Revisiting the turbulent life and times of modeling icon Gia Carangi
Who would you say are the iconic starlets of our day? As far as supermodels go, who does our generation have? Kate Moss? Gisele Bundchen? Our girl Kim K? While the Cindy Crawfords and Naomi Campbells may have reigned supreme among ’90s modeling icons, before them it was unquestionably Gia Carangi who embodied the archetype of a supermodel in the ’80s. In her all-too-short, but meteoric rise to fame, Gia Carangi led a life that encapsulated both the triumph and terror of success. An overnight sensation in the fashion world, Gia’s legacy serves as a cautionary tale, and a powerful reminder of the double-edged sword of fame and fortune.
“She was completely a free soul,” remembers Francesco Scavullo, one of Gia’s adoring photographers who worked with the model during her short career. “She had her own way of moving in front of the camera. It wasn’t like any model I’d worked with before.”
Born on January 29, 1960 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Gia Marie Carangi was raised in a turbulent home. The only daughter of Joseph Carangi and Kathleen Adams, close friends of Gia trace her breakdown back to a perpetually unsettled childhood. Gia grew up in a comfortable house, situated on the outskirts of Philadelphia, but although the environment was welcoming, her house rarely felt like a home. “Gia and I used to sit at the top of the steps and hear [our parents] fight.” remembers her brother, Joe Carangi, “We hated it.” By the time she was eleven years old, her parents had split up, the separation creating a void that would trouble Gia throughout her life.
In the years following her parents’ divorce, Gia grew increasingly reckless and harder to handle as she entered her teens. Experimenting with drugs and alcohol, she was regarded as a free spirit who was never afraid to express herself. In high school, Gia was drawn to the Bowie kids, a group of students, who worshiped the ’70s glam god. Disciples of Bowie’s music, his avant-garde, fantastical mythology, and his adrogynous gender politics, the Bowie kids were natural companions for Gia, complimenting and reinforcing her carefree, wildchild lifestyle.
Frequenting gay clubs throughout Philadelphia, Gia’s sexual attitudes offered yet another another glimpse into her unique character. As a lesbian, she embraced her sexuality, despite her mother’s condemning the decision. “At a time when most people don’t even know what their sexuality is, Gia was saying, ‘I’m gay. I know I’m gay.’ recalls biographer Steven Freed. Taking her daughter to counseling proved futile for the emotional yet headstrong youth, whose figure and curves had noticeably developed around the time of her birthday. Fully aware of her daughter’s potential, her mother suggested she give modeling a try.
Although it was her mother’s dream for her, Gia was hardly serious about her potential career, even as the people around her soon realized her natural talent. “She really never came to peace with being perhaps the first in a generation of supermodels,” remembers Diane Furstenburg in the documentary, The Self Destruction of Gia. “I think all the idolatry and the praise, and all of the attention was very fleeting, and she seemed to know that. Somehow, within Gia, she knew that all this was just a temporary thing.”
When family friend and photographer Joe Petralis took Gia’s first test shots, he quickly realized the potential of the young model as well. “I didn’t have to tell her what to do,” said Petralis. “She already knew what to do in front of that camera. And that’s a great model.”
When photographer Maurice Tannenbaum spotted Gia dancing at a local Philadelphia club, even from afar, he saw what Petralis had seen. Realizing the potential she had to become a superstar in the fashion world, Tannenbaum began arranging auditions for the amateur model. Soon after, in a meeting with one of New York’s top agents, Wilhelmina Cooper, Gia made an important first impression. Her look, vibe and personality were a stark contrast from the bland, blonde standard of beauty that permeated the industry at the time. It was exactly what Wilhelmina had been searching for. Taking the young model under her wing, Wilhelmina coached Gia through the intricacies of the craft, helping to pave the way for the model’s meteoric rise.
Within six months, she was on. Naturally stunning, the camera gravitated to her like a magnet, and behind it, every top photographer in the industry. “Every photographer that mattered was trying to book her,” remembers fashion editor Steven Freed. “She reminded me of James Dean,” recalled photographer Andrea Blanch. “She was very cool, but she had a tremendous vulnerability.”
In a matter of months, Gia was earning a six figure salary for her efforts. She had become an overnight celebrity. Living in the heart of New York City and modeling for the country’s most popular fashion publications, it appeared as though the eighteen year-old had it all. However, there was still a void in the precocious teenager’s life. As former model Julie Foster remembered, there was something missing in Gia’s illustrious lifestyle. “She was looking for anyone’s love.” stated Foster, “She would show up at my house, sometimes in the middle of the night, and I’d let her in and she’d just want someone to hug her.” It was this vulnerability that made Gia so attractive and so personable, but also so volatile in the years to come.
Having been thrust into the fast-paced life of the fashion industry, Gia was still starved for the stability she so desperately longed for. A string of unsatisfying relationships with men, and her still-evolving sexuality left her with a strong desire for a female companion. An impromptu photo shoot alongside makeup artist Sandy Linter would mark the beginning of a tumultuous romance.
While Sandy’s presence in Gia’s life offered some semblance of stability, Gia’s thirst for other women never ceased. In the eyes of friend and confidant Robert Hilton, Gia just acted like one of the guys: “Gia had a desire for women that was so, in its essence, masculine,” said Hilton. “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.” Much like James Dean, an icon to which she naturally drew comparison, Gia’s sexual energy was evident even when the camera was turned off.
