Hard to believe? Well, consider these numbers. The former resident of Comox, B.C., is a star of the most-watched television program in history, Baywatch, a sand-and-surf syndicated saga that is marketed to more than 140 countries and is watched by a billion people - a fifth of the world's population every week. Playboy's The Best of Pamela Anderson has been at or near the top of the video-sales charts in the United States ever since its release last June - it is Playboy's best-selling video ever. And more than that, Lee is an international media phenomenon, a subject of insider exposés and trashy headlines in tabloids around the world. Forget about the politicians, the captains of industry, the scientists and the artists who are Canada's contribution to humanity. No, the world's best-known Canadian is a 28-year-old with a dyed-blond mane, a supernatural figure and a flashing smile. Even Lee herself cannot believe her fame. "I'm proud of having achieved this much, but it's not like I'm a tremendous actress or anything," she says. "It's all a course of events, it's all these things that have come together."
In her own country, not everyone knows who Pamela Lee is, and many of those who do know her don't realize she is Canadian. That is partly because the Baywatch phenomenon has never caught on at home the way it has, say, in Britain, where every Saturday night 40 per cent of TV viewers tune in to watch the trials and tribulations of a plucky gang of California lifeguards - a following for which Lee and her flighty, scantily clad character, C. J. Parker, are substantially responsible. And with the release next spring of her first big-budget movie, an action-adventure based on the comic book Barb Wire, Lee's star seems destined to continue its ascent.
In general, the non-tabloid media has not been kind to Lee - even if it is clearly fascinated by her. The American magazine Esquire included her in their August "Women We Love" issue, true, but it was in a section headed "... And a few we don't." Her penchant for making public appearances wearing décolletage-baring attire earned her a spot on People magazine's worst-dressed list in September. And then there are the TV and supermarket tabloids, digging for dirt about her marriage to Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee, her past lovers, her alleged drug use, even the personal tragedy, earlier this year, of a miscarriage. As one producer of an American TV tabloid show puts it: "My executive producer loves Pam. If I don't have a segment on her once a week, my job is on the line."
Love her or hate her, Pamela Lee elicits strong reactions. To some, she is simply a manufactured beauty, famous for her two most obvious assets, her breasts. To such critics - including British feminist Carmen Callil, who has called Lee "an absurd Barbie doll" - her mere existence is another sign of the decline of Western civilization and an insult to women. To other, less socially conscious observers, she is a goddess, and her pulchritude is something to revel in. "Pam's cleavage is already the stuff of legend," one English fan magazine recently noted, "and men the world over are grateful."
In some ways, she is the Nineties reincarnation of Lana Turner, Jayne Mansfield, Raquel Welch, Farrah Fawcett, Bo Derek - every decade has its quintessence of lust, its pinup girl to whom high-school boys pay daily worship on their locker doors. Lee does not mind that status. "If people feel that I'm sexy, then that's a compliment," she says, "but the only person I care to make think I look sexy is my husband." And yet, looking sexy - and only that - is the main reason she is famous. Through sheer exposure (double entendre intended), her bombshell-next-door image has become an element of popular culture. Lee is now in the ranks of Vanna White, Kato Kaelin or, for that matter, Diana, the Princess of Wales: she is famous for being famous, a kind of pure celebrity, unsullied by accomplishment.
That, at least, is the public Pamela Lee. But sitting in her Baywatch trailer during a lunch break, she is shorter and tinier than she appears on the small screen. And she looks tired. She eschews a Diet Coke, her usual drink, for The Real Thing. "I can use the sugar," she explains. Once she begins fielding questions, Lee barely pauses for breath, veering off on tangents and talking a mile a minute - with remarkable candor. She has the air of someone who wants to set the record straight. "Even though people might think I'm crazy, kooky, whatever, I'm not a heroin addict and I haven't been beaten," Lee says. "People write these things all the time and they're giving bad information." Yes, she acknowledges, she had breast implants in 1989, just after her first Playboy photo shoot - "But I didn't even change cup size, it just made them fuller." Her lips are her own ("People who've had their lips done, they stick out like a duck"), as is her nose ("My nose is far from done, believe me").
She has been news literally since the day she was born. The daughter of working-class parents in Ladysmith, B.C., a small town about an hour's drive north of Victoria, Pamela Anderson was born at 4:08 a.m. on July 1, 1967 - making her the first centennial baby born in the area, and earning her an article in the local Ladysmith-Chemainus Chronicle that week. Shortly afterward, Barry, a furnace repairman, and Carol, a waitress, moved to Comox, a city of 11,000 about 200 km north of Victoria where the main employer is the air force base.
In Comox, Lee says, she had a normal childhood. The one exceptional influence was her eccentric grandfather, Herman Anderson, a Finnish immigrant who got her interested in what she calls her "New Age way of thinking" - a fascination with mythology, fairy tales, crystals, meditation and dream interpretation. "That's how I grew up," she says, "interpreting my dreams and meditating with my grandfather." Meanwhile, Lee excelled at sports, earning the nickname "Rubber Band" for her gymnastic flexibility. In an interview with Maclean's, her mother, pointing to the slew of volleyball trophies her daughter earned at Highland Secondary School, recalls that "Pam was always really determined - if someone did better than her, she'd do anything to top them." Still, Lee's teenage ambitions at the time were not exactly, well, ambitious. Her aspiration upon graduating from Highland in 1985, according to her yearbook entry: "to be a California beach bum."
By 1988, when Lee moved to Vancouver and got a job as a fitness instructor, that was still a distant dream. But then, on a summer day in 1989, fame picked her out of a crowd - literally. Lee went to a B.C. Lions football game with some friends and, in between downs, a TV camera caught her image and broadcast it over the stadium's giant screen. The crowd went wild, cheering the striking blond wearing a Labatt's T-shirt. Labatt took notice and, within weeks, Lee's modelling career took off in a poster and TV ad campaign that plastered her image across Western Canada.
And so began the saga of Pamela Lee. In the same summer as her discovery at the football game, Playboy magazine approached her to pose for a pictorial. "My first reaction was, 'Absolutely not - how dare you,' " Lee says. But after looking through some of the Playboys her boyfriend owned, Lee decided to give it a shot, if only for the sake of posterity. "I was like, if I do a cover, I'll keep this for the rest of my life and be able to say, 'I was on the cover of Playboy,' " she says. Just after the magazine hit the stands in October, 1989, Lee moved to Los Angeles - "and then the whole thing started happening and I started working and I said, 'I'll go home when I stop working,' and I just haven't stopped working." By 1991, after a series of small TV shows, she had landed a regular stint as Lisa, the Tool Time Girl on the Tim Allen sitcom Home Improvement. The next year, Lee finally made it to the beach when she got the part of C. J. Parker on Baywatch.
Baywatch, of course, is a story in itself. Starring David Hasselhoff (of The Young and the Restless and Knight Rider fame in the 1980s), the show was cancelled by NBC because of poor ratings after its first season in 1990. It has lived on - and thrived - in syndication since then, however, thanks in large part to ingenious international marketing. In the United States and Canada, where it is often dismissed as "Babewatch," the show runs only on independent stations and garners middling ratings, appealing largely to teenagers (and mostly boys) in a variety of time slots. "It's somewhat of a sleeper," says Karen Newton, vice-president of broadcast operations for Toronto-based Media Buying Services Ltd. "It always seems to get its ratings points, and it does its bit." But overseas, its mix of high social seriousness and near nudity - the plot lines typically tackle such issues as spousal abuse and gang violence, with all the depth of a suntan-lotion commercial - has translated into a ratings bonanza. It is top-rated in Italy, where it attracts 1.5 million viewers every Thursday night; in India, it is firmly in the top five English-language programs. And in England, Baywatch's popularity has made it part of the culture. "It's the outside world's view of what the American dream is," says former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil, a defender of the show (and of Lee). "And it is tame enough that Dad is going to watch it along with the kids."
The official Baywatch Production Co. reference for C. J. Parker describes her as a "head turner" who is "outgoing, upbeat" and "loves to run on the beach and splash, make seagulls fly." C.J. has some similarities to Lee herself - most notably, the New Age spirituality she practises when she is not out saving drowning surfers. "Playing C.J. is really fun for me," Lee says, "because I can incorporate a lot of my own personality and my own beliefs." Pamela's mother, who says Baywatch is getting "better - there's more life-saving than beauties on the beach now" - sees other similarities. Like Pamela, she says, C.J. is "kind of tomboyish, always in the wrong relationship" And then she catches herself, "except now, of course."
Now, of course, Pamela is married to the much-tattooed Lee, whose name she adopted after their marriage in Cancún, Mexico, last February. For years, the tabloids had spent time and ink tracing the vicissitudes of Pamela Anderson's love life - she was engaged for a time to ex-sitcom heartthrob Scott Baio, and had dated former Baywatch co-star David Charvet and big-screen muscleman Sylvester Stallone. Before her marriage, the London tabloid Sun claimed a "world exclusive" when it printed her alleged confession that she had dated 19 men in her life - and slept with 15 of them. "Compared to some of the girls I know," screamed the banner headline, "I'm a saint!" The truth, according to Lee, is rather different: "I never sat down with those tabloids and said, 'I'm going to do an interview with you about how many lovers I've had.' I don't even know, all right? I mean, not that it's an insane number, but I'm saying I haven't even thought about it."
