« Gia’s beauty and energy were only equalled by the pain and solitude that led her on the path of drug abuse and to the abyss of no return. »… Marcellous L. JONES
« Sa beauté et énergie ont été égalées que par la douleur et la solitude qui l’ont menée sur le chemin de la drogue et à l’abîme de non retour. »… Marcellous L. JONES
Gia, born Gia (Marie) Carangi on January 29, 1960, was a leading supermodel from the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Her life, a vicious and tragic circle of unhappiness and drug addiction, came to an even more tragic end. Infected with HIV, she died on November 18, 1986 due to AIDS-related complications.
Gia was among the very first women in the public’s eye to die from the disease. Her life, her grief, her battle with drugs and her untimely death served as a wakeup call to many in the fashion industry and the world over. Her death came at a time when the White House and First Lady Nancy Reagan raged a relentless battle against drug addiction in the US. Her death inspired the writing of countless articles, eulogies, television interviews and specials. It eventually became the subject the HBO television movie, “GIA”, for which Angelie Jolie picked up a best actress Emmy award for her disturbing performance of Gia Carangi.
From the day of Gia Marie Carangi’s birth, the Carangi clan new that she was special and that she would have a destiny different from others, yet one from which the world could learn. During an interview for the E! True Hollywood Story, Joe, Gia’s brother, remembered said, “She had a special place being a girl”.
The Carangis raised Gia in the outskirts of Philadelphia, where her father, Joe, owned a string of hoagie shops. Her mother, Kathleen Carangi, took care of the kids. Despite the appearance of normalcy, turbulent arguments were often a part of the Carangi family’s daily regiment. “Gia and I used to sit on top of the steps every night and listen to them fight, and we hated it,” recanted her brother, Michael Carangi.
In 1971, Kathleen moved out, leaving her husband and her children. At that time Gia was only eleven. This break-up and particularly the absence of Katherine to whom Gia was very close devastated her. Kathleen subsequently remarried a year later, dispersing any illusions of a possible reconciliation and a normal family life for Gia. From the abandonment that she felt from her mother’s leaving them to her remarrying, Gia would develop a fear of loneliness that ironically created a depth in her that no one would ever be able to access.
Gia grew up feeling lost, abandoned and wanting of something that she could never have. She shifted back and forth as a teenager between two households. No one in the family paid much attention to her, which meant that she was left on her own to develop as a person. And with no supervision or anyone in whom to confide, she did whatever pleased her – good and bad. During this period, she began experiment with alcohol, pills and marijuana.
It was during these years of no supervision where Gia met another teenage girl named Karen Karuza. The two became best friends and nearly inseparable. “When I first met her… She had this bouncing around family situation and back and fourth and whatever,” said Karen during an interview for the American television network ABC. “There was a lot kind of going on inside her, she was very street-smart, but there was a lot of pain and it all kind of comes out and you can feel it.”
She found support in a rebellious group of friends. They became the family that Gia longed for since childhood. She began hanging at the gay clubs in downtown Phildelphia with kids older than her and young adults. It was during this time that Gia’s sexuality emerged. She and her friends identified greatly with David Bowie who claimed that it was okay to be gay or bisexual. Gia was very open about her sexuality, though Kathleen Carangi was greatly disappointed in the sexual “choice” of her daughter.
By the age of fifteen or sixteen, Gia had developed into a beautiful young woman with an exotic and stunning face and an incredible figure. Kathleen took notice and encouraged her to get into modelling. Others would soon take note of Gia’s great beauty too.
Maurice Tannenbaum, discovered Gia, then 17, while a night club called the DCA. The hair-stylist and aspiring photographer introduced himself to her. She was fascinated by the idea of him wanting to photograph her. “You could see this raw beauty”, says Tannenbaum. Soon after beginning to work together, Tannenbaum took an excited, yet very nervous Gia to New York. Kathleen nervously waited elsewhere, Tannenbaum and Gia met with former modelling legend Wilhelmina Cooper, who had her own agency named after her. “Willie” was so excited about Gia’s look that she even forgot to formalize things with a contract. This “oubli” was soon corrected.
