The Dark Story of Supermodel Gia Carangi, America’s First Supermodel
By: Dominique Vasquez
At the age of 18, Philadelphia native Gia Carangi was making about $100,000 a year, modeling in prestigious magazines and rubbing elbows with the fashion industry’s elite. Gia Carangi skyrocketed to modeling success during the late 1970s and 80s as a fresh brunette in a predominately blonde industry. Despite this seemingly glamorous lifestyle, however, Carangi’s story is one of tragedy, fueled by drug abuse and addiction.
Early life and career
Gia Carangi had an unstable upbringing—she had divorced parents, was estranged from her mother, and was exposed to domestic violence. Gia found comfort in a group of Bowie kids and spent her teen life attending concerts and exploring the nightlife. At just 16 years old, Gia was discovered by a photographer on the dance floor and booked a one-way ticket to New York City to begin her career.
During her stay in the Big Apple, Gia Carangi signed with Wilhelmina Models. In 1980, Gia’s modeling agent, Wilhelmina Cooper died of lung cancer at the age of 40. The loss of her agent, Carangi’s only present mother figure, pushed her down a spiral of regular drug use and erratic behavior. By the time Gia signed with a new agency (Ford Models), she was addicted to heroin and cocaine.
Drug use and career decline
Using drugs was Gia’s way of coping with the loss of her agent and the overwhelming responsibilities of work. According to photographer Francesco Scavullo, Carangi would often fall asleep in front of the camera and cause impulse scenes. Scavullo had a soft spot for Carangi and tried his best to accommodate her during their shoots so that Gia would feel at ease in front of the camera.
In Vogue’s 1980 November issue, Gia’s track marks around her upper forearm were apparent despite professional touch-ups and airbrushing. In some photos, Scavullo had Carangi pose in certain ways to hide track marks on her arms from drug use. In what would be Carangi’s final magazine cover, she hides her arms behind a puffy dress on the cover of Cosmopolitan.
Death and legacy
Carangi openly discussed her drug addiction and industry struggles, yet the young model did not receive the help she so desperately needed, especially while working in a cutthroat industry. After contracting HIV from a shared needle, 26-year-old Carangi passed away in 1986 from AIDS-related complications.
Carangi’s story was later portrayed by Angelina Jolie in the 1998 film, GIA. In her biography Thing of Beauty, Stephen Fried dives into the young model’s tragic life to explore how addiction and an objectifying industry led to Gia Carangi’s demise.