From the mid-’80s through the early ’00s, she was inescapable. Billboards throughout Los Angeles featured a blonde, pink-clad woman named Angelyne, and they weren’t promoting anything except the simple fact that she existed. When Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian were still in diapers, Angelyne was famous because she said she was. She’d cruise highways beneath her billboard, stopping at street corners to mingle with fans and sell pricey merchandise. To see her was an event. The whole thing was about as L.A. as it gets.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Angelyne, however, is that nobody knows who she is. Like Banksy, there are countless theories as to her true identity, but no concrete proof. Well, until now.
After writing a profile of Angelyne in 2015, The Hollywood Reporter’s Gary Baum found himself approached by an anonymous “genealogist” who, by utilizing materials culled from “a global network of public databases,” uncovered both her real name and family history. Baum has now written a fascinating story outlining his attempts to corroborate the genealogist’s information, during which he tries (and mostly fails) to glean information from Angelyne’s supposed family members, assistant, lawyers, and even Angelyne herself.
Born Renee Tami Goldberg, Angelyne was born in Poland in 1950 to a pair of Holocaust survivors. They eventually found themselves in California, where she ended up marrying “the son of a Beverly Hills executive” before divorcing him and repackaging herself as Angelyne. Her ex, Michael Strauss, emerges as the only person willing to speak about who she was before abandoning her identity.
We chatted for an hour. Strauss had tender memories of Goldberg, referring alternatively in the past and present to her as “Angelyne” and “Renee.” He’d never spoken publicly about the identity of his first wife before, and only rarely in private, he said. (An exception: In 2016 when she applied for a new driver’s license, a DMV investigator contacted him to corroborate her true identity.)
Strauss explained that Goldberg’s childhood had been difficult. Her father, a man with a concentration camp number tattooed on his arm, had been controlling, cruel and narrow-minded, propelling her to flee home early. Like many survivors of trauma, Henry didn’t discuss it. This extended, to Strauss’ memory, as far as Goldberg’s own history; her father told her she was born in Israel, not a German displaced-persons camp. Regardless, “she has never considered herself Jewish.”
After they broke up—it was amicable—he traveled for several years, returning to L.A. in the mid-1970s. “I hooked up with Renee again, and she was Angelyne,” he said. “I wasn’t there when she made the transition. All of a sudden, big boobs, blond hair, this voice—the voice used to make me nuts. It didn’t compute with who I’d known she was.”
While it might be easy to read the story as a tragic one, what with Goldberg seemingly running away from what she considered an unhappy life, Baum’s story resonates more as an example of a Hollywood dream made manifest. For years, people have viewed Los Angeles as a place of rebirth, a kaleidoscopic haven where your past doesn’t matter and the future is whatever you want it to be. Goldberg’s story is of someone doing just that.