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Stephen Fried

Gia and the High Cost of Beauty

by Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: September 18, 2006.

Twenty years ago, the fashion world's first supermodel, Gia Carangi, died of complications from AIDS. It was a shock that made the world reel, at a time when the human race was just barely coming to grips with the reality of the illness (seemingly invincible actor Rock Hudson died a year later). What was even more frightening: Gia was one of the first women in America to die of the disease.

By the mid-eighties, Gia's spectacular and as-yet-unparalleled modeling career was long over. She began to self-destruct early on, mostly from drugs and partly from a misguided search for love (she was an avowed lesbian). However, when she first made the scene in 1978, she was something to behold, a "thing of beauty," as the title of Stephen Fried's classic biography ironically suggests (Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia, Pocket Books, 1993).

In the shallow, cut-throat business of fashion modeling, Gia was at first a golden child. She was beloved and cared for (while she was on top, that is). Very few of the fashionistas (as Fried famously termed those in and around the fashion business) kept up with Gia as she began and eventually completed her tragic fall. The business moved on quickly – succeeding supermodel Cindy Crawford was first known as Baby Gia.  

The publication of Fried's book in the 1990s – and a subsequent HBO film on her life starring Angelina Jolie – helped fuel the growing interest in this stunning and sad woman. 

To this day, Gia's rags-to-riches-to-rags story continues to fascinate, from her humble, working-class beginnings in Northeast Philadelphia to her scaling of the heights on the runways and in the photography studios of New York, Milan and Paris. 

On the twentieth anniversary year of Gia's death, investigative journalist Stephen Fried reflects on the life and legacy of this beautiful, heartbreaking subject – we learn what he has learned, and we are reminded of what her story really means.

Gia was more than just a pretty face. She was a very complex person with as much ambiguity as charm and intelligence. Are you able to describe her to us?


I did my best to describe her in the book, seen through the eyes of the people who knew her. I never met her myself (even though she lived near me for a time in Philadelphia) and I know from talking to others that she was different things to different people—not uncommon for a model, or a woman who didn't live past her mid-20s. I think those who care about her—and that group grows as people find the book and the HBO film—will continue to try to describe her. I can still only provide the raw material which they will process their own way.


Has your take on Gia changed since you wrote the book over a decade ago?


Not much. I was fascinated by Gia because she was a product of the broken homes and broken promises of the 60s and 70s—the fact that she was a model, and people might be more interested in the story of her family, her homosexuality and her battle with self-destructiveness was just an added bonus. The only thing I probably see a little differently grows out of the changes in the field of psychiatry. When I started telling Gia's story, in a magazine article in the 80s, the importance of biological psychiatry was still being explained to Americans. The issues about whether Gia's problems were from nature or nurture got caught up in the debate between psychodynamics and biological-based mental illness. While Gia had plenty of family problems—her parents' divorce, her very close but very challenging relationship with her mom—I suspect both I and her doctors didn't pay enough attention to her underlying mental illness. If HIV hadn't taken her, I suspect she would have responded very well to the newer psychiatric medications and types of therapy. At least, I like to think that.


How did the idea to write the book come about? How difficult was it to uncover the truth about her life?


I knew about Gia because she was from Philadelphia and had been on the cover of Philadelphia magazine when I was just out of college—several years before I worked there. Very few people knew she was dead, and about year after her death her mother called into a TV talk show about AIDS and told the host, Wally Kennedy, that Gia was her daughter and she had died of AIDS—as a way of encouraging Wally to cover the disease more. Wally and I had done some previous programs together, and he called me and suggested I meet Gia's mom, that there might be a good story. He was right. I did a long magazine piece on Gia's life and death and felt when it was done that there was much more of a story than I had been able to tell even in a 15,000-word magazine article. So, I did a book proposal and was fortunate to get a deal to expand the research and the writing into Thing of Beauty.


How was your experience gathering information and stories from fashionistas?


Well, everybody who agreed to speak to me was great. It took a long time to convince some people—just because they were nervous about talking about AIDS and wanted to make sure that what I was doing would be true to Gia's life and her memory—but once they agreed to see me, they were very forthcoming, very emotional and very moving. Many of these are people who the public considers to be somehow "shallow" because they work in fashion. I'd say in all my years of interviewing, I never spoke to people as deeply as I did about Gia. A lot of the people who did talk did so because Monique Pillard at Elite, or Francesco Scavullo, the photographer, told them I was OK. They had been sources for the original article, and opened a lot of doors. They both loved Gia very much, and both felt they could have done more to save her; they may have been too hard on themselves in that regard, but I think that what they allowed me to do was something that serves as a powerful cautionary tale for a lot of people. They were brave to trust me. My only regret is the people who would not talk to me, but who later read the book and wished they had: especially Gia's close friend Sandy Linter, who was my holy grail during the research, never did speak to me for the book, but was very kind and insightful when I met her later on.


Before your book, Gia was only known among insiders in the modeling and fashion businesses. That, of course, soon changed. How is Gia perceived by "civilians" who are not involved in the glamour industries? Do they find it to be a Cinderella story, a cautionary tale, or both?


I don't think Gia could ever be confused with Cinderella; she was way too tough for that. I wanted to tell Gia's story so it would be a cautionary tale, to a lot of different kinds of people—the least of which were people in fashion. It's a cautionary tale about family dysfunction, about substance abuse, about homosexuality, about AIDS, about superficiality, about pain perceived as sexiness. The book was not meant to be about glamour, and my pleasant surprise is that most readers see beneath the surface of the fashion business where it is set.


