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."

Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
Arts and Entertainment
tvSpielberg involved in bringing his 2002 film to the small screen
Sport
sportLeague Managers' Association had described Malky Mackay texts as 'friendly banter'
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
News
peopleCareer spanned 70 years, including work with Holocaust survivors
News
people
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Generalist HR Administrator, Tunbridge Wells, Kent - £28,000.

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Administrator - Tunbri...

Head of IT (Not-for-Profit sector) - East Sussex

£45000 - £50000 per annum + 5 weeks holiday & benefits: Ashdown Group: Head of...

Supply Teaching jobs in Thetford

£21588 - £31566 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

KS1 teachers needed in Peterborough

£110 - £125 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education are ur...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape