The Tao of Angelyne: On Temple Grandin, H. G. Wells, and Being “It”




WHEN I RECENTLY saw my neurologist, I noticed two, slightly different color wheels taped to his exam room wall. I figured they were for some kind of perception test, but instead they belonged to his newest obsession: different theories of color (his last mania had him eating nothing but egg whites). Though usually hurried and gruff, on this occasion he enthusiastically outlined Goethe’s critique of Newton’s widely accepted prismatic analysis. My doctor finds the German Romantic author more convincing than the British father of Western science. The two famous thinkers disagreed on magenta, he said. It’s extra-spectral, off the rainbow, at the junction of infrared and ultraviolet. It has no wavelength to make it visible, which Newton took to mean that it only exists in our heads. Goethe protested that we see magenta — ergo it must exist. I had read this somewhere before.

This is how I understand what I’ll call the Tao of Angelyne, and how she understands herself. An improbable streak of magenta across the Los Angeles landscape, she delights some and confounds plenty more. She can’t possibly be this fabulous; and yet, she is. In her past 30 years on the scene, all kinds of theories have circulated to explain her, creating a Kane-like composite portrait of the real-life mud-flap girl. I had my vicarious run-in with Goethe shortly after interviewing Angelyne, and I remembered I’d read other discussions where she had invoked the unique scientific quality of her trademark hue. Now I realized she’d been serious — serious, and right.

Such has been the nature of my Angelyne experience.

It generally galls me to hear non-Angelenos describe things as “so LA,” commonly summoning some show business stereotype. To these people, the bodacious billboard babe may be a figure in the old Hollywood story, hacked at by narrators from Nathanael West to Jacqueline Susann. But the more time I spend immersed in Angelyne’s oeuvre, the harder it becomes to characterize. Her collectible magazine, for instance, compiles an appealing menagerie of lawn flamingoes and obscure superheroes with meditations on subjects like the right to die, and a tribute to the early jazz career of an optometrist at Cedars-Sinai (“Dr. Lazarus”). It’s a bewitching kind of magical realism.

Angelyne is part of the bawdy, busty blonde tradition, with predecessors like comedienne Mae West and successors like pink-loving pop star Nicki Minaj, plus both gender-bending and semi-explicit contemporaries like RuPaul and Pam Anderson. We could add prototypes Harlow and Mansfield, but perhaps more proximately German punk Nina Hagen — a friend of Angelyne’s — and new wave queen Debbie Harry, an acknowledged object of her admiration.

From another angle, Angelyne can be classed as local color. In Los Angeles, as in other cities, this includes urban fixtures from buskers to vendors to the more tenacious protestors; in Austin, it famously used to be beloved, quasi-homeless tranny “Leslie.” Here we have various defunct metal-heads and pornographers holding court on the once-glorious Strip. These people become sort of human landmarks, but encountering Angelyne is the most coveted experience in part because, unlike Motorhead’s Lemmy, we don’t know quite where she’ll appear. Some people tell me they’ve only seen her trademark neon Corvette, and then just in motion. But also unlike Disneyland’s roving Minnie Mouse, Angelyne volubly returns greetings from the passers-by who call out her name.

Angelyne has also had a political career, which I’ve supported in my own small way by writing in her name on my ballot in the last mayoral election rather than choose Garcetti or Greuel. Angelyne formally ran for Hollywood’s would-be City Council in 2002, when the neighborhood tried to secede from Los Angeles, and again for California governor in the election to recall Gray Davis. I don’t think she would have made a more dubious state emissary than the Aryan cyborg who won. Or take the recent Congressional candidacy of Marianne Williamson to represent LA’s wealthy coastal district. While I have no doubt that Williamson is an inspiring influence, I’m not convinced that the self-help guru’s platform of “spiritual citizenship” was any better conceived than Angelyne’s single plank, “honesty.”

Perhaps the most fitting though amorphous designation for Angelyne is that of what the English call an “It Girl.” Confused by vocationally ambiguous public figures when living in London, learning this simple coinage gave me a cognitive category for British tabloid fixtures like ex-Duchess Sarah Ferguson, and also for trans-Atlantic indie dilettante Vincent Gallo (an art-world It Boy at the time, soon to be replaced by an unpleasantly ubiquitous US peer). Only Americans, after all, identify people completely with their jobs. Some people are just It.

Still, the rich and royal have long seized the spotlight. It’s quite another thing for the self-made, like Angelyne, to manage it. Unlike some acolytes of Andy Warhol or John Waters (Candy Darling, Divine, et al.), Angelyne doesn’t aspire to some more traditional stardom. Local personalities like punk scenester Iris Berry and rock groupie Pamela Des Barres found their fame by association with successful musicians, and while I appreciate their places in LA lore, Angelyne has outdone them all by doing It alone — without even the help of reality TV.

