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BOOK REVIEW : Gia Carangi: Nobody's Mannequin and Nobody's Fool : THING OF BEAUTY: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia by Stephen Fried ; Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster $22, 392 pages

September 13, 1993|JESSICA TEICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Gia Carangi was a child, she would get lost in department stores just to hear her name announced over the loudspeakers. Later, as supermodel "Gia," she disappeared altogether, a casualty of the hard drugs and fast company that attend life under the strobe.

In an era when models were meant to be anonymous, Gia was known: first for a freedom before the camera that revolutionized high-fashion photography, then for an unapologetic lesbianism that would sometimes disrupt or infuse photo sessions. More Muse than mannequin, Gia acquired epithets as if they were designer labels.

She was a "cheetah" to the high-fashion photographers who reveled in her sensuality, a "puppy" to the make-up artists increasingly called on to cover up her needle marks. But Gia knew herself simply as a "dumb girl from Philadelphia," and she refused to romanticize her ascent from the hoagy shop where she first worked to the runways of Paris and Milan.

Cover girl, junkie, she ended as a pariah on the streets of Philadelphia where she had been "discovered" eight years before. It was there that she acquired her last, and saddest, epitaph: at age 26, Gia became one of the first women in this country to die of AIDS.

Now Gia has been resurrected as a kind of poster child for the '80s in Stephen Fried's new book "Thing of Beauty." Fried tries to gloss over Gia's cynicism, to give a titan the heart of a waif. But Gia, splendid omnivore, won't let him de-fang her.

She's the sort of subject who dares the camera to flinch. (One fashion editor remembers looking through the lens, seeing Gia's arm run red where she had just injected herself.) Gia shoved the life of the street into the studio; she doesn't look good as Fried portrays her--big-eyed, painted on black velvet.

Yet Fried's failure is, perversely, his achievement. He makes us long for the Gia who got away. Somehow we can sense her lurking beneath his sentences: bad seed, victim, malcontent. Fried's strategy was to subdue the beast, to evoke her, by accretion, as if the sheer weight of information might bring her down.

In life, however, Gia was always bounding outside the frame; in the middle of a photo shoot, she would jump into a pool or out a window to escape. She was forever playing roles--pin-up girl, penitent junkie--trading identities as if she were changing clothes.

The "real" Gia threatens to emerge in the last third of "Thing of Beauty," when Fried quotes from the harrowing, poetic journals of her final months. But through much of the book Gia gives evidence of a banality as staggering as her beauty. She confounds our impulse to make the poignant profound.

Here, as in most lives, there is only the abyss of flaw and failure, of wasted chance and promise sputtered out. Fried reaches for something grander, taking his title from the Keats poem, but his "thing of beauty" is no "joy forever," no way. More likely it is Andy Warhol who dictated Gia's longevity. The clock is ticking on her 15 minutes of fame.

Yet Gia is still in demand, splashed in the pages of "Vanity Fair," served up as moral centerfold. We still clamor for Gia, seven years after her death, much as clients did in the months after she disappeared. From the first, Gia hated the beauty business, the false glamour and the predatory men, but in the end, the business was hooked on her.

When she died, another woman was found with Gia's looks but not her demons; she was olive-skinned and curvy--and she was "clean." "Baby Gia," as the woman was hyped, is today none other than Cindy Crawford, supermodel-cum-spokeswoman-cum-power-spouse. Crawford straddles the gap between image and identity. It was this chasm that claimed Gia's life.

Subjects cannot choose their biographers, nor dictate the end of the story; not subjects like Gia, for whom life itself seemed to get away. That she is a prisoner of Fried's banal prose--in chapters with titles like "Bubblegum Habit" and "Sustained Fabulousness"--seems less than tragic, more like a bad joke.

Fried assures us the supermodel had a monstrous sense of humor. We suspect she might have savored a last laugh.

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