Clouded By Illusions: The Beauty Of Gia Carangi

Life and death
energy and peace
if I stopped today
it was fun.
Even the terrible pains that have burned me and scarred
my soul it was worth it for having been allowed to
walked where I’ve walked. Which was to hell on earth
heaven on earth, back again, into, under, far in between
and above it.

Gia Carangi (1986)

The death of supermodel Gia Carangi went unreported by the press. Five days later, her funeral was a quiet affair, attended only by her immediate family, with a closed casket recommended for the woman whose exquisite face and fabulous figure had once stunned the fashion world. None of the photographers who had clamoured to capture her, or the fashionistas who excitedly watched her strut down a catwalk were there, or even knew she had died. She was certainly not the first young woman destroyed by the glamorous but notoriously fickle modelling industry, but as one fashion insider later remarked, ‘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.’

Born in Philadelphia on 29th January 1960, Gia’s early life had been wrought by the unhappy marriage of her parents, Joseph Carangi, an Italian restaurateur and his wife Kathleen, who was of Welsh and Irish descent. Gia was their youngest child of three and their only daughter, although Joseph also had a son from a previous marriage. In 1971, Kathleen left the family home for good and later remarried, seeing her children at fairly irregular intervals much to the distress of her daughter, who was never able to overcome her sense of abandonment, as a friend recalled, ‘The one person Gia always wanted something from was her mother – and she just never felt like she got it.’ As well as her mother’s departure, Gia eventually revealed that she had been molested at the age of five, an experience that left her traumatised.

After being discovered by a local photographer whilst working in one of her father’s restaurants, Gia appeared in several advertisements in Philadelphia before moving to New York in 1978. Gia was signed by Wilhelmina Models straight away, with the agency’s owner Wilhelmina Cooper, who would become her mentor, enraptured by her ‘fantastically pliable face.’ One of Gia’s first assignments was for Vogue with the photographer Chris von Wangenheim in October 1978.

On that shoot, Gia met make-up artist Sandy Linter, a striking blonde woman in her late 20s, who had already made a name for herself as one of New York’s top make-up artists. Gia’s instant attraction to Linter was only intensified after the two agreed to pose nude for von Wangenheim that same day. It has often been suggested that Linter was Gia’s great love, and Linter, who has since identified herself as heterosexual, would experience a complicated and emotional relationship with Gia, remembering how, ‘She sent flowers to me, and she really sort of courted me, which I thought was adorable.’  

Gia on the other hand, had never been in any doubt about her sexual preference for women. Since her early teens, she had been open about her sexuality, something many friends and classmates spoke about to Gia’s biographer Stephen Fried, with one recalling that ‘Gia was the purest lesbian I ever met. It was the clearest thing about her. She was sending girls flowers when she was thirteen,’ and how ‘Gia just loved women and she fell for them whether they were gay or not.’ As Fried discovered, Gia’s first female lover, was a petite blonde named Sharon Beverly, whom she met at DCA, a gay club in Philadelphia, although like Linter, Beverly was exclusively heterosexual by the time Fried interviewed her. Gia wrote about the breakdown of the relationship in her journal,‘ 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.’

Robert Hilton, a therapist who treated Gia also noted how she ‘had a desire for women that was so, in its essence, masculine,’ and that ‘Whenever I would tap into what she was telling me in a session about her sexuality, it was so much closer to the way that men talk about women.’ Polly Mellen sittings editor at American Vogue who worked alongside Gia recollected, ‘She was sexually very aggressive. You couldn’t room her with another female model. If you did, she made advances and the other models would come and speak with me. You had to keep her away from other beautiful girls and you had to watch her carefully if she went out at night – if you were going to see her the next day and not hear that she was laying in another girl’s bed somewhere in the city.’ Mellen was also struck by Gia’s androgyny, which allowed her to ‘be the sexiest thing and still cross the line of boyishness.’ This quality was something Gia herself recognised, and attributed to the fact that, as a child she has been a tomboy because ‘I thought that if I was a boy, my father would love me.’

