In October 1995, a 500-pound safe was stolen from the garage of a Malibu mansion. Inside, the thief (or thieves) found guns, jewelry, and a piece of treasure far more valuable than they could have imagined: a private video made by the newlyweds Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee.
Most of the nearly hour-long Hi8 cassette was mundane. Anderson, then the star of Baywatch, gets a tattoo; Lee, the drummer for Mötley Crüe, gets his nails done. There’s blurry, almost inaudible footage of their wedding. They play with their dogs and talk about the tomatoes growing in their driveway. But there’s also six minutes of fucking. While Lee is driving, Anderson gives him a blow job, and on a yacht, they screw each other rather frantically, declaring their love for one another in an orgasmic frenzy.
Anderson and Lee weren’t just any celebrities. A Playboy centerfold, Anderson represented the zenith of a certain kind of surgically enhanced bombshell. Lee was a rock star with one of the greatest stage personae in heavy metal and, as the tape made clear, a fairly large penis. In 1996, the video went viral before the term existed — first as a bootleg VHS in California, then on the fledgling internet, and finally in adult stores across America as the Vivid Entertainment title Pam & Tommy Lee: Stolen Honeymoon. Twenty-five years later, the phenomenon is ripe for reappraisal: It’s the subject of the second season of Tabloid, a podcast from Luminary and New York Magazine that I host, and a Hulu show starring Lily James and Sebastian Stan set to come out later this year. More than any other piece of content, the tape revealed our insatiable appetite for appropriating what famous people used to keep to themselves.
Today, the idea that someone’s most intimate moments may be fodder for public consumption is utterly unremarkable. Whether you’re famous or just trying to be, if you’re recording something, it’s presumed to be for an audience. Why document hours of your life if you’re not going to upload it somewhere? But when you watch Anderson and Lee’s video now, it’s strikingly clear what they thought they were making: a tape for their private enjoyment. There is no attempt to curate anything for followers or make anyone look cool. At one point, Lee goofily tucks his genitals between his legs, and Anderson shrieks that she hates it. Why would anyone create that video if it were intended for wide distribution?
Yet the minute the footage got out, Anderson and Lee lost the argument. When the couple sued to fight its release, they found little sympathy; one court ruled that because they had talked to journalists about their sex life in the past, coverage of the tape was newsworthy and a matter of public interest. Even as they spent huge sums to stop the video’s spread, many people assumed they had engineered it. Eventually, tired of litigating, the couple gave up the streaming rights to their footage, and from then on, anybody could get hold of it with a clear conscience — you could almost believe they had given their consent. Yet the word stolen is in the title of the VHS for a reason, and our taste for violation would only grow. I know because I did some of the violating.
A decade after Anderson and Lee’s tape got out, I started a new job; as a writer for (and eventual owner of) Gawker Media’s porn site, Fleshbot, I routinely published sexy celebrity photos and videos. There were paparazzi photos of upskirts and nip slips, nude scenes from movies, and spreads from arty magazines. Occasionally, there were even naked photos obtained by hackers: I set my 2010 traffic record with a double-whammy post featuring topless shots purportedly of Kat Dennings and Jessica Alba.
I rarely thought deeply about why I was posting these images. Fleshbot had always trafficked in celebrity nudity; the site’s first big hit had been stills from Paris Hilton’s sex tape. In the moments when I did question my motivations, I would tell myself that publishing celebrity nudes was just one more way to normalize healthy human behavior. My colleagues at Jezebel were helping their female readers feel more confident by exposing how much Photoshopping went into magazine covers, and they weren’t asking the cover stars’ permission to publish the original, un-airbrushed images. What I did felt akin to that — just, you know, with a lot more tits.
In 2014, something forced me to reevaluate what I thought I knew about celebrities, sex, and privacy: Celebgate, a.k.a. the Fappening. A phishing campaign prompted famous people to divulge their iCloud passwords, and hackers amassed thousands of nudes. The simultaneous exposure of so many women — many “celebrities” in only the loosest sense — was an unmistakably vicious invasion and a lesson that being female and famous meant offering your private life up for public consumption, whether you wanted to or not. There’s a direct line from Stolen Honeymoon to Celebgate. It’s the same entitlement people felt to Anderson and Lee’s sex life — specifically to her body — but executed at database scale. What is iCloud if not the modern version of a safe in a garage?
Stolen Honeymoon has another legacy, of course: the commercially released celebrity sex tape. In the years since Vivid first put it into porn shops, countless videos have followed suit — sometimes with the stars’ permission. Some feature early-career celebs who rocketed to stardom, like Hilton or Kim Kardashian; others are of D-listers clinging to relevancy, like a former Teen Mom star who “leaked” a video shot with a porn star who was paid to perform with her. Some of these post–Stolen Honeymoon tapes are more explicit; most contain a lot more sex. But I’d argue that many of them feel as if they’re missing something. Whether the people involved wanted the tapes released or not, there’s always a potential audience.
Anderson and Lee really believed they could go unobserved. There’s a simple thrill to the footage that’s obscured by the porniness of their sex: that of seeing celebrities living, truly, like the rest of us. We crave access to authenticity — the kind that can be achieved only when you’re doing something you don’t want others to see. A quarter-century on, the tape that scandalized America with the rawest and most hard-core footage imaginable has become an item of nostalgia. When we watch Anderson and Lee now, it’s not the sex that’s startling. It’s their innocence.