‘Angelyne’ Investigator Gary Baum on Searching Out the True Story Behind the Hollywood Icon

·7 min read

For decades, countless Angelenos wondered about the identity of the mysterious blonde bombshell who appeared on hundreds of billboards across town beginning in the mid ’80s, most bearing little but her pseudonym: Angelyne.

A precursor to famous-for-being-famous megastars like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, Angelyne was the ultimate pop-culture tease. Her intention was to pique curiosity, but never satisfy it.

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It wasn’t until The Hollywood Reporter‘s Gary Baum published two probing feature profiles of her — in 2015 and 2017 — that her true story was revealed: The sex-symbol who eternally cruised around L.A. in a pink Corvette and seemed to embody the glitz of the city itself was born about as far from that world as one could imagine— in Poland, in 1950, to Holocaust survivors.

Baum’s investigative reporting formed the basis for Peacock’s miniseries Angelynestarring Emmy Rossum. In the following conversation over the THR Slack channel, Baum, a consultant on the show, revealed what it was like to see his work — and himself — depicted on screen, and the extent to which the series differed from reality.

How did you first become interested in Angelyne?

I grew up in Los Angeles, so she’s always been on my radar. At The Hollywood Reporter, I’ve investigated local landmarks and cultural phenomena, from the Walk of Fame to the Hollywood Sign. Examining Angelyne seemed like a natural part of that larger inquiry.

Where did that inquiry lead?

Well, in my original story on Angelyne, the 2015 profile, I found both an intellect as well as a darkness that isn’t immediately evident in her public persona. Then, in my 2017 investigation, I explored and interrogated the darkness that I believe propelled her to create her persona in the first place.

You describe her life as performance art — a cross, as you put it, between Marina Abramovic and John Waters. To what extent did the mask ever fall with you?

Only at brief moments, when she’d turn solemn. The pitch of her voice would fall, or her body — which has a hummingbird quality to its movement — would still itself.

She clearly didn’t want her past revealed — how did you justify pursuing that story?

Angelyne is a public figure who sought her fame. She’s achieved her goal: To become an influential icon, a powerful myth, a lasting legend. Now she bears the burden of interpretation and examination. Beyond that, I practice journalism. The pursuit of truths is often intrusive, impolite, even rude.

Angelyne gave Emmy Rossum her blessing to play her in the show, and was well-compensated for her life rights. But recently, Angelyne has repudiated the show. Did this surprise you?

Not at all. I recall telling Emmy, during a meeting shortly after she optioned my work, that Angelyne had told me years earlier that she didn’t believe any actress, no matter how talented, could possibly play her — no matter how sensitive or generous the portrayal. The notion simply didn’t accord with Angelyne’s conception of herself.

Could it be that the “real” Angelyne was on board, but the persona had to reject the portrayal as part of the act?

That’s an intriguing theory. Angelyne rejects the idea that she has a persona. She simply has become who she is. But she certainly contains multitudes.

How accurate is Emmy Rossum’s portrayal, in your estimation?

Emmy’s portrayal is, at every turn, empathetic. It’s a bighearted take on the real-life Angelyne, who in my experience is less charming and more volatile.

In criticizing the series on Inside Edition, Angelyne said, “Would you be flattered if someone played you and misrepresented you?” As it happened, someone — namely Girls’ Alex Karpovsky — did play you in the same show. Well, were you flattered?

Gary Baum with Alex Karpovsky - Credit: Courtesy of Subject
Gary Baum with Alex Karpovsky - Credit: Courtesy of Subject

Courtesy of Subject

Sure — it’s surreal. Beyond her canned patter of quips, which are often self-effacing, Angelyne takes herself ultra-seriously. I found the prospect of being lightly fictionalized very amusing. Then again, my stand-in’s role isn’t the star. The renamed “Jeff Glaser” is merely an ensemble player. I’ve been informed by quite a few people who know me that Alex captured my mannerisms. He joked to me at the premiere that we’re just the same kind of Jew — gesticulating any less would’ve been an anti-Semitic acting choice.

In the show, Jeff Glaser is not the only one digging into the story of Angelyne. There’s also a young documentarian played by Lukas Gage. Is that character based in reality?

Yes, it’s based on Jesse Small, who contacted me shortly after my investigation was published. He wrote, “I guess I’ve been scooped!” He’d been pursuing a project about Angelyne for years and thought that, perhaps, the individual who tipped me off about her background might have previously pulled genealogical and other public records for him. While this purported connection is also inferred on the Peacock show, I’ll reiterate here that this simply isn’t the case. My source, who communicated with me under the pseudonym “Ed Thompson,” is a different person.

Anyway, we had a fascinating conversation over lunch, which I then published as an interview.

I found it notable that, like me, Jesse is an assimilated, secular Jew and Angeleno who grew up in the shadow of Angelyne’s billboards. We both were fascinated by her mythos and aesthetics.

You were a consultant on the show. What did that actually entail?

I met with the creative team, including the writers and producers. They grilled me and followed up on several occasions. I provided additional information, pulled from my notes, which hadn’t found a place in my published coverage. At one point I recall Emmy asking me if, when Angelyne was alone at home in front of her bathroom mirror, she thinks of herself as Angelyne — or Renee Goldberg [Angelyne’s birth name]. In the show, Lukas Gage’s documentarian poses a similar question of Hamish Linklater’s fan club president. Later, I offered notes on drafts of the script, and during pre-production I answered questions from department heads about everything from what I typically wear to work — I now feel like I need to buy a new wardrobe — to the objects on my newsroom desk.

Jeff Glaser’s watch looked nice. 

Thank you.

What did you make of the show’s depiction of the journalistic process?

While I do have some specific verisimilitude-related quibbles, I’m not going to nitpick them.

That said, Jeff Glaser’s journalism is mainly deployed as a narrative device to drive plot and conflict. To my mind, the show doesn’t fully convey how his stories shifted perception and discussion around Angelyne. I found that frustrating, because in real life the purpose of my inquiry was to advance a more compassionate understanding about her — which, as it happens, informed the highly sympathetic perspective of the series itself.

Were there any scenes involving you that you would have wanted to see dramatized?

I was surprised that the show didn’t dramatize the bizarre, charged final showdown between Angelyne and myself. She’d been avoiding me after I’d sent her smoking-gun documentation and requested to speak to her. Then, on a rainy night, I spotted her Corvette parked in front of the famed Rainbow Bar & Grill along the Sunset Strip. Inside, I confronted her, as Scott Hennig — fictionalized in the show by Linklater — stood by her side. The 2017 article renders the play-by-play of what happens. But the fraught discussion of Jewish identity in a stuck-in-amber Eighties hair metal hangout is, to me, a perfect encapsulation of the investigation itself.

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