Too Beautiful to Die: The short life of the world’s first supermodel

Supermodel Gia Carangi was born on this day in 1960

Too Beautiful to Die: The short life of the world’s first supermodel

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 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 androgynous gender, the Bowie kids were natural companions for Gia, complimenting and reinforcing her carefree, wild-child lifestyle. She started frequenting gay clubs in Philadelphia, Gia’s sexual attitudes offered yet another glimpse into her unique character. 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 16th birthday. Fully aware of her daughter’s potential, her mother suggested she give modeling a try. After being featured in Philadelphia newspaper ads, Gia moved to New York City at the age of 17, where she signed with Wilhelmina Models. Her first major shoot, published in October 1978, was with top fashion photographer Chris von Wangenheim, who had her pose nude behind a chain-link fence with makeup artist Sandy Linter. 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. 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.”

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. 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.” By the age of 20, Gia had the world at her fingertips. 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. 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 supermodel 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 Wilhelmina Models agency after Wilhelmina Coopers’ 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. 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. 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. 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. Her 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 26-year-old. 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.”

By Ken Warren, 2017/18

Model At Work: Carol Alt & Sandy Linter Discuss Gia Carangi.

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