By 1973, being a “Bowie kid” was an act of individual rebellion complete with its own thriving subcultural support group. The club of trailblazers had already been formed, the glittery dress code had been established and the “outrageousness is next to godliness” ethos was set in stone. Bowie’s 1972 concept album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (and the ensuing U.S. tour and Rolling Stone cover story) had made him an international phenomenon. But he had been recording in England since 1966, and he had been wearing dresses on album covers and publicly declaring his bi- or homosexuality (depending on how the presence of his wife Angie was interpreted) since 1971. Ziggy was simply the most successful packaging of twenty-six-year-old Bowie’s basic themes: alienation, androgyny, other worldliness, production values. And highly theatrical act was the perfect innovation in a rock concert business where demand for showmanship was outpacing supply. Read more »
Wandering through the rusty, funky skeleton of the Divine Lorraine Hotel is a hallucinatory experience, as if someone had unsunk the Titanic, dragged it through Center City, and plopped it nose-first at the corner of Broad and Fairmount. It doesn’t help that it’s almost 100 degrees outside, and since there are no intact windows, outside is now inside. What’s left of the walls and ironwork has eroded to the point where everything looks a little blurry, and the only really flat surfaces on the floor are pieces of distressed plywood you don’t want to stand on, because there’s nothing left underneath.
Eric Blumenfeld, the 49-year-old excitable boy of Philadelphia real estate development, is taking me on the tour I imagine many will get this fall as he tries to, in his words, “hypnotize” all the powerful people he needs to share his ballsy vision for the future of North Broad Street. The idea is for the crusty blocks between Rodeph Shalom synagogue, near Mount Vernon (where he was bar mitzvahed), and Temple University (his dad’s alma mater) to become more than just the next cool comeback neighborhood. That’s already started happening, in large part because of Blumenfeld’s creative reimagining of the hulking shell of 640 North Broad, which he turned into a successful apartment building and the home of Marc Vetri’s watershed restaurant Osteria. Blumenfeld believes the old Divine Lorraine building—for which he now owns the in-arrears mortgage, and which he hopes to have the title to after the sheriff’s sale this month—could not only become another buzzy apartment-and-restaurant complex, but the four acres he owns behind it could one day soon anchor, of all things, a new public-school campus between Broad and 13th. This novel NoBro Edu-Hood would include new facilities for Masterman—the city’s most in-demand public high school—and potentially three other nearby high schools: Ben Franklin, Parkway and the Franklin Learning Center. He wants to build them new schools and whatever else they agree to share (sports fields, food prep, science
labs) plus buy the outdated school structures, and use historic tax credits to rehab them into cool apartment buildings.
If he can pull that off, he might be able to finally join the pantheon of the “transformational”—and as he knows, being viewed as a transformer is the highest achievement for any real estate developer (although vast wealth is very nice, also).
As Blumenfeld energetically pitches his plan, he gestures out a busted window to an audience of empty buildings and overgrown fields, pulls out his iPhone to play me a message from Chaka Fattah to prove that the Congressman is “championing this cause,” and does everything short of breaking into song. His enthusiasm isn’t so much contagious as relentless, a flurry of punched good ideas. That matches his overall vibe as a combination of a smart rich-guy’s son and a retired athlete of some kind. He drives around in outrageously expensive and handsome cars—more of them than can fit comfortably in the four-car garage of his Gladwyne mansion—and dresses in casual but snug-fitting pants and a button-down shirt. He keeps sunglasses perennially perched in his close-cropped hair, almost never pulling them down to cover the kind of puffy slits that Ball Four writer Jim Bouton referred to as “ass eyes.”
When he finishes his pitch, we walk into a gymnasium-sized room with a massive vaulted ceiling and pass an enclosed staircase that leads all the way to the roof. Graffiti artists, who’ve had their way with so many surfaces on the inside of the Divine Lorraine, chose this spot for their most ambitious creation: a 20-foot-high bright orange and blue rendering of Bart Simpson smoking a joint. Blumenfeld looks up at it looming over his shoulder.
“What’s Bart doing here?” he asks.
It’s a funny question for two very personal reasons. One is that anybody who knows Blumenfeld knows that his close friend, surrogate older brother (because he barely speaks to his actual older brother), idol and sometimes-competitor is Bart Blatstein, the 57-year-old developer who is also godfather to Blumenfeld’s first child. The only person in his life Blumenfeld has looked up to more than Blatstein is his dad, Jack W. Blumenfeld, whose career arc is somewhat less enviable. A stocky, high-energy character with a stutter he simply ignored, Jack created landmark developments in Center City (1500 Locust), Society Hill/Queen Village (Abbotts Square) and City Line (Executive House) during the 1970s, but fell into bankruptcy after the tumultuous late ’80s.
