How Gia Carangi carried the seeds of her own destruction
HUGH DOWNS TURNS TO FACE the camera and reads a teaser for the next segment of the January 6, 1983, edition of 20-20.
"Well, next," he says, "inside the world of the fashion model . . . a world that is not always as it appears. Right after this."
After the commercial, Downs introduces Tom Hoving, who presents a report that’s supposed to detail "the dark and anxious side of the modeling business" but manages nevertheless to make the whole enterprise seem extremely glamorous. There’s top model Christie Brinkley being coaxed by a photographer to "look at me like you’re naked. That’s it. Fabulous." After the shooting, Brinkley says she’ll never have to worry about money again.
"Once you make it, you become a member of an exclusive international club," Hoving reports, "where the sun always shines, the parties are glowing; a land where there’s no ugliness, no sickness, no poverty; a land where dreams come true and everyone is certified beautiful. … "
Hoving then takes the viewer through the cattle-call auditions and announces that there are 7,000 girls in New York who "call themselves models … of these, 500 are the so-called ‘glamour guns’ who get most of the work or money." Several models attest to how difficult the grind of traveling and groveling for work can be. John Casablancas, president of Elite, the top modeling agency of the moment, explains that "when success comes, they have a moment where they appreciate it very, very much, but it’s very, very short … they get too much too quickly."
Then the camera cuts to Francesco Scavullo’s photography studio on East 63rd Street. Scavullo, of course, is beyond "top." He’s Scavullo, king of the one-namers. Decades of Cosmo and Vogue covers hang on the high, white walls. The girl on many of those covers — who’s now being made up for a photo session — is Gia, the former Gia Carangi, a 22-year-old from Northeast Philadelphia who once made a living serving hoagies in her father’s shop. Now she’s a top model. And of all the top models in New York, she is the best possible example 20-20 could find of someone who got too much too quickly.
When her makeup is completed, Gia begins working. "Now, bring your eyes slowly after each pop of the camera," Scavullo tells her. "Great. Like that. Tum your head over a bit … fabulous, fabulous. Laugh, laugh. Beautiful. Marvelous."
Hoving explains that Gia is also known as "a virtual symbol of the bright side and the dark side of modeling."
"I started working with very good people … I mean all the time, very fast," Gia says. "I didn’t build into a model, I just sort of became one."
"Then the troubles began for Gia," Hoving intones. "The real world became clouded by illusion."
"When you’re young," she tries to explain, "you don’t always … y’know … it’s hard to make the difference between what is real and what is not real."
"Particularly when adulated … "
" … Innocent," she corrects, "and there’s a lot of vultures around you."
"She became erratic," Hoving booms on. "In time, her work was affected."
Then he turns to Gia. "At one point, you got kind of into the drug scene, didn’t you?"
"Yes, you could say that I did … "
"You’re free of it, aren’t you, now?"
"Oh yes, I am, definitely," she says. "I wouldn’t be here right now talking to you if I wasn’t. I don’t think … "
"Are you happy with your success?" Hoving asks.
Gia pauses slightly. "Yes," she says. "I am, I am."
"Well, I just wanted to think about it," she says.
BY THE TIME GIA CARANGI’S 20-20 APPEARANCE aired, she had been all but blacklisted from modeling. The show had been taped nine months earlier, when Gia was in the midst of one of her many comebacks. But by January of 1983, her drug use had become too extreme and her work habits too erratic, even for an industry accustomed to prodigious pampering, She showed up late for work if she showed up at all. She sometimes shot up heroin in the bathroom between takes. In the middle of a Richard Avedon photo session for Italian designer Gianni Versace, she said she was going out for cigarettes and never came back. During another session, she fell asleep during a break, and didn’t even wake up when the cigarette in her mouth began to bum into her skin.
"The world of the fashion model … a world that is not always as it appears." Hugh Downs had no idea just how accurate that statement was.
Nearly two years after Gia’s death — on November 18, 1986, in Hahnemann University Hospital, of multiple illnesses related to AIDS — Francesco Scavullo sits on a low couch in his studio, with the cover photos of Gia still on the walls. He remembers the model he described in his 1982 book Scavullo Women as: "My darling — old, young, decadent, innocent, volatile, vulnerable, and more tough-spirited than she looks … all nuance and suggestion, like a series of images by Bertolucci. I have never known anyone so excitingly free and spontaneous, constantly changing, moving — she’s like photographing a stream of consciousness. "
"We were all hysterical crying the day we found out she died," he says somberly. "I was in shock. She had a fabulous appeal to me and I always took care of her. I used to cook for her, make sure she ate. I always wanted to make her very happy, because she gave so much to me when we worked together, There was something she had — no other girl has got it. I’ve never met a girl who had it. And I wanted her to like me and like working with me. And I think she did, Even after she was missing appointments with everybody else, she never missed one with me.
"You know, there are hardly any girls who disappear when they’re reaching their height. They usually stay around until you can’t photograph them any longer. And I don’t think of Gia as a victim of the business. There were a lot of girls who were victims of those times — the night life, Studio 54, dancing, having fun. There were girls who took a lot of coke and destroyed their beauty, But I don’t think Gia was one of those. I think she was a victim of herself.
"I heard that Gia was gay, but she wasn’t butch. She had sort of a manly walk to her but she didn’t look like a man. She looked like a gorgeous girl with all that hair and those bosoms and that great body. She had tremendous feminine appeal, even if she was gay emotionally.
"She was always very quiet. She wasn’t wild and common and boisterous. And I think she was smart. She was too smart for the world she had come into. I don’t mean the fashion world, I mean this world."
In Scavullo’s book, under a set of before and after pictures that were meant to depict glamour but more accurately capture fear, Gia is quoted as saying, "There’s a lot more to being good-looking than makeup and prettiness … there’s a lot more to being a woman than that, When I look in the mirror, I just want to like myself … and if I like myself, then I look good."
FROM THE BEGINNING GIA CARANGI WAS, IN EVERY way, her mother’s child.
