Thing of Beauty: The
Tragedy of Supermodel Gia

The newsmagazine anchorman thanks a correspondent for his report on "this fascinating subject of near-death experience," turns to face another camera, and reads the teaser for the upcoming segment of the January 6, 1983, edition of ABC's 20/20.

"Next," he says, "inside the world of the fashion model... a world that is not always as it appears. Right after this."

After the commercial, the anchorman introduces reporter Tom Hoving, who presents a report meant to detail "the dark and anxious side" of the modeling business but manages somehow to make the whole enterprise seem extremely glamorous anyway. There's top model Christie Brinkley being coaxed by a photographer. "Make me chase you," he's saying. "Tease, tease. Look at me like you're naked. That's it. Fabulous." After the shooting, Brinkley - the industry's quintessential blond-haired, blue-eyed California girl - says that she'll never have to worry about money again.

"Models can earn two million dollars a year," Hoving explains in his booming TV-overvoice. "Once you make it, you become a member of an exclusive international club, where the sun always shines, the parties are glowing. A land where there's no ugliness, no sickness, no poverty. A land where dreams come true and everyone is certified beautiful. The club has special fringe benefits. Top model Apollonia knows them all."

"Rolls-Royce, flowers, dresses, limousines, tickets," lists the Dutch-born Apollonia von Ravenstein, a long-reigning queen of the more specialized, dark-haired, European-exotic look. "I mean, anything you want, anything a woman would want, really, just ask."

Flamboyant hairdresser-turned-fashion-photographer Ara Gallant appears, wearing a leather Jeff cap, Mr. Spock side-burns and nearly as much makeup as any of the girls. (In modeling, women are always called "girls.") He is asked to reflect on why the fashion model has such appeal. "They've become a glorified version of what ladies imagine themselves to look like in their fantasy," Gallant explains. "And they set a kind of standard. Without models, women in general would have no guideline with which to identify. So they've become icons, the modern icons."

Hoving then takes the viewer through the cattle-call auditions and explains there are 7,000 girls in New York who "call themselves models"; 1,500 actually work, and of these, 500 are the "so-called 'glamour guns'" who get most of the good jobs. Because his report is focused on New York, he doesn't even mention the international farm system for modeling: the untold thousands of girls enrolled in regional schools, or signed up at local agencies in America and Europe.

Several models attest to how difficult and degrading the grind of traveling and groveling for work can become. Shaggy-haired John Casablancas - the president of Elite, the upstart agency that has recently toppled the decades-old studio system in modeling and, almost overnight, tripled the price of professional prettiness - explains that when and if success finally comes, models "have a moment where they appreciate it very, very much, but it's very, very short they get too much too quickly."

Then the camera cuts to Francesco Scavullo's studio on East Sixty-third Street. In the reception area, decades of Cosmopolitan, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar covers shot by the precious, prolific photographer hang high on the white walls. The girl whose face and "bosom" - as Scavullo would say - appear on some of his more recent covers is in the small dressing room being prepared for a demonstration photo session being staged for the TV cameras. Seated in front of a large makeup mirror, the girl doesn't squirm a bit as her face is painstakingly primed, painted and powdered for nearly two hours. She has learned to hold still while her naturally beautiful face and hair are made unnaturally beautiful so that the camera - which sees things somewhat differently than the human eye - will capture her as preternaturally beautiful.

She is Gia. At seventeen, she was a pretty girl from the Northeast section of Philadelphia who worked the counter at her father's luncheonette, Hoagie City, and never missed a David Bowie concert. At eighteen, she was one of the most promising new faces and figures in modeling, discovered by the agency run by sixties covergirl Wilhelmina Cooper and launched in American Vogue by the most influential fashion photographer of the day, Arthur Elgort. Now, at twenty-two, Gia is a member of the elite group of so-called top models. At any given moment, there are only a dozen or two of such girls, who end splitting most of the very best editorial, advertising and catalog jobs.

Even among the professionally beautiful, Gia is considered special. She is more like the quintessential painter's model - an inspiration, a "thing of beauty" - than a working girl, a professional mannequin. A disproportionate number of the beauty and fashion shots she appears in transcend the accepted level of artful commerce and approach the realm of actual photographic art.

But Gia is legendary in her industry for other reasons, only a few of which can even be mentioned on network television. Her celebrated androgyny is not provocative put-on: the female makeup artist who is brushing Gia's lips shiny red is the recurring object of her affections. Her rebellious attitude toward the business - no model has ever come so far while appearing to care so little - has alternately outraged and delighted the biggest names in fashion. And her drug problems have been so acute that if she didn't have that incredible look, she might never work at all: lesser girls have been blackballed for doing once what Gia has managed to get away with many times.

Behind the scenes, where the world of a fashion model is really not always as it appears, Gia has given new meaning to the industry catchphrase "girl of the moment." It usually just refers to a model's popularity among photographers, art directors and ad agencies reaching such a critical mass that her face is suddenly everywhere. But Gia is such a girl of her moment that she is about to become either the face of the eighties, or a poster child for the social ills of the seventies.

While Gia is being photographed by Scavullo in the background - "Great, like that, turn your head over a bit fabulous, fabulous, laugh, laugh; beautiful, marvelous smile, if you can smile" - reporter Hoving talks about the supermodel. "A virtual symbol of the bright side and the dark side of modeling," he calls her.

