From Pinup to Muse: Pamela Anderson’s Next Chapter

Pamela Anderson posed for a portrait at the photographer Luke Gilford’s home in the Hollywood Hills. Emily Berl for The New York Times

Pamela Anderson posed for a portrait at the photographer Luke Gilford’s home in the Hollywood Hills. Emily Berl for The New York Times


March 8, 2016

LOS ANGELES — On a sun-soaked Southern California morning in the Hollywood Hills, the perennial pinup Pamela Anderson considered whether or not she had been afraid when she got breast implants. “I didn’t even have time to think about it,” she said in her breathy girlish voice. “It was done within a week, and that was that.”

Ms. Anderson wore black ballet flats and a Crest-white coatdress that, despite its modesty, didn’t mask her tan bombshell physique. “It was very ’80s,” she said as she fumbled with her top button. “A different time.”

It was a time when the standards of beauty were not soft Botticelli bodies, Twiggy-thin frames or the kind of androgynous looks that now rule the runways. When Ms. Anderson arrived in Los Angeles as a wide-eyed Canadian transplant of 22, the women who intrigued her were the buxom blondes in the music videos that permeated MTV, and airbrushed ’80s-era Playmates.

“I would look at all these girls on the walls of Playboy, and I would go: ‘Look at their breasts, look at their bodies. How’s that even possible?’”

Now 48, Ms. Anderson recently divorced her third husband and has recovered from a health struggle with hepatitis C. Her two boys are fully grown, 18 and 19. This year, she was the last nude cover model of Playboy, just before Hugh Hefner put his iconic mansion up for sale. The January/February double issue marked the last time the Playmates would be shown in all their naked glory — a sign of the times, the publication having fallen prey to the digital age and the onslaught of Internet pornography.

Ms. Anderson in the film “Connected.”Luke Gilford

Ms. Anderson in the film “Connected.”Luke Gilford

Ms. Anderson said that Mr. Hefner called to ask her to appear on the final nude cover. “He says there’s nobody else from Marilyn to Pamela,” she said. Her eyes, deep pools of blue, shimmered. “How could I say no? We shot at the mansion. I got to roll down the grassy hill in the front for the last time — naked.”

It was bittersweet, she said, but as she pointed out, any woman with an iPhone can now cast herself as a pinup on Instagram and Snapchat. “Now girls are shooting pictures down their tops, retouching them and putting the images up to the world,” she said.

With her final frolic at the mansion, Ms. Anderson is poised to start what she calls “Chapter 2” of her life. For a decade or more, she has been taking steps toward that end.

A few years ago, she chopped her long platinum hair into a chic pixie cut and tucked away her cleavage in a stylish spread in Elle. The photograph nudged the public to recognize what many close to her have known all along: that perhaps there’s more to the actress than her inflated-doll image and her tangled relationships with bad boys — having sex on tape with Tommy Lee or wedding Kid Rock in a slinky white bikini.

In 2014, the Pamela Anderson Foundation, dedicated to human, animal and environmental rights, was introduced in Cannes, France. During the introductory event, Ms. Anderson revealed that she had suffered frequent sexual assault as a child. She shared that she had been molested by a female babysitter from age 6 to 10, raped by a man in his mid-20s when she was 12 and sexually assaulted again at 14 by her boyfriend and his six friends.

Her son Brandon was with her when she made the startling announcement. “I talked to him beforehand,” she said, “and he was a little rattled by it.” It was important to be honest with her sons, she said. “Then they can understand some of the decisions I’ve made and where I come from.”

Playboy, it’s often said, objectifies women, but Ms. Anderson asserts that it empowered her. Was it also a way to take charge of her own sexuality? The New York artist Marilyn Minter, who in 2007 covered Ms. Anderson with glitter and featured her in a series of dreamlike portraits, thinks so.

“It’s really stunning how people underestimate her,” said Ms. Minter, whose work explores culture’s contradictory and often complex emotions surrounding the female body and its imperfections. “I’ve always been intrigued by Pam, because I think she owns the agency of her own sexually. She makes a living being a pinup. She’s extremely beautiful, and she’s not some Svengali. She’s the opposite of Anna Nicole Smith or Marilyn Monroe.”

Ms. Minter is not the only artist is in the Anderson circle. When asked whom she considers friends in Hollywood, Ms. Anderson demurred and said she has more friends in the art world. She has been muse to Jeff Koons, who has featured several of her body parts in his work, and she is close to the photographer David LaChapelle, the British designer Vivienne Westwood and the Southern California pop artist Ed Ruscha.

“She leaves a room radioactive.” Mr. Ruscha said when asked about the star. He added that she knows her way around the art world and calls her a “diamond in the rough.”

Ms. Anderson and her sons, Brandon Lee, left, and Dylan Lee, right, at the Saint Laurent show in Los Angeles in February. Emily Berl for The New York Times

Ms. Anderson and her sons, Brandon Lee, left, and Dylan Lee, right, at the Saint Laurent show in Los Angeles in February. Emily Berl for The New York Times

Ms. Anderson’s attraction to the arts has rubbed off on her younger son, Dylan. Hedi Slimane recently chose him to front the current Saint Laurent fashion campaign. In a short black-and-white film, Mr. Slimane created a love letter to the California coast starring a surfboard-toting, guitar-strumming Dylan.

“I think he’s going to be an artist one day,” Ms. Anderson said.

Her inimitable dazzle recently caught the attention of James Franco, who wrote a profile of her for the Playboy issue, and the two hope to collaborate on a project. She has also been approached by the director Werner Herzog. As Ms. Anderson tells it: “He wrote me a letter and said, ‘I’ve always wanted to work with you, and I’m watching your career, and I really feel like I see something in you, and something you’re capable of that maybe you don’t even know.’”

It is the same feeling that attracted the young filmmaker and photographer Luke Gilford, who calls Ms. Anderson the sex symbol of his generation. He approached her after he saw images of her with newly cropped hair.

“I pursued her, and I still do,” Mr. Gilford said with a laugh. The two have been co-conspirators in photography and film projects ever since. They are together so often that the tabloids have taken notice, referring to Mr. Gilford as a “mystery man.”

Last month, Milk Studios in Los Angeles had the premiere of Mr. Gilford’s short narrative film “Connected,” which stars an unvarnished Ms. Anderson looking powerful and chic and, in other scenes, vulnerable. At the center of the film is her character, who is grappling with the shifting standards of beauty and getting older.

“It was so refreshing to do this role, and play somewhere where I’m at in my life,” she said.

Ms. Anderson is thoughtful and open, and full of humor on this bright morning in Mr. Gilford’s sleekly designed home, which she jokes is outfitted with “sexy, phallic plants.” For a woman who made her mark on the world with her body — her curvaceous figure in a red “Baywatch” bathing suit sprinting along the beach is etched in popular culture’s subconscious — it’s not difficult to believe there is more to come from her.

“All these young indie film people seem to be looking at me from a different perspective from my peers because they are younger and they have seen me, kind of, grow up,” Ms. Anderson said. “They are doing their own art, and they look and realize: ‘Wow, maybe she would have been an artist. Maybe this was performance art all along.’”