Kathleen Adams Carangi was the second of five strong-willed sisters who came from Maryland farming roots but found themselves in Northeast Philadelphia when their father, a machinist, took a job at the Navy Yard. The Adams family was of British descent and the girls had a strict upbringing. Kathleen was a pudgy girl with glasses, but that did not keep her from joining the Strawbridge & Clothier modeling club while attending Abraham Lincoln High School and doing some amateur modeling work at the store. After high school, she worked in a ladies’ specialty shop, where her favorite part of her job was assisting with fashion shows and dressing the models.
At 21 she married a man 11 years her senior. Joe Carangi was a hardworking restaurant owner who had been married once before and had a son from that marriage. The couple had three children in their first four years of marriage: two boys, Joe and Michael, and Gia, whose unusual name her father had first heard in Italy during the war. The Carangis maintained the outward appearance of happiness and growing prosperity — Joe sold one restaurant and opened a lucrative poolroom called Moulin Rouge before founding the Hoagie City chain. But the marriage grew increasingly tense as the years went on. Kathleen was a woman who always liked to be in control. Joe was temperamental and, after working long, hard hours each day, he didn’t have much interest in disciplining his children or in socializing — two of his wife’s principal concerns.
The household was clearly divided along gender lines. Dad and the boys stuck together. Kathleen and Gia were "the girls," and Joe Carangi was a great teaser of girls. If Kathleen told the children to set the table, he’d say, "No, don’t do it, that’s your mother’s job." If she got upset he might playfully punch one of his sons on the shoulder and chuckle, saying, "See, we got her going." According to writings she would later do as part of rehab therapy, Gia felt she was being made fun of and rejected simply because she was a girl. She recalled going into a big closet in her parents’ bedroom to play dress-up and always choosing her father’s clothes instead of her mother’s, because "I think I thought that if I was a boy, my father would love me."
Gia was a quiet, bright child whose mannerisms were so adorable that she was encouraged to speak in baby talk long after it was appropriate. She was precocious and quietly rebellious, and if she had a truly close bond with anyone in the family it was with her mother, with whom she could share "girl things." Fussing with the young girl’s hair was one such activity: Until she was eight, Gia’s hair was never cut, and her mother delighted in braiding it and tying it with ribbons-which Gia would immediately yank out. When Gia’s hair was finally cut short, Kathleen had the long locks washed and re-braided and put into a box that Gia sometimes took to school for show and tell.
Although she would never bring herself to admit it to anyone until in her teens, Gia’s childhood was strongly influenced by an event that took place when she was five: She was sexually abused by an older man. The abuse occurred once, but she was traumatized by the incident and lived in fear that it would happen again. At age 14, she would tell her mother that a neighborhood man was the offender. Later, she would tell several friends that her father had been her abuser. (Joe Carangi agreed to be interviewed for this article but was rushed to emergency surgery for a brain tumor before the interview could take place; he died several weeks later.)
The slow disintegration of Joe and Kathleen Carangi’s marriage took place before the eyes of their large extended families. Kathleen’s parents lived next door; their youngest daughter, some 20 years Kathleen’s junior, was only a few years older than Gia. Joe was still very close to his mother, who lived in Mayfair, and his twin brother — both of whom were in business with him — and Joe’s son from his first marriage came to stay during the summers.
By the time Gia was nine or ten, the tension in the Carangi household had escalated from verbal abuse to violence. While none of the children was ever hit, the parents began to tangle on a fairly regular basis. Kathleen’s mother told her just to learn to keep her mouth shut. A cousin of Gia’s says that Joe had a bad temper only if provoked and that "Kathleen always provoked him — sometimes she wanted it to get physical." And after a while, it did get physical with alarming regularity. Kathleen believed at the time that the root of their problems was her husband’s "insane jealousy." One time, she recalls, "He smacked me in the face during sex and accused me of thinking of somebody else."
Kathleen clearly suffered a lot of emotional stress during this time. By her own account, she had a psychiatrist check her into a hospital for a week to get away from her husband, and later made a suicide attempt by swallowing an overdose of pills. Finally, when Gia was 11 years old, Kathleen decided that her marriage had reached the point where "he was going to kill me or I was going to kill him." She decided to take the unusual step of leaving her husband, her home and her children, who stayed with their father.
Today Kathleen says she saw her children regularly from the time she left and that no other man was involved in the split-up. But her younger son Michael, now a 30-year-old bus driver in Atlantic City, remembers things differently. He says his mother was "pretty much totally gone" for a period of several months after the breakup; he also says that his father insisted that there was another man involved. Both agree that the man Kathleen ended up marrying later — an accountant named Henry Sperr, who had been in Kathleen’s Lincoln High graduating class — was not involved in the breakup. Both also agree that Joe Carangi was devastated by the divorce and that the next several years were ones of chaos and emotional upheaval for the entire family. Joe Carangi had never been much for disciplining children. As a single parent, in shock over the loss of a second wife and frightened by the prospect of re-entering the social world in his mid 40s, he became the unwitting ringmaster of a three-ring circus. It was peanut-butter-for-breakfast time: The three children — ages 14, 13 and 11— basically controlled the household, and what little discipline was enforced was often the responsibility of Kathleen’s extended family, her mother and two of her sisters.
"We could’ve used some discipline," Michael Carangi says. "Every child needs it. We were allowed to do what we wanted. I could stay out as long as I wanted and nobody would know."
Although she was happy to be in a new, healthier relationship, Kathleen Sperr was caught in a desperate struggle to find a comfortable and logical place in her children’s illogical lives —especially since she had by no means given up her need to control her progeny just because they no longer lived with her. For a while after the separation, she was not allowed to return to her home to see the children. Later, she saw them regularly, and eventually Gia would decide to move in with her mother and stepfather. But the damage was done, and it would be years before she fully comprehended the profound impact her departure had on her children. "Gia was the youngest, it affected her the worst," her brother recalls.
