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When the first images of Lily James as Pamela Anderson in Pam & Tommy dropped at the start of 2021, the fervent reaction matched the drama of the makeover itself. The British actress who got her big break in Downton Abbey no longer resembled the quintessential English Rose; she was suddenly indistinguishable from the blonde bombshell.
Like American Crime Story before it, Pam & Tommy sought to shed light on a real-life ’90s news story that plugged a traumatic event into a lazy punchline for late-night hosts. While the very idea of Anderson and Tommy Lee Bass’s stolen sex tape titillated tabloids, Anderson’s bodacious persona was the only argument needed for the tape to be released.
In a story so driven by objectification, it was essential that James look the part for the series, now streaming on Hulu. “I think all of us equally wanted to celebrate Pam, but also tell her story in the most accurate way we could,” costume designer Kameron Lennox recently told ELLE.com, when asked about the careful tap-dance between hair, makeup, and costume teams. Added hair department head Barry Lee Moe, “My biggest thing was to bring humanity and life to a woman that is so iconic, and to not make it a caricature of who she was.”
Painting a full picture of Anderson—from her public perception to her intimate, whirlwind romance with Lee Bass—was intrinsic to making Pam & Tommy more than a suffix to its sleazy predecessors. Brought in for the job were recent Emmy winner Moe, makeup department head David Williams, special makeup effects designer Jason Collins, and costume designer Lennox, who each broke down for ELLE.com the four-hour process James undertook before stepping foot on set.
Below, you’ll find a transformation play-by-play—as well as an assortment of products the team used and recommend, including hair and makeup must-haves and convincing dupes for the Lennox-sourced vintage pieces James sports throughout the series.
Curating a ’90s Wardrobe
When it came to assembling James’ costume closet, Lennox stresses that every pick was meant to honor Anderson, not satirize her. “We didn’t want to ever make fun of Pam,” she says. “She did inspire a lot of fashion.” In fact, whenever the team would shorten a skirt or alter a dress for James, they devised a clever moniker: “We ‘Pammed’ it.”
The majority of the pieces Lennox sourced from vintage buyers and costume-house rentals, though a few garments—including a sea-green suit James wears during a deposition scene—were stitched from scratch by Lennox’s cutter and fitter Lydia Jakubowski. Because the costume team didn’t have access to Anderson’s archives, Lennox was forced to lean hard on trend research from the era. Take, for example, episode 4, when an incognito Pam dons a pair of Hard Tail terry cloth sweats—a key detail, considering this was pre-Juicy Couture era.
Still, Lennox wanted to maintain some sense of timelessness about Anderson’s style, given the superstar’s lasting impact on the cultural consciousness. Many of the brands James wears in the show are either long-term stalwarts of the runway or making modern comebacks: Jean Paul Gaultier, Christian Dior, and body con dresses by Mark Wong Nark (including one in bubblegum pink) reside in Pam’s closet beside Moschino and Chanel purses, YSL platforms and Pleaser stilettos. “There are some golden eggs in there that are the real deal,” Lennox says.
Go Big, Go Blonde
Originally, James considered dyeing her hair to match Anderson’s famous platinum blonde ’do, but Moe says, “We moved away from it quickly because it was going to be a lot of stress and maintenance.” Instead, he tapped Los Angeles-based Wigmaker Associates to design four lace-front wigs to alternate throughout the production. “I was able to always have a rotation going to keep the hair healthy, but also to prep things ahead of time because our shooting schedule was so fast-paced,” Moe explains.
To ensure the wigs never looked like, well, wigs, Moe sifted through a library of images to slowly style some of the looks, though he admits he was aided by James’ commitment to the part. Referring to her as a “great hair actress,” Moe adds, “It was important to Lily to get her hands in there and play with her hair. That helped sell the piece as well because the hair is constantly moving.” Using vintage velcro rollers to set her waves, Moe was able to give James the mountainous volume Anderson was known for.
Because James’ hairline was closer to her brows than the real-life Anderson’s, special makeup effects designer Collins and his company, Autonomous FX, designed prosthetics to hide James’s very 21st-century brows. Such a cover-up made room to add Anderson’s own pencil-thin brows, made of lace. Next, Collins and his team developed an acrylic set of dentures to push out James’s lip. “Lily wanted to keep them in all day,” he says. “As a British actress, she’s already battling an American accent. I think those teeth helped keep her in character and remind her about the accent.”