In early 1978 and at the age of 18, Gia moved to New York City to pursue her career full-time. Wilhelmina pushed her and promoted her to all the top magazines and to all her top clients. Her rise seemed instantaneous and Gia was the undisputed “it” girl.
Photographers loved her street-smart attitude wrapped in jeans, leather and top with audacious beauty. Francesco Scavullo said of Gia from the first time he laid eyes on her in person: “There’s only been maybe 3 girls in my whole career that have walked into my studio and I went ‘wow’. Gia was the last who came in here and I said ‘wow.'” She rapidly became a favourite of Scavullo and other top photographers like Arthur Elgort and Chris von Wangenheim.
Von Wangenheim and Gia made magic together. Her image was perfect for his well-known “violent, off-coloured fashion layouts.” In October of 1978 Wangenheim photographed Gia for Vogue. After finishing the Vogue shoot, Gia accepted von Wangenheim’s invitation to remain on to do some nude work. In his book, Fashion Theory, Wangenheim talks about that shoot, which became known as “The Girl Behind the Fence”. In it, he says, “Gia has a great figure, unbeatable, the best tits in the business.”
During this photo session, rising makeup artist Sandy Linter worked with Gia. The model fell instantly in love with her and began trying to court her. They two did have a relationship that became the talk of the New York fashion scene. Linter said of their relation ship, “She sent flowers to me, and she really sort of courted me, which I thought was adorable. Eventually I did go out with her. She’s the type of person at that time, and anyone who knew her at the time can tell you, if she showed up on your doorsteps and you opened the door and she got in your apartment she was there, that’s it,”
Gia’s savage beauty was due to her greatly mixed bloodline. Part Italian, part Welsh and part Irish, she broke all the stereotypes and notions of the day which imposed the clean California beauty of other models like Christie Brinkley. She was the mould from which others like Janice Dickerson, Cindy Crawford and Rachel Hunter would be able to make it in the industry. Many said that she had the most beautiful breasts in the entire business and that she didn’t need to tape them for the Cosmo covers. By the end of 1978, Gia, then 18 years old, had taken the fashion world by storm and was earning in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. She appeared in the top magazines including the American edition of Vogue.
The following year was perhaps the finest in her career. She got the April 1979 cover of Vogue in the UK, France and the USA. In 1980, she appeared on the August cover of Vogue Paris and Vogue (USA) in November of the same year. In 1981 she snagged the cover of Italian Vogue, and also the covers of various editions of Cosmopolitan from 1979 to 1982.
During her career, Gia never faced the rejection that comes along with the territory of being a model. She was considered a truly rare gem of perfect beauty, blessed with a perfect body.
At a time when it appeared that things were coming together for her, Gia became more and more lost. With no stability and still on a quest for an unobtainable sense of love, compassion and understanding, she would fall instantly in love with people she barely knew. On this, former model Julie Foster said during an interview for the E! True Hollywood Story, on the life of Gia, “She was looking for anyone’s love, she would show up at my house sometimes in the middle of the night, and I’d let her in, and she just wanted someone to hug her. It was very sad.”
During the 1970s, cocaine was the drug of predilection. It flowed openly and abundantly at the hottest clubs at which Gia was a regular fixture. Among them, were the Mudd Club and the now infamous Studio 54.
In January of 1980 Wilhelmina Cooper, Gia agent and somewhat surrogate mother, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Gia was devastated and turned more and more to drugs to escape her pain and reality of Wilhelmina’s imminent death. Her behavior radically changed and became unpredictable and even violent at times.
A month later while on a photo shoot in the Caribbean, fashion editor Sean Byrnes detected Gia’s problem with drugs: “In the rough ocean everything is splashing and crashing around on this little boat and cabin cruiser and I find this little package on the floor, I look at it and I say ‘uhmm, not good,’ so I throw it overboard and then the poopoo hits the fan on the island because she doesn’t have her drugs.”
