Thing of Beauty (Part 2)
How Gia Carangi carried the seeds of her own destruction
This is part two of a two-part article. To read part one, click here.
By this point, her parents knew of her heroin use, and her mother was trying to convince her to seek help. Gia moved home briefly, but left again when Kathleen discovered that she had stolen some of her jewelry, including her wedding ring from her first marriage. So Kathleen and Henry Sperr went to a magistrate, who offered to issue a warrant for Gia’s arrest as a way to force her into rehab. "It was the only suggestion that made any sense," Kathleen says. "Any other authority I talked to told me to wash my hands of her. Nobody wanted to touch a heroin addict. I wanted to get her committed, but because of her age and the fact that she was out of my household, I could have gone through the legal process and spent all this money and she could be out on the street again in 24 hours." The judge issued the warrant but Gia was never actively pursued. When she returned home in December of 1981, her mother decided not to turn her in. She seemed to be getting her life together and resumed modeling again in February of 1982, shuttling from Richboro to New York.
That spring, she made another of her partial comebacks, returning to the business with a new determination to use her modeling career as a steppingstone to TV commercials and acting. She took fewer print jobs and went to advertising agencies to compete for work in campaigns for Hanes panty hose, Don Q. rum and Silkience shampoo. On March 5th, as she noted in her Elite datebook, John Belushi died; they hadn’t been friendly, but he was certainly a part of her rock/drug world and his death served to further scare her straight. In April she did the taping for the 20-20 segment on modeling, which she hoped would accelerate the process by which anonymously beautiful models become household names. And, to complete her transition to a new life, she decided to rent a new apartment in New York before flying to California for a weeklong German catalog shooting. But the trip to Los Angeles did not go well. "The other models seem to resent me," she wrote in her datebook. "Is it jealousy or [are] all girls just like that . . . I get the feeling a few of them would like to pull my hair out. Why don’t I get those feelings toward other girls … sometimes they say things that are quite nasty and rude. I think it is a terrible part of the human race, a real flaw. I thought we were all suppose to love one another . . ."
As she flew back to New York after the job she wrote, " … here I sit … feeling very set apart from the other humans but I am finally really starting to dig being different. Maybe I am discovering who I am. Or maybe I’m just stoned again. Ha Ha Ha Ha … "
In May, Gia required surgery on her hand, because she had injected herself in the same place so many times that there was an open, infected tunnel leading into her vein. After the surgery, she still modeled sporadically, but her moods were swinging wildly. Over the next few months, things fell apart again. She walked out on shootings, fell asleep during jobs and refused to get help or even admit that she had a problem.
By the time the 20-20 program finally aired, it was more of a sad joke in the industry than a boost for Gia’s career. She was in the process of being blacklisted from her agency and even Scavullo — the last photographer whose sessions she could be counted on to show up for — knew that she couldn’t work. The door would always be left open for her, and she would periodically call in at Elite or the Scavullo studio to say she was still alive and hoping to come back soon. But by 1983, New York was over for her.
She returned to Philadelphia and moved back in with her mother. But only a few months later, Kathleen would undergo surgery. "I was having cataract surgery done," her mother says, "and the doctor said I shouldn’t have any kind of excitement. By that point I just couldn’t deal with her and I decided it was time to look out for me." So Gia moved with Rochelle into an apartment on Bainbridge Street. Gia was on a methadone program, but she was also using heroin. She bought the drugs by borrowing money. People gladly gave her the money, because they were afraid of what else she would be willing to do to get the cash.
"Those years were just unbelievable," her mother recalls. "I told my ex-husband that he. should be prepared for any news because she was capable of anything. People in that situation will do anything for drugs — hook, steal. I’ve had people tell me they’ve seen what amount to smoker fiIms of Gia. i just tried to prepare myself. I knew that any day I could get a call and she’d be dead."
Gia would move back and forth between New York, Philadelphia and Atlantic City. And as the cycle continued, the people whom Gia’s life touched went through cycles of their own. They blamed themselves, felt guilty they hadn’t done more to help her. They blamed others. Gia’s mother blamed Rochelle, who she believed "kept Gia on drugs as a way to keep control of her." Rochelle blamed Gia’s mother for not giving Gia the love and attention she needed. "Kathleen really did just ignore the drug thing like it wasn’t happening," Rochelle says. "When Gia was really bad, she would cry, ‘Why did my mother leave me when I was 11?’ "
Monique Pillard at Elite blamed New York itself: "New York was sort of a relapse for this girl," she says. "After a while I was saying, ‘What right do I have to bring this girl back when she was so unhappy in New York?’ "
Gia had gone through every penny she had made during her modeling career. "She spent an unbelievable amount on drugs," says Rochelle. "I would find bank statements and she would withdraw $1,000, then $3,000, then $5,000, then $10,000 — all in the same day. And she would walk around with the cash in her sock. She’d go down to these shooting galleries with $10,000 in her shoe."
