'How did Hefner get away with it? Because of his generosity. The mansion was full of intellectuals. It wasn’t sleazy.'
When Pamela Anderson came to the U.S. from Canada to pose for Playboy in 1989, she thought she would be here for one photo shoot and then leave, she tells TIME. More than 26 years later, she’s been on the cover 14 times, most recently on the January/February issue that marked the last time the magazine would include nude photographs. She also embarked on an acting career that included a starring role in the lifeguard drama Baywatch, and has become an outspoken advocate for PETA and other charities.
TIME caught up with Anderson on her commitment to activism, her thoughts on feminism and whether we’ll see her in the upcoming Baywatch movie.
TIME: You’ve been a strong supporter of animal, human and environmental rights through your foundation and your work with organizations including PETA, Sea Shepherd and Cool Earth. Why is philanthropy so important to you?
Pamela Anderson: I’ve always been an activist. I grew up in the woods on Vancouver Island. My parents taught me to be respectful of the planet. I had a grandfather who was really into fairy tales and mythology; he used to dance on treetops, like really outrageous things, so that was always a part of my childhood. I’ve had this affinity for animals from a really young age. I had an aunt who was deaf who was like the Pied Piper of feral cats. I don’t know how she had all these cats around her all the time. And I really felt like people who are so sensitive to animals—usually because of some kind of trauma in childhood or something that makes you have this all of a sudden affinity with animals—I feel like you can trust them.
People would bring me birds with broken wings; I had a cat that walked sideways (which is really funny looking back; I’ve never seen it since. But I’ve had all sorts of misfits gather around me my whole life—people, animals, whatever you want to call them. It was part of my natural life.
And then when I was on Baywatch, and I was in 150 countries, and I was getting so much attention for really unimportant things. I felt like I needed to share that attention with something more meaningful. So I reached out to PETA and said: Give me something meaningful to talk about when I’m giving press conferences about my personal life.
I founded my foundation 15 years ago, but I didn’t make it active until the Cannes Film Festival a couple of years ago. I thought: There’s a real disconnect between me as a public person and the real human being behind that image. So I felt like it was really important to tell my story. That’s when I talked about some of the abuse I faced as a child. And I let people know I’d been an activist for 20 years.
I’ve met all these great artists and mentors along the way, like Vivienne Westwood and Julian Assange and just tons of interesting, really amazing people. I actually met a lot of people at the Playboy mansion when I first came to America. I felt like that was my university. I went there and I met the best artists, musicians, actors, philanthropists, activists and people who spoke about politics and art and culture. It was really an important part of the scene back then, and I’ve been reflecting on that now that Playboy is making this big change, and we’re coming to the end of that era.
You recently were on the cover of the last nude edition of Playboy. What do you think of the magazine’s decision to stop publishing nude images?
It’s bittersweet for me. It was such an innocent, sexy, girl-next-door time. I know the magazine is switching gears, and Hugh Hefner is coming to the end of his life, which will mean the end of an era for sure.
He always said: “You are part of the Playboy DNA. You are the type of girl that I made this magazine for.” He used to always be so proud of me when I did anything—“You’re the first Playmate ever to be on Disney!” “You’re the first Playmate to be knighted!” It gets funnier. And you know, it was such an innocent time.
Even back to the Studio 54 days. Even though it was sex, drugs, rock and roll, it was a playful time. There wasn’t this darkness associated with it. Everyone was covered in tin foil and glitter.
We were pretty girls running around in lingerie, and there were these very interesting, chivalrous men who were so exciting to talk to about politics and activism. And reading the articles is really part of Playboy. It had great articles on a lot of interesting topics. It had a real political voice. It was part of the sexual revolution.
I know there were a lot of feminists who were against Playboy and against Hefner. But I felt so empowered by Playboy and by being a playmate and just knowing the people that I knew when I was there.
There’s this desensitization now. With everything on the Internet, there’s just no such thing as the girl next door anymore. Everyone’s taking selfies and shooting pictures down their blouses at a very young age. And their self worth is based on how many likes and followers they have. I hope it’s a phase, and that it passes. I’m not a fan of social media or gadgetry. I feel like human interaction is missing. That face-to-face interaction, or even conversations on the telephone seem intimate now.
I don’t know what’s going to happen with the magazine, but I’m really glad I was part of the original. My son actually said to me: “Mom, they’re not shooting any more nude photos in Playboy.” And I said: “What?” And then my dad called and was reminiscing about all the times he’s met Hefner and come up to the mansions and said: “I can’t believe they’re not going to do this anymore.”
I remember finding the first Playboy in my dad’s basement and thinking: “Wow these women are beautiful. Is that what I’m going to look like when I grow up?”
Hefner also recently announced that he’s selling the Playboy mansion…
He’s selling it, and he gets to live there until he’s no longer, and that’s smart! Because who wants to be fighting over the Playboy mansion when he’s gone?
The next phone call after my dad hung up with me was Hef. He said: “You’re the only one—from Marilyn to Pamela.” I was like: “What?!” You know when I moved here from Canada, I didn’t think I would still be here. I thought I would be here for one photo shot and then leave.
