Thirty years after her iconic billboards and pink Corvette became Hollywood staples, the self-created sex symbol remains an object of fascination, curiosity, and — a rarity in L.A. — profound mystery: "I'm like heroin. I have to dole myself out carefully. I don't want people to overload."
This story first appeared in the Aug. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The scent of Chanel's Coco Mademoiselle envelops Angelyne's hot pink Corvette Stingray 1LT as the legendary — and legendarily mysterious — L.A. billboard queen cruises West Hollywood. She nods her platinum 'do as she passes a beauty store on Santa Monica Boulevard. "I saw Paris Hilton there a month ago," reminisces Angelyne in her distinct baby-girl voice. "She was wearing no makeup and had her dog. She told me she was inspired by me before she was known. I whispered to her, 'I'm good luck to you.' She said, 'Yeah!' " A considered pause. "She's vapid but sweet."
As it happens, that's a verdict people have been rendering about Angelyne for 30 years, ever since she began appearing on hundreds of billboards and circumnavigating the city in that pink Vette. 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. Without Angelyne, the glamorama on your Instagram feed and the glitz on Bravo's and E!'s schedules certainly wouldn't be the same. As she puts it now, "I'm the professor."
Take an extended drive around town with her, as The Hollywood Reporter recently did, and you'll see that, even if she no longer is gracing all of those billboards and doesn't use social media, Angelyne's fan base remains intensely potent and admirably inclusive across the racial, sexual and gender spectrum. She entrances young and old alike.
Yet she holds a special appeal to one demographic in particular: the entertainment industry itself. "She's a cult figure in Hollywood," says her close friend of two decades, celebrity stylist B. Akerlund, who has worked on music videos for Beyonce, Madonna and Lady Gaga. "When you ask New Yorkers, 'Do you know Angelyne?' they don't. But here, she's a legend."
Fergie dresses as Angelyne for Halloween. Courteney Cox sidles up to her out on the town to say, "I love you." Kim Kardashian, after spotting her on the freeway, recalled seeing her as a child while driving with her late father and reminisces on Instagram: "She looks the same & in the same car! Made me smile." RuPaul, out of drag, meets her at a Whole Foods and tweets triumphantly, "When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know Angelyne."
Angelyne on the music-television show 'The Tube' in 1983, a year after she released a self-titled album.
Her appeal extends to realms you might not expect. (Pee-wee Herman sends Christmas cards; Richard Simmons has bought merchandise.) Angelyne says that David Fincher's longtime girlfriend and producing partner Cean Chaffin hired her to meet and greet at the director's birthday party in Malibu. (Fincher, through a representative, insists the appearance never took place.) Fans also will remember when Angelyne was a candidate in the 2003 California gubernatorial recall, making campaign promises to reduce class sizes, end homelessness and paint the Capitol pink; she finished 28th out of 135 candidates. And the more time you spend with her, the more her fundamentally dark allure comes through — this is a woman who explains she identifies with Barbie not merely for the obvious physical reasons but because she "has no emotions, and I'd like to be emotionless. Emotions are pain."
She may have perfected self-promotion, but Angelyne doesn't like talking about herself. "I'm not a publicity whore," she insists, pressing an espadrille wedge on the gas pedal on the way to visit her dentist in Century City. (The doctor once pitched a script about an anthrax attack to producers Susan Downey and Joel Silver — he wanted patient Djimon Hounsou to star — and observes that Angelyne invariably arrives on time, unlike directors, who are "always late.") To wit, her contact information remains relatively hard to find and even basic details about her life have long been a riddle.
"There's a lot of Greta Garbo in Angelyne," says her assistant, Scott Hennig. "She likes the mystery."
Part of it is practicality. She refuses, for instance, to talk about where she lives (let's just say she's seen barreling down the 101 into the city each morning) because of that eternal celebrity bete noire: stalkers. "I've had two restraining orders — I don't plan to have any more."
In 2002, Angelyne ran for mayor of Hollywood, a strictly honorary job, on a platform that promised “hot pink glamour.”
Some of it is anguish. Of her past, she'll announce, curtly, "I want to save it for my memoirs — that's my right for my own financial interest." Later, the only child will confide, the lilt of her girlish voice ebbing for a moment, "I lost my parents at a young age, and because of that I sought the attention of the world through my tricks. I said, 'Well, I'm going to get the love of the world.' " Inquire further, and she's done: "It's just a long story. I don't want to get into it. I made my way here."
