NOW THAT THE TRUE IDENTITY of the eccentric Los Angeles personality Angelyne has been exposed, one crucial question still remains: Is she a celebrity, or is she a performance artist? Best known for appearing on a series of eye-popping billboards across LA, beginning in 1984 and peaking in the ’90s with two hundred simultaneous ads, she is a self-made, heavily augmented pin-up who became famous for being famous when Kim Kardashian was still in preschool. Barbie-like, almost comically pneumatic, she was never advertising anything on those billboards other than her own existence, making the whole project an intriguing commentary on the hollow, facile nature of Hollywood stardom itself. If she is a celebrity, she is exactly the kind of celebrity that drives cultural purists bonkers, being both very sexualized and truly pointless. If she is an artist, how might I describe her? I would say that Angelyne is what might happen if, instead of being married and then horribly divorced, Jeff Koons and Cicciolina, through some misbegotten lab experiment, were forced to share a single body. She is Cindy Sherman if, instead of slipping on a thousand different personalities, she had spent four decades embodying and reembodying one, letting it overtake her until she eventually went at least a little mad.
Angelyne may be a genius. She is also, arguably, a genuinely significant contemporary art-historical figure, one whose candy-bright oeuvre of self-détournement merits as much analysis and inquiry as the work of many more “serious” artists. Accordingly, I was somewhat nervous to watch Angelyne, a lightly fictionalized biography now streaming on Peacock. The five-episode miniseries arrives at the peak of what I might describe as the Gillespiefication of the recent history of celebrity women: With I, Tonya (2017) and the recent series Pam and Tommy, the director Craig Gillespie has pioneered a distinctive style of biopic, focusing specifically on women who have weathered either scandal or derision, and then punching up their stories with a strain of irreverent, prankish black comedy that is either playfully punk or terribly unkind, depending who you ask. Although Gillespie was not directly involved in Angelyne, its creator is his Lars and the Real Girl screenwriter Nancy Oliver, and the show shares some stylistic DNA with his material. Present are the brash and flashy needle-drops; the all-caps, brightly colored titles; the actress hiding underneath prosthetics; the humorously conflicting reports of events delivered either via simulated interviews or through replayed and edited scenes. Happily, though, Angelyne diverges from the recent Pam and Tommy in its handling of the buxom blonde babe at its center: Where the latter series’ Pamela Anderson was too often depicted as a simpering naïf, Angelyne is fully credited as the canny architect of her own image, describing herself as “a Rorschach test, but in pink.”
The show is in part an adaptation of a 2017 piece in The Hollywood Reporter which revealed that, in spite of her previous claims about having been born either in the US or in outer space, Angelyne was in fact the child of Polish Jews who met in the Chmielnik ghetto during World War II, and her family had emigrated to Los Angeles in 1959. Wanting to reinvent herself as an American woman, it occurred to Angelyne in the early ’70s that there was no more effective way to become American than to become very famous, and that being famous for being blonde and having an enormous bosom would be more American still. (Pamela Anderson, lest we forget, had a similar idea, having moved to LA from British Columbia.)
“I’m something you have to feel, something you have to experience,” she tells an interviewer in the show, a tagline so smooth and so generic that it might as easily be used to advertise a car, a chocolate bar, or a new brand of razors. Emmy Rossum, lacquered in a metric ton of makeup, approximates Angelyne’s babyish purr and Betty Boop mannerisms to a tee; she also lends her an unnerving blend of business savvy and dissociated otherworldliness, with the episodes dissolving into fantasy whenever Angelyne feels life becoming too “real.” Does Angelyne think of its titular platinum weirdo as an artist? Well, like many artists, its version of her lives almost entirely in her head, using pain as inspiration for her practice. Like some artists I can think of, too, she balances an avowed interest in “bring[ing] the consciousness of all mankind a few steps higher” with a passion for material goods and personal wealth. “Your car is supposed to be an extension of you,” she says about her famous pink Corvette, sounding for all the world like J. G. Ballard Barbie. Later in the show, appearing as a talk-show guest, she proves that even if she was once the daughter of Polish immigrants, she is now as American as they come. The host asks why she wanted to be famous in the first place, and she looks at him as if he is an idiot. “Well, to make money,” she says, smiling. “Isn’t money adorable?”
Angelyne is currently streaming on Peacock.