America’s First Supermodel


Trinity Gilreath, Staff Reporter

Before the likes of Noami Cambell, Tyra Banks, Cindy Crawford, and Kate Moss, there was Gia Carangi, who was arguably the world’s first supermodel. Her career only lasted five years, but she was able to model for brands like Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein, and Armani. Her short career didn’t stop her from making a huge impact on the modeling industry. Despite the glamorous lifestyle she seemed to have, her life was plagued by tragedy. Throughout her short life, she endured trauma after trauma that eventually led up to her death.

Early Life
Gia was born on January 29th, 1960 in Philadelphia to Joseph, a restaurant owner, and Kathleen, a homemaker. Gia was exposed to violence from a young age through her parents’ violent and abusive marriage, which resulted in Gia’s mother, Kathleen, abandoning her, leaving Gia with her father on their own. Gia, who’s always been fond of David Bowie due to his eccentricity and ambiguous sexuality, found friendship in a group of teens called the Bowie Kids, a group of die-hard fans who attend concerts and imitate his androgynous style.

Career Beginnings
At the age of 17, Carangi moved to New York to pursue modeling full time after appearing in some Philadelphia newspaper ads. She soon signed with Wilhelmina Models, owned by Wilhelmina Cooper, who became sort of a mother figure to Gia. One of Gia’s first major shoots was published in October of 1978 by Chris von Wangenheim, in which she was photographed with her makeup artist Sandy Linter, with whom she had entered into an unstable romance. Gia was the antithesis of other models at the time who were mostly blonde, blue-eyed women. Along with being brunette, she was also unconventional in a way that drew people in. Gia was on the cover of many magazines and her career was at a total high. She went only by her first name. Gia was well liked in the modeling world by photographers and other models. Her original personality and open sexuality made her extremely popular.

Drug Addiction
Carangi had already been an avid drug user, mostly at nightclubs, but after the death of her agent, mentor, friend, and mother figure, Wilhelmina Cooper, who died of lung cancer in 1980, Gia began abusing drugs more often and became addicted to heroin. Her addiction affected her work as she had become a nightmare to work with due to her becoming violent, doing drugs on set and falling asleep during photoshoots. In a 1980 Vogue cover featuring Carangi, you can see the red bumps where she injected heroin. Her addiction was so bad she had lost jobs and friends, including Sandy Linter. After leaving Wilhelmina Models for Ford Models, she was dropped within weeks. Her time in the fashion world was over, so she decided to move in with her mother where she entered a 21-day detox program, but her sobriety didn’t last long as she was arrested in March of 1981 for driving under the influence. In that same year, while still on drugs, Gia attempted a comeback by signing with Elite Model Management. Some clients, however, refused to work with her. Her final shoot was in 1983 for the German company Otto Versand, where she was sent home. She left New York for what would be her final time.

After leaving the modeling world for good, Gia spent the remainder of her life with her friends and family, as well as many lovers in Philadelphia and Atlantic City. She worked as a checkout clerk in the cafeteria at a nursing home, and then eventually turned to more dangerous work. After getting clean in 1984, she began using drugs again in 1985. In June of 1986, she was admitted to a Philadelphia hospital for bilateral pneumonia and was days later diagnosed with AIDS. In October, she was hospitalized after being found on the street where she was beaten up badly and sexually assaulted. On November 18th, 1986, America’s first supermodel died with her mother by her side. One of the first women in America to die of the disease that has been mostly stereotyped for gay men. No one from the fashion industry attended her funeral, mostly because no one had gotten word of Gia’s death until months later.

In the same year that Gia died, model Cindy Crawford became the new “it girl” of the modeling scene and was given the nickname “Baby Gia” due to the resemblance between her and Gia. Crawford has even said her agents had a tendency to take her to photographers who liked Gia. Gia was also one of the first openly gay models. Whether she was bisexual or a lesbian is unknown, but she has been considered a lesbian icon. In 1998, the then hardly known Angelina Jolie portrayed Carangi in an HBO film entitled “Gia,” which won Jolie a Golden Globe. Gia’s bold and androgynous style helped define 80s fashion. Gia’s tragic story and how fast the industry was able to turn on her when she needed the most help shows how stigmatized helping drug addicts was during the AIDS epidemic. Gia’s impact in such a short amount of time is inspirational, despite the tragedy that ensued as a result.