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The story of Gia – the world’s first supermodel who died of Aids at 26

Starring Angelina Jolie in the title role, the movie documenting Gia Carangi’s tragic life turns 20 this year

Before Peter Lindbergh immortalised Naomi, Cindy, Claudia, Linda, Christy, and Tatjana on the cover of Vogue in 1990, and launched them in their ascension to icon status, there was Gia. Arguably the world’s first supermodel, Gia Carangi paved the way for Campbell, Turlington, and Crawford – with the latter billed ‘Baby Gia’ when she made her runway debut.

Gia’s life echoed the classic rags-to-riches story, only, eventually, the riches made way for rags again. While her blue-collar background gave her an edge in the world of high fashion, and appearances on the runways of Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein, and Armani saw her experience a meteoric rise to fame, behind the scenes all was not well. Struggling to cope with the pressures of her new career, Gia turned to heroin, and, despite kicking the habit a number of times and staging multiple comebacks, in 1986 she died of Aids-related complications at just 26.

Twelve years after her death, Gia’s tragic story was committed to a film, with a young, almost unknown Angelina Jolie taking on the role of the troubled model. Her portrayal won her a Golden Globe, as she appeared alongside Hollywood heavyweights Faye Dunaway, who played modelling mogul Wilhelmina Cooper, and Mercedes Ruehl who played her mum, Kathleen.

Jolie played Gia with raw emotion throughout, exploring her drug addiction, childhood issues, and relationships with unfaltering sensitivity – having spent hours studying Gia’s TV appearances before filming began. In one, Gia was interviewed on an evening news show about the dark side of modelling and its ties to drugs. She was supposed to be the ‘bad model turned good’, but shortly before her slot, Gia snorted heroin backstage. Jolie admitted that she despised Gia at first, but in the end, confessed to The New York Times in 1997: “I’d like to date Gia. I’d want to be her lover.”

Now, as the film turns 20, we look back at Gia’s dramatic and ultimately tragic life.

SHE WAS ONE OF THE FIRST OPENLY GAY MODELS

Growing up working class in Philadelphia, Gia was a member of the ‘Bowie Kids’ in high school – a group of die hard fans who went to his concerts and adopted his unique blend of androgynous dressing as their own. Gia cut her hair short and dyed it bold colours, and shopped at vintage and second hand clothing stores, where she picked up men’s button-down shirts, distressed Levi’s 501s, and beaten-up leather boots. As one of the first openly gay models, she often visited DCA, a gay club in the city where, she met one of her first long-term partners: Sharon Beverley. Though Gia had a few trysts with men, she identified as a lesbian. In the film, one of her friends asks if she’s ever had sex with a man before. The model responds: “Yeah once. And I could have done that with a German Shepherd.”

SHE WAS THE ANTITHESIS OF OTHER MODELS OF THE ERA

Gia initially got her start with a local photographer in Philadelphia who saw her dancing, and began appearing in local newspaper advertisements, before heading to New York at 17. When she arrived in the city, Gia met with Wilhelmina Cooper, who was floored and signed her immediately. Gia embodied the contrast that the fashion industry craved during that era – in a sea of blonde, blue-eyed, beautiful women, Gia had no filter, wore no make-up and took risks. One of her first shoots saw her pose nude behind a chain-link fence with make-up artist Sandy Linter for photographer Chris von Wangenheim. The shoot was her breakout moment, and led to her modelling for labels including Versace and Dior, and legendary photographers like Helmut Newton and Arthur Elgort. She also starred in an iconic music video, for Blondie’s 1980 hit “Atomic”.

“When she was free and just being herself, Gia was unbelievable. That’s the tragedy of her story. You think, God, she didn't need drugs – she was a drug” – Angelina Jolie

WHEN WILHELMINA DIED, SHE WENT OFF THE RAILS

Cooper became a mother figure to Gia, whose own mum abandoned her when she was just 11, so when she died in 1980 the model was devastated. Though she often did cocaine in the bathroom stalls of Studio 54 and CBGB, Gia’s drug habit began spiralling. The drug trend at that time shifted to heroin, which brought coke users down when they were too high. Usually Gia snorted heroin, with the common understanding that people could only get addicted through needles – which was false. A generation of accidental junkies was born, of which Gia was a part. Anita Sarka, a DJ from former downtown NYC institution Mudd Club and friend of Gia told Vanity Fair: “In those days, everyone had this idea that being a junkie was very glamorous.”

...AND WAS SOON OUT OF WORK

Gia eventually started injecting and her habit became so bad that in one of her appointment books, she wrote (and misspelt) ‘Get Heroine’. Soon after, the track marks on her arms started showing in photos and only one photographer, Francesco Scavullo, requested her for work. During a particularly painful scene in Gia, Scavullo’s stylist says out loud, “What about that awful thing on her hand? It looks like a volcano,” while pointing at an abscess. Unsurprisingly, Gia’s career tanked. She garnered notoriety for scandalous stories like shooting up heroin in bathrooms during breaks, and on a Versace shoot with Richard Avedon she told everyone she was going out for cigarettes and never returned.

SHE WANTED TO KICK HER HABIT, BUT COULDN’T QUITE MANAGE TO

Despite several attempts at rehab and second chances from the likes of Albert Watson and Richard Avedon, Gia could never completely kick her habit and her modelling work eventually fizzled out completely. Broke and sleeping on friends’ and lovers’ sofas, when she was briefly clean, she took jobs selling jeans in a shopping mall in Pennsylvania and was employed at a nursing home as a cafeteria checkout clerk. In December 1985, though, she was diagnosed with Aids and the following year, she passed away – becoming one of the first famous women to die of the disease. No one in fashion knew of her death at the time, and so none of her colleagues and collaborators were at her funeral. Jolie paid tribute to Gia when the 1998 film wrapped, explaining that when she was free and just being herself, she was unbelievable: “That’s the tragedy of her story. You think, God, she didn't need drugs – she was a drug.”