But even the supermarket tabloids seemed shocked by her strange-but-true romance with Lee, 33, a notorious L.A. rocker bad-boy whose marriage to Melrose Place star Heather Locklear ended in a bitter divorce in 1993. According to Pamela, he originally asked her out last New Year's Eve - and she steadfastly refused. "I just thought, 'Oh yuck, I just don't want to date anybody else in this town,' " she recalls. She avoided him; he kept calling. When she found out that he had followed her to Cancún in February, she phoned the front desk of her hotel. "I said, 'Change my name on the register, and if anybody with tattoos comes near this hotel, do not let him in.' "
Tommy finally tracked her down in Cancún, and she finally gave in, agreeing to one date on the night before she was scheduled to return to Los Angeles. "And we ended up going out, falling in love, getting engaged," she recalls, "and we got married four days later." The wedding took place on the beach, the groom wearing shorts that showed off his numerous tattoos, and the bride wearing white - a white bikini, that is. It was, she recalls, perfect. "I always thought that the day I get married would be awful," Lee says, "but I was never more calm in my life."
As the Baywatch star tells it, Mr. and Mrs. Lee now live in conjugal bliss in their Malibu beachhouse, along with their three dogs - her golden retriever, Star, and his two rottweilers, Justice and Sasha. She and Tommy are, she says, practically inseparable - he joined her on the set of Barb Wire every day during filming earlier this year, and usually shows up at Baywatch shoots. They do not socialize much, she says, but prefer to spend quiet time together listening to music or indulging in a new pastime - surfing the electronic highway. "I think we're just the craziest couple in the world," she says, "but we're so happy."
Not that the seemingly endless media fascination with Pamela Lee has helped much. In the few months of their marriage, her husband has been variously accused of being a philanderer, an abuser and neglectful of his wife - she flatly denies it all. One tabloid account seems to particularly disturb her. In June, while she was working 18-hour days on Barb Wire, Lee collapsed on the set and was rushed to hospital. She had suffered a miscarriage, and had to undergo treatment for endometriosis, a painful abdominal disease. The story in the tabloids was that while she was in hospital, Tommy Lee was out partying with his rock 'n' roll cronies. Again, not true, Lee says: in fact, her husband drove her to the hospital and stayed with her in her room that night. "It's frustrating that people print things and they think they don't hurt anybody," Lee says.
The miscarriage marred the filming of Barb Wire for Lee, but it does not seem to have dampened her enthusiasm for the movie. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, the movie stars Lee as a tough-as-nails bounty hunter with a heart of gold, who has to smuggle a renowned scientist out of America and into Canada in order to save the world. (In the movie, Canada is "where all the cool people are," Lee laughs. "Yeah, it's very realistic.") The big-budget extravaganza is due for release by Gramercy Films next March or April.
From a career perspective, Lee has a lot riding on Barb Wire: if it succeeds, it could catapult her into the big time - and big money - of moviedom. But Lee herself does not seem to be too worried about all of that. "If I could just show up when they say 'Action' and leave when they say 'Cut,' then I think I'd be a very happy person," she says. "And then I could go home to my husband, make babies and have a family - that's the most important thing." Last month, she was admitted to hospital in Santa Monica for exhaustion and flu-like symptoms - and discovered that her problems were related to the fact that she was pregnant again.
Lee says she does not read the tabloids any more, and coverage of her personal life on such shows as Hard Copy and A Current Affair has turned her off watching TV. Instead, she reads (her favorite books include works by Jung, Plato and psychologist Robert A. Johnson), and writes (she is now penning a movie script), and looks after her husband, she says. But the outside world of headlines and rumor is never far away. "It's sad," Lee says, "that the focus of everyone's attention is such nonsense. I want to be able to watch the news and not see me rollerblading down Venice Boulevard. It's makes no sense, and I'm embarrassed. I'm completely embarrassed." Skeptics, of course, might argue that Pamela Lee has brought it on herself - that if she basks in celebrity's sunshine wearing the skimpiest of clothes, she should not be surprised when she gets burned. And perhaps that is the inevitable downside when life's a beach.
Maclean's November 27, 1995
Author JOE CHIDLEY with BRUCE WALLACE in London and ROBIN AJELLO in Comox