Gia: The tragic tale of the world’s first supermodel

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Plucked from obscurity, Gia Carangi’s looks redefined beauty for a generation. But her life – and untimely death – were anything but a fairytale.

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Hundreds of thousands of young women are hoping to add their name to those of Kate Moss, Jodie Kidd, Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks, Karen Mulder, Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer, Helena Christensen, Noami Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Elle Macpherson, Eva Herzigova, Jerry Hall, Gia Carangi, Ingrid Boulting, Marie Helvin, Lauren Hutton, Verushka, Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton in the litany of modern modelling fame. But, hang on. Did you catch the name in the middle there: Gia Carangi?

Younger readers, unless they have seen the eponymous 1998 film Gia in which Angelina Jolie played Carangi, may need some introduction to the woman who was once called “the world’s first supermodel” and “the hottest cover girl” of the late Seventies and early Eighties. For the life of Gia tells a story of modelling which is not one of fame, fortune and a glamorous land where the sun always shines and the party never stops, where dreams perforce come true and everyone is officially beautiful.

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Gia, in the days before the term supermodel had been coined, appeared on the cover of Cosmo and Vogue in America, Britain, France and Italy. Her first major modelling job was with Versace when she was 18. She was the favourite model of many top fashion photographers, including Arthur Elgort, Helmut Newton and Francesco Scavullo, who was for 30 years Cosmo’s cover photographer. Scavullo’s subjects included Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, Gore Vidal, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Diana Ross, Kim Basinger, Calvin Klein, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Debbie Harry, Madonna and Brad Pitt. But Gia was his favourite subject.

Yet hers is a cautionary tale. At the age of 17, Gia Carangi was a pretty high-school student – height 5ft 8in, stats 34-24-35, dress size 8-10 – working behind the counter at her father’s little restaurant in Philadelphia, Hoagie City, and doing her best never to miss a David Bowie concert. It was 1978.

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Then a local photographer asked her to pose on the dance floor and the pictures were seen by Elgort, who photographed for the New York department store Bloomingdale’s. Her dark melancholic Italian beauty stood in contrast to the typical blonde hair-blue eyed model then the normative. Her career soared like a star shooting in the night sky. Within a year she was the hottest new thing in New York, partying at Studio 54, and the darling of rockers and royalty, moguls and movie stars, alike.

It was not just her beauty. She was a new kind of wild child. She posed nude. She dressed in men’s clothes. She wore no make-up. She had attitude and “took no shit” from the dignitaries of the fashion industry. She would walk out of photo shoots if she wasn’t in the mood. She was, even at the age of 18, a diva who would cancel two whole weeks’ worth of bookings because she didn’t like the way her hair was cut.

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She would say things like: “I’m not impressed by somebody who’s got a Lear jet and who’s going to take me to Florida every weekend. I just want a body, like a nice hot body and some big lips. Forget everything else.”
And she did not take too much trouble to hide her use of recreational drugs. “I am finally really starting to dig being different. Maybe I am discovering who I am. Or maybe I’m just stoned again, hahahaha!”

Yet there was behind the wanton lifestyle a deep unhappiness. At the age of five she was abused by a man. The abuse occurred only once, but she was traumatised by the incident. So was she when her mother left her husband, home and children for another man. Though, later in life, her mother returned to her, Gia never got over her sense of abandonment. “Gia did a lot of things just to get her mother’s attention,” one friend later said. “The one person Gia always wanted something from was her mother – and she just never felt like she got it.”

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Her public wildness was underpinned by a private loneliness. For even at the height of her fame much of the time, Gia was alone. She had friends in the profession, often make-up artists. But her schedule didn’t allow her the time for other activities. At the end of a day’s shooting she often went back to her empty New York apartment. “The biggest mistake we made was that nobody went up there with her,” her brother, Michael, told her biographer, Stephen Fried, later. “She could’ve used a friend.” Instead she turned to the drugs that others in the fashion world used only at parties.

“Gia and I were like lion cubs having fun,” one contemporary said. “We got a reputation because we didn’t hide anything. We did a lot of drugs and went to a lot of parties. So many! We were both constantly on trips, which I think saved my life, because you don’t do drugs when you travel. Except when I travelled with Gia. We brought a whole medicine kit.”

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Gia’s appointment book from 1980 contains a misspelt reminder to “Get Heroine”. In 1981 she was arrested – for driving under the influence of a narcotic. In May that year, at just 21, Gia required surgery on her hand because, according to Stephen Fried, “she had injected herself in the same place so many times that there was an open infected tunnel leading into her vein”.
Things were starting, just two years in, to fall apart. Her moods were swinging wildly. She walked out on shoots or fell asleep during jobs. Her drug use was preventing her from working at anything close to her full capacity as a model.

In those days using heroin was rather glamorous. And Gia was in demand as the look of the moment. Fashion editors knew about all the drugs but did not care. At one major magazine shoot an editor supplied Gia with a bag of cocaine and some heroin on the set. “The problem was that people were more interested in hiding the marks than helping her,” said Gia’s former lover, Elyssa Stewart, who says the problem persists in the industry but that models now shoot heroin under their toenails or tongue, where track marks cannot be detected.

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3 Responses to “Gia: The tragic tale of the world’s first supermodel”

  1. Lesberatti says:

    26 years after her death and I still cannot get her beauty out of my mind. But yopu forgot to add that America’s first supermodel: Gia Marie Carangi was an out lesbian.

  2. Maryam David says:

    I love you Gia. Darling, darling Gia.

  3. BALA says:

    Apart from all her flaws Gia is, and always will be the best

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