A Strong Foundation
“As I often say, ‘A little paint will make you what you ain’t,” makeup artist Williams says while describing the four different rounds of makeup application James undertook each day. First came prosthetic makeup, then corrective makeup using highlight and shadow, next character makeup, and finally “beauty makeup.” To poke fun at the time-consuming venture, Williams gave each crew member a compact that featured a famous Anderson quote, which speaks to the length of the process: “Natural beauty takes at least two hours in front of a mirror.”
The team fondly recalled how James used this daily routine to perfect her portrayal of the Baywatch star. “Every second she was practicing—even in the chair,” Collins says. “Every second she was looking at interviews, every second she was looking at the way Pam moved; all of those things are the only things that make a makeup and hair character successful.”
While since-discontinued makeup lines meant Williams didn’t have troves of ’90s cosmetics to choose from, he was able to source a few staples, including the MAC Cosmetics lip pencil in “Spice,” as well as “Rose” and “Beige” lipsticks from the original Bobbi Brown 10. “Bobbi Brown set the trend of makeup in the early ’90s, taking the war paint of the ’80s off and going for a very natural look for women,” Williams says. His team also made use of contemporary products, including Charlotte Tilbury’s Pillow Talk and Hermes lipsticks. To create Anderon’s perfect “peaches and cream” complexion, Williams used Stila cream blushes in “Peony” and “Petunia.”
Giving James the same silhouette as Anderson required a prosthetic breastplate. “We did two or three different tests with three sculpts in order for it to look right at all angles and all perspectives,” Collins says. Perhaps where this mattered most of all was when James slipped into Anderson’s classic Baywatch swimsuit, which, notably, has a visible sideboob: “It’s not one that gives us any room for error,” Williams joked. Pressures were high as Lennox and her team worked to create the perfect scarlet one-piece. Little did they know quite how intense the spotlight would become when production launched.
On one life-imitates-art occasion, the crew’s beach shooting location was surrounded by paparazzi hoping to get a shot of James in the red suit. Lennox spotted a photographer up a tree, while Williams recalled another “on the hill up above Highway One, the PCH highway, and Malibu.” Perhaps the most extreme example was a cameraman who seemed to be cradling a baby while standing waist-deep in the ocean. “As soon as they called ‘action,’ that man pulled that baby up, and it was a long-lens camera,” Moe says.
While that shooting day was the most “nerve-wracking” for Williams, Collins says there was still something gratifying about the feverish attention. Seeing the press’s reaction to James’ look confirmed that the costume, hair, and makeup teams were on the right path.
Lennox had started work on Pam & Tommy at the same time she was finishing Apple TV+’s ’80s aerobics dramedy Physical, so she was already deep in a Norma Kamali-inspired sartorial headspace by the time she sat down to create Anderson’s one-piece. While watching re-runs of Baywatch, she noticed each of the actresses wore a different design to complement their figures. For Anderson as C.J., the high French-cut sides and low bust were elements Lennox wanted to emulate. “The color red was a big thing, too, because it’s a very specific Baywatch red,” she says. “We did source who made their original bathing suits and used that as a template for the correct red.”
An Uncanny Resemblance
The hair, makeup, and costuming teams first knew they succeeded while watching James film the opening scene of episode 1. Pam & Tommy’s opener begins with Anderson’s 1996 appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and if audiences didn’t know better, they might mistake the scene for archival footage. James, as Anderson, sports an over-the-top updo and vintage 1993 Versace, stitched into a maternity fit for the sake of Pam & Tommy‘s (slightly) alternate timeline. Williams himself had worked on The Tonight Show during Leno’s tenure, so it was essential to make Anderson’s appearance look as authentic as possible. “To be standing on that stage and feel like I was at the NBC studio watching Jay interview Pam,” he says, “it was truly one of my favorite moments. My worlds collided that day.”
And if you’re asking his co-collaborators—or, hell, anyone watching the series now—his efforts didn’t go unnoticed. “I feel like that was one of those days where that was Pam Anderson sitting in front of us and we ten-thousand-percent nailed it,” Moe says. “The monitor shots we were taking that day, even looking back at them now—it’s uncanny.”
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