The other reason is that Eric Blumenfeld, by his own admission, has a good bit of Bart Simpson in him. He describes himself as the “fuckup” kid in his family, a classic third and last child. In fact, he didn’t even take the undergrad business classes his dad wanted him to at Tulane because, he says, the line for accounting was too long at freshman sign-up (so he got a degree in English Lit, with a minor in partying). He was in no way the boy-most-likely to salvage and rehab his dad’s company.
And even now among his growing group of admirers, there’s a sense of some shock that Blumenfeld grew up at all, let alone that he might be turning into a businessman of substance and vision. There are those who still see him, in the words of someone who likes him, “as Daddy’s little rich kid who got set up in the business, and if it weren’t for Daddy, he’d be lifeguarding somewhere.”
Blumenfeld doesn’t apologize for making a lot of money from the projects he bought from his dad’s bankruptcy, or the ones he created with partners of his own, like 640 North Broad. “I can’t live any better than I already live,” he says. “The net, just on 640 North Broad, is over a couple million dollars a year. I’m successful enough to have the ability to do the things I want to do. … But I’m not happy with that. It’s not about making money. This neighborhood needs to be transformed … and I’m telling you, I am crazy enough to make this happen.”
The history of cities is written by the obsessions of crazy rich people—especially those who get their hands dirty and get in people’s faces, while also listening and learning from their mistakes. While Eric Blumenfeld may be in way over his head, even his detractors will admit that right now, his learning curve is becoming a force to be reckoned with.
And his story seems to be getting more dramatic, emotional and intriguing by the day. In just the past few months, he has broken up with and sued his major business partner, attempted to reconcile his most painful family relationship, and lost the most important person in his life.
In December 2010, a tall, puffy 40-something ex-Penn basketball player named Tyrone L. Gilliams Jr. announced that it was time for him—for all of us—to “give back.”
He did this through a slickly produced five-minute video that identified him as a “mogul,” “philanthropist” and “self-starter” and rotated him through four different wardrobe changes, including one topped by a white wool hat and scarf and another accented by a bright orange hoodie vest. But Gilliams seemed most comfortable in a stylish gray suit with a French-cuffed white shirt and red tie, a look accessorized with a pile of bundled $20 bills.
“This,” he proclaimed, “is what we’re giving back.”
The video was to announce the “Joy to the World Fest,” a series of high-profile events around the city due to take place in mere days. There would be a food giveaway for 5,000 needy people, a children’s spectacular at the Convention Center, a gospel concert, a star-studded bowling party at North Bowl in Northern Liberties with a Ciroc Vodka bar open until 2 a.m., and an album-release party with Oscar- and Grammy-winner Jamie Foxx.
But the main event would be a fund-raising gala the Saturday night before Christmas at the Ritz-Carlton, with tickets ranging from $250 to $1,200. “And it’s not just a black-tie gala,” Gilliams declared in yet another outfit, “it’s red-carpet.” Rap superstar Sean “Diddy” Combs would headline; Kim Kardashian was coming.
Amazingly, everything came off pretty much without a hitch. Kardashian bailed, replaced by a Real Housewife of Atlanta, Sheree. But a who’s who of black Philadelphia showed up at the events: Eagle DeSean Jackson, basketball legend Sonny Hill, State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, Congressman Chaka Fattah and his wife, glamorous TV anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah. Diddy was late to the gala, but his tardiness was quickly forgotten when he grabbed the mic and began talking about his old pal “Fly Ty Gilliams.” (Pals, yes, though not close enough for Diddy to waive his standard five-figure appearance fee.)
“Fly Ty took my girl back in ’94, and now he’s givin’ back to the community,” Diddy announced. “This is my nigger, he’s one of my brothers, give him some applause y’all, Tyrone Gilliams, he’s my man Tyrone.” The two embraced, then raised their clasped hands together awkwardly.
It was an auspicious debut on the philanthropic scene for Gilliams, the son of a well-regarded local clergyman and an ordained minister himself. “It was as much a coming-out party for him as it was an event for everyone else,” says a Philadelphia society writer who covered the affair. “It was like a hip-hop Academy Ball.”
Afterward, it appeared that Tyrone Gilliams might be on his way to fulfilling the rather lofty promise in his website bio, which portrayed him as the second coming of, among others, Andrew Carnegie, George Steinbrenner, Walter Annenberg and Kenny Gamble. The fact that nobody quite knew where he had been for the past 20 years, or exactly how he had made all his money, seemed almost immaterial.
