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Pamela Anderson tells her story in her own words with a new memoir

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Pamela Anderson, the Playboy Playmate and TV star who became one of the most famous sex symbols of all time, has written a book about herself. And it was her sons who gave her the idea.

PAMELA ANDERSON: I think they're just sick of always fighting for their mom. And they don't even really know the gritty details of everything, of course. But they felt like, you know, that I've overcome some things, which is what made me very strong or gave me this sense of humor.

CHANG: And just a warning. Anderson has worked through a lot, including sexual trauma, which we'll be talking about in this segment. As Anderson wrote her memoir, she made it very clear from the beginning she would have full control.

ANDERSON: I don't want a ghostwriter. I don't want a collaborator. I just need a great editor. And that's what happened. I wrote every word.

CHANG: I started by asking Anderson about her childhood. She says she was a painfully shy kid who was molested by a female babysitter at a young age.

ANDERSON: From then on, I just felt kind of like a prisoner of my childhood. I just felt like I couldn't - I was really confused. And I knew it had something to do with my body. I just was painfully shy, paralyzing. It was such an awful feeling. And so when I did get to LA, when I did push myself to kind of make these kind of brave choices, it was life or death for me. It really felt like I was doing something to overcome and take my power back.

CHANG: Yeah.

ANDERSON: And I did it in a - with a vengeance (laughter).

CHANG: You certainly did. I mean, one of the things that you mention your book that really moved me is even though you had gone through sexual trauma very early on in life, over time, you were able to get to a place where you could really enjoy sex. You say that sex actually helped you conquer some of your shyness. Quote, "I loved roleplaying. I could disconnect, be someone who wasn't me. Sex could be fun, fulfilling and imaginative." Tell me. How did embracing your sexuality help you take back control, help you give yourself power?

ANDERSON: Well, I'm a romantic, and I was always a big reader and loved fairy tales. So it was this heightened reality of what romance could be 'cause it couldn't just be two normal people, you know, sitting on a couch, reading together. For me, it had to be my knight in shining armor is coming in on a horse covered in, you know, like - Tommy and I just had this very wild kind of romantic time together.

CHANG: You and Tommy Lee.

ANDERSON: Yeah. It's how I imagined a real loving relationship should be because my role models were my parents, who were - you know, it was alcoholism and abuse. So I just felt like, I don't want that...

CHANG: Yeah.

ANDERSON: ...Because, you know, the abuse in my life - I think what people don't realize is it's accumulative. It's like it's compounding. So it just became harder and harder and more and more about my imagination and playing a character because I really wanted to disconnect from myself.

CHANG: Well, you have made very clear that you have learned to use your sex appeal to draw attention to very real, important causes that you care about, like animal welfare. Can you talk about that piece, how, like, instead of letting your public image in any way limit you, you've used it to influence and persuade people to care about the things that you deeply care about?

ANDERSON: Well, I started to think that anything that got me in the door was a good thing. So a lot of times, I would meet with world leaders because they wanted to meet me, you know, have a kiss on the cheek or an autograph. And I wanted laws to be changed. And we both got what we wanted. So they were always very impressed that I knew about what I was fighting for. They didn't expect me to come in alone and to have these thoughts. And so I was able to be very successful.

CHANG: You understood that people like to be around you, want to be around you.

ANDERSON: (Laughter) It was kind of funny. And there has been strange things. When I would write a letter to somebody to meet them, they would call and say - you know, the prime minister of Australia, for instance, would say, can I bring my buddies along?

CHANG: How did that feel when they would ask that?

ANDERSON: Well, I was getting kind of used to that kind of behavior, but publicly, people were starting to kind of catch on how awful that was. And I would just - again, I didn't crumble. I mean, you just have to keep going. Disrespect is a weapon of the weak. And I was able to change laws for animals, and that was really important to me to kind of have some meaning along this kind of...

CHANG: Yeah.

ANDERSON: ...Silly, superficial career. I felt like I wasn't able to really dig my teeth into anything of substance when it came to my career. So I thought, well, this is how I can create some meaning.

