If you, like me, aren’t from LA, the rise and iconography of Angelyne and her billboard fronting image may not register with you simply from hearing her name or seeing the trailer for the new limited series from Peacock (which debuts May 19) starring (and produced by) Emmy Rossum. But the story of Angelyne isn’t limited in its relevance to Angelinos or children of the ’80s and ’90s when her fame was at its apex. It isn’t really limited to Angelyne, either.
“The idea of getting to live an authentic life and getting to define what that feels like for yourself is the kernel that resonates with me,” said Rossum when we spoke recently, adding “we’re seeing that go through our culture now” before praising the boldness of people who define how they want to live.
That modern-day relevance fuels a project that is as much about reinvention, control, and fame in general as it is about Angelyne. A project Rossum has been working on for four years, counting an 18-month pandemic break in between filming when she also had a child. The dedication was total, from the point of optioning a Hollywood Reporter article that sought to shine a light on Angelyne’s mysterious past to the release of a project where she painstakingly researched and transformed herself to play Angelyne across the span of more than 50 years.
But while that article revealed certain details about a woman whose career had been, to that point, bolstered by mystery and a carefully cultivated image, Rossum contends that it only added to the legend of Angelyne; another story to feed the fame machine that Angelyne has so skillfully utilized since her first billboard appearance in the early ’80s.
We spoke with Rossum about that machine, fame culture in 2022, the empowering message at the heart of this story, and how Angelyne freed her to do this in her own way.
I want to start with a big kind of overarching question. Obviously, so much of this is focused on someone who was a pre-internet sensation at the start of their career, has the internet ruined the mystique of fame?
That’s such a loaded question.
I suppose it depends on if the person thinks that mystique is inherently linked to fame. I think now we’re showing that it’s not. It’s not inherently needed to have fame. In fact, although Angelyne knows that she is the precursor to all of the women that have come in her wake, I think the thing that she is acutely aware of is that she doesn’t give it all away. She doesn’t allow you to peek behind the curtain and see the wizard, right? With a lot of these other women, you are seeing their home life, how they organize their pantries, you’re at doctor’s appointments with them, you’re in the delivery room with them!
So yes, I think social media, the internet media itself, the rise of paparazzi, and the rise also of the person on the street that’s capturing things (who is not even an official paparazzi) add to social media. I think that does kind of definitely detract from enigma, mystery, mystique. I think one of the things that’s so brilliant about Angelyne is that she didn’t ever try to contradict any of the inaccuracies out there about her. She knew that contradictions, some of which she fueled even herself in contradicting stories, would only add to that fame machine for her, and ultimately that’s the goal, the love of the world.
There was, of course, the Hollywood Reporter story that talked about her past and revealed a bit about her. Is the way this is done with the mixed narratives and the surrealism (which I love) an effort to sort of muddy the water between what is known and not known about her?
I think the show itself is not a biopic. It’s really an examination of fame and the fame machine and how fame in and of itself becomes almost a crowdsourced narrative. And I think it’s an examination of all of the people throughout the last five decades who have attempted to co-opt the narrative of Angelyne, and us turning the finger back on ourselves and calling out the failure of the biopic. I mean, ultimately, the show opens with two-dimensional images being assembled together of a human being. We are never going to get a three-dimensional image and that’s not really what we’re after. I think only Angelyne can tell her story. But for us, the most interesting thing was all of the different stories that have been told about her that kind of formed this kaleidoscopic narrative of an icon.
Although the Hollywood Reporter, which was the article that I optioned in order to pitch this show, claimed to reveal her backstory, I found that it only deepened the mystery for me. Because in response to that article, we called into question a lot of things in it and offered many, many other possibilities of what the truth was. And I don’t think there is ever one truth and certainly [it] cannot be captured in one story. I think ultimately, we were interested in all of the many stories, and although the Hollywood Reporter one was deeper and more poignant and offered specifics that were fascinating, I think ultimately, when I asked Angelyne about that, she said, “I’m an icon, and I want you to tell the story that inspires you. And that way it will be your story and not my story, because only I can tell my story,” and that was really liberating and empowering and that’s kind of how we tried to approach the series.
Angelyne is a completely unconventional person. So I think we tried to take the same unconventional approach with the storytelling from using really, really accurate things, like specifically reconstructed archive footage and then going all the way in the other direction to fantastical stories. You know, outer space, descending from a pink moon, fantastical dance numbers, and then even like hunting around on Reddit and subreddits for other things that people had said about her. Interviewing almost anyone that would talk to us about her, including her, and just getting this overall sense of the mythology that surrounds her. I think that for me, and for Allison [Miller] and Lucy [Tcherniak] I know that was the most interesting part. And that’s ultimately why I think she gave us the rights to tell this story, because we weren’t interested in making a documentary. She is making that for herself.
The relationships with men in her life in the episodes I have seen have been largely non-sexual but these men are totally dedicated to her. What is it about her persona and her vibe that makes people want to bend over backward and really just give their lives to her?
I think it’s really something different for everyone, which is really interesting. But I think she is one of those incredibly magnetic people. I think she’s always in control. I think not showing her in intimate sexual moments was a very conscious decision for us. We think that it’s really interesting to show that a woman can have sexual feminine power and have it not be about sex. I think she was really a trailblazer. I think she was a conceptual person and had ideas about things. I think she has incredibly specific ideas about her image and control over that, and I think she really is a performance artist.
When you think about her level of dedication and control over her image, I think about it almost like Ansel Adams might supervise the printing of his platinum print of the Sequoia tree. I think she really knows the power of an image, and I think she’s clearly been influenced by the images of Marilyn Monroe, of the Barbie doll, of these hyper-feminine women that retained the love of America. In our world, I mean, fame is like the most powerful currency in our country. So I think that fame equals love, and I think that was important.
To come back to your question, because I think I wandered a bit. She’s a very interesting, very unique blend of incredibly intelligent, incredibly in control in every environment, almost unflappable, and yet incredibly playful, magical, and childlike. And there’s something about how she just never stops moving. She’s like a hummingbird, there’s something very magnetic about her. I found it when I met her. You just can’t take your eyes off of her.
It really is fascinating when you come across people like that. It’s amazing when you’re in a room with someone like that.
It’s very unique. Where you’re just like, “Whoa, that person vibrates hard. That is electric. I don’t know what that is, but I want to be next to that.”
In terms of her focus on managing her image specifically, and her quote, “brand.” Anything you take away from that yourself in your career?
Oh, it’s interesting because Angelyne’s really living, breathing performance art. There’s no other Angelyne, right? I become different people, and then I go home and I’m Emmy. I wear Emmy’s clothes. This isn’t a costume for her. This is who she is. She has transformed her body and her voice, and there is no other anymore. Maybe there was at one time. So for me, it’s more of a malleable fungible thing. But I think in the same way that Angelyne created Angelyne out of survival, this was survival from something, those are her words. I think for me, there is a lot of safety and emotional catharsis and survival that I find through my work, for my own personal trauma. It’s interesting because it’s different, right? For her, she always likes to be in control. And for me, I love to feel out of control when it’s within my control. [Laughs] I like to know where the scene is starting and know where the scene is ending, and in that way, I can color as far outside of the lines within that. There’s a seatbelt and a safety of knowing. I know where I go in and I know that I can get out, and I know I won’t get lost in it, but I can go as far as I want within that.
‘Angelyne’ debuts on Peacock on May 19, 2022