Gia’s reaction may have had as much to do with being left alone with her father as it did with the loss of her mother. "Gia told me later that after I left he would come into her room in the middle of the night and sit on her bed," Kathleen recalls. "She’d wake up and he’d be there staring at her. Nothing ever happened, but she was uncomfortable."
Before long, the young girl found herself in the center of an emotional tug of war — in fact, several. There was the obvious division between her parents and the ramifications of that split; many who were close to Gia say that she never gave up hope that one day her parents would get back together. But there were more subtle forces at work as well. There was something of a struggle between Kathleen and two of her sisters, who had taken on some of Gia’s mothering in her absence; Kathleen especially felt that her youngest sister, about five years Gia’s senior, was not a good role model for the young girl. There was also Kathleen’s new husband, whom Gia disliked because he wasn’t her father and he was a strict disciplinarian. Eventually her father would remarry as well, to a woman Gia liked even less than her stepfather.
And then, of course, there was the matter of Gia’s adolescence, which couldn’t have arrived at a worse time.
IN HER TEENS, GIA CARANGI BECAME A BOWIE KID, A species pretty common to Philadelphia in the early 1970s. Singer-songwriter David Bowie had made two unheralded rock albums in 1969, but reached a mass audience only after reinventing himself as an androgynous rock’n’roll theater piece several years later. Rolling Stone assessed his career as almost single-handedly "redefining rebellion as entertainment, and entertainment as subversion."
Being a Bowie kid meant outrageous hair styles and hair colors, outrageous glitter makeup, outrageous posing. It also meant, for some kids, delving into the mysteries of sexual confusion; Bowie and his genderbending naturally attracted many teenagers curious about alternative sexual lifestyles.
Kathleen and Henry Sperr were convinced that David Bowie was at the root of Gia’s rebellion and sexual confusion. "She got involved with rock concerts," Henry Sperr explains, "and a bunch of people who went to rock concerts. She got a Bowie haircut and that changed her personality completely. She seemed like a sweet young little kid before, and then afterward … "
Afterward Gia emerged as a rebellious young woman who seemed as alienated from the Sperrs as David Bowie himself might have been. Like so many teenagers of her generation, Gia’s attitude toward life, and especially toward her family, was reflected in the music of her favorite pop idols-the androgynous Bowie and the rebellious Rolling Stones.
Because she was convinced it was Bowie changing Gia, Kathleen decided to try to understand Bowie herself by attending his concerts with her daughter. "I learned to appreciate Bowie as a talent," she recalls, "and Gia was tickled to death. And her friends … well, I always got along great with her friends. They thought I was really neat because I really tried to understand them."
"The mother would come to concerts," a friend of Gia’s recalls. "It was so ridiculous. Gia would be high and the mother would be there thinking she was protecting her daughter. If her mother had been a little more accepting of her then, maybe Gia wouldn’t have had to rebel so far."
Over the next few years, Gia pushed adolescent rebellion about as far as it would go. She broke everyone of her parents’ rules just to see how far they would let her go; it began with coming home late — 5 a.m., and her curfew was 10 p.m. —and smoking pot and it escalated from there. Her father seemed largely oblivious, since he had his own social life. Her mother and stepfather were livid, but Gia considered their reactions so wildly inappropriate — they had never reached the point of accepting that Gia was simply different from her mother’s image of her —that she continued pushing them. And it was nearly impossible for any of her parents to really discipline her, because she would shuttle back and forth between her father’s house and the Sperr household, depending upon where she was in the least amount of trouble.
"Gia did a lot of things just to get her mother’s attention," says one friend. "She and Kathleen had his ongoing battle and the one person Gia always wanted something from was her mother — and in her own way she just never felt like she got it. Part of the problem was that Gia was able to get away with things. She had a way of flashing a little grin and just slipping out of things.
"That was the thing you have to remember about Gia. She had grown into a very exotic-looking, very special girl. She could just sit in a chair and smile and she was automatically the center of attention. She had charisma. She wasn’t extremely smart — in fact she always believed herself to be extremely dull. She always used to say, ‘People look at me and they think I’m this beautiful thing and I must be extremely hot … and what they don’t know is that I’m extremely boring.’
During that time there was perhaps only one facet of Gia Carangi’s life with which she seemed comfortable: her homosexuality. "She was the purest lesbian I ever met," recalls another friend. "It was the clearest thing about her. And she was very aggressive about it — she was sending other girls flowers and poems when she was 14 years old."
It was one such advance that brought Gia’s lesbianism to her mother’s attention. In her daughter’s room, Kathleen found a letter she had written to another girl, who had clearly spumed her. When confronted, Gia told her mother she was gay. Her mother did not believe it and, in fact, does not believe it to this day. "Gia led the gay lifestyle," she concedes, "but in her heart, I don’t think she was gay. She said she was, and clearly all her friends were gay, but I would not believe it. She probably hid behind being gay. If you were gay you didn’t have to deal with a man-woman relationship. If you were gay you didn’t have to deal with being like everyone else and being normal." It was with this attitude that Kathleen dragged Gia to a counselor for the better part of a year. The therapy was finally discontinued when all concerned realized that Gia was making up stories to tell the counselor.
It was into this thermonuclear family situation that Gia Carangi’s fledgling modeling career was introduced. It began innocently enough with an audition at Gimbels department store. "We had always used regular models and then somebody decided we should try $10-an-hour models and just have a cattle call," recalls photographer Michael Ahearn, former director of fashion photography at Gimbels. "Most of the people were just so awful and then along comes this little girl — she must’ve been 14 — and she was wonderful. She was always late, always had some excuse. But I used her as much as I could.
"She always seemed a little insecure — she was quiet, introverted, shy. Her home life seemed very hard for her. And she had a way of looking at you at certain times —this look — it was the face of a little girl. She learned how to drop it for the camera, but sometimes I would still see it."
