EDITOR'S NOTE: In the first of a two-part story, the local woman whose life became a national topic of conversation speaks about the "Catfish" phenomenon. Part two will appear Sunday.
MARQUETTE - Angela Wesselman-Pierce is coming out of her shell.
While many won't immediately recognize her name, some will have a rush of awareness when told her nickname she's referred to by many meeting her for the first time: "The Catfish Lady."
Angela Wesselman-Pierce of Ishpeming, known as “the Catfish Lady” for her involvement in the film “Catfish,” is shown recently with one of her paintings. (Journbal photo by Renee Prusi)
After the documentary "Catfish" was discussed by talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and the three young New York City filmmakers who put it together in the autumn of 2010, Pierce's quiet existence in Ishpeming became anything but serene.
Pierce, 42, said she has wanted to talk about things with the local newspaper since October, when "Catfish" became the talk of the Upper Peninsula, really of much of the world. But an agreement she signed with the studio that produced the film prevented her from doing any press outside of what was pre-approved for her.
But recently, she wrote something to go with her part of the Art on Ice exhibit in Ishpeming.
On the Net:
"I wrote about how it feels to be an artist in the U.P. with a limited amount of opportunity for exposure," she said.
Exposure was anything but limited, however, when "Catfish" became something of a phenomenon. For those who have yet to see it, "Catfish" is the story of Ishpeming resident Pierce, who's an artist, and Yaniv Schulman, a photographer from NYC, and how through the social network Facebook they developed a relationship full of twists, turns, surprises, truths and falsehoods.
In an interview this week, Pierce said she was not ready for what happened once the film started getting attention.
"I remember when the studio called and said the movie was going to Sundance," Pierce said, referring to one of the most prestigious film festivals in America. "I was surprised by that.
"When the movie opened nationally, it was overwhelming. It was a flood of attention. And I just shut down. It was so much more than a small little film. It was a big deal. I was stunned."
Pierce said people need to understand that what moviegoers see in "Catfish" unfolded in late 2007 and 2008 but the film didn't hit the media mainstream until the late summer of 2010. And Pierce's life had changed dramatically in that time span.
The New York filmmakers captured their first face-to-face meeting with Pierce in August 2008. On Oct. 11, 2008, Pierce's life took a dramatic turn.
"My stepson passed away. It is the hardest thing I have been through," she said. "I am fortunate I had a lot of good support or I wouldn't have made it through that."
Her stepson, who's name is not being used at the family's request, and his twin brother, who is now 22, had been part of "Catfish." Because of a medical condition both boys were born with, they have developmental challenges and require constant care.
"When he died, the dynamic of my home changed. (The twin's) behavior changed dramatically," Pierce said. "With one here, the other had someone to play with. Now (my stepson) has me to play with. It has had an effect on me, on all of us. Obviously he misses his brother. We all do. (My stepson) needs my attention.
"Before, I was focusing a lot on art," she said. "Now, my focus is on my family. I honor that before anything else."
And with "Catfish" bringing attention to her and her family from sources like TMZ, The Los Angeles Times, People magazine and other national media - as well as strangers who felt free to walk up onto the family's porch to stare into their home - the pressure was really on in late 2010.
"In the movie, they 'Googled' my address and showed my daughter in the yard," Pierce said. "How weird is that, right?
"What's funny is when I started using Facebook, I thought it was a safe, quiet, private thing. And as everyone knows now, I found out it is not that at all. What you put on Facebook has the potential to go out to the whole world, no matter what your privacy settings are. You don't know who has access to what you post."
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.