In 1984, Gia and Rochelle moved to Atlantic City, living in an apartment above Gia’s father’s luncheonette. Gia sometimes worked for her father or at a pizza place on the Boardwalk; Rochelle worked in a beauty salon. They settled into a routine. "Every morning at 6 o’clock, I’d feel somebody pokin’ me," Rochelle recalls. "’C’mon, the clinic, the methadone," she’d say. It opened at 6. She’d poke until I’d tell her to take my car and go. Then she’d come back and say, ‘McDonald’s.’ She’d go there and come back and wave an Egg McMuffin in my face and then the methadone would kick in and she’d feel good. Then she wanted to have sex.
"Some mornings she liked to eat breakfast at the Cup and Saucer, this little diner. She always had creamed chipped beef on toast and she’d lean across the table and tell me she loved me.
"Gia would say that she wanted to do something else, not model. She wanted to do something she could be proud of, and we looked in career books and said how would you like to be a paramedic? She was into wearing a uniform and driving an ambulance: ‘Gia Carangi, emergency medical technician, yeah … they won’t laugh at me then, will they?’ "
Not long after they moved to Atlantic City, Gia’s mother came to visit. It was the first time mother and daughter had seen each other in over six months. "She was kind of huffy with me," Kathleen recalls, "and I said, ‘Don’t you understand that I had to say no?’ She said, ‘Maybe you should’ve done it before — this is the first time you ever said no to me.’ " During the next months, however, there would be no improvement in Gia’s condition or her relationship with her mother. Over that time she wrote, "I feel detached, misunderstood, confused and scared … agitation will find relief in the exercise of simple memories. Look not around, not forward-but back." Among the rock lyrics she composed was "Dope ain’t no joke/after one too many pokes/ where’s the laughter/insane passions/why is my face so ashen/living without dreams."
"I Guess You Wouldn’t Really Call It Rape Because She Wasn’t Screaming"
BY DECEMBER OF 1984, GIA HAD REACHED what everyone around her assumed was rock bottom. Rochelle was then forced to make the hardest decision of her life: She had to choose between her lover and her lover’s life. "I knew all along that if it hadn’t been for me, Gia would be living on the street," Rochelle says. "But I finally had to tell her I would leave her if she didn’t go into rehab. And I knew what was going to happen. I knew they’d say I was her enabler and that they would have to turn her against me. That’s how rehab works, they try to break the pattern of drug use by getting you away from the life that led you to it. I knew I was taking a chance that I would lose her. But I knew there wasn’t any choice."
After pressure from Rochelle and from her family, Gia finally entered a rehab program at Eagleville Hospital in Montgomery County. She had herself declared indigent so that welfare would pay for the treatment. Because of rules of confidentiality, no one from Eagleville would comment on her case. But what can be gathered from recollections of friends, relatives and several former Eagleville patients is that Gia entered the hospital in early December of 1984 and left two weeks later because her Aunt Barbaraher mother’s older sister and a particular favorite of Gia’s-died in an automobile accident on the way to Atlantic City. In her grief, she returned home to her mother, then left ten days later and went back to Atlantic City and to Rochelle. After a tumultuous few weeks – Gia and Rochelle always had a tempestuous relationship and there were often wrestling matches and fistfights-Gia agreed to return to Eagleville in February of 1985. After she went through detox, she was told that she would have to be separated from certain people in her life to break the cycle of dependency; she was barred from any contact with her mother or Rochelle.
During the rehab process, which involves extensive group and individual psychotherapy, Gia began to examine what her life had become, identifying the patterns of behavior that led her to need the escape of drugs. As part of the therapy, she drew a large mural depicting herself carrying a cross, floating somewhere between the earth and the sun. Her face had one weeping eye, a Bowie-esque lightning bolt, a question mark and stitches on her skull. In her chest was a broken heart and a small black swastika. On her arms were needle marks; on her genital area were male and female stick figures. Next to the figure she listed the themes that the drawing — and her therapy — sought to address: "confusion, hate, separation, frustration, growing pains, sexual abuse, mental abuse, helplessness, love."
