Homage to the first supermodel, Gia Carangi
Updated: May 18, 2021
I have always felt close to Gia's story. As sad as it is, I can't help but look at her photos and feel some kind of connection.
Gia Carangi was one of the first openly gay supermodels, and she introduced a sultry, androgynous look that resonates on catwalks today. Her story is a cautionary tale about the dangerous mix of sudden fame and drugs set against a high-fashion background.
Recommended book “Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel” by journalist Stephen Fried and “Born This Way” by Sacha Lanvin Baumann.
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Born in Philadelphia in 1960, Gia was a beautiful teenager who dreamed of David Bowie while working at the cashier of her father Joseph's sandwich shop. She acknowledged herself as gay and trying different drugs, she attempted to escape a difficult childhood. She was conscious of her beauty, intelligent, and passionate.
It was in the summer of 1978 that a local photographer and hairdresser, Maurice Tannenbaum, asked her to pose on the dance floor after spotting her at a local nightclub. Gia’s dark, tomboyish looks and perfect face were an ideal match for the fashion world which at the time was overrun with slim blondes.
Before she knew it, she was the talk of New York and she moved to Manhattan at the age of 18. At that time Gia signed with Wilhelmina Cooper, legendary fashion agent and owner of her own modelling agency, and for her a kind of mother figure.
Her natural flexibility in front of the camera made her a favourite with the top photographers, and fashion editors soon clicked onto the appeal of the new girl in town.
In 1979, in the space of five months, Gia appeared on the covers British Vogue, French Vogue, US Vogue and US Cosmopolitan, twice. Francesco Scavullo, the photographer of the Cosmopolitan covers, came into contact with that sensual and dark energy and became her mentor and her most passionate supporter.
Gia’s addiction was no secret among the fashion world, but for a while it was tolerated. Drug use wasn’t exactly unknown in their ‘party-hard’ world, after all, but her lifestyle was becoming increasingly risky. In 1980, at the peak of the popularity of "her" Gia, Wilhelmina died at the age of 40 of lung cancer and Gia fell into depression and increased her bond with heroin.
In November 1980, Carangi left Wilhelmina Models and signed with Ford Models, but she was dropped within weeks. By then, her career was in a steep decline.
In late 1981, although still struggling with drug abuse, Gia was determined to make a comeback in the fashion industry. Scavullo photographed her for the April 1982 cover of Cosmopolitan, her last cover appearance for an American magazine. Sean Byrnes, Scavullo's long-time assistant, later said, "... I could see the change in her beauty. There was an emptiness in her eyes."
During the winter of 1985, Gia was diagnosed with AIDS-related complex and she died of AIDS-related complications on November 18, 1986, becoming one of the first famous women to die of the disease. At the time of her death her mother was by her side. She was 26.
Gia’s legacy is enormous and diverse. She was one of the first so-called super-models, paving the way for generations of ‘unusual’ beauties, including Cindy Crawford, who was nicknamed ‘Baby Gia’.
By the late 1980s, her death helped raise awareness about how AIDS is spread, and from that day on the world has become more sympathetic to sufferers of AIDS, spurring fundraising efforts and government funding.