During the late 1970s, Gia’s career was in the ascendant and she became one of the world’s most in-demand models. But the new decade would bring about her shocking decline into drug abuse, obscurity and an untimely death. In March 1980, Wilhelmina Cooper died of lung cancer at only 40 years of age, leaving Gia devastated as she wrote in her journal, ‘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.’

A drug user since her teens, Gia had dabbled with marijuana and Quaaludes, with one observer remembering how early in her career on a shoot in Mustique, a man had approached Gia, raving about her beauty, to which she replied ‘If I look so fucking good why don’t you get me a joint?’ He returned with one, which Gia proceeded to smoke in front of everyone. However, to cope with the loss of Wilhemina, Gia’s drug use not only increased, she also began using harder substances, her 1980 appointment book featuring a misspelt note reminding her to ‘Get Herion.’ Gia’s frequent visits to New York hot spots such as Studio 54 and The Mudd Club, where drug use was common, only contributed to her growing dependency.

By 1981, Gia had developed a full-blown heroin addiction with her erratic behaviour severely affecting her professional life, as hair stylist Harry King admitted, ‘She scared me a little bit . . . There was something about her that made me feel uneasy. I used to say . . . ‘She has a demon inside of her.’ In March 1981, Chris von Wangenheim was killed in a road accident, leaving Gia distraught and only weeks later she was arrested after a police chase in which she was found to be driving under the influence of a narcotic.

Gia had also begun a relationship with Elyssa Golden, a student and fellow drug user who said of their initial meeting, ‘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.’ In the relationship, Elyssa claimed that Gia 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.’ Like Linter and others who knew her, Elyssa remembered how Gia embraced her sexuality and that ‘She liked being gay. She loved women and cars, that’s what she told me. ‘Blondes,’ she would say, ‘I love blondes.’ Although swamped by the attentions of Italian aristocrats, rock stars and famous actors, all Gia wanted was a woman who genuinely loved her, with a nice hot body and some big lips. Forget everything else.’

After several unsuccessful attempts to quit drugs, Gia left New York in early 1982 and entered into a 21-day detox programme in Philadelphia where she limited contact with both her mother and Elyssa. Though her drug use had negatively affected her career, Gia’s magnetic sexuality and outstanding images meant that New York’s fashion set were prepared to give her another chance. However, back in the city, the temptations were too great; she soon resumed her heroin habit and was dropped by Elite only three weeks after signing with the agency. In April 1982, Gia made her last appearance on a magazine cover when she was photographed by Francesco Scavullo for Cosmopolitan. Scavullo had been supportive of Gia since he first worked with her in the late 1970s and used his influence in the hope of kick-starting her comeback, for he believed ‘There’s only been maybe 3 girls in my whole career that have walked into my studio and I went ‘wow’. Gia was the last who came in here and I said ‘wow.’

Above: Gia being photographed by Francesco Scavullo (1979)

Rumours abounded that her pose on the Cosmopolitan cover, with her arms behind her back was due to visible track marks, but Scavullo dispelled these, claiming that it was merely a great pose. Nothing else. I was up close to her. Next to her. I saw no track marks. She was a little heavier and I was trying to hide the weight. That’s all. No track marks. That’s a lie.’ However, stylist Sean Byrnes remembered, ‘It was kind of sad. We got her on the cover, but I could see the change in her beauty. There was an emptiness in her eyes.’ In spite of Scavullo’s support, others in the fashion industry simply did not care that Gia was rapidly spiralling out of control and on occasion supplied her with drugs in order to get the photographs they wanted; as Elyssa confirmed, ‘The problem was that people were more interested in hiding the marks than helping her.’

For a short time, the Cosmopolitan cover breathed new life into Gia’s career and she was offered thousands of dollars a day, modelling for European catalogues. Flying to California for a job, Gia wa upset by the way the other models treated her, writing in her journal, ‘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.’ Nevertheless, as she flew back to New York she wrote on the plane, ‘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 the summer of 1982, Gia recorded an interview for ABC’s 20/20 in which she spoke candidly about the fashion industry, the voiceover stating that because of Gia’s addictions ‘The real world became clouded by illusions,’ yet she lied that she was free of them, telling the interviewer, ‘Now I have a great lust for life, you could say, and I love life and it’s a wonderful feeling and I think I had to go through that in order to have this feeling I have for life right now.’ By the time the interview was finally aired in January 1983, Gia had irreparably damaged her professional reputation  by showing up late for shoots, if at all, and often openly doing drugs between takes. Her last modelling job was for Otto Versand, a German company, but on the shoot in Tunisia she was fired when it was discovered that she was using heroin.  Gia left New York once and for all in 1983 and returned to Philadelphia to stay with her mother. It was a difficult period, as stated in her journal, ‘I feel detached, misunderstood, confused and scared … agitation will find relief in the exercise of simple memories. Look not around, not forward-but back.’

