Hi, I’m Cindy Crawford. Before the word “supermodel” was coined, there was Gia Carangi.
From her first major modeling job with Versace, she was catapulted to the covers of Cosmopolitan and Vogue magazines, and became a favorite model of many of the world’s best-known fashion photographers, including Helmut Newton, Francesco Scavullo and Arthur Elgort. Arthur first saw photos of Gia in 1978, when she worked behind the counter at her father’s restaurant, Little Hoagie, in Philadelphia.
Gia brought a new dark, edgy, moody look — and an “I don’t give a damn” attitude to American fashion modeling that had been dominated by smiling, blonde, blue-eyed beauties. She was a rebel who unabashedly posed nude when most American models shied away from nudity. She was also a troubled young woman who had been sexually abused at five years old and whose mother abandoned her, her father and siblings for another man.
She was a lesbian who wore black motorcycle jackets, no makeup, and vintage men’s clothing in an era when being homosexual was an act of defiance; a heroin addict who used drugs to deal with her loneliness as a famous young model in New York City with few friends.
The drugs made it harder and harder for her to work. She fell asleep or walked out on jobs. But she was in such high demand that those hiring her would look the other way or enable her behavior rather than helping her or forcing her to deal with her drug addiction.
As former girlfriend Elyssa Stewart told the UK newspaper The Independent: “The problem was that people were more interested in hiding the marks than helping her.”
In 1984, she entered rehab for six months at the insistence of her family, but was soon back on heroin, and by 1985, she was in the hospital with pneumonia. She was sleeping on the streets, she was bruised, had been raped, and was reportedly doing sex work.
She died in November 1986, the first famous woman to die of AIDS and a warning that AIDS was not just a disease that took the lives of gay men. Her death brought attention to the risk of needle-sharing and the benefits of needle-exchange programs and AIDS education rather than demonizing drug users.
Even as troubled as she was, her exit from the fashion industry left a gaping hole and people longed for her dark-haired, brown-eyed beauty. So much so, that when I first came to New York as a young model, my agent sent me out to some of those same photographers, saying they had “baby Gia.” I will forever be grateful to her for opening so many doors for me.
Francesco Scavullo, the photographer who adored Gia even as he hid the sores and track marks on Gia’s arm in a photo shoot late in her life, explained her allure: “Gia is my darling – old, young, decadent, innocent, volatile, vulnerable, and more tough-spirited than she looks. She is all nuance and suggestion, like a series of images by Bertolucci.”
“I never think of her as a model, though she’s one of the best,” he said. “She doesn’t give you the Hot Look, the Cool Look, the Cute Look. She strikes sparks, not poses. She’s like photographing a stream of consciousness.”
Rest in peace, Gia.