For Emmy Rossum, California ‘80s personality Angelyne wasn’t about the hair or the heels or even the boobs. It was about the voice.
Rossum, 35, first saw the billboard queen when she was 13, driving around Los Angeles with her mom, shuffling from audition to audition in a Hertz rental car. Angelyne became a player on the L.A. scene in the 1980s with a series of billboards that showed her posing seductively with just one word: her name. No one seemed sure what she did. She was otherworldly, high above the city, all pink and ethereal. She didn’t do anything. She just was.
“I remember… being so struck by this hypercurated image of femininity and mystery,” the New York native told the Daily News.
“Wherever I would go, I would ask people, ‘Who is Angelyne?’ and everybody had the same response: They lit up with joy and then told a completely different story about how they saw her or where she was from.”
“Angelyne,” which premiered Thursday on Peacock, doesn’t try to explain her. It cares less about her backstory — the Poland-born daughter of Holocaust survivors — than about what she is at this very moment, whenever that is.
“Angelyne is an incredibly inspiring and unconventional icon, and to me, the most interesting thing about her is that there were so many stories that existed about her,” said Rossum, who stars as the woman famous for being famous. “We tried to honor that, and honor her essence and spirit and return some of that mystery to her.”
Rossum studied film to nail Angelyne’s posture, her mannerisms and, most importantly, her voice, a baby voice punctuated by her trademark “Oooo!” exclamation. She re-recorded her songs, most notably “Kiss Me L.A.” Then she sat down with Angelyne herself, not to get details and specifics, but to get a vibe.
“She gave me a piece of advice about playing her,” Rossum said. “‘I’m a mirror. I’m a Rorschach test. Whatever you see, that’s the story I want you to tell.’”
Through the pink, “Angelyne” still tells a story about how a woman became an icon. How she found a printing shop owner, Maurice Wallach (Martin Freeman), who got her the first billboard, then dozens after that. How she was hunted by men trying to figure her out, first wannabe documentarian Max Allen (Lukas Gage), then Hollywood reporter Jeff Glasner (Alex Karpovsky), based on a real reporter, Gary Baum, who figured her out the best.
But she was always in complete control. Angelyne was a carefully crafted image, like the greatest influencer. She shared what she wanted and never more. Some of it was true, much of it wasn’t.
“Why should we know about people? Why should we want to know about your childhood if it’s not relevant to what you do now? When I was a kid, you wrote in your diary. It’s the polar opposite now: everything personal, painful, traumatic, you’re putting out there,” Freeman told The News.
“And I think, a lot of the time, you’re putting it out there under the guise of, ‘I’m a good, saintly person because I’m sharing my truth,’ ... but I think some things should be private.”
There’s a way in which Angelyne could have come off as naive or even privileged. You can’t walk around Los Angeles and pretend that you can make the bad go away by squeezing your eyes closed really tight. But she did.
“She chose to see the magic and the beauty in things and living in this kind of fantasy world,” Gage told The News. “Everybody had the idea that it wasn’t real but we wanted to escape as well.”
Rossum described Angelyne as “a punk rock Barbie doll meets Marilyn Monroe meets Betty Boop/Hello Kitty with a little bit of Barbarella.” Eventually, she was replaced by Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. But Angelyne, for as long as she could and no matter how fake it may have been, brought joy to a dark world.
“Whatever we see in her is the truth for us. That’s what icons do: They serve to speak to something that strikes a chord within us,” Rossum told The News.
“She’s a beacon of pink positivity and life. She’s the ultimate fantasy. She’s rad.”
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