During this period, one of Gia’s main haunts was the gay dance club DCA in Center City. The club was a logical hangout for several reasons: It was a way to meet other people who were openly gay; during much of the pre-AIDS 1970s in Philadelphia, gay night life was far more exciting than the straight scene; and because the gay clubs were private, a 15-year-old girl could get in with few hassles. It was at the DCA that Gia met one of her first long-term lovers. Sharon Beverly was a short, blond 21-year-old. Sharon’s older brother had met Gia first and had dated her briefly, but it was the two girls who eventually ended up together.
"She was not a typical 15-year-old," Beverly recalls. "There was always a real child in her. She loved to wrestle, she was very mischievous and had all this energy. But there was also something sad about her. It wasn’t really blatant —she was always in a good mood — but it was there."
Gia and Sharon represented something of a challenge to the lesbian scene of the day, which was still very stereotypically "butch" and "femme," with one very masculine partner and one very feminine. In reality, Gia and Sharon were that way too. But they were perceived as a "femme-femme" couple because Gia was too beautiful to appear truly butch.
When Kathleen Sperr figured out that Gia and Sharon were sexually involved, she called Sharon’s mother. "She told my mom that I was too old to be hanging around with her daughter," Sharon says. "She didn’t say we were sleeping together, but my parents knew I was gay. They had received a letter from some other girl’s parents. As far as I’m concerned, I’m straight now. I only see men and it’s been that way for a long time. But for five or six years there I saw only women."
This kind of sexual ambiguity would confound Gia throughout her life. "Gia just loved women and she fell for them whether they were straight or gay," says one high school friend. "And the problem was that everyone fell in love with her, whether they were straight or not, male or female. She went after people and she always got them." A bigger problem was that, even as a teenager, Gia dated a lot but was basically looking for love, not flings, and she never quite understood how disorienting it might be for a straight woman to be attracted to — or even have an affair with — another woman.
"Gia was prone to needing someone around all the time," says another of her lovers. "Sometimes it was almost like she needed a baby sitter."
"I think she mistook caring as sexual," says one of the many straight women with whom Gia fell in unrequited love. "She needed people so badly that she pushed them away by putting expectations on them they couldn’t possibly fulfill."
Although her relationship with Sharon was a bright spot in her life, Gia was getting more and more out of control. At home she would be fine for a few days at a time — going shopping with her mother after school or just hanging around the house sketching and writing down rock lyrics — and then another skirmish would occur. But her parents had no way of knowing just how far her rebellion was going. "Gia was pretty wild," remembers one friend. "She’d go into Nan Duskin and steal things just for the hell of it, steal people’s charge cards and use them. She’d just do things that were the opposite of what you were supposed to do — anything, no matter how absurd."
Gia’s mother, convinced that drugs were a big part of the problem, lectured her and even took the drastic step of having Gia’s blood tested for cocaine. She tested positive for traces of cocaine but denied she had taken the drug. When Kathleen dragged Gia back a second time for testing, the doctor refused to do the test. "What are you going to do?" Kathleen recalls the doctor telling her. "She went out, she partied, she did a little drugs. What are you going to do?"
None of her friends recall Gia doing any more drugs than anybody else was doing It the time. "People did a lot of Quaaludes back then, downs," recalls Gia’s brother Michael. "Gia didn’t drink a lot, she smoked pot, did ‘Iudes, did some acid. It wasn’t a big thing to her."
By this time, Gia had bounced back and fort a number of times between her father’s home —he had moved twice, from the Northeast to Lower Bucks County to Center City — and her mother’s home, now in Richboro, Lower Bucks. During hose years she attended Abraham Lin:oln High School in the Northeast — getting passable grades without doing any work — and during her senior year she transferred to South Philadelphia High School, moving into an apartment on Chestnut Street above one of her father’s Hoagie City stores with her brother Michael as a roommate. By this time, she lad already graduated from her first modeling experience to having photos taken by several Philadelphia photographers. One was a client and friend of Gia’s stepfather’s, Joe Petrellis, whose well-established business included high-fashion work. The other was Maurice Tannenbaum, who was arguably the city’s hottest hair stylist but was putting together a “book" of his camera work to someday take a shot at a career in photography.
"She projected like a cheetah," says Petrellis. "She was born to be in front of he camera. The way she would move … she knew her face, she knew her body. And it was no big deal to her — she was only doing modeling because she needed something to do."
"She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen," recalls Tannenbaum. "The girl was just physically perfect in every way. But she was totally untrusting, she seemed used to being abused because she was so beautiful. And she became very hardened to that. She realized it young and tried to protect herself.
"I got to know the best things about Gia. She loved kids — because they were pure and going to love her for the right reasons. And she was basically very wholesome, loving and involved with her family. And it was the pure things that would make her laugh, simple things. Once she came up to our house in New Hope for the weekend and I gave her a haircut outside and it was really windy. As we were cutting her hair it was drying, and later she would bring that up, the memory of having her hair dry in the wind."
Many of her friends believe that the biggest reason Gia gravitated toward modeling was that she thought it would satisfy her mother on a number of levels: It was a professional "direction"; it was the kind of "girl thing" the two had always shared; and it was a vicarious fantasy for her mother. "She knew her mother wanted her to be a model," says one friend. "And she knew it was her destiny. I think she knew that she could go to New York anytime and make it big. But she knew that then she’d have to commit to it and, quite frankly, I think she liked making hoagies and working with her father." By this time, Joe Carangi had taken on a different role in his daughter’s life. Unlike her mother, with whom she had been close as a child but battled with constantly as a teenager, Gia’s father and his laissez-faire attitude toward child rearing became more appealing as the Carangi kids got older. And after the failure of his third marriage, Joe Carangi was more accessible to his kids, who me to see him as a non-judgmental man who would love them more unconditionally than their mother and would bail them out of any situation.
After a delayed graduation from Southern in the summer of 1977, Gia was, as she would later tell an interviewer, "just cruisin’ around — you know how Philly is when you’re young and trying to have fun." She worked in one of her father’s hoagie shops — which he would later sell in order to move to Atlantic City in an attempt to cash in on casino-going hoagie fans — and went out at night. She was 17 and gorgeous, and she already had developed the look that she would stomp into New York with: no makeup, her long brown hair hanging in her eyes and cascading over a leather jacket covering a men’s white dress shirt, worn Levi’s 501 jeans, black Frye boots or low pumps, and a cigarette dangling eternally from her long thin fingers. She was too unusual-looking for the Philadelphia market, one reason she finally had to go to New York to make a career.
