Pamela Anderson talks about her big Broadway debut in ‘Chicago’: It ‘save me’

At the stage door of the Ambassador Theater in New York City, the name on everyone’s lips was “Pamela,” as fans clamor for a selfie with Pamela Anderson, the ’90s icon returning to the spotlight on her own terms.

Earlier this year, Anderson, 54, revealed that she would be making her Broadway debut in “Chicago,” the second-longest-running musical on Broadway. Known for his stunt casting of stars to keep audiences coming back for more, Anderson has garnered a lot of positive reviews for her turn as Roxie Hart, and it’s something that surprises even her.

The Telegraph gave the production 4 out of 5 stars, calling her performance ‘surprisingly good’, while The New York Post said she pulled it all in and received a standing ovation on its opening night in April.

“I am very flattered and extremely grateful,” Anderson told TODAY via email of the reception of her performance. “I put my heart and soul into this. I’m saying that God may not have blessed me with a lot of natural talent, but with a very strong work ethic given the opportunity. I will always work the hardest. I’ve always understood that. I am capable of even more than I can imitate myself.”

“I’m just a 5-year-old girl living her dream,” she said.

“I'm saying that God may not have blessed me with a lot of natural talent, but with a very strong work ethic, if given the chance,” Anderson told us.  (Ellen von Unwerth)

“I’m saying maybe God has not blessed me with a lot of natural talent, but with a very strong work ethic given the opportunity,” Anderson told us. (Ellen von Unwerth)

From a Jumbotron to the Great White Way

To understand how far she’s come and what kind of performance Anderson’s Broadway debut is, you need to understand where she started.

The child of a waitress and oven repairman, Anderson was born in Canada in Ladysmith, a small town in British Columbia. At age 22, a chance encounter during a football game launched her modeling career after she appeared on the Jumbotron wearing a cut off Labatt’s Beer T-shirt. The brand was so enamored with her that they later used her in an ad campaign.

“I looked up at the big screen and saw this huge face, and I look and I go, ‘Oh my God, that’s me,'” she told “Inside Edition” in 1992. “I didn’t even recognize myself.”

This paved the way for her infamous Playboy modeling career, which appeared on the cover 14 times — more than any other woman in Playboy history, according to the magazine. “Hollywood people are dreamers, they always reach for something big,” she told Playboy in 1990. “I’m also a dreamer, so I think I belong here.”

From there she began acting, starring in the ABC sitcom “Home Improvement” as Lisa, aka “the Tool Girl”, before joining the cast of “Baywatch” in 1992 as CJ Parker, one of the longest-running characters in the ’90s series about lifeguards patrolling the beaches of Los Angeles.

Since then she’s appeared in a number of projects – from ‘Barb Wire’ in 1996 to ‘Stripperella’ in 2003 – but perhaps nothing as cathartic as ‘Chicago’. “The story and my life are so parallel,” she told Vogue in March. “I always say…30 years of therapy or just one Broadway show, you’ll be fine.”

In “Chicago,” Anderson plays Roxie Hart, the scrappy vixen who has lofty ambitions for a career in vaudeville.  (Ellen von Unwerth)

In ‘Chicago’, Anderson plays Roxie Hart, the scruffy vixen who has high ambitions for a career in vaudeville. (Ellen von Unwerth)

Anderson told TODAY that theater producer Barry Weissler called her during “a challenging point” in her life and that the casting decision “may have saved me.”

“It all happened very quickly, good timing,” she said by email. “I took a leap of faith. He said I want you at rehearsals next week. I believe in you. My sons agreed. It was something I had to do for me, my soul.”

Anderson even entered the zeitgeist earlier this year when “Pam and Tommy,” the scripted Hulu series about her and ex-husband Tommy Lee, was reportedly released without her permission. In ‘Chicago’ she seems to be taking back the property of her own celebrity.

“I’ve put all my life experience into the role, and when I’m on stage I don’t think of anything else,” she said. “I needed it, and I’m so glad it’s being conveyed that I can (influence) people enough to make them laugh or cry. What an honor.”

In ‘Chicago’, Anderson plays Roxie Hart, the scruffy vixen who has high ambitions for a career in vaudeville. These come to fruition when she comes into the national spotlight after being accused of murdering her lover, making her a media sensation. A story that could be ripped from any tabloid magazine, it’s not the farthest departure from Anderson, who himself was no stranger to a controversial life in the spotlight.

“We’re eerily similar,” Anderson said of her and Hart. “Quick on her feet, street smart, she uses everything she has to survive. We both get away with ‘murder’.”

During the pre-show rituals — or “magic” as she calls it — she’s made for herself, Anderson lights candles in St. Patrick’s Cathedral for good luck. She uses ginger candies, throat sprays and vocal warm-ups to make sure she can get the notes heard on stage. She runs three dance numbers for each show, alone or with the show’s dance captain, David Bushman. And while she makes sure to take the choreographed stairs down, she also likes to mix it up every night.

“I want to get better every day. I surprise myself with little things,” she said of the eight-week engagement that runs through June 5. ‘It’s spontaneity. Every show is a little different.”

‘As if we did this together’

Impromptu or planned, audience members love the “razzle dazzle” Anderson puts on eight shows a week.

“She had an amazing stage presence,” audience member Nicole Green told NBC News after seeing the show. “She held her own among all those other talented actors, and I have a feeling she did a great job.”

“I was impressed,” Rahul Dudta – another audience member – also said. “She had so much energy and was so cheerful on stage.”

Anderson's turn as Roxie will be on show at the Ambassador Theater in New York City through June 5.  (Ellen von Unwerth / Courtesy of Chicago)

Anderson’s turn as Roxie will be on show at the Ambassador Theater in New York City through June 5. (Ellen von Unwerth / Courtesy of Chicago)

But of all the reviews, perhaps the most important are from her sons with Lee. Brandon Thomas, 25, and Dylan Jagger, 24, attended opening night on Tuesday, April 12 to support their mother.

“My sons both cried, along with some of my dear friends who have seen the show and have always believed in me, who knew I never reached my true potential,” she said. “This is it. This was what I had to do all along. I sign autographs for a lot of people outside the theater after the show. It’s so sweet that people want to hug me and say how proud they are of me, like we’re doing this together have done.”

“They say we never knew you could sing, dance? And I answer, ‘Neither do I.’”

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