From Homeless to Hollywood
‘Queen Mimi’ lived in a Santa Monica laundromat for nearly 20 years, and now a local filmmaker is about to make her a star
By Christina Campodonico
They call her the Queen of Montana Avenue.
A laundromat is her castle.
It isn’t hard to know when 90-year-old Marie “Mimi” Haist is holding court at Fox Laundry, a place she literally called home for 18 years. There’s a buzz in the air, and it isn’t static cling from the dryers. It’s Mimi. Her smile sparkles like the sequined pendant in her pink-streaked hair as she shuffles a rolling laundry cart around the washing machines. She moves slowly, careful with an injured wrist, but her effusive zest for life is contagious.
Mimi’s joie de vivre is even more remarkable when you consider she spent decades of her life here, working as a laundress for tips by day and sleeping on a chair behind the first row of washers at night.
But it was not lost time. Along the way, Mimi befriended not only laundromat owner Stan Fox and countless patrons, but also Hollywood stars Renée Zellweger and Zach Galifianakis.
The first question that comes to mind, of course: How?
Mimi is a woman of few words. But when she does talk, she speaks volumes.
One of her favorite sayings — or “Mimi-isms,” as her friends call them — is “Yesterday’s gone. Tomorrow isn’t here. We live now.”
Preoccupied with the present, Mimi is not one to talk readily about her past with strangers (nosy journalists included), which makes first-time filmmaker Yaniv Rokah’s forthcoming documentary about her journey from typical American housewife to homelessness to Queen of Montana Avenue and friend to the stars all the more extraordinary.
The film, titled “Queen Mimi,” charts Rokah’s five-year journey to assemble the puzzle pieces of Mimi’s mysterious and hard-knock life — how she became homeless and ended up living in a laundromat, yet befriended so many people that she became a living local legend.
Perhaps Mimi opened up to Rokah because he didn’t seek to pry into her life as much as understand it.
Rokah, then working as a barista while trying to make it in Hollywood, was genuinely intrigued by the omnipresent woman in the laundromat across the street from Caffee Luxxe.
“For me it was, ‘Who is this amazing woman?’ I wanted to get to know her, and I also kind of wanted to capture the magic, ‘cause I’ve never met anyone like Mimi before in my life — someone who just shows up and goes to work seven days a week and maintains such a positive outlook on life,” he says.
“It was a fresh breath of air. It was really magical, and I didn’t quite know that I was making a film. I knew I wanted to get Mimi, to just capture that ‘Mimi-ism.’ It started with my phone. I wasn’t even a filmmaker back then. I asked her, ‘Mimi, can we do some interviews?’ And she said, ‘Why not?’”
For Mimi, it didn’t hurt that Rokah brought her coffee and was easy on the eyes.
“He’s very good looking,” she says of her first of impression of him.
The respect and admiration was mutual.
“It was love at first sight,” Rokah says of their first encounter. “So I started bringing her coffee. It really started over coffee.”
Both were also, in a way, outsiders.
“Here I am coming to Los Angeles, trying to be an actor, and I find a diamond-in-the-rough across the street from me,” says Rokah. “You know, maybe it takes one outsider to recognize another from across the street.”
A friendship blossomed, but it was also tested throughout the filming process as Rokah interviewed Mimi about her life before the laundromat.
“The challenges were getting Mimi to talk about the many layers of her past and, you know, getting her to trust me, I guess. It took time,” Rokah explains.
He eventually learned that Mimi had led a pretty normal life as a suburban housewife in the San Fernando Valley until a divorce in her 50s left Mimi with a mortgage she couldn’t pay, forcing her to live in a car, then on the streets, then in the laundromat.
Another curve ball came when Rokah learned that Mimi, who had never mentioned having children, actually had two daughters — one who had died, the other still alive with children of her own.
At first Mimi didn’t want any mention of her daughter in the film — a falling out years ago had estranged them — but she had a change of heart after Rokah showed her a rough first cut of the documentary.
“She understood that she has such an important message to tell — that it’s more important than keeping her secrets for herself,” says Rokah, who believes being Mimi’s friend first and her documentarian second is what eventually earned her trust.
“Because we were friends, I didn’t want to do something against her will and I was patient. I knew that it takes time,” he says. “I think that’s also what’s charming about the film, the natural progression of finding things almost unintentionally.”
Mimi remains relatively tightlipped on the subject of her daughter, but her iron will is a testament to the resilient life she has led against all odds.
Without spoiling too much, Mimi’s story does have a happy ending thanks to fairy godmothers Zellwegger and Galifianakis.
Galifianakis met Mimi before the “The Hangover” — back when he was just another guy trying to make it in Hollywood who had to do laundry once in a while. After hitting the box office jackpot, he rented Mimi a nearby apartment; when Zellwegger heard the story, she helped Mimi furnish it.
But Mimi hasn’t let friends in high places or fame from the film, which has been making the indie film festival circuit, get to her head.
“People come into the laundromat where I work and say, ‘Oh, you’re so famous.’ And I’m almost embarrassed. When they ask me for my autograph, it just freaks me out,” Mimi says.
Yet even at 90, Mimi still goes to Fox Laundry seven days a week, rolling that laundry cart in and out to deliver her fluff-and-fold services to her clients.
“I come every day to keep busy,” she says.
And life keeps rolling on.
Queen Mimi opens on May 13 at Laemmle Monica Film Center, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica. Visit queenmimifilm.com for updates.