By the age of 20, Gia had the world at her fingertips. With suitors in every country, she could’ve married into unimaginable wealth, had she not already been wealthy herself. Gia’s signature look had set her apart in the hyper-competitive fashion industry, while her personality left most adoring her very presence. Yet while life appeared to be perfect for the young model, her well-manicured world was suddenly shattered with the death of her mentor and agent Wilhelmina Cooper. Cooper’s death left Gia reeling. Already familiar with the temptations that permeated New York nightlife, she turned to drugs, finding solace in the thrill of the high. Initially dabbling in cocaine at chic nightclubs, she soon developed an affinity for the drug, opening the floodgates for all kinds of experimentation.
It was a night like any other that would mark a shift in Gia’s life. Injected with a heroin needle by a fellow partygoer in New York, Gia’s first introduction to heroin would mark a crucial turning point in her career. It was a pivotal time for the young model, and even as she became enamored with the highs of heroin, her career was flourishing simultaneously. Captured on the covers of Vogue and Cosmopolitan in the summer of 1980, the model was in high demand, quickly emerging as the preeminent super model of her time. However, her increasing heroin use soon began to reveal the darker side of addiction. Gia’s vivacious demeanor soon grew unpredictable, and the model became emotionally volatile with little to no warning. Lashing out at friends on a regular basis, the model’s sparkling spirit quickly began to decline, her unhappiness inside soon revealing itself to others on the exterior.
Within a span of three years, Gia had skyrocketed to the pinnacle of the fashion industry, but her beauty, and more importantly, her health was deteriorating rapidly. Leaving the Willhelmina agency after her death, she signed with the Ford agency in the fall of 1980, but her erratic and unpredictable behavior quickly soured the relationship. After being dropped from the agency after only three weeks, her fall from grace was softened briefly when she moved in with her mother. Unfortunately though, the return to normalcy was short lived. Shacking up soon after with a new girlfriend named Rochelle, Gia quickly slipped back into her old ways, stealing her mother’s wedding rings to sell for heroin. After an earnest attempt at sobriety, and enrollment in a detox program, Gia’s world was again sent into a tailspin when close friend and photographer Chris Von Wangenheim was killed in a car crash. Again, Gia was devastated. Locking herself in her bathroom for days, she turned to heroin once again to ease the pain.
“I’m an extremist. I have to go all the way,” claimed Gia in a 1982 interview. It was, in all likelihood, this very personality trait that provided Gia her greatest successes, but also her ultimate failures. Months passed before she returned to modeling. Following her heroin binge, she contacted her friend and confidant Francesco Scavullo. Hoping to return the fallen star to her former prominence, the photographer quickly placed the supposedly reformed model on the cover of Cosmopolitan. The cover featured Gia with her arms behind her back, as Scavullo deliberately positioned the model to hide her increased weight, and a substantial collection of still-visible track marks.
For a time, the Cosmo cover revitalized Gia’s career. Offered $10,000 a week to model for European catalogs, Gia found herself overseas, and briefly, back in demand. Returning to New York following her stint in Europe, Gia was again faced with the pressures of New York city life, and again, the temptations were overwhelming. Horror stories followed. Rumours of Gia falling asleep on set and storming off in tirades circulated the industry, along with yet another renewal of her relationship with heroin. On a shoot in North Africa in the Spring of 1983, Gia was caught with drugs. The unfortunate encounter would mark the end of her modeling career.
Moving in above her father’s sandwich shop in Atlantic City, the famed model grew increasingly reclusive. Rarely speaking with her family, she moved back in with her girlfriend Rochelle and again fell into the vicious cycle of junkiedom. Gia found herself drawn once again into the dangers of New York’s druggy underworld, and those close to her could only hope for her safety. Jumping between stints with her father, her mother and friends, Gia’s world continued to spiral out of control.
During one of these stints living with her father, the brief semblance of stability was again shattered when she was diagnosed as HIV positive. The news left her family distraught, although the model was eager to live her life to the fullest, invigorated by a new sense of urgency. Friend and fellow recovery patient Rob Fey remembered her outlook following her diagnoses: “We went out and lived life.” recalls Fey, “Gia would tell me, you know, some days she’d be sick, some days she’d be fine, but she’d say, “Let’s go out. Let’s go live. Because we might die tomorrow.”
At 10 AM on November 18th, 1986, Gia Carangi passed away, her battle with AIDS proving too strong for the resilient youth. At 26, she had virtually her entire life before her, although in many ways she had experienced both enough elation and horror for a lifetime. In a way, Gia was paradoxically trapped by her beauty, even as it took her to the top of the world. While paving the way for models like Elle MacPherson and Cindy Crawford to achieve superstardom, Gia’s beauty introduced her to the temptations of fame, to which she could not help but fall victim. In hindsight, it seems as though Gia was aware of the battle that would ultimately take her life. “It wasn’t just a matter of stopping,” she once said when asked about her life with drugs. “It was a matter of living in the world I wanted to live in. Making it work for me, instead of against me. Life and death, energy and peace. If I stop today, it was still worth it.”
All direct quotes in this article are sourced from the documentary film The Self Destruction of Gia.