’s like, when waiting in the wings on Broadway and you don’t remember anything and you have a tickle in your throat… and you have to sing, and you walk out onto that stage and everyone’s looking at you, you’re like, now I have to… you know, it’s my move.” (In 2022, Anderson appeared for two months as Roxie Hart in the Broadway musical, Chicago.)
“At fashion week, I did that for myself,” she continues, referring to her bare face. “It wasn’t to make a political statement, I just wanted to have my little weird face sticking out of the top of those great clothes…why am I playing the game? And the funny thing was I would come back from the shows wearing all these clothes and a big funny hat and everything and there were all these paparazzi and then I went in one door and changed into my jeans and T-shirt and no makeup and walked out the door right through the same crowd that had been chasing me and no one noticed.”
“So in Paris, when you went without makeup, did you think no one was going to notice?” I asked.
“I didn’t think anyone was going to notice… I just thought I’m not competing with all these beautiful people…I felt like the monster, like a little kid in all these beautiful clothes and how lucky am I and I wanted to appreciate it from that point of view.”
But everybody took what you did as a statement about beauty culture, I pointed out.
“I like that it resonated but it wasn’t my intention to… thinking everyone’s going to get into this thing. But as I noticed it was resonating, I thought, this is really great.”
At this point in our conversation, I introduced the idea that Anderson’s intention might’ve been more complex; that her choice was also a… stunt. Whoops!
“I don’t like that look on your face,” I said. That look: Concern, maybe offense.
Then, a graceful response.
“That’s funny, because you know I’ve been offered beauty campaigns my whole career and nothing really resonated. This happened very organically and it was divine timing. I had a huge company coming to me that had gazillions of dollars and then my son’s friend had this company called Sonsie and they gave me some products and I was loving them and I thought, you know, I’d rather take this on as a family project. [The beauty market] is full of false promises and false hope and I thought [Sonsie] is just about caring for our skin, accepting ourselves for who we are… it just feels necessary…I thought this is just something I want to invest in and get these basics out to people…so it all happened very symbiotically. I don’t think you should give me the credit of it being a stunt because that’s not how I think. But the timing and the stars aligned.”
“I don’t think you should give me the credit of it being a stunt because that’s not how I think.”
Okay, I thought. Whatever, that’s a lovely idea.
“And I love working with my kids,” she said. Even lovelier.
“My intention is to accept where you are in your beauty journey. I love makeup, too, by the way and I just finished a project where I wore a lot of makeup and I loved that.” (The project: The Last Showgirl, a Gia Coppola-directed film set in Las Vegas in which Anderson plays a dancer struggling with midlife issues.)
Because you mentioned it earlier, I asked, can you define your purpose?
There is a long silence. “My purpose is about love and if it’s animals, people, ourselves, that is my purpose. It’s about loving others and myself the best I can.”
Do you have any mentors in that regard?
“I read Anais Nin, and I’m always reading a stack of books on meditation and that kind of stuff. I live in my kind of little fairy world, maybe…”
Anais Nin? Interesting idea of a purpose-defining mentor, I thought, but didn’t say.
“And my grandfather… was a huge influence on me… he was my mentor,” Anderson says. “I lost him when I was 11 years old.”
As she talked about her grandfather, Anderson seemed a little tired and even fragile. Her quest to find herself at 56 is not unlike what many of us experience at middle-age (and older, I’m 73). But I wonder if her “journey” might not be particularly fraught. Because how can you know who you are when you’ve spent most of your life as an object, specifically a sex object? “We really do take on other people’s thoughts, other people’s dreams and desires,” Anderson said at one point in our conversation. This is the comment of a woman who knows what it feels like to be seen not as a person but as a vessel of other people’s expectations.
But speaking of being a vessel of other people’s dreams and desires — what about Anderson’s skin? Who wouldn’t want her flawless complexion at 56? Which prompted me to ask her if she’s availed herself of any dermatologic or surgical treatments. “I’ve tried Botox, I’ve tried filler, but I haven’t had anything like that for over three or four years. My skin is very sensitive and I did Fraxel a little bit on my decolletage and it went black so I’ve always been scared of stuff like that. I’ve done Botox where my eyebrows just fall immediately and I look like a different person… and I thought why am I doing this shit? So I’m free and clear of that stuff and I look like myself again.” She tells me that her blonde, while certainly not natural, isn’t high-end balayage: “I color my hair from a box, always have.”
Has she been through menopause? Is she on hormone replacement therapy (which can help keep a woman’s skin youthful-looking as she ages)?
“Yes, I have, and no, I’m not a candidate for HRT,” Anderson says. “So I take a lot of vitamins…I take a lot of turmeric because I have arthritis in my hands…and it really helps…I’m healthy…never got Covid, never sick…”
One last question: “You’ve gone from being a sex object, a vamp, to this gorgeous, virginal creature, with bare skin and freckles and long flowing hair, in nap dresses on the farm — obviously two very different kinds of people. Did you feel sexier as a vamp? Do you feel sexy now?”
“Actually, it was kind of overwhelming, as a Playboy centerfold or Bunny, people had expectations…I didn’t want to know [what they were]. I feel much more sensual in my own skin…it’s much more intimate and vulnerable…kind of like this is how your boyfriend sees you, without makeup. It’s almost sexier, I think.”
So you feel sexier now, unadorned, than you did as a sex object?
“Yes,” says Anderson. “I’ll say yes. If you can accept this [gesturing to herself] then all the rest is just playtime. If you’re living authentically, you don’t have to explain yourself. That’s the key.”
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Originally Appeared on Allure