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Iconic supermodel Gia epitomised lesbian chic

Gia epitomised lesbian chic more than a decade before the term was coined. DIVA remembers the first super-model on the 20th anniversary of her tragic early death

Louise Carolin

Tue, 12 Apr 2011 15:55:01 GMT | Updated 5 years today

THE COUPLE ARE ALONE IN THE HALLWAY OF THE HOTEL. The picture's in the photographer's trademark monochrome, the bright lights intensifying the black shadows they cast on the pale, gleaming marble. They make a striking pair; tall and elegant in their tailored clothes, their beautiful faces in profile. He leans towards her for a light, the cigarettes in their mouths joined at the tip. She touches him only at the waist, with the flat of her hand, as if to hold him off, her head thrown back, dark hair tumbling over her shoulders. But the couple aren't what they seem; they're both women, and one of them is Gia, the most successful, influential model of her moment.


Helmut Newton's iconic photograph, taken in 1979, plays on the idea of androgyny and the ambiguous sexuality of its subjects. But perhaps it's the beautiful femme in the picture, Gia, whose real life embodied its visual concepts. Openly-lesbian and boyishly cool off-camera, Gia turned the modelling world on its head and redefined the notion of beauty, but her career was tragically cut short.


Born in Philadelphia in 1960, Gia was the daughter of Kathleen and Joe Carangi. Joe ran a restaurant and a chain of sandwich bars; Kathleen was a housewife and mother to their three children. But the marriage was volatile and occasionally violent and in 1971, when Gia was just eleven, Kathleen walked out on her husband and kids. Some who knew Gia blamed her fractured childhood for the instability and drug-dependence that blighted her adult life. She was certainly needy and manipulative; relatives recall her as a spoiled, shy child, a 'Mummy's girl' who never got as much of Mummy as she wished, but in her teens she found another way to get attention.


At school, she fell in with the Bowie kids - a disparate bunch of fans as obsessive as herself about the star, whose defiantly weird, high-glam style they emulated. For Gia, though, it wasn't just the platform shoes and provocative gear that attracted her, but Bowie's ambiguous gender play and outspoken bisexuality.


'Gia was the purest lesbian I ever met', a friend from that time later told Gia's biographer, Stephen Fried. 'It was the clearest thing about her. She was sending girls flowers when she was 13, and they'd fall for her whether they were gay or not'. Another pal described her tomboy persona and relaxed openness about her sexuality as reminiscent of the character Anne in the 1986 film Desert Hearts.


Gia and her bi-try Bowie-mad friends began to hang out in Philadelphia's gay clubs and bars, but although she was beginning to settle into her lesbian identity, Gia wasn't about to take up the accepted lesbian style. '(Her) sophisticated androgyny led her to a new style of dressing', writes Fried. 'She had recently jettisoned her glitter clothes for a wardrobe of Army fatigues and men's pleated slacks, worn with a tshirt or men's Oxford cloth shirt and Army or cowboy boots. And she never wore make-up, unlike all of the women, and many of the men she knew. It was a fashion statement that nobody in Philadelphia - man, woman, straight or gay - had even thought of making'.


Armed with her own distinctive aesthetic and a uniquely seductive androgyny that captivated men and women alike, it wasn't surprising when Gia eventually caught the eye of local photographer Maurice Tannenbaum. His shots of her so impressed top New York model agent Wilhelmina Behmenburg Cooper of Wilhelmina Models Inc. that she suspended her minimumheight requirement and gave the girl a contract.


With encouragement from her mother Kathleen, who'd once hankered after a modelling career herself, Gia moved to New York at the age of 18. She wasn't an immediate success in New York. Blonde-haired, 'all-American' types were still favoured by most clients. It's odd now to think of Gia's appearance as in any way 'ethnic' but at the time her dark American- Italian looks excluded her from many jobs. But Wilhelmina, who also represented several top black models, championed Gia's 'exotic' look and before long her faith paid off: Gia's career suddenly went stratospheric.


Her natural flexibility in front of the camera - she could appear sophisticated, wild or 'girl-next-door' as required - made her a favourite with the top photographers, and fashion editors soon clicked onto the appeal of the new girl in town.


That she also had a distinctive style of her own set her apart from most other models. Gia was something like a high fashion version of New-Wave rocker Patti Smith as she appeared on the cover of her Horses LP. She was, writes Fried, 'a Beautiful Punk… a butch pin-up girl', who brought a streetwise edge to the rarefied fashion world.


