Fame by Anonymity: The true story of how Angelyne & Tommy Wiseau became Hollywood's billboard icons
The Room — which premiered in 2003 at the Laemmle Fairfax and Fallbrook theaters in Los Angeles — was promoted almost exclusively by a single, out of place billboard located on West Hollywood’s Highland Avenue. It featured a close-up of Tommy Wiseau’s face wearing a morose scowl; one of his eyes was suspended mid-blink. Although the film enjoyed a two-week run at the local theaters and grossed a total of $1,800, Wiseau paid $5,000 per month for over five years to keep the billboard up. It became an unlikely tourist attraction and helped propel the film and its creator into a cult phenomenon and cultural icon before it was taken down in 2008.
In 2017, fourteen years after the infamous billboard first went up, the same billboard space was rented to promote The Disaster Artist, a film based on the book about the making of The Room. The biographical comedy-drama became a big hit, earning a number of nominations and a Golden Globe for James Franco in the Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy category for his portrayal of Wiseau. It also renewed interest in its enigmatic and unconventional subject, whose personal history is so riddled with inconsistencies, plotholes, and misdirection, it somehow manages to rival the ones found in the narrative of his film — which, in and of itself, is rather monumental.
We don’t know all that much about Tommy Wiseau. Until the release of The Disaster Artist in 2017, we couldn’t even confirm that he was originally from Europe, a fact Wiseau finally verified that November. We also don’t know how old he is, where he got the money to finance the movie, or when and why he moved to America. The mystery of his background coupled with the bewildering work that propelled him to stardom solidified his place as one of the weirdest and yet most adored cult figures of our time. It’s hard to deny that what Wiseau lacks in filmmaking sophistication, he makes up for with a talent for marketing; he is, by definition, successful.
The billboard for The Room is proof — a symbol — of Wiseau’s ability to leverage everything he’s got to get everything he’s always wanted. According to Aja Romano writing for Vox:
“It was a mostly black-and-white movie ad, and its only prominent features were the name of its subject, a website, and a phone number to ‘RSVP’ for a showing at one of the film’s only two release locations… The lack of context surrounding the ominous photo made the ad difficult to parse. Was The Room a noir crime thriller? A gothic horror? A scam ad for a bail bondsman or perhaps a vampire cult LARP?... Had The Room not come packaged with so much internal befuddlement, a legendarily strange production experience, and a mysterious man at its center, it would have been destined for obscurity.”
Romano goes on to explain that “the characters in The Room seem to be caught in a surreal alternate universe where human behavior has none of its traditionally understood signifiers.” This observation hits the nail on the head for two reasons: The first is obvious to any English speaker who’s watched the film. The second is less so; Wiseau, aside from being in character for the film, is a character in real life, too. There’s a consistency and a meticulousness about him, and to how he likes to present himself to the public; and yet, from his signature image to his body of work, Tommy Wiseau often seems to be from a different world.
In a 2017 interview, Tom Bissell — co-writer of The Disaster Artist (2013) — noted that The Room “is like a movie made by an alien who has never seen a movie, but has had movies thoroughly explained to him. There's not often that a work of film has every creative decision that's made in it on a moment-by-moment basis seemingly be the wrong one.” Even though Wiseau took acting classes and was willing to spend a staggering amount of resources to achieve his dream, he was profoundly inflexible and terrible at taking practical advice from experienced people. Instead, he threw out the map and paved his own, much longer, way.
Aside from touching on the mysterious background of Tommy Wiseau, his efforts to make the film, and the tactics he employed to promote it, he is not the only mysterious cult figure invoked in The Disaster Artist. Nor is he the first to parley an established advertising strategy to market a product unlike any other. Long before the rise of social media and the emergence of influencer culture driven by personal branding and digital advertising, the world was introduced to a new kind of celebrity, one that splashed onto the scene in the form of a “bright pink light.” Her name is Angelyne.
On a fairly unremarkable February morning in 1984, an enormous billboard featuring a very sexy and busty woman was erected on Sunset Boulevard. She was beautiful, blond, and somewhat of a mystery; aside from her management’s phone number and a short slogan that read “Angelyne Rocks,” no other information was available. People had questions, and so they started calling. The success of the first billboard proved that fame did not necessarily have to be achieved, it could be acquired and then leveraged for success. By 1995, Angelyne had a music career, numerous film appearances, and 200 billboards with her likeness peppered around L.A..
