One name, three letters: Gia. The name alone was enough to rock the eyes and ears of the fashion industry in the late '70s and '80s. Gia Carangi, born and raised in Philadelphia, is often referred to as the first supermodel of our time -- posing for Vogue and Cosmopolitan long before the Cindy Crawfords or even the new generation of Kendall Jenners. In fact, there is a reason why Cindy Crawford was called "baby Gia." Fashion photographers who worked with Gia began to specifically book Crawford shortly after Gia's downward spiral. These photographers were searching for the likeness of the notorious "it" girl.
Gia was born on January 29, 1960. Her parents were Joseph Carangi and Kathleen Carangi; she was the youngest of three children. Gia grew up in a hostile environment at a young age, having witnessed the violent relationship of her parents (Carangi's mom eventually left her husband and kids), and many believe this was the reason she sought the comfort of drugs, primarily heroin, later in life. But by the time she was 17 years old, Gia was a force to be reckoned with. Her dark hair and eyes and distinctive looks set her apart from the generic blonde-haired, blue-eyed peers who she took photos with -- not to mention that her straightforward, working-class, even crass attitude charmed fashion gods and gatekeepers, such as Versace, Dior, and Yves Saint Laurent. Unfortunately, her glamorous Cinderella story would soon become a Greek tragedy, as she tried overcoming her heroin addiction during many stages in her burgeoning career.
Gia died at age 26 of AIDS, likely due to her addiction to heroin, on Nov. 18, 1986. She was one of the first well-known cisgender women to be diagnosed with AIDS in the '80s. Back then, people thought that only gay men could contract the virus. In fact, people thought lesbians or queer women didn't contract HIV -- and it's well known that Carangi primarily dated and pursued relationships with women. This is why many activists have wanted to do away with sexual identities as risk categories defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and move toward talking about specific sexual acts as potential drivers of HIV transmission.
In the 1970s and '80s, injection drug use was still a major driver of HIV rates (before efforts to create syringe exchange programs and education programs for drug users). And the role the federal government played in refusing to spend funds for programs to keep drug users from contracting HIV can't be overstated. So people like Carangi, who could potentially have been kept safe by knowing about the risk of sharing needles, were put at risk due to federal policies more than their own undoing.
Like many people who become addicted to drugs, many of her friends and colleagues say that it was the early trauma Carangi experienced that fueled her depression and use.
Her experiences with addiction are not that different from other people's stories, but her addiction was likely amplified due to the fact that she had access to money and celebrity that made it easier to get lots of drugs, for a time. She graced the covers of French, U.S. and British Vogue in the span of five months in 1979 and was a regular at the legendary Studio 54 night club in New York City. And when she stopped showing up for booked photoshoots or became problematic on sets, her unique bluntness became a liability for her career.
Francesco Scavullo -- one of the leading fashion photographers at the time -- sought after Gia, even after the beginning of her demise. According to Scavullo," there was something she had … no other girl [had] it."
His words reveal the gift that Gia possessed: "She had the perfect body for modeling: perfect eyes, mouth, hair," shared Scavullo. "And, to me, the perfect attitude: 'I don't give a damn.'" He photographed her one last time for a cover shoot in 1982. By then, she was heavily addicted to heroin, and her hands had blisters and sores from the punctures from the needles she would use. Scavullo says he had to hide her hands with a big, puffy dress and photograph her at an angle where her body parts would not show as much as her face would. Even in all the chaos, Gia's magic was still present in the photos he took.
But eventually, she fell out of favor and spent the last few years of her life feeding her addiction by working odd jobs, including sex work, in and around Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Despite her tragic downfall, Gia Carangi was, and is, an icon.
Her death caused such a stir in mainstream culture that even now in 2019, she still isn't widely remembered, and her legacy in fashion is largely buried. But attempts have been made. The 1998 HBO film Gia, starring Angelina Jolie, helped bring the real Gia Carangi's story to light. Jolie's performance won her a Golden Globe, and her words about the woman's life she played help clarify the way many people felt about Carangi's impact on the fashion world.
"When she was free and just being herself, Gia was unbelievable," shared Jolie in an interview. "That's the tragedy of her story. You think, God, she didn't need drugs -- she was a drug."