Scavullo was the photographer on that particular shoot in the Caribbean and said of her, “She was crying, she couldn’t find her drugs. I literally had to lay her down on her bed until she fell asleep.”
Upon her return to New York a month later, Wilhelmina Cooper died at the age of 40. At Cooper’s funeral, agents approached Gia with new contract deals. But still suffering from the loss of her mentor’s death, Gia took her addiction to a new low and in the Spring of 1980, she found the escape she look for in heroin.
Gia loved heroin because it made her forget the unhappy circumstances of her own existence. The drug was quick to take its toll on Carangi, and led her further into the abyss of eternal darkness from which no return would be possible.
Her behaviour became more and more erratic and her tantrums became more and more uncontrollable. She began showing up late to work, walking out of photo shoots and even sleeping in front of the camera. She became more concerned with her next hit than with work. She would often head to the bathroom to shoot heroin. On E!, Janice Dickerson recanted the story of how on one studio shoot with Gia for a magazine, she crossed Gia on the way to the toilets. Gia offered her drugs which turned out to be heroin.
On the November 1980 edition of Vogue, the track marks from her heroin addiction can be easily seen with the naked eye. The layout’s title – now ironic – was called The Start Of Something Pretty…
In his book, the award-winning investigative journalist Stephen Fried is quoted as saying, “In a number of the shots – which were of bathing suits and summer wear – there were visible, red bumps in the crooks of her elbows, track marks.”
Another insider said of that event, “I remember when those pictures came in,” says one insider. “There was a big scene in the art department.” The shots were edited and airbrushed to minimize the obvious…”
During an interview with the American network, ABC, Scavullo admitted, “We all were aware that Gia was on drugs. It wasn’t a secret, but nobody discussed it. I never discussed it with her. Truth is that a lot of the people in the business were taking drugs; the whole era was out of control. And as an out-of-control drug user, Gia was going to galleries to shoot heroin.” Gia would go through nearly four bags of heroin at a time. She was beyond the help of her friends who tried to come to her rescue.
In November of 1980, Gia left the Wilhelmina Agency and signed with Eileen Ford. But after only three weeks, Eileen Ford – known for her mother like approach to the business — kicked her out of Ford Models due to her behaviour.
In February of 1981, Gia was no where to be found. She had literally vanished into thin air. She went away to get clean and to pick up the pieces of her life. She enrolled in a 21-day detoxification program, after which she moved in with her mother. She then met and started dating, Rochelle (Eylssa Golden). Rochelle was a college and reportedly had a bigger problem with drugs than Gia. Rochelle’s presence derailed all hopes of a full escape from addiction by the recovering model.
After being arrested for drunk-driving a few months later in the spring, she was caught stealing from her family and friends. In the spring of 1981, Gia once again left her mother’s house and moved in with some friends and went back into rehab. Her recent sobriety was destroyed upon learning that her close friend and photographer Chris Von Wangenheim had been killed in a car accident. It was the excuse that Gia needed to revert back to her old ways. She locked herself in her bathroom and spent hours shooting heroin.
Years of drug abuse had left Gia’s hand scarred by an ugly abscess. Her arms were covered with track marks and her back was covered with unsightly cists. She also put on weight.
Determined to beat her heroin addiction and return to New York as a model, Gia contacted Monique Pillard. The French born Pillard was the architect of Janice Dickerson’s career. Pillard said, “She was sitting in my chair and I said, ‘Gia, I want to represent you so badly and everything, but I hear a lot of negative stories about you.’ And I remember I asked her ‘well, why are you wearing such a long shirt? Can I see your arms?’ And she said ‘No!’ And she held on to her shirt and she said to me, ‘Do you want to represent me or not?'”
Pillard decided to give Gia a chance and signed her. Gia for her part worked hard to convince the sceptics by continuing her drug treatment program in Philadelphia and commuting to New York only when jobs were available.