In Eagleville, one of her closest friends was Rob Fay, a 28-year-old auto mechanic who had a problem with alcohol and cocaine. He met Gia when she was in the process of reconsidering almost everything; in many ways, he met her at the time when she most resembled the person everyone close to her suspected was trapped inside her troubled life.
"I met Gia on the grounds, and I had no idea who she was," Fay remembers. "Her mother wasn’t allowed to see her at that time. She was very attached to her mother. I remember one time we were flying kites — her kite was a yellow butterfly’ she loved yellow-and I said, ‘I like your kite.’ And then she just let the string go. And I said ‘What are you doing?’ and she said ‘I was just thinking about my mom. This is what I have to do with her.’
"She had obviously been through a lot of mental and physical abuse. Besides the thing with her father, she had been raped. There were times in New York when people just took advantage of her. I guess you wouldn’t really call it rape because she wasn’t screaming, but there were a lot of times when that happened and she didn’t want it to happen. Being as high as she was, she couldn’t argue, she didn’t even know what planet she was on. She had a lot of anger about that.
"She felt that at times the modeling was more an outlet for her mother than for her. She said that her mother was living her life through her; that’s pretty common. But she wasn’t forced to do anything.
"It’s just like her mother had a lot of bad feelings about Rochelle and blamed a lot of Gia’s life on her. That was bullshit — whatever Gia did, she did to herself. She shot the dope, let’s be real."
Gia left rehab in the late summer of 1985. She moved into an apartment in Norristown with some other girls and set out to look for a job. Throughout her life Gia had bought blank notebooks, filled them up halfway with drawings and poem and then put them aside; later on, she would flip them over and begin writing a new chapter in her life. This time she did the same thing with a book in which she had pasted Polaroids from her first big modeling jobs in New York and Europe complete with Paris and Milan phone numbers. She began this book again by making a note to herself to call the dentist, stop by the DPA office and buy a newspaper. From the paper, she culled a list of jobs appropriate to her new life: a $5 an-hour restaurant job, a $4-an-hour office cleaning position, various traineeships. She settled on a job selling jeans at The Gap in the King of Prussia mall and tried to figure out what to do next. She thought about going into the Marines or going into the visual arts as a photographer or cinematographer. And, for a while, she was opening up new worlds for her friend. "I knew Gia was gay so it was nothing romantic," Rob recalls. "She was like my sister. At first she was really enjoying sobriety. We would go places and that girl taught me how to enjoy everything. I mean, a bee coming at you, she would enjoy it. She had this sense of how important things are: snowin’ out, rainin’ out, leaves, stuff like that. The sound of traffic. Things I was just beginning to notice because I could see and hear again.
"And she loved kids. She’d see kids in the malls and she’d go over to them. She didn’t give a shit what the parents thought. Kids made her laugh. Little kids in the neighborhood would be yellin’ and screamin’ and you or I would say, ‘Goddamn I wish them kids would shut up.’ She’d say, ‘Listen to that, let’s go out and talk to those kids.’ "
But the good time was to be short-lived. Gia eventually left her new apartment and moved back in with her mother; all her old problems began again, including the heroin use. "I am at my mom’s again and feeling fucked-up," she wrote in her journal. "You see a quite odd thing happened … I fell in love with my [rehab] counselor and I think she just feels sorry for me … I hate anyone to pity me it [is] so degrading … I have a girl Rochelle who loves me and I her . . . I am just not ready for tieing up. Girls have always been a problem for me. I really don’t know why I bother with them . . . " But she was also beginning to feel strange physically, and as AIDS began to be featured more prominently in the national news, she started clipping articles about the disease. She was interested not only because of her intravenous drug use, but because some of the names in the headlines were people in her business. In October of 1985, Rock Hudson died; only months before, he had publicly announced that he had AIDS and had become an international symbol of the horror of the disease. In the spring of 1986, the country’s most visible AIDS victim was fashion designer Perry Ellis, for whom Gia had worked. Although Ellis publicly denied his illness, the image of this withered man at New York fashion events galvanized the beauty world. He died on May 30th.