'Gia reminded me of James Dean', said photographer Andrea Blanch. 'She was very cool but she had a tremendous vulnerability'. In 1979, in the space of five months, Gia appeared on the covers British Vogue, French Vogue, US Vogue and US Cosmopolitan, twice.


For her second Cosmo cover she posed in a yellow, Grecian-style swimsuit that showed off her breasts. Like the modern-day Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen, Gia's figure was considered outrageously voluptuous, contrasting noticeably with the gawky models of her time. She was short for a model, too, at 5'8", the same height as Kate Moss. She also appeared in campaigns for Armani, Versace and Dior. The hot new face of fashion was also the poster girl for Studio 54 - the world-famous, star-studded nightclub that epitomised the disco era and (along with the notoriously druggy Mudd Club) a regular hangout of Gia's.


Meanwhile, Gia cut a swathe through the beautiful young women of Manhattan. Much has been made of her 'aggressive' sexuality. It's been written frequently that if she was roomed with another girl on a shoot abroad, she'd put the moves on her; yet other sources maintain that her sexual MO was more puppyish than predatory. Though she found it easy enough to attract female attention, Gia craved love and the security of a sustained relationship.


As quickly as things started to go right for her, they went wrong. The rebellious attitude the photographers loved wasn't simply put on for the camera, and neither was the underlying fragility. In her Bowie phase, Gia had experimented with drugs; now, alone in the big city and with money to burn, she became dependent on heroin.


The drugs made her unreliable; model agent, Bill Weinberg remembers Gia as, 'A real mess… A trashy little street kid… If she didn't feel like doing a booking, she didn't show up'. It wasn't unknown for Gia to nod out between shots or worse, leave a shoot to score drugs, still dressed in the designer clothes.


Gia's addiction was no secret among the fashionistas, but for a while it was tolerated. Drug use wasn't exactly unknown in their 'party-hard' world, after all, but Gia pushed the boundaries of their acceptance. Besides her unreliable behaviour, she soon developed track marks in her arms and an infected sore on her hand where she'd repeatedly injected herself.


Her lifestyle was becoming increasingly risky as she took to visiting the infamous 'shooting galleries' of Manhattan's Lower East Side, then a dangerous and decrepit neighbourhood peppered with drug dens where a few dollars got you some smack, a shared needle and access to a room where junkies could shoot up and doze off for a short while.


In 1981, Gia moved back to Philadelphia in an effort to conquer her habit. There followed a painful cycle of rehab, attempted comebacks, a return to the temptations of heroin, followed by more rehab. By 1982 the fashion world had declared Gia's moment 'over'. In her last Cosmo cover, shot by her friend Scavullo, she's awkwardly posed in a full-skirted formal, her face angled to disguise the bloating caused by drugs and her hands behind her to hide the needle-marks.


In Philly, she became involved with a pretty bisexual girl from a wealthy family, whose wild ways and predilection for hard drugs matched Gia's own. Their on-off relationship failed to provide the stability Gia needed and her deterioration accelerated. In rehab, she told staff that she'd turned tricks for drug money and been raped by a dealer.


During the winter of 1985, Gia began to suspect that she might have Aids. When she was finally diagnosed a few months later, it can have come as no surprise to her. Although she was one of the first women in America known to have died from it, Aids had already hit the fashion world and she would have known well what awaited her.


Estranged from her girlfriend, visited only by a few remaining friends from rehab who were often excluded from her side by her mother, Gia died in hospital on November 18th 1986. She was 26. No-one from the fashion world attended her funeral.


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'. Google her name and a score of fan sites appear, some disturbingly fetishistic about her tragic end; like Marilyn Monroe, Gia is evidence of our insatiable appetite for doomed women. Her story inspired the TV biopic Gia, which helped launch Angelina Jolie's film career. And, frighteningly, during fashion's fleeting fascination with 'heroin chic' in the mid-90s, rumour tells that a cabal of models who aspired to the gaunt, waifish look of the moment called themselves 'Gia's Girls' in her memory.


Poor Gia. There must be better memorials than that.


◆ Further reading:  Thing of Beauty: the Tragedy of Supermodel Gia by Stephen Fried


This article first appeared in DIVA magazine, December 2006.

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