At one point, she was at Elite Model Management in New York. In 1982, Gia appeared on the American television program, 20/20 and denied firmly denied that she was using drugs. Though her performance on that episode dedicated to top models was unconvincing, Monique Pillard still worked hard to find her work. She said, “One instance when she was working in New York at a studio and the photographer called me up and said ‘Come and get her, I am throwing her out of the studio. She fell asleep in front of the set and she burned her chest with the cigarette.'” Years later on the set of Oprah, Pillard said: “I tried personally to reform her many, many times and I was never successful. You can take a horse to water but you cannot make him drink. You have got to make her want it.”
Gia was a tough act and few wanted to give her chance. So she turned to friend photographer Francesco Scavullo. He gave Gia what would be her last cover, the April 1982 edition of Cosmopolitan. It was rumoured that Gia tucked her arms behind her back in order to hide her drug marks. Scavullo emphatically denies it saying that it was done in order to hide a bit of the weight that Gia had gained.
Work offers did come for the unraveling model from a new market in Germany. It was not the most prestigious of work for her as West Germany’s budding fashion industry was snubbed by designers in Paris, New York and Milan. In spite of the Germans’ offer to pay $10,000 a week to have her, Gia’s reputation had gotten so bad that no one wanted to book her. Then in the spring of 1983, she was busted with drugs during a photo shoot in North Africa. Her career was over.
Gia moved to Atlantic City where she shared an apartment with Rochelle. After pressure from her family, Gia entered for the last time into a rehab program. While at the program in Eagleville Hospital in Montgomery County, she declared herself indigent and was on welfare.
Six months after seeking treatment she so desperately needed, Gia left Eagleville Hospital and stayed in suburban Philadelphia. She sold jeans at the King of Prussia Mall and also worked as a cashier in a local supermarket. She worked at living without drugs. She even enrolled at a community college and developed an interest in photography and cinematography. However, only three months after leaving rehab, Gia disappeared again. She had fallen of the wagon for the last time and was back in Atlantic City shooting heroin again. She sold her body to men for drug money and was the victim of several rapes. Finally sick from pneumonia and weak, she called out to her mother. Kathleen had her admitted into a hospital where tests confirmed that she had AIDS.
As AIDS was a newly diagnosed disease, treatments were limited or even non existent at the time. Gia’s condition rapidly worsened. Her doctors had her transferred to Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
There her mother remained with her night and day. The disease had ravaged her once stunning face. She was dehydrated and began suffering vaginal bleeding. Her mother allow few people to visit the dying Gia, and her conditioned steadily worsened until the end was all too near. It was during these tragic last moments of Gia’s life that she would finally have her mother’s undivided attention.
As Kathleen did not allow anyone to go into the hospital and visit Gia, most of Gia’s friends and colleagues from the fashion industry didn’t know how seriously ill the former supermodel had become. This would lead to much anger and resentment from the part of Gia friends toward Kathleen upon learning of Gia’s death. Rob Fay, an old friend from her rehab days at Eagleville was allowed to see her. Within weeks, Gia’s was put on a respirator. At around 10:00am on November 18, 1986, Gia died at 26. Her once beautiful face and body had been so terrifyingly and horrifically ravaged by AIDS that the funeral director gravely recommended that her casket be closed.
On November 23, 1986, Gia Marie Carangi was laid to rest after a service held at a small funeral home in Philadelphia. No one from the fashion industry attended her funeral. None of them knew as Kathleen had worked to keep Gia’s death a secret. Scavullo and others from the industry that had known and loved her cried upon having learned of her death only weeks after her burial. Many were angry at Kathleen for keeping her friends away from her at the hospital as well as for keeping her death and funeral secret. She had her reasons. She did not want people to see her baby’s remains like that. She wanted the world to always remember her as being beautiful.
In 1993 Stephen Fried published his biography on the world’s most beautiful and tragic fashion model. The HBO film, GIA, based on that book debuted in 1998. It starred Angelie Jolie in the title role and served to bring the Gia back into the attention of the public.