Hulu’s Pam & Tommy tells the story of the marriage of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee (Lily James and Sebastian Stan, respectively) and the media firestorm that erupted from the theft and release of their honeymoon sex tape. Directed by I, Tonya’s Craig Gillespie, it aims to be cheeky about the early days of the internet while also re-examining the personal impact the tape had on Anderson. But it is also is a time capsule that flashes back to a time when the famous started to lose their privacy and audiences began to crave the invasion.
There were few ’90s sex symbols as towering as Pamela Anderson. She was a celebrity emblematic of the time, when male fantasy was catered to with unpretentious and unbridled abandon. First appearing on the cover of Playboy in late 1989 and becoming the centerfold Playmate Of The Month only a few months later, Anderson emerged at a time when the status of Playmate earned a level of celebrity. She quickly became the most famous among them while also building a resume of small roles on television, like Tool Time’s Lisa on Home Improvement, ultimately graduating beyond Playmate in public perceptions of celebrity strata.
That leveling up would come with the cornball, slow-mo earnestness of Baywatch, which crystallized her star persona for the masses when she joined the show in its third season as C.J. Walker. For all of the low-stakes cheesiness at play in this lifeguard action melodrama keeping people from taking it seriously, its home in first-run syndication didn’t help. But even though the show was half-bargain bin hit, half-punchline, Anderson was its marquee star for her five-season run, earning the kind of fame that results in headlining action movies (even when they bomb, as Barb Wire did) and hosting Saturday Night Live. That SNL stint reflects the narrowness of how she was seen: disrobing in the opening monologue while throwing out double entendres and a mention of wanting to be a serious actress, and Norm Macdonald impersonating her tattooed husband Tommy Lee.
Tommy Lee had a rock career that garnered similar levels of devoted following and lack of critical respect. As the drummer for Mötley Crüe, his career included a decade’s worth of multi-platinum hit albums and notoriously hard drug use and partying alongside his bandmates. Mötley Crüe was also the type of band that made voracious sex core to their identity, carving one of the most storied legacies of the era of arena sleaze rock bands like Poison and Def Leppard.
Anderson and Lee met in early 1995 and were married four days later. The two were like a hybrid episode of E! True Hollywood Story and Behind The Music (both non-fiction series that began during their marriage) in one, matching each other’s level of notoriety with hypersexualized persona and lowbrow appeal. It was the quintessential bad boy and vixen pairing. On their honeymoon, they filmed the sex tape that would be stolen from their home and create a wildfire online. It would not be an exaggeration to call it the first viral video.
Though it’s not like theirs was the first celebrity sex tape. Hollywood lore includes a rumor mill of celebs like Joan Crawford and Marlon Brando performing sexual acts on film (there has been, of course, an entire industry surrounding the propagation of fakes). There have also been stars who once professionally performed in softcore pornography, like Marilyn Monroe’s nude modeling and Sylvester Stallone’s softcore film. Perhaps the first outright scandal came in 1988 when a video surfaced of Rob Lowe with two women, one of whom was only 16 years old. A closer blueprint to the Anderson/Lee video arrived in 1994 when a tape of disgraced Olympian Tonya Harding and then-husband Jeff Gillooly was leaked (reportedly by Gillooly himself) and later sold to Penthouse.
But Anderson and Lee’s was the sex tape, a cultural flashpoint for tabloid celebrity journalism and sex-obsessed pop culture that was also beginning to move online. With the accessibility of the internet, the celebrity sex tape was no longer just a Hollywood rumor or fodder for the tabloids, but something that people could get their hands on and quickly. First, we indulged in the controversies in the supermarket aisle with the National Enquirer’s headlines and on celeb-centered programming like E! News; then it was the likes of Perez Hilton’s trash-talking blog; now, Twitter tells us Chris Evans accidentally revealed his penis on Instagram.
While Pam & Tommy looks to explore the more personal fallout from the tape’s release, the video ushered in a sea change for celebrity culture. Troubled C-listers could release their own for a quick boost to their celebrity profile. Male stars who saw their personal videos stolen often fared better for being exploited, like Hulk Hogan successfully suing Gawker for tens of millions of dollars for publicly releasing a sex tape that involved Hogan and his friend’s wife. The larger culture wouldn’t really begin to discuss the immorality of this nonconsensual exploitation until the 2014 mass hacking of celebrities leaked to Reddit and 4chan; even then, the (especially male) regard toward seeing private things we have no right to see remains pretty ambivalent. There is a similar toxic mentality in how the public’s perception of Anderson and Lee resulted in false justifications of their exploitation: People thought they were viewing something just a little beyond what they had already consumed from the couple, and they thought they had a right to view it simply because they could.
It was happening right as the Pandora’s Box of reality television was about to open, and with it, the devaluing of privacy for the famous. Aside from the explicit footage, Anderson and Lee’s video showed the couple in the kind of intimate but normal, everyday light that would become commonplace for famous people on non-scripted (wink wink) TV. Remove the explicit parts of their video, and the Anderson/Lee honeymoon doesn’t look all that different from Newlyweds: Nick And Jessica or Britney And Kevin: Chaotic. Whole reality franchises are birthed with the intention of getting as close as possible to the lives of famous people, or turning non-famous people like the various Real Housewives into immediate headline-grabbing celebs. Today, just about any famous figure will welcome the masses into their lives with the ease of an Instagram post (Anderson left Instagram a year ago, all while distancing herself from Pam & Tommy).
Paris Hilton’s mid-2000s boom resulted in TV shows, music, and multiple product lines. A sex tape introduced Kim Kardashian to the public, which eventually led to her own reality TV series, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and a rabid following. Her fame and regard has increased to levels that Anderson never got to experience. Much as Anderson once graduated from Playmate to movie star, Kardashian moved up from reality star to Vogue covers. Do people even remember that our introduction to Kim K. was a sex tape? Ultimately, sex tape culture post-Pamela and Tommy shares its historical DNA with reality TV, though now sex tapes may only be the first rung on the ladder to celebrity, before it’s no longer relevant to their fame.
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