In person, people are thrilled to see her, but online, they are horribly cruel. What accounts for the stark difference? I don’t think it’s the same voices, turning around to unleash their Internet id. So who are Angelyne’s web detractors? Surely some of the digital derision comes from struggling actors, bored office workers, and garden-variety misogynist trolls (the critics also make lots of spelling errors, and I suspect have sex with the lights off). Even so, journalistic sources from the Los Angeles Times to Variety have had nasty things to post or print about Angelyne’s far-out style and blithely buoyant attitude. It’s worth noting that high profile women across occupations come in for similar ridicule. And it’s safe to say that Angelyne’s trade in sexual signifiers helps rile up the prudes, especially now that she’s older.

Would the critics accept her if her story were a tragic one, or if she were part of a coterie? Is her cosmetic surgery much different from other Angelenos’ tattoos? Are her super-sized ads a real leap from the “For Your Consideration” billboards around town this time of year? Angelyne’s joke is on those who don’t see it. Before she said it aloud to me, I’d mused that she was a mirror: for some a funhouse glass, for some a silver tray. To me, she’s a spinning, flashing disco ball.

I’d been dreaming for months of interviewing Angelyne; I’d even come up with some questions. I was preparing to make the request of her handlers. Angelyne could be notoriously cagey toward the press, with good reason: they weren’t always respectful. And so it happened that leading up to Christmas, I’d ordered a Highsmith anthology for my dad and was driving to Skylight to get it when I saw Angelyne’s sports car parked along a curb. I pulled over and unloaded my dog as quickly as I could, crossing my fingers that I’d catch the legend before she peeled away. I knew I’d be more likely to win her favor in person; if nothing else, my Labrador is hard to deny. I found Angelyne sitting in her car, and approached the passenger window. Ten minutes later I left for the bookstore with a T-shirt, an autographed dog tag, an assistant’s phone number, and a date for the Coffee Bean.

What follows is an edited transcript of that interview with Angelyne.

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BONNIE JOHNSON: I’ve been getting lots of compliments on the shirt you sold me. I didn’t wear it today because I thought that might be gauche, like wearing a band’s T-shirt when you go to see them play.

ANGELYNE: I didn’t know that was a protocol.

It is, but anyway, I’m getting too old to be cool.

You’re never too old. There’s this John Waters tribute tonight; do you know about it?

No, but I love his work. I met him recently and he was really nice, too.

I don’t think so. He interviewed me for Rolling Stone once and said he’d like to be a fly on my bedroom wall. He didn’t mean it in a good way, trust me. Is that not a creepy image to you, a fly in your bedroom with that mustache?

That’s a good point.

Would you like to taste my drink? It’s a special Angelyne concoction, with vanilla syrup. They make it just for me.

Thanks, but is there milk in it? I’m vegan.

That’s interesting. You know, I’ve been thinking about Temple Grandin, because my interest these days is in a pain-free existence for everyone. One of my friends recently had kidney stones and said, “This is just how it works.” But I believe it shouldn’t be. I don’t like the interplay between the positive and the negative all the time.

It seems frustrating not to accept that, though. Doesn’t it only end when we die?

Maybe so. Where do we go when we die?

Well, my grandma died recently, and she went in a pine box.

Was that what she wanted? What about her soul? What about yours?

Yeah, she didn’t want to be embalmed or anything. She was religious, so she thought she was going to heaven. I’m not, so she probably thought I was going to hell. I think I’m just going into another box, unless I’m cremated.

Will you feel sad if that’s all?

No. I won’t feel anything, because I’ll be dead.

That would be fine with me too, if that’s how it all ends. I have an opinion about reincarnation: I don’t like it.

It does seem kind of exhausting. You know, I’ve wanted to tell you, as a freelance writer, I sometimes think of what you said in a previous interview — that while an actress in a film has the director giving her feedback, you just have to encourage yourself.

Yeah, though I get a lot of eyeball feedback.

How does that vary in different parts of the city?

Even the guys living under the freeway see my car and say hello.

Do you feel less vulnerable in your car than on foot?

Yes, of course. When I go to the store or wherever, I park close to the building. What about you? Walking with your dog, can she be a shield for you?

Sort of. Having her means I’m on foot a lot, which puts me in the way of more unwanted male attention, but she can deflect some of that. And then the attention I get on foot affects what I wear and where I go, but just having her does, too. You have a dog?

I do, Buddha, but I don’t take care of him. Just taking care of Angelyne is too much work! He stays locally with the people who gave him to me on a Japanese TV show. They’re a family, and they love him, too. I’m his favorite, though. I see him about twice a week.