Until the following April, when his name surfaced at the very end of a Reuters wire-service story about the FBI’s pursuit of unusual financial fraud cases in the aftermath of the Bernie Madoff scandal. As the feds have pulled at the threads of Gilliams’s patchwork financial world in the year since, they’ve uncovered a bizarre tale of financial intrigue and emotional bankruptcy, centered on a man who they claim bilked people across the country out of millions and then spent their money to enhance his own lifestyle and image—like the $1.3 million he “gave back” for the Joy to the World Fest. It’s a still-unfolding mystery that includes the alleged defrauding of an unsuspecting millionaire philanthropist in Cincinnati; an aging Greek national with a questionable account at JPMorgan; a handful of screaming New York civil litigators; and a crusading Wall Street prosecutor recently profiled on the cover of Time magazine, whose office set out to connect the absurdly disparate dots. It’s a story that stretches from brokers in New York and Palm Beach to a medicinal marijuana farm in Denver to a gold mine in Ghana to, finally, the attractive Art Museum-area house that Tyrone Gilliams shares with his two young kids and their mother. He was arrested last October, and is now charged with masterminding a $5 million Ponzi scheme that could land him in prison for years. He has pleaded not guilty, but the brazenness of the purported scheme has left many of the principals breathless. “In all my years of practicing law, I’ve never seen anything like this,” says one attorney involved in the case. “Most scam artists, they take your money and then they steal off into the jungle. But we’re starting to see more cases like Gilliams’s, where the crooks just stand there and say, ‘Come get me.’”
A former friend says that over the past few years, he saw Gilliams becoming delusional, “addicted to attention” and obsessed with the success of others, especially those in the music business. He wondered where it would end. He says people have no idea just how deep the twisted psychology of Tyrone Gilliams really goes. He’s even heard people suggest Gilliams is some kind of hero.
“They talk about Ty,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief, “like he’s the black Robin Hood.”
While Patrick and Amy Kennedy are expecting their first child in April, they also have a very busy spring planned, as Patrick revs up his advocacy for mental health parity and addiction equity, as well as funding for research in all the brain sciences. Read more »
ON MARCH 31, 2010, PATRICK KENNEDY came to Atlantic City to give a speech.
In the previous nine months, he had buried both his father, Senator Edward Kennedy, and his aunt, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. While Ted had been his hero, it was his aunt’s stigma-busting work in children’s health and disability issues that had in part inspired his own powerful advocacy for mental health and addiction services, which he had personally relied upon. He had also just announced that after 16 years—most of his adult life—representing Rhode Island in Congress, he wouldn’t run for reelection. The Obama health-care plan, based on ideas Ted Kennedy had fought for throughout his career, had finally been passed. Patrick had gone to his father’s grave and left a handwritten note: “Dad, the unfinished business is done.”
Now, he had to figure out what to do next.
After the speech—the finale of a $125-a-plate fund-raiser at Caesars for the developmentally disabled—he was mobbed by folks wanting a Kennedy moment. Among them was a tall, beautiful 30-year-old junior-high-school history teacher from Absecon named Amy Petitgout. A recently single mom out for the first time since her separation, she was attending as a last-minute replacement for her father, a retired special-ed teacher and longtime local Democratic pol who had come down with a bad cold. She wanted an autograph for him.
As subtly as possible—which for Patrick isn’t very subtle at all—he hit on her. In the note to her father, he scribbled, “Sorry I missed you, but it was a pleasure meeting your beautiful daughter.” She beamed at him, then headed back into the throng of 250.
Patrick Kennedy is really bad at hiding his emotions. He’s tall, red-haired and freckled, with broody, distractible eyes and a smile that never quite turns all the way up, and his feelings are largely unmodulated and unfiltered. He lives on the brink of crying for joy or sadness, and being a Kennedy with a mood disorder, he usually has ample reason for both. So the 42-year-old lifelong bachelor did his best to appear placid as he carefully watched Amy Petitgout thread her way back to table 123.
“I had to play it cool,” he recalls, laughing. “I couldn’t beeline right over to her or they’d all say, ‘There goes that Kennedy, after the pretty girls.’ So I had to shake hands with all different kinds of people at different tables, trying not to make it too obvious.” When he finally reached her table, he diplomatically struck up a conversation with her mother first. But it was clear why he was there.
He told Amy that if she ever wanted to, you know, bring her class to Washington, he was still in Congress for a few more months and would be happy to show them around. As she was thinking that her school couldn’t afford anything like that, he handed her his card, relaying something that intrigued her.
“Please call me,” he said. “But pretend I called you first.”