Above: Gia’s appearance on 20/20 (1983)

Seeking treatment again in early 1984, Gia went to rehab at the Eagleville Hospital in Montgomery County, but only stayed a fortnight before returning to Atlantic City where her father was now living. A year later, Gia returned to the Eagleville Hospital where she met Rob Fay, who was being treated for his addictions to alcohol and cocaine. The two became close friends and Fay recalled, ‘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.’

Yet Gia was unable to let her mother go and returned to live with her as soon as she left rehab. Gia’s problems with drugs quickly resurfaced and overshadowed her dreams of a new career as a cinematographer. Living with her mother, Gia was isolated from many of her old friends and her lover, Elyssa. Kathleen had never accepted her daughter’s sexuality and even after Gia’s death, would continue to insist, ‘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.’ This sentiment undoubtedly added to Gia’s ongoing feelings of maternal rejection and affected her already fragile mental state, as she confided in her journal, ‘I am at my mom’s again and feeling fucked-up.’ Furthermore, Gia’s complicated love life was also worrying her as she wrote, ‘You see a quite odd thing happened … I fell in love with my counselor and I think she just feels sorry for me … I hate anyone to pity me it is so degrading … I have a girl Elyssa 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.’

Above: Home movie footage of Gia (1982)

Gia eventually decided to leave Philadelphia to stay with Elyssa in Atlantic City. Back with Elyssa, Gia’s heroin use became even more excessive and after the pair had a vicious fight, she ran out of their apartment topless. For the next few days, Gia slept rough and was sexually assaulted before turning up at her father’s home; he immediately called Kathleen who agreed to take Gia back to Philadelphia with her to seek medical treatment. Already showing symptoms of pneumonia, further tests confirmed something Gia had quietly feared for the past few months – she had AIDS-related complex, a precursor to AIDS.

Visiting Gia soon after her diagnosis in June 1986, Rob Fay was surprised by her positivity as she told him, ‘Let’s go out. Let’s go live. Because we might die tomorrow.’ But Gia was dealt a further blow when her friend, the make-up artist Way Bandy, lost his own battle with AIDS in August, and upon hearing the news she wrote to her cousin, ‘Death makes life seem unreal. Unreal in the sense that you can’t hold onto it.’

By September 1986, Gia’s own health had begun to rapidly deteriorate and as a counsellor at the hospital where she was being treated recalled, she ‘had a great issue with the fact that there wasn’t a whole lot for women with AIDS. She felt isolated. She had no comrades, and she felt very awkward and alone and marked in terms of having this disease.’

Remembering the terrible pain her daughter endured, Gia’s mother later revealed how ‘At the end, she was spared nothing, absolutely nothing.’ all her organs started to fail, leaving her on a respirator, unable to speak and only able to communicate by scrawling a few words. Even as she was dying, Gia’s sense of humour and her love of attractive women never left her, the last words she managed to write being, ‘I hope this nurse is sexy.’ Gia’s suffering finally ended on 18th November, 1986.

In 1982, Gia was interviewed for Francesco Scavullo’s book, Scavullo Women, in which she claimed, ‘I thank God that I’m good-looking, or that people think I’m good-looking. But there’s a lot more to it than makeup and prettiness and all that stuff…there’s a lot more to being a woman than that. When I look in the mirror, I just want to like myself, that’s all. And if I like myself, then I look good.’ Gia believed her problems stemmed from her view that 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.’ She concluded, ‘I think God has a plan for me, but I don’t think it’s in this life.’

Selected Sources:

Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia – Stephen Fried (1994)