Gia joked that her dream was to be on the cover of Vogue once, just to prove she could do it, and quit. If anything attracted her about modeling it was the chance to be closer to the glamour scene: She idolized model Patti Hansen, who was not only a cover girl but was dating Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. To a 17year-old girl who had spent countless hours of her adolescence trying to get backstage at Bowie concerts, the chance to hang out with rock stars seemed more compelling than the opportunity to have even more people tell her she was beautiful.
What finally got her to New York was two accidents: one involving the car her father had given her for her 16th birthday, the other involving Maurice Tannenbaum’s "book," which was almost entirely composed of Gia shots. Tannenbaum’s work was seen by a friend who had good contacts at the New York modeling agency run by former supermodel Wilhelmina Cooper; the woman offered to set up a meeting for the would-be photographer and the would-be model with Wilhelmina herself. The car accident netted Gia a $2,000 insurance settlement, which helped finance her move to New York (the rest of the money was put up by her stepfather). The powerful Wilhelmina "went absolutely crazy over Gia," Tannenbaum recalls. "She was trying to contain herself. She was so in awe that she forgot to give Gia the contract, and she ended up running down the hall after us to give it to her. Gia wasn’t 5’8" and she wasn’t quite 18, either, but Willy lied so she could get some test shootings."
By the time Gia was ready to move to New York in February of 1978, her relationship with Sharon Beverly had cooled down to mostly friendship; Sharon, who had begun working in cosmetics and wanted to become a makeup artist, was already thinking about dating men. Gia was crushed by this. In her journal she wrote of the experience: "When she kisses me I feel all four winds blow at my face/But now Sharon tell me what do you do with a woman who has no love for you! my love for her shall never die for she opens my eyes/she is my lost captive and no longer lies along my legs … "
But despite the hurt feelings, the two remained close enough that they decided to be roommates in New York. The girls got a small apartment and set about making their brilliant careers — Sharon selling makeup, Gia going on "go-sees" set up by Wilhelmina agency bookers so that photographers could get a look at the promising young model. Gia would later tell an interviewer that she was initially scared of New York. "It seemed so huge compared to Philadelphia," she said. "And I had to take a lot of taxis and I didn’t know how to hail them. It was really kind of freaky."
"Gia hated the business from the beginning," says Sharon. "She felt like a piece of meat. I know it’s an ,old cliché, but that’s what she always said. She just wasn’t cut out for the business, she was too sensitive for it. In the beginning she would do a lot of tests, which are free shootings for your portfolio, and then you take the portfolio around to the thousands of photographers in the city. And they’re very coldhearted when they look through your book. They flip through it while you’re standing right there.
"But she was still like a little girl. She would come home from her day and throw her book to the side and put cartoons on. And there would be all these men out in the city daydreaming about her that had seen her or her book. And there she was watching cartoons."
"In The Beginning, We Were Star-Struck"
OVER THE NEXT SIX MONTHS, GIA WAS doing Bloomingdale’s ads and Vogue layouts with Arthur Elgort, Italian Bazaar editorial spreads in Rome with Chris von Wangenheim and Cosmo covers with Scavullo. Her makeup was being done by the two best in the business, Sandy Linter and Way Bandy, and her hair stylist was invariably the legendary Harry King. It happened so fast that she didn’t have time to be awed. She was being booked by the top photographers and modeling the work of the top fashion designers before she really even knew who they were or how to spell their names: Her datebooks were filled with references to "Norman Kamali" and "Scovollo" next to the endless lists of reminders she always wrote to herself.
The reasons for her rise were complex. "I was mad about her," recalls Scavullo. "She wasn’t stylized, she didn’t pose. She was like an actress in front of the camera: You got a million pictures that had her head in them. She had her own little way of modeling. She jumped around. When I first worked with her I said, ‘Oh my God, this is like a new colt.’ My assistant was running with the lights. ‘Yuck,’ I said, ‘this is going to be work.’ But then I realized how to work with that and I didn’t want to tame her down. It was a challenge to photograph her, to follow her. There are very few models who experiment like that and do it well. But with Gia it was like you were getting candid pictures of her. She had the perfect body for modeling and, to me, the perfect attitude. She didn’t give a damn. So she threw the clothes away … which I loved."
Polly Mellen, sittings editor at Vogue for the past two decades, recalls, "When I first met her, I was enormously excited. She had a very brilliant future in modeling. She had great star quality but also, quite before her time, she had a great boy-girl thing about her. She could be the sexiest thing and still cross the line of boyishness. Off camera, that boy-girl thing could be a problem: Almost from the beginning, if I would go on a trip and there were other girls, Gia would make advances. You couldn’t room her with another girl. But I don’t consider whether a girl is difficult or not. If she’s good, I work with the difficulty. She was such a vulnerable girl. It’s part of the beauty of her photographs. She always gave you back something wonderful."
"She dressed street chic before its time," says Scavullo’s fashion editor Sean Byrnes, who worked and socialized with Gia. "She brought that look right into Vogue magazine and that’s pretty uncommon. Models are models. Models are beautiful. But very seldom do they get any element of their lives into the photos. Gia brought some of what she had lived into the photos. She looked so stunning — in real life, a lot of models don’t wear makeup and they don’t look so hot. But Gia looked beautiful even without makeup. She also had the most beautiful breasts of any model I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve been dressing the girls for Cosmo covers for 15 years."
"Here’s a story about Gia and her clothes," Scavullo says. "There’s this picture I took of Diana Ross — the one where we decided to take all her makeup off and make her unglamorous. We decided to shoot her in jeans so we called Gia up and said ‘Can we borrow your jeans, the ones with the hole?’ So those were Gia’s jeans in that picture. Diana Ross wanted to keep them but Gia said no."