In Allison Vulgamore’s 16th-floor office at the Philadelphia Orchestra, there’s a battery-operated toy chicken that hops around singing “Ring of Fire” in Johnny Cash’s voice.
It was a gift from her younger sister, to remind her of the songs they used to sing as kids in central Ohio. Part of the reason Vulgamore trained as a soprano in college, before heading into arts management, was that her family was constantly singing. They sang religious songs, folk songs (“Ali,” as friends and family still call her, did a killer “Sweet Betsy from Pike”), show tunes, Mozart lieder. But her dad had a soft spot for Johnny Cash, so “Ring of Fire” became a family favorite.
At the Atlanta Symphony, where she was president for 16 years, she liked to take the singing chicken into her colleagues’ offices to make them laugh. But since she arrived here almost two years ago to run the Philadelphia Orchestra, “Ring of Fire” has taken on a new meaning. It now seems like a description of her everyday life.
Corey Calicat-Wayans looks like he was born to cause concussions.
A noseguard at the Haverford School, he’s a six-two, 330-pound freshman, with room to grow. If you saw him playing in one of the $200 helmets that Haverford buys its team, he’d look like a monster. But on this Thursday in early summer, dressed only in a white sleeveless T-shirt and long black shorts, he looks surprisingly vulnerable from the neck up, with a big-baby face, a skull barely shielded by very close-cropped hair, and wide, uneasy eyes.
Corey is here before practice as a subject in a scientific experiment—one that’s largely unknown to a public deluged by media coverage of sports head injuries, but that’s being closely watched by experts around the world because it could revolutionize the diagnosis of concussions. He stands not on the football field, but along the carpeted bleachers for the school’s squash courts, surrounded not by coaches, but by earnest, preppy students holding clipboards and stopwatches.
One of the eager young men hands Corey a set of four laminated cards bound with a white spiral. On each card is a set of random numbers in varying positions. Corey is told to read the numbers in order, out loud, as fast as he can. “Two, five, eight, zero, seven,” he begins. His time is recorded as his baseline.
Later, during football season, if he takes a powerful blow to the head—actually, it’s more like when he takes a blow, since the average high-school player gets hit on the helmet up to 1,400 times each season—he can quickly be retested on the sideline. All the other sideline tests used to diagnose concussions involve a battery of complex questions and subjective scoring—and they often take longer than the time left in the game. This test—named the King-Devick for the pair of optometry students who developed it in 1976—takes less than a minute, and it’s pass/fail. A team mascot could administer it: The athlete just reads the cards again. If he’s concussed, he won’t be able to say the numbers as quickly as before.
King-Devick is believed to be able to diagnose concussions even in athletes without traditional symptoms. Moving your eyes together rapidly, reading quickly, and saying the numbers out loud accesses about 50 percent of the brain’s functional areas. No matter how hard they try, athletes with head injuries won’t be able to replicate their baseline speed.
Corey doesn’t understand much of this. He’s just a freshman hoping to get some playing time. But this test could save his life.
The number of concussions in high-school athletes is high, and rising—more than 136,000 are diagnosed each year, with the highest rate among the nation’s estimated 1.2 million high-school football players. Yet one of the biggest problems with sports head injuries is that concussions frequently go untreated—because the player doesn’t immediately feel hurt, or won’t admit to feeling hurt.
(Studies show more than 50 percent of student athletes will lie about symptoms to stay in the game.) And the brain is most vulnerable to serious, irreversible injury when the athlete already has an unhealed concussion.
Which is why any incremental improvement in understanding, treating or diagnosing concussions is such a big deal—and why the King-Devick test in particular is so important. So far, in two small studies published in the past eight months in top neurology journals, the test has performed as well as or better than other tests identifying concussions—and it can be administered during a time-out. The results have been so positive, in fact, that the Flyers have signed on to be part of a wider study this fall, joining the varsity football teams at Penn and the Haverford School. Flyers and Eagles team doctor Gary Dorshimer expects other NHL and NFL teams to use the test more informally this year, to see what it adds to their armamentaria.
And the two Penn neuro-ophthalmologists testing King-Devick—Steven Galetta and Laura Balcer—are starting to draw attention for their work. Based on their studies, Ralph Nader just called for mandatory use of the test in all high-school and youth sports. In May, Balcer and Galetta presented at the One Mind conference in Boston—a sort of Woodstock for the future of brain sciences—appearing on a special panel alongside the most renowned, high-profile researchers in sports head injuries, including neurologist Robert Cantu and his colleagues from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at Boston University.