In the last photo shoot, I was crawling across the grass in front of the mansion, and then I just said: “I have to do something really fun.” And I just rolled down the whole hill, with shoes and boobs and hair flying everywhere. It was funny. I never thought I’d be shooting Playboy again, but I did! And now it feels like, that’s that.
Is there any one memory from Playboy that stands out?
Whenever Hefner walked into the room, he was such a bright light, such a charismatic being. Just the way he looked at you, he just made you feel so special. Anytime I was going through a tough time, Hef would always call me. He’d send me these letters—typed letter with his signature.
I remember going through a divorce and going up there and seeing Smokey Robinson and me looking at him and saying: “I know. I did it again. I can’t believe I’m going through another divorce.” And he looked at me and goes: “Darling, you’re a romantic, you just keep trying. Don’t stop trying.” And I said to myself: “If Smokey Robinson thinks it’s OK, you’re right, I’m just a romantic. I’m going to keep trying.”
I had a lot of advice from people who were just fantastic people. And knowing Bettie Page and just everybody that you can’t believe is real are real human beings up there, having fun, but also concerned about the world and not just each other. That’s what I feel the difference is. It’s the end of an era, but it’s also an era to look back to, and we have to know our history to know our future.
Hefner, how did he get away with it? He’s the only one. Right? How did he get away with it? Because of his generosity. The mansion was full of intellectuals. It wasn’t sleazy.
Some people say nude photos can be destructive to women; others say they’re empowering. What do you think? Would you consider yourself a feminist?
I don’t want to call myself that. But I feel like I’ve taken all my female attributes into my own hands and used them for good.
My kids have also fought a few battles over me. When they were teenagers and their friends would say: “I’ve seen your mom naked,” they would get a little pop in the jaw from one of the kids. I had to go to the principal’s office a few times, because they’re very protective.
But as they got older, they look back and think: “I see what you’ve done now, Mom. I’ve see how you’ve used your image for good, and I’m proud.”
I turned to Brandon, and I said: “How do you feel bout me posing for Playboy again?” And he said: “You have to do it! It’s the last one! You have to do it! We’ve already fought all the battles. It can only be you, Mom.”
OK, there I go. I got permission from my kids.
You recently announced that you had been cured of Hepatitis C. What did that mean to you and what would you tell people diagnosed with it today?
When I was diagnosed with Hep C, I was told I only had 10 years to live, and that was 17 years ago. About five years into that I was told that, you can live your whole life with this disease. It’s not a sexually transmitted disease. You can have monogamous relationships. You’re more likely to die of something else, I was told. And then 10 years into it I was told, I did biopsy, I had no liver damage and people told me, keep doing what you’re doing, there’s going to be a cure one day. And as I’m seeing people die along the way, I’m keeping my hope alive to. I had no cirrhosis, no liver damage. I’m a health person, I live a vegan lifestyle, I’m not saying I’m an angel, but I was pretty healthy.
Then my doctor called and said: “There’s a cure.” And I said: “Really?” And then a friend of mind did it and he was really cured. And I ended up getting the treatment for – because I have type 3 so it’s not the most curable, it’s a little rarer, it’s not the one that most people have and so they said this would work for me. I had to take two pills a day for 12 weeks and then go get tested. And I went and got tested and it’s gone. It worked. I don’t have Hep C anymore.
I got 20 years back in my life, and I’m totally committed to my activism and what I want to do. It lit a fire under me that I feel really grateful for.
Do you have any thoughts on the upcoming Baywatch movie?
I just got a call that they’re offering me a part in it, like a cameo or something. I don’t know if I’ll do it. I don’t know how that benefits me in any way. I just feel like I’m doing so many other great films and things that are really interesting. But I’m really honored by the way they want to honor me; it’s kind of an homage to me. I may make an appearance in it.
I’m not a fan of films that are films of television series, because I think it was so great the way it was. We all thought we were doing incredible work. Looking back, it’s kind of funny, you could watch it with the sound off. But it’s beautiful. We didn’t know we were being sexy. We were just in athletic bathing suits rescuing people, and we thought it was serious stuff. So a spoof on a spoof—I just don’t know how they’ll get that charm. But we’ll see. I was excited they called.
I have my little premier of my short film I did with Luke Gilford, who is David Lynch’s protégée. And I just feel so grateful that he saw something special in me. It’s a very vulnerable, character-driven role. It’s unrecognizable. So I’m very excited about him and our collaboration.
Lots of young people – directors and others who are hovering around me right now working on movies and things like that. So I think I’m ready to do some filming and get into my writing and just stick with all my activism, everything I’m doing with Sea Shepherd and PETA and Cool Earth and Climate Revolution and all these great charities. Also women’s charities, rights for girls, National Women’s Domestic Violence Hotline. I raised $200,000 for them in the last year and a half, which is really important to me as well, to make sure people have places to go that are struggling.
But you know, they’re auctioning off my old engagement ring, which is kind of funny. The money it took to pay for that engagement ring will save half the rainforest Papua New Guinea, so I’m starting to go through my storage and think, what can I sell? What can I get rid of and give to someone who knows what to do with it? This is more important than me holding on to something I’ll never wear again. It’s fine with the man who gave it to me.