Gia dared to say no to a celebrity and to mock the charade of modeling — girls who were beautiful without makeup or expensive clothes being made up and dressed up to entice women to buy a range of products promising to make them, if not beautiful, then at least "attractive." Her unimpressed attitude and disdain for the beauty world made her all the more tantalizing in the business, just as her inaccessibility to men was a key to her appeal as a model. "She was a tease," says one friend. "It was like ‘you can’t have this.’ She was laughing at these men. "
"Gia had an interesting analogy about the glamour part of her business," recalls another friend. "She said if you go to a movie, you sit in the audience and you look at how glamorous it is on the other side of the screen. But the people on the screen are looking out at the audience because they know that what they’re doing is just work. And the glamour is somewhere between the screen and the audience and nobody ever really gets it."
Although Gia’s modeling was going fantastically, she did not immediately create much of a personal support system for herself in New York. Her friendship with Sharon Beverly grew strained. Their careers were moving at drastically different paces. Sharon was still selling cosmetics, while Gia had just bought a red Fiat sports car with $10,000 cash she had made from modeling. She was sending $100 bouquets of flowers to friends and relatives. And Sharon was now steadily dating men. Gia had tried dating men when she first came to New York; she even occasionally put on a dress for such dates, which to Gia was like going out in drag. But she told Sharon that even though there was always a question in her mind about her sexual preference, she basically loved women. "I think she always wished she did love men," Sharon says. "But it just didn’t work for her. And when I really started dating … well, it just separates you. It’s like you left the cause. This all led to a fight, and I finally just moved out."
Gia’s mother came to visit her in New York as often as she could, often coming in to do the laundry. "In the beginning, we were both sort of star-struck," Kathleen says. Her daughter’s life was a far cry from the social scene in Lower Bucks County, where Kathleen and Henry Sperr had joined the local Corvette club to meet new people. "She would tell me all the stuff that most women want to know about models . . . which one had hips that went on forever, which one had the pimpIes,. which one did Quaaludes to get the starry looks in her eyes, which one was a real dog. She went on the most fantastic trips, and she always called from wherever she was. She met an Italian prince in Capri. He took her all around. He loved her, he wanted a photo of her. Finally she just ripped a picture out of a magazine and wrote on it ‘Eat your heart out, Gia.’ Jack Nicholson tried to get her to meet him in his room. I was in New York that week. I was making slipcovers for her sofa and she came back from this party and she said, ‘Can you believe it, I just turned down Jack Nicholson?’
"Still, I worried because I knew how fragile she was and I had this vision of her becoming this Marilyn Monroe type."
But much of the time, Gia was alone.
She tried to get involved in some activities outside of modeling. She was interested in following up her high school photography studies with some classes at NYU she had begun taking pictures of the homeless. But she couldn’t find time in her schedule and finally dropped out. She would become professionally friendly with makeup artists Way Bandy and Sandy Linter, as well as with models Juli Foster, Janice Dickinson and Bitten — and there were some former Philadelphians and current drug connections who came in and out of her life — but she spent a lot of time, if not by herself, then certainly alone.
"The biggest mistake we made was that nobody went up there with her," says her brother Michael. "She could’ve used a friend. Of course, she said she didn’t want anyone. But she could’ve used me or her mother — like Brooke Shields had her mother with her. Sometimes she would ask me to look for a job in New York. I didn’t realize until later that she wanted me to be up there for her."
Gia’s mother figure and role model in New York was Wilhelmina Cooper, the 39-year-old den mother of the Wilhelmina agency, owned by her and her husband. The exact nature and depth of Gia and Wilhelmina’s friendship is unclear; it is shrouded in the same mystery that covers many of Gia’s relationships with women in the fashion industry. Gia was openly gay and didn’t care who knew it. Some women were gay and very quiet about it. Some women were mostly straight and had an occasional gay fling. Some women were totally straight and totally unnerved by a gorgeous gay woman’s relentless, adolescent advances —but they couldn’t afford to insult her because she was a top model and they still had to work with her. Consequently, few in the fashion industry wish to speculate on Gia’s relationships with women.
"I could give you a list this long of how many people I’ve heard Gia was involved with," says Harry King, once the industry’s most sought-after hair stylist and now a part-time stylist and screenwriter. "Some of them are laughable, laughable. Married women, famous women. I mean, it might be true, but it’s laughable."
Both William Weinberg and Frances Rothchild, who took over the agency after Wilhelmina died of cancer in 1980, say that Wilhelmina was no closer to Gia than she was to any of the firm’s other top models. "Gia got the customary amount of attention from Wilhelmina," says Weinberg. "My impression is that there were other models with whom Willy had a much closer relationship."
Gia told several friends that she and Wilhelmina were lovers. Whatever the true details of their relationship were, Gia clearly had very strong feelings about Wilhelmina, and considered her companionship and counsel invaluable. Wilhelmina, however, had no more luck tanling Gia’s rebellious streak than her mother had.
"Gia was a rebel. I never met another model like her," says Rothchild. "Willy tried to tame her like we all did. She lied, she never showed up on time. She had some cute, cunning ways about her; she crawled underneath your skin with just a smile. But she could also act rough and tough. She used to carry a knife. Once she went on a booking to Boston and they wouldn’t let her through the metal detector at the airport. She called me, screaming and cursing that they took her knife. Finally I just said, ‘Leave the knife, I’ll buy you another one. Go to the booking.’ "
According to Rothchild and Gia’s stepfather Henry Sperr, who prepared her taxes, Gia made more than $100,000 a year during her first two full years of modeling. And that figure was artificially low for several reasons. She had signed a twoyear contract in 1978, which allowed the agency to continue to take 20 percent of her earnings even though top models were capable of renegotiating deals in which the agency got less than 10 percent. She was doing mostly editorial work and covers, which were good for exposure and prestige but paid lower than advertising or catalog work. And two of the economic revolutions that changed the modeling business in the late ’70s hadn’t quite taken hold yet. John Casablancas had just opened his upstart Elite agency, which would eventually bring new heights of flash, trash and cash to the industry, sending maximum fees through the roof. And a new rate structure of bonus fees was just coming into use; instead of the traditional one-time-only payment, models were beginning to get residuals every time a picture was reused. That meant that a single day’s work could be worth up to $18,000. A Wilhelnlina spokesman told one magazine writer that Gia was expected to make closer to $500,000 in 1980, her third year.