The rest is ethereal. Revealing her real name and age (state records indicate they're Angelyne Llyne and 53), her relationship status ("I have matrimony-phobia") or her origin story (all that she has disclosed is that she's from Idaho) would, she believes, detract from her carefully burnished glamour — a fragile quality she defines as "the front stage, not the backstage." (Muses Brian Scofield, a Terrence Malick collaborator who is at work on a film project about her: "Part of the truth of Angelyne is her enigma. She blends this personality with reality.")
It's why she says she has rejected umpteen offers for reality shows — "I want to uphold the glamour." Her disdain extends, unsurprisingly, to Kardashian's all-access evolution of her model: "I don't see anything that's inspiring or beauteous. Who wants to know what she does every day? It's boring and gauche and claustrophobic."
Rumors long have persisted of a sugar-daddy investor behind Angelyne's rise. She clarifies that in 1982, while looking to enlarge a pinup-style poster of herself advertising the eponymous struggling rock band she led at the time to billboard size, she met Hugo Maisnik, the wealthy scion to a display-printing business in L.A. She describes Maisnik, now an adhesive-free-tape entrepreneur and an octogenarian widower, as having been a "very eccentric, bored prankster" who immediately grasped the potential value of her iconography and knew the intricacies of the outdoor-advertising game. Angelyne says that while he was the type of guy who was "obsessed with legs and feet," theirs was a purely platonic relationship: "He was married!" (Maisnik, no longer an active business partner, could not be reached for comment.)
Soon, she was everywhere. "I felt most normal when I became famous," she says. "The only time I had enough attention, where I never wanted another bit of it ever again, was when I rode in Gay Pride."
Angelyne's self-branding began before the billboards. Over a shrimp cocktail lunch at Connie & Ted's in West Hollywood, she explains that she only adopted her signature color after installing a New Age metal pyramid over her bed. "I just laid down there, and I kept seeing this vision of pink. Magenta was vibrating. I was compelled." Indeed, she makes it clear that she's on intimate terms with the next level, pointing to an out-of-body moment she had one day around the time she filmed her small role in the 1988 sci-fi comedy Earth Girls Are Easy as transformative. "I don't recommend it," she says wanly of the cosmic event.
Angelyne puts more than 100 miles a day on her custom-painted Corvette Stingray.
Angelyne sees herself as forever on a quest to return to that rapture. "It's been torture to be here again. I've tried so much meditation to bring it back," she says. "As wonderful as my flesh body is to me, what I've created, I've exploited the human body to its max."
Some believe that Angelyne, an aesthete trained in ballet as a child who possesses a disconcerting ability to turn any food into uncanny likenesses (Bette Davis out of mussel shells and spaghetti, Clara Bow out of Swedish fish and coffee grounds) is a de facto performance artist. That her entire presentation — the hair, the clothes, the voice, the pink car, the whole shebang — riffs on femininity, fame and Hollywood ideals. Angelyne brushes off such assertions — she possesses no MFA degree, though she did take life drawing classes at one point, and she claims (or feigns) ignorance of such highbrow luminaries as Marina Abramovic. Yet she allows this: "Warhol would have loved me!"
Still, she has acolytes in the art world, including acclaimed L.A. conceptual artist Alex Israel, who has utilized the billboard form himself. "I think she's important," he says. "She did something radical. She gave people permission to do things that are now par for the course in our culture. Her work gave people permission to make the public expression of their eccentric selves a goal in itself. This was before YouTube and reality TV, when her available platform was the space of advertising. She found the widest platform that she could."
Notes Kate Durbin, an L.A. performance artist and culture critic: "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."
Back in the car, on the way to Spellbound Sky, a Silver Lake crystal boutique she frequents, Angelyne is chatty about many things. Like religion ("I've tried them all — Jewish, Catholic, Hindu: too many dogmas"). Like her wardrobe (her clothes are made from fabrics from International Silks & Woolens, a Beverly Boulevard shop favored by Cher). Like her radio preferences (as a hard-core NPR listener, she recently auctioned off a ride in her car: "What about that for a pledge?").
But off-limits is aging. "Spare me," she says with exasperation. "I just don't believe in it." The denial for decades was abetted by a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, the renowned George Semel, who (he confided to her) also treated Elizabeth Taylor and Zsa Zsa Gabor. (He died in 2013.) "I felt like I was working with an artistic collaborator," says Angelyne, who won't comment about procedures but acknowledges, "Fillers are amazing."
At a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Los Feliz — she visits a franchise location daily, ordering what many baristas know as The Angelyne (a modified cafe mocha with water instead of milk) — she tackles one more personal topic: how she makes money these days (L.A. real estate blogs snickered when her three-bedroom Malibu condo was listed for $575,000 in a 2010 short sale), particularly now that the billboard campaign has wound down. She claims it worked so well that she became overloaded with inquiries. Alternatively, she may have been priced out. As Hennig notes, "The prices were a few thousand a month for billboards when she started. Now it's $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 a month on the Sunset Strip."