Your book caused a sensation when it was first published in the 1990s. What was that experience like for you? Did you expect the response that the book received?


I'm not sure it caused a sensation—it got some attention and some good reviews, and that was certainly pretty great, especially since it was my first book. It got excerpted in Vanity Fair which led to me working there for a number of years—so I met my editor there, Wayne Lawson, through it, and that was significant, he's an amazing editor. The movie stuff surrounding it was intriguing. Eric Bogosian was hired to write the screenplay. We spent some time together, which was great, and remain friendly; the same is true for Robin Swicord, the screenwriter hired to replace him. And the entertainment lawyer I hired when HBO ripped off the book, Steve Rohde, remains a friend. The initial response, actually, isn't really what I remember that much. The more interesting experience has been that 13 years later, people are still reading and talking about the book, and Gia is a cultural touchstone, at least in some cultures. And luckily I'm still writing books—I'm on my fourth—as is my wife, novelist Diane Ayres, who edited the book.


How did the people in Gia's life – particularly those who agreed to talk with you -- react to your story?


They all seemed relieved that I had told such an emotionally difficult story truthfully and without oversensationalizing it. Only Gia's mom seemed upset, but that was predictable—any mother reading a book about her dead daughter would be upset, especially if it deviated from her own view of the story. But, I'll give Kathy credit, she helped me with the original article and the book, even when she knew that other people would be telling me harsh things about her. I think she felt the book was biased against her—that when she told me a story and somebody else told me another version, that I should have picked hers, or favored hers. Then when the HBO film came out and portrayed her, so unfairly, as such a one-dimensional monster, she had a little better appreciation that I really had attempted to show all sides of a situation that, ultimately, only Gia could tell us what really happened. I've remained friends, or at least friendly, with almost everyone who helped with that book. I think they all feel like they went through a powerful experience with Gia when she was alive, and another one as they helped me recreate aspects of her life. 


To what do you owe Gia's fall? Was it her destructive personality, her chaotic family life or the fast-lane lifestyle of the modeling business?


Gia died of AIDS, and only of AIDS. You can't forget that. If she hadn't contracted HIV, I'd like to think that all the things that contributed to her "fall" would later have informed her second life as a really interesting, powerful grown-up. The disease stole that chance from her. But, just to be clear, the modeling business didn't kill Gia and ultimately neither did her family—they just fed her mental illness, and the cycles of self-destructiveness and self-medication. We now know what both the modeling business and her family could have done to help her, but we cannot know if she would have been able to stick with the treatment necessary to control her illness.


Had Gia somehow managed to live, where would she be today?


She thought she would be an actress or a photographer, with a career likely interrupted by kids, which she very much wanted. She also wanted to be able to be a lesbian and be married, and I think she'd be delighted to see that is more possible today than it was in 1986.  


What did you think of Angelina Jolie playing the title role in the HBO film based on your book? How about Faye Dunaway as Wilhelmina Cooper?


Just so you're clear: while the HBO film was clearly based on my book, my book was at the time under option to Paramount and is still part of a film in turnaround at Paramount. So I had nothing to do with the HBO film except to threaten legal action when I saw it. That said, I very much wanted Paramount to hire Angelina Jolie, who my wife and I had seen in Foxfire, to play Gia; I think she did very well with the screenplay she had to work with. Everybody else in the film was OK—it's not Mercedes Reuhl's fault that the Kathy character was written that way—but nobody in it made me shiver with recognition of a character I'd spent a lot of time with except Angelina's portrayal of Gia.


The term fashionista has been adopted by the fashion industry and the press. Do you get a royalty check every time the term is used?


I wish. Although, honestly, it's more than enough that I invented a word that is now in the Oxford English Dictionary. It's especially gratifying because my wife, the English major, always gives me a lot of grief for making up words in my journalism—the fact that I'm now mentioned in an entry in the OED, one of her bibles, is very amusing to me. Less so to her. I'm amazed and fascinated that the word caught on, especially since it has come to mean something fairly different than the meaning I created it to have. I used it in the book because there was no other word that described the army of beautifying people who work in fashion shoots—the models, hair and makeup people, etc. And it wasn't meant to be pejorative, just descriptive of a group of people who work much harder than people realize. But, once something gets out into the culture—a word, a book—you can't control it.


What project(s) are you currently working on? What can we expect from you in the near future?


I'm working on my fourth book, but it's the first biography since Thing of Beauty; a much different kind of book—a historical biography set in the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s—but in many ways similar because it combines an unforgettable family who made a real impact on the country, and reporting that attempts to explore less appreciated aspects of American cultural history. The book is about legendary hospitality entrepreneur Fred Harvey and the civilizing of the American West by his restaurants and his Harvey Girls, the country's first corps of working women. It's due out in a year or so from Bantam. I've also been doing a monthly column for Ladies Home Journal which attempts to explain the mind of the modern husband to the magazine's thirteen million readers; it has been great fun, and there are now enough of those pieces that there could be a collection.

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Photo Credits:
#1 © 2006. Courtesy of StephenFried.com.  All rights reserved
#2 © 1993. Courtesy of Pocket Books.  All rights reserved
#3 © 1978. Courtesy of StephenFried.com.  All rights reserved
#4 © 1980. Philadelphia Magazine. Courtesy of StephenFried.com.  All rights reserved
#5 © 1998. Courtesy of HBO Films.  All rights reserved

Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: September 18, 2006.

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Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: September 18, 2006.