"Everyone Had This Idea That Being a Junkie Was Glamorous"
BUT THAT WILDLY SUCCESSFUL THIRD year was not to be. Because by that time, Gia was in terrible trouble with drugs. And everyone around her knew it, with the possible exception of her family.
"I think maybe the parents didn’t understand what was going on," says Scavullo’s assistant, Sean Byrnes. "You see your daughter on the cover of a magazine and, great, what could be going wrong?"
"I was very naive," says Kathleen. "In the beginning she talked about everything that was happening in New York but later she wouldn’t answer questions. She would say, ‘You don’t ask Michael or Joey how many hoagies they made. Why ask me? It’s just a job.’ We would ask when pictures were coming out, and it was like she couldn’t understand how great everybody felt about somebody in their family being a big model.
"But I should have realized. I always believed what she told me, and I only realized later that she would call me up when things were bad and tell me everything except what was really the matter. Because I loved her so much and really didn’t want to believe that any awful things could be happening, I was just blind to it. I can remember one day I was in New York and she was probably trying to tell me. She took me out to dinner. She wasn’t right. She kept saying, ‘I have this big, big problem.’ And I kept saying, ‘Well, Gia, you’re a survivor like me. Whatever this problem is, you’ll work it out, you’ll get over it.’ "
New York in the late 1970s was chaotic and decadent for those who could afford it and a voyeur’s paradise for those who couldn’t. It was almost as if the city had responded to the famous 1975 New York Daily News headline "Ford to City: Drop Dead" by giving up on the crumbling institutions of the daylight hours and going unquietly into that dark night. The disco craze began in 1976 as a lower-middleclass phenomenon — the prototype disco club for Saturday Night Fever, 2001 Odyssey, was in Brooklyn —and reached midtown Manhattan in 1977 when Studio 54 opened and the glitterati had a place of their own. A new kind of celebrity was born: the Beautiful Person. And the easiest way to be a Beautiful Person was to be part of the world that created works of professional, marketable beauty: the models, photographers, makeup artists, clothing designers. At one level, it was a huge coming-out party for the heavily gay fashion world; at another it was simply a saturnalian release from the somber post-Vietnam and post-Watergate era. But whatever it was, it was fueled by cocaine, both because cocaine was the new hip drug and because only with cocaine could people with real jobs during the day stay out all night.
The Studio 54 scene had its share of casualties but its inherent self-destructiveness couldn’t compare to that of the Warholian downtown scene, centered at Max’s Kansas City, CBGB’s and, finally, in 1978, at the Mudd Club. While the uptown scene throbbed to pre-recorded disco music, the downtown world slamdanced to the sound of live hard-core punk bands. The difference between the two scenes was the difference between a snort of cocaine and the injected cocaine laced with heroin known as a "speedball." The drug of choice downtown rather quickly progressed from coke to heroin, which just happened to be available in greater quantity and better quality than ever before. "China Brown," as this heroin was called, was brought to the Beautiful People as something to smoke or snort when cocaine was either no longer a thrill or so much of a thrill that a "down" was necessary. A common assumption was that one could only become hooked on heroin by injecting it. The assumption, of course, was incorrect, and a generation of accidental junkies was born.
"Those days everyone had this idea that being a junkie was very glamorous," Mudd Club DJ Anita Sarka said in a recent Vanity Fair article. "That’s why you don’t see too many people from the Mudd Club around anymore — they’re either back in the Midwest or they’re dead. Bowie looked like a junkie, Iggy [Pop] looked like a junkie, Lou Reed looked like a junkie, Sid Vicious was a junkie, so they all wanted to be junkies. Which was fine until they OD’d."
Gia Carangi was not really a major fixture on the New York night life scene. She occasionally went to Studio 54 and, later, she sometimes spent a night or two a week at the Mudd Club-a place not known to attract many models, except those, like Patti Hansen and Jerry Hall, who were dating rock stars. Gia regaled friends with stories of nights out with Hansen and her boyfriend Keith Richards, Marianne Faithfull, Mick Jagger and David Bowie and impressed her brother Michael with tales of taking drugs with members of the Rolling Stones and Blondie. But in reality she wasn’t out that much. She was basically a claustrophobic person, and after days filled with people painting her face and fussing with her hair and just touching her, touching her all the time, she was just as happy to stay at home.
Within two years of coming to New York, Gia had a drug problem. Her problem didn’t keep her from spending her 20th birthday in Paris doing shots for Vogue. And it didn’t keep her from traveling to St. Barts with Scavullo, Patti Hansen, Way Bandy, Harry King and Polly Mellen for a weeklong shoot that would produce some of the best editorial work of her career. Scavullo assistant Sean Byrnes remembers finding Gia’s drugs during the boat ride to St. Barts and throwing them overboard. "She got hysterical," he recalls. "She was ready to leave. But she stayed and the pictures were gorgeous."
But two weeks later, Wilhelmina Cooper died. Her loss, and the subsequent turmoil at the Wilhelmina agency, were enough to push an already fragile girl over the edge. By July, she was writing in her datebook: "I don’t know what is happening in my life, nothing seems or feels right to me. I want to live so bad. But I’m so terribly sad. I wish Wilhelmina didn’t die. She was so wonderful to talk to about work. I cry every day for a little while. I wish I knew what to do … I pray that things fall into place."
