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

Plucked from obscurity, Gia Carangi's looks redefined beauty for a generation. But her life - and untimely death - were anything but a fairytale. As 10,000 compete to be 'Britain's Next Top Model', Paul Vallely tells a salutary story

And these represent only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of young women who hope 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.

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.

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 was a lesbian, or some said, bisexual. 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.

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 sexually 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."

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."

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.

What changed was that Gia started going directly from $10,000-a-day fashion shoots to the heroin shooting galleries on New York's Lower East Side.

One top photographer called her "a trashy little street kid". She made several comebacks, but each time relapsed. And then word leaked out that she might be HIV positive. It was that which led to her finally being blackballed by those who only months before could not get enough.

By the end of 1984 Gia had entered a vastly different world. After pressure from her family she entered a rehab programme - and declared herself penniless to enter treatment on public welfare. But when she left treatment six months later she went back on the heroin, and in increasing amounts. A year later she was in hospital. She had been sleeping outside in the rain. Bruises on her body suggested she had been badly beaten up. And she had been raped. Her symptoms were those of pneumonia, but blood tests showed she had Aids related complex (ARC), a precursor to Aids. It was the early days of the virus and nurses and orderlies donned rubber gloves or "space suits" before entering her room, and wiped the phone every time she used it.

One nurse, not knowing who she was, chatted about how a local photographer wanted to take some photos of her daughter. Stephen Fried's biography, Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia, records the patient's response: "Don't do it. Even if she wants it, don't let her do it. I used to be a model. You don't want your kid to be a model."

On 18 November 1986 Gia Carangi died, of Aids. She was 26. Looking back, what did it all add up to? For a moment Gia - with her pale skin, limpid brown eyes and dark brown mane of coarse cuts and waves - redefined the fashion industry's standard of beauty. She had, said her agent, Wilhelmina Cooper, "a fantastically pliable face"; she could be really sophisticated in one shooting and be a real Lolita type in another".

Scavullo, the photographer, who died last year, wrote of her: "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. She doesn't give you the Hot Look, the Cool Look, the Cute Look; she strikes sparks, not poses. Out of doors, especially, I have never known anyone so excitingly free and spontaneous, constantly changing, moving (which drove me crazy until I got smart and learnt to focus the camera faster) - she's like photographing a stream of consciousness."

This was not artless. "A model has to create moods," Gia said at the height of her fame.

"You have to be careful not to get stuck in a mood - emotions have trends just like fashion ... I become what ever your eye wants to see. It's my job."

As a result "a disproportionate number of the beauty and fashion shots she appears in", says Stephen Fried, "transcend the accepted level of artful commerce and approach the realm of actual photographic art".

Her life only added to the allure with which her photographs are often now viewed. As the Angelina Jolie film showed, it is possible to project on to Gia's story so many of the dreams of contemporary culture. It is a rags-to-riches tale. It is a lesbian love story. It a harrowing look at the effects of long-term drug abuse. It is the story of a poor-little-rich-girl. It is a chilling commentary on the heartlessness and fear of the first days of the Aids epidemic. It is story of a girl who spent her whole life trying to find something to fill the hole left by her mother's departure.

"I think God has a plan for me," Gia said, with all the unconscious pomposity that modern celebrity can muster. It was, it turned out, that she was to become the first famous woman to be diagnosed with, and die of, Aids. "Modelling," she said on another occasion, "is a short gig."

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