Twenty years ago today I photographed Hollywood icon Angelyne.

I was commissioned by a New York agency to shoot a new campaign for IKEA.  The agency’s concept was to have IKEA redecorate Los Angeles.  We photographed a series of seven different large productions over the course of a couple of weeks.  In each image we IKEA-ized an iconic L.A. fixture.  We ran a string of IKEA lamps as far as the eye could see along the boardwalk at Venice Beach and shot models at sunset as they skated in the lamp’s glow, we remodeled a Malibu lifeguard stand complete with IKEA fixtures, furniture, rugs, towels and window treatments.  We replaced all of the outdoor tables and umbrellas at Gladstones complete with dishes, decorations, plants, curtains, etc.  In what we all considered a stroke of genius, the final concept was to photograph L.A.’s own iconic billboard pin-up, Angelyne, on an IKEA bed instead of stretched out on her signature pink Corvette.

For those unfamiliar with the enigmatic Angelyne, the phenomenon is difficult to explain.  From the first time I visited L.A. and pretty consistently up until a few years ago you could not avoid seeing giant pink billboards plastered everywhere  advertising Angelyne.  I never knew her claim-to-fame other than the billboards themselves, I didn’t know any one else that knew, I still don’t.  The images always featured big blonde hair and bright pink lips on a well-endowed woman of no specific age, often accompanied by a phone number and her bright pink Corvette that perpetually darted up and down the Sunset Strip.

Drive-by photo of billboard on Sunset Strip.

Drive-by photo of billboard on Sunset Strip.

IKEA took the bait and called the number.  Fortunately, her schedule was open.  They offered her a bunch of money and we booked Angelyne for the campaign. It was to be the last image in the series and much simpler than the previous images as it was the only one in studio and relatively straight-forward.  We had been dealing with massive cranes that wanted to sink in the surf, thousands of feet of electrical cables buried in wet sand, custom convertibles that had to stay dry, and a torrent of endless, unrelenting rain that made that quintessential “sunny California look” a challenge.  With those hurdles behind us we were all relieved that we could wrap the campaign with a shoot that should offer few surprises.  On the other hand…you can prepare for rain.

A couple of evenings before the shoot I received a call from a gentleman who identified himself as Angelyne’s lawyer,  he was drafting a agreement for me to sign.  My contract was with IKEA and I had not been part of their negotiations with Angelyne so I directed him to their legal team but he was having none of it.  He got very confrontational and insisted that I had to sign a contract that would forbid me from selling the images to anyone other than IKEA.  I explained that a clause to that effect existed in the contract I had already signed and that I was already legally bound in that manner when he exclaimed “Then you are a liar”.  More amused than incensed,  I listened as he went into a lengthy diatribe about how Angelyne was the greatest living sex symbol since Marilyn and given the demand, the temptation would prove too much for me to resist.  After a lengthy, exhausting conversation he agreed to take the matter up with my client.  Late the following evening he called again and asked if I would sign-off on a separate agreement, of course I was curious.  I was presented with a lengthy laundry list of demands, the highlights for me were that I could only refer to Angelyne while on set as “Bubble-Butt”, that she would have the option of having dinner with my first assistant if she so chose and that we would provide a prime parking space for her Corvette with a sign that portrayed her sitting on a cloud of cotton that read “Angelyne – Photogenic God”.  In that moment I realized that this absurdity was theater, Koufman-esque;  I thought I was getting my first glimpse behind the curtain into what Angelyne actually did.  Delighted I was in on the joke, it all started to make sense.  ”Fax it over, I’ll sign it”.

I have to go on record and say I am not the first to write an account of this session. Shortly after the shoot her assistant quit and wrote an article about the experience for a popular men’s magazine.  If anyone reading this knows where that article can be found I would love to provide a link.

The mood at my studio was great, everyone was excited to wrap the campaign and now that we thought we “got” Angelyne we pulled out all the stops.  My studio manager wore a pink dress and a blonde wig, we literally filled the dressing room with pink balloons, we had pink cupcakes, the parking sign had become an art project.  In every way we could imagine we rolled out the “pink carpet” anticipating her arrival.

Angelyne arrived in full make-up and in full wardrobe accompanied by a small entourage that consisted of her hair/make-up artist, a young personal assistant, her husband and another man that was an associate of her husband’s that I thought might be the lawyer with whom I had spoken.  After makingall the introductions she immediately disappeared into the dressing room releasing a flood of pink balloons into the studio without comment. Eventually Angelyne reappeared exactly as before except with the elbow-length evening gloves that the clients had specifically requested.  The details of the gloves have escaped me over the years and while they appeared quite ordinary,  they had some significance in Hollywood history and had been rented from a private collection.  Angelyne took her position across the bedding without saying a word.

I shot a final polaroid, discussed it with Angelyne and the clients and we all agreed to start shooting film without any further tweaking.  After the first exposure (we were shooting 4×5 sheet film) Angelyne sat up and asked me precisely how many exposures I would take.  I answered “Only as many as it takes to satisfy the client’s needs”.  She insisted on a number, refusing to limit myself I threw out something like “200”.  She then informed us that her lawyer assured her that I had agreed to shoot no more than 20 exposures, which alarmed my clients and brought the shoot to a halt.  Confused, I turned to the gentleman that I thought might be her council and was informed that he was not the man with whom I had spoken.  As it turned out, the guy that did her hair and make-up was the “lawyer” that had contacted me.  By now he had disappeared back into the make-up room so I called him to set and insisted he inform her that nothing of the sort had ever been discussed, which he sheepishly did.  She refused to continue until a number was determined.  After a bazaar negotiation, 33 “the age of Christ at his crucification” was agreed to by the client and we continued without incident.  Angelyne did insist, however, that after each exposure her assistant (I later found out it was his first day on the job) was to stand up and say “That was number six.  The next will be number seven” and so on, and then be seated.  After each exposure someone else in her entourage would say at a barely audible volume “Oop-oopy-do”.  I shot nineteen sheets of film.  Since we had frames to spare I picked up a Holga that happened to be on the cart and fired off a few parting shots.  We quickly wrapped the shoot, Angelyne was pleasant and took photos with some of the clients and left just as she had arrived, sans the gloves.

With her departure I was disappointed that she would not be having dinner with my assistant as I was hoping we might get some insight into what just happened, he was disappointed not to get the overtime.  A few minutes later the wardrobe person realized the gloves had been misplaced and my studio was immediately turned upside-down.  The client informed me days later that the gloves had been recovered.

Was it theater?  Would Andy Kaufman be proud?  I have no idea.