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A Sleeping Beauty

Gia Carangi had it all, or so it seemed in the Cosmo cover photos of her. But a biography and an HBO movie show her sleepwalking through fame, doped out on drugs and bitterness.

January 29, 1998|MIMI AVINS | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

"Cinderella," it's not. But as star-crossed star biographies go, "Gia" has it all.

Gia Carangi was a supermodel before the term was widely used, pouting bewitchingly from the covers of international fashion magazines in the late '70s. She died of AIDS in 1986, at age 26. She was a heroin addict.

No fairy princess, she was modeling's queen of self-destruction.

Her story was first told in "Thing of Beauty--The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia" by Stephen Fried (Pocket Books, 1993). That meticulously researched chronicle of her rise and fall was not the source for "Gia," the made-for-HBO movie that will be shown Saturday evening at 9. Paramount owns the rights to the Fried book and plans to make a film based on it.

It isn't surprising that a story encompassing fame, beauty, success, high fashion, homosexuality--stories of Gia coming on to other models were legion--and drugs should be continually compelling (Pocket Books just reissued "Thing of Beauty" in paperback). After all, last year's flap about heroin chic brought the issue of the fashion industry glamorizing drugs into the news. Even if Gia's cautionary tale weren't a potentially prurient feast, the public's appetite for anything having to do with models seems insatiable.

The Gia stories, thankfully, have great reality, wading into the murky waters of a troubled mother / daughter relationship and touching on the peculiar love / hate feelings models often inspire.

"The '70s are beginning to have a charm and to acquire an innocence," said Michael Cristofer, the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning author of "The Shadow Box," who wrote and directed "Gia."

"We're just getting far enough away from it that it appears different to us," said Cristofer. "Gia's time was my time. From 1977 to 1982 was my 15 minutes of the glamorous life in New York. I had a play on Broadway and was getting a lot of attention. I was at Studio 54 and hanging out with the Warhol crowd. Because it was before the AIDS crisis, that time had a quality of exuberant freedom that we miss. A lot of us got away with a lot. And a lot of us didn't."

Enough distance has been gained from the late '70s and early '80s to make that hedonistic era fodder for dramas tinged with nostalgia for a time when it seemed one could play and not pay. "Boogie Nights" explores the porn industry that developed in Southern California, and "54," a Miramax film scheduled for release next summer, will revisit the New York club Studio 54, where the wild life flourished.

Gucci designer Tom Ford even brought back the styles of the '70s a few seasons ago, reinventing an erotic image of the jet set that ruled New York then with a troika of irresistible assets--youth, beauty and new money.

Calvin Klein, a Studio 54 regular, has been quoted as saying that, considering the things he did in the '70s, "there is no logical reason why I should be alive today."

Gia biographer Fried welcomed the opportunity to write about that period. "No one had really done it, because they were still amazed that they hadn't died, and a bit embarrassed about what they had done," he said. "Don't forget that after that was the Reagan years, when kids were being told to turn in their parents for using drugs." Yet it was important to the makers of "Gia" not to make Gia's high life seem appealing.

Their task was made easier by the fact that she was a tortured soul, a child of divorce briefly abandoned by her mother at age 11, who spent the rest of her short life in a desperate search for love.

In one scene, Gia appears at her most spectacular, wearing a Kabuki wig and a striking red satin gown designed by costume designer Robert Turturice to mirror the dramatic style of the reigning fashion gods--Yves St. Laurent and Fabrice. Yet beneath her mask of makeup she's sick and stoned, and she bolts from a photo session to grovel among other junkies for a hit. Out of the fashion photographer's view, the picture isn't pretty.

When her addiction was so consuming that she was virtually unemployable, photographer Francesco Scavullo continued to hire Gia, thinking work would be an incentive for her to get sober. She came to his studio to shoot what would be her last Cosmopolitan magazine cover, and Scavullo had to pose her with her arms hidden, so the track marks and gross, weeping sores on her hands wouldn't show. That infamous session is restaged in the movie.

No matter how extreme the scenes in the film of Gia as junkie were, real life exceeded them. Janice Dickinson, who modeled with Gia, went to New York with writer Jay McInerney to help him research his script (which Cristofer later rewrote). She added her own remembrances to the Gia lore they collected in interviews. "Gia showed up two hours late for a shoot," as Dickinson tells it. "Then it took the makeup artist three hours to make her look decent. And then she passed out face down and ruined her makeup. Gia was always doing things like that. We were all just so naughty then."

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