"I started working with very good people I mean all the time, very fast," Gia says in a metered tone created by professional voice instructors who are trying to neutralize her unsophisticated Philadelphia accent so she might get into acting. "I didn't build into a model. I just sort of became one."

"Then the troubles began for Gia," Hoving intones, his post-recorded commentary interspersed with edited interview snippets. "The real world became clouded by illusions."

"When you're young," Gia tries to explain, "you don't always Yukon it's hard to make [out] the difference between what is real and what is not real."

"Particularly when adulated..."

"Innocent," she corrects," and there's a lot of vultures around you."

"She became erratic," Hoving booms on, "failed to show up for jobs." Then he turns to Gia. "At one point, you got kind of into the drug scene, didn't you?"

"Umm," she pauses for a long time, as the reporter and cameraman anxiously wait to see if the loaded question will yield a usable sound bite about a still-taboo subject. Gia has been in front of the camera enough times to know how to dodge the question or spoil the take but, finally, she decides to do neither. "Yes, you could say that I did. It kind of creeps up on you and catches you in a world that's, y'know, none that anyone will ever know except someone that has been there."

"You're free of it, aren't you, now?" he asks, even though many on the 20/20 crew believe her to be high on something as she speaks.

"Oh yes, I am, definitely," she says. "I wouldn't be here right now talking to you if I wasn't, I don't think."

"Are you happy with your success?" Gia thinks for a second, running her tongue across her painted lips. "Umm, yes," she says. "I am, I am."

"You hesitated."

"Well, I just wanted to think about it," she quips back, laughing, trying to defuse whatever poignancy her pause has taken on, now that it has been captured on film and can be offered for individual interpretation to each of the program's fourteen million viewers. "No, I am happy with it," she says.

"Didja ever do it for money?" asked the tall, haggard young woman, not even bothering to brush away the long hair that covered her red eyes and broken-out cheeks.

"Do what?" asked the nurse, a big-boned woman who cross-legged and shoeless at the end of the bed - a posture she found put the more depressed patients at ease.

"Y'know, sex. Ever do it for money?"

"No, of course not. Why?"

"I have," said the woman, lighting a Marlboro. "I've turned a lotta tricks. For drugs, y'know. You gotta do what you gotta do."

The nurse guessed that the patient was just trying to shake her up, throw her off guard. But she didn't doubt the truth of the statement. The young woman's body had been violated in half a dozen different ways. She had been addicted to heroin for a long time and had attempted suicide with a massive overdose only weeks before. The bruises on her upper body suggested that she had been badly beaten up. She had recently been raped. And she was suffering the effects of exposure from sleeping outside in the rain several nights before.

The young woman had no visible means of support. She had registered as a welfare patient in the emergency room of this small, suburban hospital outside of Philadelphia. There was a mother who came to visit sometimes, but otherwise the girl seemed very much alone. Only twenty-six, she was one of the youngest street people the hospital had ever admitted. Turning tricks was probably the only way she could survive.

The nurse was encouraged that the young girl wanted to talk about anything. "Carangi, G." had been severely depressed and mostly uncommunicative during her stay. She had first been admitted to the medical wing for treatment of pneumonia and low white-blood-cell count. When blood tests revealed that she was HIV-positive, she was placed in an isolation ward and treated gingerly, if at all, by hospital personnel largely uninformed about the disease. Even though it was already the summer of 1986 and health care workers were supposed to know better, unfamiliarity was still breeding contempt. Some nurses and orderlies were donning rubber gloves or "spaces suits" before entering her room, and they were wiping down her phone every time she used it, which only exacerbated her depression and suicidal feelings.

When the patient's medical condition stabilized, she was put on lithium and shifted to the mental health wing. There, it was hoped she could get a handle on her depression and figure out where she would go after discharge. "The stepfather" - mental health professionals had a way of referring to the people in a patient's life in the distant third person, as if each was an interchangeable actor taking a role in a little play - had refused to let her come back home. And the mother, who some hospital personnel had already grown to dislike because she was "difficult," insisted that she had no choice but to acquiesce to his wishes.

It was a pretty bleak case history that filled the files of Med. Rec. #04-34-10, not many positives to reinforce. So, if turning tricks for drugs was a topic that this extraordinary patient wanted to talk about, it was better than not talking at all. Or crying, which was how she had been spending many of her days.

So she and the nurse talked about turning tricks. They talked about junkie life: the shooting galleries, the filth, the sprawled-out bodies. They talked about different types of heroin and how many bags the young woman usually shot.

"You married? D'ya have any kids?" the patient later asked, trying to turn the conversation away from herself.

The nurse explained that she had a beautiful little daughter - so beautiful, in fact, that one day they were walking through one of the casinos in Atlantic City and a photographer asked if he could take the little girl's picture. The shot appeared on the cover of a casino magazine. After that, the nurse explained, she began driving her six-year-old to New York on weekends to auditions for modeling jobs. It had been very exciting for both of them, but the daughter got few jobs and the travel expenses had piled up. After a year, they had stopped going to auditions altogether. But her daughter was begging her to resume the trips.

"Don't do it," the patient said. "Even if she wants it, don't let her do it. I used to be a model. You don't want your kid to be a model."

All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 1993 by Stephen Fried