The Real Story Behind ‘Angelyne’

Emmy Rossum stars as the enigmatic icon of Los Angeles.
Angelyne Series Real Story

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story behind the new Peacock miniseries Angelyne, starring Emmy Rossum.

She has been likened to Banksy. Seen as a forerunner to Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton. And been called, in a Hollywood Reporter article by Gary Baum, “the enigmatic LA billboard diva.”

The woman in question is Angelyne, the so-called “billboard queen.” In the 1980s, Angelyne appeared on billboards throughout the city. The catch? Angelyne herself was behind the billboard campaign. As Baum wrote in 2015:

Both the famous-for-being-famous reality culture of the 2000s and the brand-yourself social media hustle of this moment can be traced back to her pioneering DIY billboard campaign.

Angelyne, her billboards, and the pursuit of fame are the subject of a new miniseries from Peacock, Angelyne. The show features Emmy Rossum (Shameless) in the titular role. Here is a look at the true story behind the show.

The First Billboard

Baum notes that Angelyne is primarily a local celebrity. Go to other major cities, and you’re not likely to encounter someone who knows the billboard queen. But in Los Angeles, everyone knows who she is. And it’s not a bad place to be royal.

Before her fame in the early 1980s, Angelyne worked as a musician, trying, like so many do, to make it in Hollywood. In 1982, Baum reported, Angelyne was attempting to enlarge a pin-up poster of herself. She wanted to advertise “the eponymous struggling rock band she led at the time to billboard size.”

In doing so, Angelyne met Hugo Maisnik, a wealthy, young entrepreneur who agreed to bankroll the billboards. Angelyne described him to The Hollywood Reporter as a “very eccentric, bored prankster.” In the years that followed, Angelyne would soon be everywhere.

A Signature Look

Those familiar with Angelyne’s billboards may know them from a single color: pink. The blonde-haired Angelyne wears pink and is often pictured alongside her Corvette of the same color. And while many may easily recognize that signature look, few know the story behind the star.

As Ajay Sahgal wrote in a 1995 profile in the Los Angeles Times: 

I have lived in Los Angeles all my life, I have seen Angelyne billboards almost every day for 10 years and I have no idea who this woman is.

Sahgal writes that friends often spotted Angelyne about town, sometimes with celebrities. Or they would see her in the famous hot-pink Corvette, which featured the license plate LEAN LUV. Sahgal attempts to conduct an in-person interview with Angelyne, but her publicist, who was reached via a phone number on the billboards, just faxes over a selection of press clippings.

Eventually, Sahgal gets Angelyne on the phone for an interview. When asked why she is famous, Angelyne responds:

Because I am. Everyone knows who I am. I’m famous for the magic I possess.

Angelyne About Town

Part of Angelyne’s enigmatic fame comes in one of the most organic forms possible: simply riding about Los Angeles in that hot-pink Corvette. Profiles of Angelyne often discuss this favorite Los Angeles pastime, of fans fawning over Angelyne.

Her sudden appearance sparks excitement among everyone in Hollywood. Baum reports that Courteney Cox once went up to Angelyne to proclaim, “I love you.” After spotting Angelyne, Kim Kardashian posted on Instagram a memory of seeing her as a child and thinking, “She looks the same & in the same car! Made me smile.”

And for tourists who may just pass through, you might still spot the star in her car, selling merchandise from the trunk and charging $20 for a photograph. Performance artist and critic Kate Durbin told Baum:

She performs the narrative of Los Angeles in a complicated way. The New Age-y stuff. How everything has a price. She’s the literal embodiment of those ideals. One of the things we can gain from looking at Angelyne is that life is a performance.

Candidate Angelyne

From time to time, Angelyne has also dipped her toe into politics. In 2002, she ran for mayor of Hollywood (an honorary gig), Baum reports, promising “hot pink glamour.” The following year, she ran in the state’s gubernatorial recall election, and Arnold Schwarzenegger ended up with the top job. Her slogan:

 We’ve had Gray, we’ve had Brown, now it’s time for some blond and pink.

Last year, she once again got involved in California politics. During the recall election to replace Governor Gavin Newsom (which he won), Angelyne gave an interview to Los Angeles Magazine about a potential run. She said:

My slogans are “Good Luck California” and “I have the Key to California.” I’m going to be sitting on the key. In 2003 I set the pace and the pathway for people to run who were not just the gray-suited people. I’m this gorgeous blonde with big boobs and people saw that if Angelyne can run with that image, we can all do it and 500 people followed my lead.

Who Is Angelyne?

In 2017, Baum published a detailed profile in The Hollywood Reporter under the headline, “The Mystery of LA Billboard Diva Angelyne’s Real Identity Is Finally Solved.” This article, and the investigation to find out Angelyne’s past, served as a major inspiration for the Peacock series.

As Baum reports, a genealogist had taken a special interest in the story and worked to uncover just exactly who she was. He found that Angelyne was born Renee Goldberg, in Poland, in 1950, to two Holocaust survivors. After the Second World War, the family moved to Israel and later to the United States in 1959.

Her mother died when Angelyne was just 14. She attended high school in the San Fernando Valley. Baum reports that she got married and then divorced in 1969. And that is where the “paper trail ends.” Baum writes:

I floated the idea of Goldberg as Angelyne to friends and colleagues who had been fascinated by her over the years and occasionally had had their own fleeting curbside run-ins, the surprisingly unsurprised reaction (particularly from the Jewish ones) was consensus and instantaneous: That makes sense. The stereotypical old-school shmatte-selling, the hardnosed negotiations, the pure all-purpose chutzpah — “I’ve known that woman,” one happily told me, as if welcoming home a long-lost relative, “all my life.”

Telling Her Own Story

In Baum’s profile, Angelyne does not confirm his extensive reporting. When asked, she says, “I know you want it to be true because you’re Jewish — and that’s adorable!” She then tells Baum, “I know you love me and don’t want to hurt me,” and adds that she wants to save the story “for my memoirs; that’s my right for my own financial interest.”

While the memoir has yet to be written, Variety reports that Angelyne is working in collaboration with the show. Originally, she had planned to appear but withdrew due to “reasons that remain unclear.” However, she “granted the series the rights to her life, trademarks, art and punk-pop music catalog, all of which are utilized on the show.”

For Rossum, it was important that Angelyne be involved. Rossum told Variety: 

And it was really, really important to me that she be paid for her contribution, not just to the show, but to pop culture over the last 50 years.

Angelyne debuts on Peacock on May 19

Will DiGravio: Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.