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The Meteoric Rise and Fall of Gia – Fashion’s First Supermodel who Ended up Homeless

Stefan Andrews
Getty Images

“Fashion is not art. Fashion isn’t even culture. Fashion is advertising, and advertising is money. And for every dollar you earn, someone has to pay.” – Gia Carangi

With stunning beauty, dark hair and standing 5’8’’ tall, Philadelphia-born Gia Carangi swiftly nabbed the best modeling contracts possible–with Armani, Versace, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and Diane Von Furstenberg; the list goes on.

Carangi not only had a six-figure annual salary at 18, but she was also revolutionizing the world of fashion itself. Critics and historians will bill her as the first modern supermodel.

Portait of Gia Carangi. Photo by Getty Images

Portait of Gia Carangi. Photo by Getty Images

Besides the tremendous success at such a young age, Gia Carangi was also quick to face her own downfall. Hooked on drugs, meddled in one scandal after another, she became someone whom nobody was willing to work with. No rehab program was able to help her in the end.

Gia did not have the easiest character, nor the perfect childhood–perhaps one of the reasons she was so prone to addictions. Her family home was torn apart by quarrels between her parents. A divorce was set in place, after which Gia lived with her dad, and her two brothers stayed with the mother.

In her early teenage days, Gia avidly started to search for her own identity, having already tasted the first substances which would later cause her so much harm, and having been profoundly influenced by idols such as David Bowie. Her talent was there all along, her natural way to attract attention even without trying to do anything special.

She was still only a teenager when she got a contract at one of the top modeling agencies in New York and moved there. The agency was in the hands of the iconic Wilhelmina Cooper, the woman said to have become like a second mother to Gia.

Wilhelmina Cooper in a photograph by Edgar de Evia. Photo by D C McJonathan CC BY-SA 2.5

Wilhelmina Cooper in a photograph by Edgar de Evia. Photo by D C McJonathan CC BY-SA 2.5

The young model would storm into shooting sets, grasping a cigarette tightly and displaying her classic arrogant attitude which came with little-to-no makeup and androgynous outfits. Nothing was particularly extravagant about her clothes. Gia also came out as the first openly gay model.

“She was 19 years old. I had never met a lesbian before that,” recalled makeup artist and Gia’s love interest Sandy Linter for V Magazine in 2014. The two of them are best noted for posing naked next to a metal fence in 1978. That was still from Gia’s early days as a model.

For fashion icon and celebrated creator of the wrap dress–Diane von Furstenberg, Carangi appeared as the model promoting her entire product line. Diane’s claims are more proof at what an enchanting effect Gia had on people. “I was excited to see Gia. I had a girl’s crush on her,” she is quoted as saying by the Daily Mail.

A regular to the legendary hangout Studio 54 and an ardent fan of the newly emerging pop stars such as Blondie, Gia made an appearance in the video of the band’s 1979 hit “Atomic”. For a moment it seemed, her possibilities were endless.

Crowd Standing in Front of Studio 54

Crowd Standing in Front of Studio 54

However, that same spirit that pushed Gia to become the world’s highest-paid model also pushed her on a path towards ultimate self-destruction. Things starting going downhill.

Word spread quickly, how after attending very expensive photoshoots, Gia would hurry down to Manhattan bars where drugs were easily available.

Wilhelmina’s death in 1980 was not helpful either. The event pushed the supermodel even more into the bleak world of her addictions. Combined with her outbursts of erratic behavior, modeling agencies found it harder and harder to work with her.

One episode involved shooting for Vogue when Gia used the window to escape from the camera of renowned photographer Richard Avedon. The magazine’s management gave her another try, though everyone was enraged at her.

Gia Carangi. Photo by Getty Images

Gia Carangi. Photo by Getty Images

When the photographs were released they revealed the extent of Gia’s addiction. She had marks left by needles all over her arms. It was immediately felt that Gia Carangi’s drug use was very serious and was not going to stop.

In 1981, her addiction brought Carangi to the surgical table. She had picked up a severe infection from injecting too many needles. She was also detained for driving under the influence around the same time.

Early in 1982, photographer and close friend Francesco Scavullo improvised for what would be her last cover shot for Cosmopolitan magazine. Gia’s posture and dress for those images are noticeably unusual, with her hands weirdly taken aback and her face somewhat angled–everything to conceal the traces of the ravaging addiction.

The end came in the fall of 1986 when Carangi was brought to the hospital in terrible condition; her career and bank account long ruined by now. Medical examination showed that she had visible traces of rape and battery.

For a while, she had been homeless and sleeping on the streets. Carangi died on November 26 that autumn. The reason cited for her death was AIDS-related health complications.

Read another story from us: Edie Sedgwick – Warhol’s muse, she was a troubled rich girl who inspired other artists and impressed everyone else

Two decades later, a young and aspiring actress, Angelina Jolie, took on the role of Gia and delivered a stunning performance. “I’d like to date Gia. I’d want to be her lover,” Jolie told The New York Times in 1997 after confessing that initially, she had not been comfortable with taking the role. Gia is now perhaps best remembered ro this movie starring Jolie.