Researchers there have been performing autopsies on athletes’ brains—including that of Penn football star Owen Thomas, who hanged himself last year. His was among the first autopsies to find early-stage trauma-related damage in a young football player’s brain. CSTE has been generating headlines across the country for years with a very loud safety message that has raised awareness and forced some rule changes, but it has also fueled a good bit of fear and confusion—to the point where it’s much harder for kids to convince their parents to let them play contact sports anymore. (“Not long ago,” laments one Philadelphia-area football coach, “we’d have over a hundred kids come out. This year, I’m not sure we’ll have enough for a team, and it’s mostly because of concern with concussions.”)
Lanky, loping, contagiously affable Galetta, 54, and his energetically serious 46-year-old colleague Balcer are new to this hard-hitting world of concussions, and surprisingly easygoing. Neuro-ophthalmologists are considered the dorks of neurology, Galetta explains: “We’re like the Rodney Dangerfields of the brain, no respect.” He views the new field of sports concussion research he’s entered as dominated by “expert opinion, the lowest form of medical evidence.” He and Balcer didn’t become interested in King-Devick and concussion testing because of all the headlines. In fact, they were sought out by King-Devick’s inventor because they’d spent more than a decade doing pro bono research in the decidedly unglamorous field of analyzing eye tests to see how well they pick up early symptoms of neurological conditions.
Besides being new to the concussion industrial complex—which has a surprising number of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania ties, going back to old Flyers, Eagles and Steelers head injuries, both suffered and inflicted—this group adds a very family-style, very Penn operation to the field. Laura Balcer was Steve Galetta’s resident at HUP (where, among other jobs, he runs the neurology residency program) and rose in the department as his protégée. Kristin Galetta—daughter of Steve—is a medical student at Penn and was lead author on both papers on the King-Devick research. (Another Penn connection: I’ve known Galetta since he and I were freshman there, and he has treated members of my family.)
A big part of the reason the research has been done at Penn and the Haverford School is that Galetta played on a football team at Penn, and is a longtime adviser to the university’s athletic program. He sent his two sons to Haverford. (The younger is currently a junior.)
IT WASN’T SUPPOSED to end so soon for the concertmaster. And it wasn’t supposed to end like this — his forced-farewell season marred by the last-minute cancellation of his final solo performance. Still, as Norman Carol rises from the first-violin chair of the Philadelphia Orchestra later this month, never to sit back down in it again, he will always have this: He went out like a Phillie, with the symphonic equivalent of a sports injury.
He ran into a wall of shoulder pain after reaching for too many fang high notes. He was put on the disabled list, had shoulder surgery and then tried to play through the pain for three seasons. Eventually, even the stoic "Silver Fox" couldn’t handle the hurt. So at, 66 he is stepping down after 28 years as the lead "fiddle player" of the orchestra and the musical heart of several incarnations of the "Philadelphia Sound." Come September, someone else will be striding purposefully onto the Academy stage, nodding to the oboist for an A and tuning the strings to his instrument. Someone else will decide which direction the violin bows will move on each note. Someone else will have what Carol considers the best steady job in classical music.
What will he do?
"I haven’t really figured that out yet," he says.
Does he want to conduct?
"No, I’d like to keep my friends."
What will happen to his 1743 Guarnerius del Gesu, a musical instrument that is at least as famous as its owner?
"Why?" he asks. "Are you looking to buy a violin?"
NORMAN CAROL HAS A FLAIR FOR THE UNDRAMATIC. HE IS SO unassuming — in a world where people are so full of, well, assumption — that offstage he seems determined to not only demystify life in the symphony, but to de-romanticize it as well. I met Carol in 1984 while doing a story on Riccardo Muti. I sat with him during a train trip to New York for a Carnegie Hall concert, and, another day, he took me backstage at the Academy to give me a glimpse of what being in the orchestra was really like. It was a bunch of guys, mostly guys, standing around in sports shirts smoking cigarettes and talking about sports, mortgage rates, anything but music. And when the break was over, they all shuffled back onto the Academy stage and did their job, which was to play incredible music and send shivers down my spine. But from my new vantage point, it seemed almost a royal-blue-collar occupation — “Hey, can you give me some more of those shivers over here?”
Perhaps for some, that view would destroy their exalted image of the orchestra. To me, it just made the entire enterprise more interesting, more approachable, more human. Norman Carol went from the tuxedoed hero who caused the first hush and then burst of applause from the Academy crowd each evening to a guy I could imagine trying to get a baseball score between movements. In fact, as he sits and reminisces about 60 years of music-making just days before his last appearance at the Academy as concertmaster (his last Philadelphia appearance, at the Mann Center, was scheduled for July 28th, and he’ll finish up at Saratoga on August 20th) — he brings especially vivid color and intonation to a story about his debut at, of all places, the Vet.
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.
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.