Ironically, his death came only days after a dizzying chain of events in Gia’s life that concluded with her being diagnosed with AIDS-related complex. Gia went to Atlantic City and rejoined Rochelle. She also increased her use of heroin. She stole the cassette player in their apartment and sold it to buy drugs; she sold her car for $1,700 and used that money as well. When Rochelle returned to the apartment and found Gia wasted and her tape deck gone, the two had a brutal fight. Rochelle beat Gia up and tore off her shirt; Gia ran from the apartment topless and Rochelle called the police to find her. For the next 24 hours, Gia was on the street. She slept outside in the rain on a wet mattress and was raped by a man who found her lying there. Finally, she made it to her father’s apartment. He arranged for her to take a bus back to Philadelphia. She was picked up at the bus station by her mother, and was taken to a hospital that was reluctant to admit her because she was a junkie and at high risk for a disease few hospitals wanted to deal with. They finally admitted her with symptoms of pneumonia. Her blood tests also showed she had ARC, a precursor of AIDS.
"At the End, She Was Spared Nothing"
GIA CARANGI WOULD LIVE ONLY SIX months more, but they would be filled with the same kind of highs and lows that had punctuated her entire life. After she was diagnosed, her stepfather refused to allow her to live in their house. She moved in with a friend of Rob Fay’s and was eventually allowed to move back home when her stepfather relented. She saw Rochelle on and off, visited with friends, read books on philosophy and the Bible and spent time with Fay. In the early fall, her oldest brother’s wife had a baby in Ocean City. Gia wanted to visit but her sister-in-law was squeamish because of the AIDS. Gia went anyway. In August, makeup artist Way Bandy became the next prominent member of the New York fashion community to be felled by AIDS. Gia took his death very hard. "My friend Way died today," she wrote to a cousin. " … [we] used to have a blast working together . . . he was amazing, if he wasn’t gay I would have try to marry him. Death makes life seem unreal. Unreal in the sense that you can’t hold onto it."
Bandy’s death also hurt Gia for other reasons. "She was upset that when Way died, nobody called her," recalls Rob Fay. "All the people who claimed to be her friends. I think that when Way died she realized that she wasn’t as important as she came to think she was. I think that’s when she realized that a lot of it was bullshit and people who said they cared didn’t care. I think she also knew then that it was comin’ for her."
In October, Gia was hospitalized at Hahnemann University Hospital with multiple symptoms stemming from AIDS. At this point, her mother completely took over her life, deciding who should be allowed to see her and what treatments she should receive. Rochelle was not allowed into the hospital to see Gia. Kathleen says that Cia specifically requested that Rochelle not be allowed in. Rob Fay says Gia specifically said she wanted to see Rochelle. Kathleen also decided that no one except close family was to be told that Gia had AIDS. "At the end, she was spared nothing, absolutely nothing," her mother says. "Every organ in that girl’s body failed. She was put on a respirator for a month. We had initially said no to the respirator but the way they explained it to her they said she’d only be on it for a few days. So they brought the paper and I said, ‘Gia, just sign it,’ and she said, ‘Thank you very much for making my decision for me.’ She had to make such a big deal out of everything . . . reading it whether she understands it or not. I just said, ‘Sign it.’ I was a nervous wreck. A doctor said, "What do you think you’ve saved her for?’ Maybe I was wrong, maybe I should have let her go. But then they decided that she wanted to die. She didn’t want to die. She just wanted to get off the respirator. She thought that if she did, then she could go home. She wanted to go to Disneyland. She just wanted out."
Rob Fay remembers those last weeks vividly. Even the counseling Gia had sent him to for friends and relatives of AIDS patients didn’t prepare him for the horror and the quickness of her demise.
"She had wanted to make a couple of videos addressing children," he says. "And I never went and got a video camera. We just put it off and put it off and then she was in the hospital. What she wanted was for the kids to see what the drugs can do. She wanted to tell the kids, y’know, that you don’t have to do this."
Rob Fay will not remember the very last days of Gia’s life. During the last week, even he was barred from Gia’s room by her mother. He will choose, instead, to remember one of the last days when she was really living. It was the day she told him she had AIDS.
"We went off into a little side room in the hospital," he says, "and there were a few other people in there, with their parents, and there was a stereo on kinda quiet. She said she’d been diagnosed with ARC and I made some bad joke because [didn’t know what ARC was, y’know. And she said, ‘No, listen to me, this is it!’ and we just sat there and cried.
"And, it was funny — we used to have this song in rehab, Simple Minds does it, ‘Don’t Forget About Me,’ or somethin’ like that. It came on. And we’re sitting there with all these people in similar situations with their parents who are fairly distraught and she just kicked in. She :ranked the stereo up real loud and we ust started dancing. And, y’know, that was a real special moment right there."
The names of Sharon Beverly and Rochelle Silver have been changed in the interest of privacy.
©1988, Stephen Fried.