But things didn’t fall into place. On August 20th-in between a morning fitting with Perry Ellis and an evening meeting with director Franco Zeffirelli — she was interviewed by Scavullo for his book on beautiful women. Most of the other women in the book — Brooke Shields, Elizabeth Taylor, Farrah Fawcett — spoke fluffily about inner and outer beauty and makeup regimens. Gia psychoanalyzed herself. She explained that the reason she had turned to drugs was that she "was really down on society, but then I found that I was part of society too. And for me to be doing drugs made me just as bad as I thought society was… the world seems to be based on money and sex. And I’m looking for better things than that, like happiness and love and caring … "
And from then on, Gia’s life became an endless cycle of leaving New York to dry out, getting healthy, returning to the city to work and getting in drug trouble again. Before more serious drug treatment, she went to celebrity doctor Robert Giller, who had developed a high profile by treating Scavullo and Bianca and Baryshnikov and Liza for various health problems. Dr. Giller (who didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview for this story) tried to wean Gia off heroin with a diet regimen and vitamin B-12 shots. Gia was also seeing a Manhattan dentist who was giving her questionable prescriptions for the painkiller Percodan.
Gia’s drug use prevented her from working at anything close to her full capacity as a model. All the dues she had paid doing editorial layouts and covers — which could lead to advertising contracts — would become largely meaningless, as word began to spread that Gia was using heroin and could no longer be counted on to deliver the version of herself that photographers and clients had grown to love. Many photographers continued to use her, even though she continually dropped in and out of the business and she switched agencies twice in less than a year. She went first to Ford, where she lasted only several weeks, and then to Elite, which had developed a reputation as the most aggressive· agency in town and was the place most likely to take a chance on an edgy model in a touchy situation. Everyone at Elite knew of Gia’s drug problems: The stories of her going to Harlem or down to Avenue A to the scuzziest of shooting galleries were swirling through the photography studios. When Gia came in to discuss switching agencies, Elite president Monique Pillard asked to see her forearms. Gia refused. Still, Elite took Gia on because she was Gia — and because they thought they could help her straighten out her career and her life.
But the drugs were not Gia’s greatest concern, nor was her career. Something far more important was happening in her life. It had been years since her relationship with Sharon Beverly had ended, and in the interim she had been through a series of unsatisfying flings and unrequited crushes — including one with a well-known female makeup artist that had the industry buzzing. But, finally, after searching so long for someone with whom she could share her heart, Gia had fallen in love with a woman prepared to love her back.
"I Knew That Any Day I Would Get a Call and She’d Be Dead"
ROCHELLE SILVER WAS A PHILADELPHIA area student with dirty-blond hair, a smart mouth and a lot of questions about her sexuality. Over the years, Rochelle would become Gia’s escape from modeling and New York City. "People are always after me in New York," Gia would often say.
"The first time I met Gia," Rochelle recalls, "I almost passed out. She was wearing her usual outfit and had a Heineken in her hand and I had never come into contact with anybody who was that stereotypically homosexual. I was going through the dilemma of sex at that time. Gia liked me, and she kept coming back and knocking on my door. From that time until the end, Gia didn’t leave me alone. She was very romantic. She wrote me poetry, gave me roses, chocolates. She was very old-fashioned. She was like an Italian guy from the old school. I’d say Gia made me into a nice girl. I never knew what love was or good sex was. We lived together in a husband-and-wife type of thing. I was the wife, she was the dominant one, although sometimes she was just like a child. She’d get all excited about things like Dairy Queen. I’d say, ‘You want some ice cream?’ and she got all excited. ‘Can we really go to Dairy Queen, really?’ "
At first they carried on the relationship long distance, although Gia wanted Rochelle to move to New York with her. "She’d hide in her apartment and stay home to be with me," Rochelle recalls. "It wasn’t always because of drugs that she missed jobs. It just didn’t mean that much to her. If it was a sunny day and she was supposed to be somewhere, she would just decide we were going to Fire Island. She would tell me that she had called and canceled her booking, and then we were up in a helicopter going to Fire Island. We’d come back at night and go out to have a drink somewhere and somebody would come up to Gia and say, ‘Where the hell were you?’ And then I realized she hadn’t ever called. But I’d look at her and she’d look at me through her hair-which was always over her eyes — and what could I do?
"When Gia’s mom would come up to New York, which she did frequently, I would have something else to do that day. I knew they wanted to spend time together and that Gia didn’t really want her mom to know about me. Later I would come home with her on holidays, and her mom’s attitude toward me depended on how well Gia’s modeling was going. When she was doing good, they were thrilled she was there, happy to see us. ‘Look at my baby,’ her mother would say. If Gia was down, it was almost like we weren’t welcome to join into what was going on."
Rochelle was taking her share of drugs at the time as well, but she says she never shot heroin and, for a while, had no idea how serious Gia’s problem was — until she tried to play a practical joke on her lover at a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop.
"Gia went into the bathroom and she was in the stall and I was going to throw some water on her from the next stall," Rochelle remembers. "And I looked over the top and she had the syringe in her hand and she had drawn it up. I said, ‘You put that down or I’m leaving you here!’ And she had it in her hand, and I crawled under the stall and I said, ‘If you don’t put that down I’m leaving and I’m never speaking to you again.’
"And, believe me, at that time Gia was madly in love with me. She would do anything for me. But she would not give me that syringe. That’s when I knew. But I also knew it would serve no purpose to take it from her because she would hitchhike to New York and get more."
It was the beginning of a frenzied, frightening period in both women’s lives, a self-destructive period that was still somehow suffused with love and tenderness. It was not unlike Gia’s high school days, although the stakes were now higher.
On March 9, 1981, Gia’s close friend photographer Chris von Wangenheim was killed in an automobile accident in St. Martin at the age of 39. On March 22nd, Gia was arrested in suburban Philadelphia for driving under the influence of a narcotic. A high-speed chase ended with a police car smashing into hers. Her stepfather hired prominent criminal defense lawyer John Duffy. Duffy says that he was prepared to defend Gia but she never showed up for the trial.
"My secretary called and spoke to her stepfather and he said she was in Egypt doing a shoot or something," Duffy recalls. "I think there was a yacht involved. So they issued a bench warrant for her."
To read part two of this artcle, click here.
©1988, Stephen Fried.