CHANG: Exactly. You talk about, actually, being underestimated was like a secret weapon. Like, one of the poems...

ANDERSON: Yeah.

CHANG: ...In your book reads, (reading) when you have nothing to live up to, you can't disappoint. People whispered, I might be genius if I could form a full sentence - utter shock.

You know, I love that because I love it when people underestimate me. It means...

ANDERSON: Right.

CHANG: ...I'm just going to show them that they're wrong.

ANDERSON: Right (laughter).

CHANG: Is that how you felt sometimes?

ANDERSON: Yeah, I did. And I'd always kind of laugh when people go, oh, my gosh, she wrote a poem. Or she said this. And it was just like, if it was anybody else, maybe it would be kind of sidelined. But because it was me, it was so shocking.

CHANG: (Laughter) She can put sentences together in a paragraph.

ANDERSON: Yes, in a paragraph.

CHANG: Make a statement. Yeah.

ANDERSON: Write a book (laughter). Right.

CHANG: So, you know, something I'm curious about when you're writing a book about yourself is what to reveal and not reveal. Like, so many times, people who go through trauma are told, shine a light on it. Name it. Open up about it. But you point out near the end of your book that some parts are best left unsaid. Tell me about that decision.

ANDERSON: Well, I mean, my book started out as just a poem. It was, like, a 60-page poem. And I had to learn how to shape it and put it into a book. But I also felt like there were some things that just didn't need to be in there because I really wanted to balance it with the whole life story. It's not just - the things that happen to me aren't me, you know? I wanted to make sure that my feelings about these situations - it was more about that, not about just, like, the men in my life or people that had come and gone.

But I'll tell you, the hardest part of the book for me to write was about the abuse as a child, to actually name things like the games she used to make me play on her. And I felt like, I really don't want to say this, and so I probably should say it because I think there's so many people out there - you know, predators know how to pick vulnerable people. And they do things to you that are so embarrassing and shameful that you would never tell anybody. And I think that's something that we need to get past. And I think that hopefully will help young people or anybody tell somebody. It's hard to. But I wanted to say that. And I - you know, I took it out. I erased it. I put it back in. I took it out. I put it back in. I thought, I'm going to put it back in. It needs to be in there. And I think it will speak to somebody.

CHANG: Did naming it out loud, putting it in there - did it change the way you think about the past now?

ANDERSON: Well, I've - obviously, my survival mechanism was my imagination and also learning how to compartmentalize. And I'm dealing with that a lot right now with my mom. You know, she read the book, and we have been talking. And it kind of comes out in jibs and jabs and, you know, those feisty kind of comments. My mom's very sarcastic and funny but this - like, very cutting and cold. And I can tell she's just processing. So I'm just kind of - I'm listening to her. But I think in the end, it's helpful. And I want to stop this because in my family, this is a lineage. This is generations of the same story. And I don't want that for my kids or anybody in my family.

CHANG: The story being sexual trauma.

ANDERSON: Yeah. Someone has to be brave enough to stop it. We don't have to tiptoe around alcoholics. We don't have to be in abusive relationships. We can leave. And I said to my mom, which was very difficult, is I guess the difference between her and I is that I left and she stayed. I chose my kids, and she chose my dad. You know, like, we've been going at it a little bit like this. But I think it's good. Let's get this out. I think that's why any sign of abuse for me and any sign of violence, I left. And, you know, people kind of like to make fun that I've been married multiple times, but - and I make fun of myself, too, because those are my regrets. I wish I didn't. But I just wanted to recreate a family for my boys. But I just, you know, was not fishing in the right pond, maybe.

CHANG: You're still searching.

ANDERSON: I'm still searching.

CHANG: You're still seeking. Pamela Anderson. Her new book is called "Love, Pamela." It's out on January 31. And the documentary about her life, "Pamela, A Love Story" is out on Netflix the same day. Thank you so much for having this conversation with me. I really enjoyed this.

ANDERSON: Thank you. Thank you very much. Have a good day.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE FITZGERALD'S "PASSING TRAINS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.