I dial Angelyne’s number; it rings once. “Who is this?” she barks. No hello, no pleasantries. “WHO IS THIS?” she repeats, louder. The franticness of her tone makes me drop the phone. When I place it back to my ear, she’s already hung up.
Her franticness is to be expected. A Hollywood Reporter article uncovering her true identity, a secret she has doggedly protected over the three decades in which she has been famous for being famous, just went live, and it is going viral. I am surely not the first person to have called.
Angelyne is, or should I say was, an enigma by design, a wholly self-created entity. An actress, singer and model, a Los Angeles institution best known for her propensity to purchase billboards featuring her own likeness. Her refusal to divulge her origin story, to reveal anything about her life B.A. (Before Angelyne), only added to her mythology—her “mystique,” as she puts it. And now that the world knows her truth—formerly Renee Goldberg, the Polish-born daughter of Holocaust survivors—the agency she once had over her identity, agency she made great pains to have absolute control over, has been stripped.
I call back.
“Who is this?” she asks. I tell her. I tell her I read the Reporter piece, and that I feel bad for her. “Don’t feel bad for me, sweetie,” she replies. “I have a billboard on Cahuenga right now.”
It’s easy to feel bad for Angelyne. Because, in a single afternoon, a secret she spent her entire career protecting has been revealed. She is the human embodiment of mystique—for her, persona is legend. The life she lived before she transformed into Angelyne seems incidental; writing about her past seems tantamount to CNN doing a story about how Santa isn’t real.
Gary Baum, the writer of the Reporter piece, disagrees. “Angelyne is a public figure,” he tells me. “And I’m a journalist who writes at the Hollywood Reporter. She is a Los Angeles institution, and part of the cultural fabric. It’s perfectly allowable for her to decline to participate in our coverage. I offered multiple opportunities to discuss [it], and she declined to do so. But that does not mean she’s allowed to opt out of conversation about what she’s put into the world. You don’t get to have that much control over the way the world sees you when you’re a famous person.”
Baum is, of course, correct, and, in writing the piece, was simply doing his job. While there has always been an interest in the private lives of public figures, the rise of the internet and its encyclopedic collection of information has turned celebrity information into a publicly traded commodity.
That being the case, it’s truly a wonder Angelyne was able to keep the dogs at bay for so long.
“She is sort of a person out of time,” Baum continues. “You cannot pull an Angelyne now. Nobody could do what she got to do for decades—she was lucky she was able to do it for as long as she did. She got the benefit of growing up when she did and being able to walk away from Renee Goldberg.”
The reasons why Angelyne walked away from Renee Goldberg are known only to Angelyne, and she’s keeping characteristically mum on the subject. Knowing her sad, complex backstory increases one’s empathy for her, and makes her reticence to tell said backstory all too clear.
Which is not to say Angelyne deserves any more privacy rights than the average celebrity. The fact that she is a person out of time, from one of the last generations in which you could shed the pain of your past, completely reinvent yourself and construct your own narrative, is what lies at the heart of the story. There will be no other Angelynes, because there can be no other Angelynes.
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She and I set up a meeting at Canter’s. “Get a booth in the back,” she tells me. She’s half an hour late because, she says, the two days since the Reporter piece dropped have been overwhelming. “It’s been hectic,” she explains on the phone as I stand outside waiting for her. “People keep calling me for the film rights.” Compassionate messages have been pouring in as well. “Everyone’s being very sympathetic,” she tells me. “They don’t want their unicorn to die.” She apologies profusely for her tardiness. She calls me honey.
Sitting in the most isolated booth available during the Friday lunch rush, we eat strawberry cheesecake, drink Coca-Colas and talk. She is small and quiet and besieged by her public at all times—it is hard to carry on a conversation because she is constantly approached by people wanting to take a photo. “Is it always like this every time you go out with her?” I ask her friend Maggie, who’s producing a documentary on her. Wide eyed, she nods vigorously.
In these moments, in the entirety of her public life, Angelyne is not a human being trying to carry on a conversation. She’s the woman from the billboard. “Were you on the news yesterday?” a woman asks. “I hadn’t heard of you before yesterday. Can I get a picture?” “It’ll be a $20 donation,” Angelyne informs her. The woman declines.
Many balk at the $20 asking price, a price she charges because, as a woman who claims she refuses to “sell out” to corporate interests, her interpersonal relations are her revenue stream. She may have been a forerunner to celebrities like the Kardashians, but she’ll never affix her name to diet pills or use the hashtag #BrandedContent. The trunk of her signature pink Corvette is filled with her own self-produced merchandise. In this regard, as in so many others, she is, indeed, a person out of time.
“I was saving my life story,” she tells me. But now that the floodgates have been opened, and people are calling for the film rights, she says she’s been “pushed to do it in an untimely fashion, in my opinion.”
“A lot of the information isn’t true,” she says, “but I’m taking advantage of the publicity.” She’s been followed by “a lot of rumors” throughout her career (highlights, or lowlights as it were, included that she was transgender, had a rich husband who paid for everything, was the kingpin of a prostitution ring, and that “a rich gay guy died and gave me all his money, provided I put up billboards with it”). “All this about my past are just more rumors,” she says. “No matter who I was, I still would have dug myself out of the dirt to become the Angelyne that inspired the world.”
In my first, frantic telephone conversation with her, she referred to herself as “a person, an entity, an icon.” For the entirety of her career, she’s been an icon. But with the release of her backstory, proof of existence before her self-creation, she has become a fully formed person. Which means every facet of her, both the fictions she created and the truths that were uncovered, now belong to the world she inspired.
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