“I am famous for being on billboards,” she explains to a man struggling to understand the reason behind her notoriety in a media segment filmed around that time. It was a difficult concept to comprehend, since Angelyne is credited with being the first person to become famous for no reason. Except, there was a reason. Just two years before the appearance of her first billboard, Angelyne released a new wave album that caused little to no excitement for the aspiring artist. What she needed to do was create a little bit of intrigue, which she did by mixing two distinctly different but compatible ideas: fame and anonymity.
“You want to grab people’s attention? You have you tease!” purrs Emmy Rossum as Angelyne in a recently released trailer for the upcoming series by the same name. Everyone in L. A. knows of Angelyne; the unofficial Patron Saint of Hollywood and the locals’ good luck charm has been cruising the city in her signature pink corvettes for nearly 40 years and is still regularly spotted around — picking up coffee, shopping, and selling Angelyne merchandise from the back of her car. And yet, for a city saturated with Angelyne fans, you’ll be hard pressed to find people who know anything personal about the woman they dubbed the Billboard Queen.
She seems to distance herself from anyone who gets too close; the ultimate embodiment of escapism is a unicorn that identifies as a roadrunner. Reading interviews with Angelyne reveals her regular use of deflection. Her answers tend to be short and sweet, but also vague, aloof, and intangible. And, they are usually followed by questions of her own. By doing this, Angelyne is able to assess her interviewers and to take control of the narratives as they progress, so as not to reveal too little or too much about herself. As such, for nearly 40 years, Angelyne’s life before the dawn of her billboard era remained veiled in mystery.
Verifiable information pertaining to Angelyne’s personal history first emerged only three years ago, in 2017, when Gary Baum broke the fascinating story in The Hollywood Reporter: “Copies of immigration, marriage and death records pointed to a cloaked prehistory of Renee Tami Goldberg (originally Ronia Tamar Goldberg), which seems to reveal the trauma Angelyne had both emerged and escaped from.” It’s hard to say why Renee Goldberg wanted to evolve into Angelyne, but based on the carefully crafted hyperreality that she’s consistently projected for nearly a half a century, she took the transition very seriously.
The Disaster Artist features two of L.A.’s most famous cult icons and living legends, who happened to heavily rely on the power of print media and enigma to bring their fantasies to life. But, the similarities between Wiseau and Angelyne don’t stop there. Coincidentally, the year the film premiered is also the year personal information about each of them was independently revealed to the public. Turns out, uncovered documents show that both of the Los Angeles staples were actually born in Poland around the 1950s; despite the emergence of these disclosures, Wiseau and Angelyne seem unwilling and uninterested in addressing them.
On top of their similar origins, both Wiseau and Angelyne appear to have a very unusual sense of style. If Wiseau looks like an Eastern-European cosplayer imitating Glenn Danzig and Fabio Lanzoni at the same time, Angelyne resembles a punk rock inspired caricature of Jane Mansfield, Barbie, and Jessica Rabbit. Aside from their strong visual presence, each has an immediately identifiable way of speaking. Wiseau’s heavy accent, reliable catch phrases, and unique way of stringing sentences together are just as emblematic of him as Angelyne’s high pitched voice and coquettish “Ahs” and “Oohs” are of her.
And then there are the billboards. In both cases, the ads were off kilter, unorthodox, and remarkably minimalist: an in-your-face image of a larger than life personality, a phone number, plus some very concise and uninformative text. Coupled with the mystery of how Wiseau and Angelyne managed to afford the cost of keeping their ads up in the locations they were in and the durations they were there for, the similarities between their journeys seem rather uncanny. But, that’s only on the surface. Two decades prior to the premier of The Room and the erection of its infamous billboard, Angelyne charted a new course for every ambitious DIY dreamer.
“Angelyne had single-handedly created and then inhabited a modern myth of L.A.: the platinum blond bombshell in the bright pink Corvette forever circumnavigating the city, seeking to enchant by dint of her sheer superficial glamour,” writes Baum. “It had the aesthetic power and emotional resonance of genuine performance art, Marina Abramovic by way of John Waters, particularly as she kept on rambling around the city over the decades while she aged.” Long live the Billboard Queen!