She says a chunk of her income comes from image licensing interest from abroad, primarily Europe — what Hennig calls a "never-ending stream." Whether when dealing with a person on the street or a major firm, she demands $10,000 to take a picture of her face — which is why the shot accompanying this story in THR, which doesn't pay subjects for portraits, features her visage partially covered by a fan.
Angelyne began gracing Hollywood billboards during the early 1980s in a campaign largely financed by outdoor-advertising magnate Maisnik.
The remainder is similarly I.P.-keen: appearances (a brief drive-by in her car with a wave goes for $500, a stop-in is $1,000) and merchandising. Both income streams leverage her scarcity and mystery to ensure interest. Angelyne's Chazerai — $5 bumper stickers, $10 magnets and $60 T-shirts, sold out of her trunk — move for those prices in part because fans can't buy them online. (She has no website: "I don't want to be that accessible. They've got to find me — a unicorn.") Everyone who approaches her is brazenly asked if they'd like to buy something, and she moves on in short order if they don't. (At dinner one night at Musso & Frank, two gigglingly starstruck women introduce themselves as she enjoys yet another shrimp cocktail. Within minutes, they're separated from $300.)
She's unapologetic about how her M.O. may appear grubby to some. "I'm a rebel," says Angelyne (who has neither an agent nor manager), her eyes narrowing, her lips pursed. "I'm independent. I want my fans to support me! I don't lend my image out to anybody — MAC, Guess, AT&T. Corporations do ask."
Affirms her attorney, William Remery: "She certainly has a lot of opportunities come her way. But she controls her image. She understands her value and her product, and she protects it."
Akerlund, who works with some A-list divas, says that she's been chagrined by her friend's prima donna behavior in professional settings and thinks Angelyne would be more financially successful if she were more amenable. "What I struggle with is that she doesn't have more," says Akerlund. "Her demands are her biggest enemy. It's very old school, and it's a huge limitation. These days, people just move on."
Still, Angelyne remains confident in the marketplace for her wares. As the sun sets, she pulls up curbside at the TCL Chinese Theatre for a moment to provide "a little taste" of the reliable core demographic base she can tap into whenever she so pleases. She rolls down the windows. Immediately, the assembled crowd swarms and heaves. "Wooooos" abound. Wolverine turns away from a picture with Asian tourists to wink at her. Wonder Woman drops to her knees a few feet away, exclaiming: "You look stunning! You're my idol!" A heavyset man saunters up close, his speech slurred: "Big old titties!"
With that, she peels out. "I could not do this without this car," she says as the Corvette picks up speed on Hollywood Boulevard. "I scram all the time." After a thoughtful interval: "Always have an escape route: metaphysically, physically, financially, emotionally. I don't think I have every base covered. I know I've got this car covered."
A week later, Angelyne's lounging on a boa- and cheetah-print-festooned chaise in her cramped office in a historic building near the Chinese Theatre, classical music wafting from the stereo. (She's an aficionado — Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess" a favorite; Debussy's oeuvre dismissed: "I come to find out Einstein didn't like it either.") Surrounded by framed, often topless portrait tableaux of herself (many are acrylic self-portraits with Keane- like eyes) and in all likelihood the world's foremost collection of Angelyne memorabilia, she perhaps is her own biggest fan.
She's reflecting on how she elicits an array of responses — "I'm a Rorschach test in pink," she says — from "an innocent little Barbie doll to, I guess, being a whore or a porn star, depending on who sees me. I spark the spirit." (She's fine with being mistaken for the latter; as she sees it, it's "pretty awesome" she gets to vicariously inhabit people's "sexual intensity without having to go through with it." Unlike Hilton or Kardashian, there never has been a nude Angelyne photograph, much less a sex tape.)
In the end, Angelyne professes to be unconcerned with how people digest what she puts out there. "I don't blame them if they roll their eyes," she says. "Everyone has a journey. They don't have to come on mine. I'm not a preacher. I'm just here to do my thing, and if people are inspired, then they are inspired."
She arches her back coquettishly, pulling the boas toward her, gazing at a painting of herself forever young on the wall. "I'm on top of a pink cloud on top of a pink mountain. I'm there, OK? If anybody can think to find me there, I'm there."
At the 1996 premiere of 'I Shot Andy Warhol,' Angelyne posed with (from left) performers Candy Ass, Alexis Arquette and Nina Hagen.