Tell me about the people who work for you. Scott, whom I talked to on the phone, he’s the president of your fan club?

He’s also been my assistant for 27 years. I have a lawyer to go over contracts, an accountant, someone to handle graphics, someone to wash the car — people I hire for different things, though sometimes they’re fans that volunteer. I live in Malibu, but have an office on Hollywood Boulevard, and one at a secret location out of town.

You cover the expenses with royalties, or what do you call it —

Usage fees. For instance, one of my billboards is in the new Terminator movie, so they pay for my image. But even just selling my merchandise helps. I won’t sell it to everyone though; the other day a girl wanted to buy $300 worth of stuff from me, and I said “no” because I didn’t like her. And I don’t endorse products other than my own; while I might sell an Angelyne perfume for example, I wouldn’t be in an ad for The Coffee Bean.

I understand. I know that you’ve modeled, acted, sung, and painted, but above all, you are. Was this always your goal?

Even when I was three, I had the idea of myself as a queen. I always knew I wanted to reach lots of people. Do you think some of us just grow up with that seed inside of us?

Maybe so. I know what you mean, to have a calling, because it seems like most people just want —

To have kids? I think it’s a crime to bring new people into this world.

Exactly. And I agree with you completely. So when you finished school, did you start right down this path, or did it require a period of self-discovery to figure it out?

Well, whether I was taking classes or working, whoever was around me would tell me I ought to be famous. Then, all I did was put up the billboards. After that, everything else came to me. People got interested; I’ve been in The New York Times. But I don’t want to be everywhere, like Britney Spears or something. More like a unicorn.

I know what you mean. When people see you, they’re glad to see you. Still, do you worry that media sometimes misunderstand or misrepresent you?

I’m a mirror that reflects what’s in people’s minds back to them, and I like that. It’s part of what I do. Some people look at me and think of a Barbie doll, others see me and think of a porn star. You see me as a rebel because that’s how you think.

It is.

I feel like a little girl talking to a much older woman.

In a good way?

It’s great! Maybe this conversation will lead us both to a new place. We can do it again. I like how you are.

I like how you are, Angelyne. I have a couple more questions. What do you think of reality TV?

Entertainment has reached this point now that as a society, we’ve progressed past survival worries. When we had to harvest all our own food by hand, no one would have thought of these things. Now our options just multiply more and more quickly. Do you agree?

Absolutely. I just worry that all those options leave us more and more passive. You and I talked briefly the other day about not being online, that neither of us likes it or does it beyond email. In your case, why not?

It’s laborious and boring. Why would I be on a computer when I can be out in the real world? My fans promote me on the web, but I don’t ask anyone to do it. My lawyer has a Twitter he uses to make sure no one impersonates me. Just because you and I don’t like always being on gadgets though doesn’t mean it’s wrong for other people.

That’s fair. You were way ahead of the current game; you really demonstrated social media concepts before they showed up online — personal branding, viral memes and such. Since then, have you felt any pressure to make more concerted use of digital platforms?

No, I think I’m beyond that. Maybe you just have to reach a certain level first. Do people pressure you?

Not quite as much now that they’re starting to see all the problems with it, but for a while I had to tell people that Facebook was against my religion.

I love that!

Thanks. Any favorites to share? A certain author, recipe, film?

The 1960 version of H. G. Wells’s Time Machine. The inventor in the story travels across time to receive and impart certain kinds of awareness, and these days I’m trying to travel within a different dimension. While some people use meditation, I’m seeking my own way to pierce through the superficial layer of consciousness to one that’s always waiting just behind it — maybe call it the euphoric layer. Do you know Alan Watts’ shows on KPFK? He was a Buddhist philosopher and psychologist and an early psychedelics advocate; he worked with Aldous Huxley. Check him out.

I’ll have to.

Here’s a flyer for the show tonight; my friend’s in it as a dancer.

Thanks! That reminds me, you do the splits, right? I read something recently about how the splits are bad for our hips. I got worried because I used to do them too.

Which way though? One leg in front? That’s the Japanese way. I do the American way, down the middle, so that’s probably safe. I like your hair, by the way.

Thanks, I do it myself. I’ve done it all different ways, but this is my default.

Her face lights up.

You’ve been blond?

I sure have.

I walk Angelyne to her car. She hugs me, opens her door, and looks up at the sky.

Look how fluffy those clouds are!

She bounces, claps, and squeals. As she vanishes into a hot pink sky, her plates confirm “ANGELNN.”

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Bonnie Johnson studied Modern Thought and Politics at Stanford and the LSE. She recently completed a memoir of her time as a labor and community organizer. She lives in Los Angeles.


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