Turbulent Facts about Gia Carangi, The World's First Supermodel

July 21, 2023 | Tara Collum

Turbulent Facts about Gia Carangi, The World's First Supermodel

Gia Carangi took the modelling industry by storm with her fearless, androgynous look and risk-taking sensibilities. Although she is widely considered to be the first supermodel, her early exposure to substances derailed her career right at the peak of her success. Gia's story is a cautionary tale—one of heartbreak and regret—and it only ends in tragedy.

1. She Came From A Broken Family

Born January 29, 1960, Gia Carangi had it rough right from the get-go. Her home life was violent and unstable, and when she was only 11 years old, her mother walked out on the family. After that, Gia didn't see her mother for years. She spent her youth in Philadelphia, working at her father's small restaurant and trying to forget her yearning for a maternal figure.

But this sense of loss never went away.

Gia Carangi FactsGetty Images

2. She Marched To The Beat Of Her Own Drum

Gia found other meaningful connections in her friendships and was shamelessly open with her feelings. She often declared intentions of friendship with floral bouquets. No flowers for the boys though! Gia was all about the ladies. In high school, she pivoted from platonic girl crushes and began frequenting gay clubs, subverting gender norms every chance she got.

However, Gia did have time for one man, and one man only—her idol, David Bowie.

Bing Crosby factsGetty Images

3. She Looked Up To A Legend

Gia and her friends obsessed over Bowie's glam style, bisexuality, and playful gender subversion. Taking cues from the legendary musician, Gia adopted an androgynous style. She wore men’s clothes—army pants and combat boots–and kept her hair cropped short and brightly dyed. But that wan't all. Gia was a barefaced beauty all the way through and never wore a stitch of makeup.

While out at the clubs, she definitely stood out from the crowd.

Gia Carangi FactsShutterstock


4. She Stood Out From The Crowd

Everyone noticed Gia—it was hard not to. She was a hip vision in her thrifted vintage wardrobe of men’s castoffs, and her signature style was a striking contrast to her unadorned natural beauty. Instantly captivated by Gia at a club she frequented, a local shutterbug, Maurice Tannenbaum, asked to take her photograph on the dance floor. Before long, bold, confident, and self-assured Gia began to model in local advertisements.

But that wasn't all the nightclubs had to offer.

Cindy Crawford FactsFlickr

5. She Was Gay and Proud

When she was only 15 years old, Gia partied at the gay club DCA and set her eyes on a short and beautiful blonde girl named Sharon Beverly. She'd actually briefly dated Beverly's brother, but in the end, her overwhelming attraction to Beverly won out. However, there was one caveat—Beverly was quite a bit older than Gia and it was about to get her in a lot of trouble.

Julie d'Aubigny FactsShutterstock

6. She Was Too Young

Although Kathleen Sperr wasn't especially close to her daughter Gia, it didn't stop her from laying down the law. After finding out about Gia's lesbian romance with Sharon, she immediately called up Sharon's parents and warned them that their daughter was far too old to be hanging out with Gia. Of course, this never stopped Gia from pursuing what she wanted—whether it be a woman or a career or a bad decision.

Maria Felix FactsShutterstock

6. She Took A Chance

With some exposure and experience, Gia decided to see how far she could get with modelling. Like many before her, Gia’s dreams and aspirations were bigger than the confines of her hometown. The bright lights and endless possibilities of New York City drew Gia to the pulsing metropolis. Only 17, and all on her own in an unfamiliar and strange city, Gia didn’t have to wait long before being discovered.

She soon met a woman who would not only be her agent, and mentor, but also a dear friend. This was the maternal figure she had been searching for all along.

Gladys Bentley FactsGetty Images

7. She Was A Hit

When Gia met Wilhelmina Cooper, one of the most successful models of the 1960s, everything changed. Although Cooper’s career had been based on her icy, aristocratic look, she  immediately recognized the edgy, blue-collar Gia as a new breed of model. After signing her on, Cooper took Gia under her wing, and before long, Gia herself had become a one-name wonder.

Gia Carangi FactsFlickr

8. She Got Her First Big Break

The first major shoot Gia booked was so chaotic and iconic it’s still talked about to this day. In it, Gia climbed and posed against a chain link fence. And then she amped up the drama. She started shrugging out of her clothes, eventually shedding them all together. When another model joined her on set, the two of them took it to the next level.

Gia Carangi FactsShutterstock

9. She Was Obsessed With Her Makeup Artist

On the day of her infamous photoshoot, Gia had two costars. The first round of shots were taken with Lisa Vales, but for the second round, the photographer wanted to do something more personal and asked the makeup artist, Sandy Linter, to step in. That's when the magic really started happening. She and Gia had unbelievable chemistry.

Aly Khan FactsShutterstock

10. She Bared All

Together, Gia and Vales turned up the heat, sharing steamy smouldering gazes through the wire, with only the fence between them. It was risky and fearless, and absolutely successful. The pictures are now part of fashion history and still have tongues wagging to this day. More than that, the snaps launched Gia’s career into the stratosphere.

Gia Carangi FactsGia (1998), HBO

11. She Became The First Supermodel

The photos caused a sensation, and in a short time Gia established herself within the modelling world. She began working with top fashion houses including haute couture heavyweights Versace, Armani, and Saint Laurent. But that wasn't all. She also booked coveted jobs as a cover girl for Paris and American Vogue. As Gia’s star rapidly rose, there was one person she just couldn’t get out of her head.

Uma Thurman factsShutterstock

12. She Shot Her Shot

The day after their steamy photoshoot, Gia put the moves on Linter, and asked her if she wanted a ride in her bright red sports car. Linter went along with it and soon after, things started getting serious. After her busy work days, 19-year-old Gia didn't want to spend the rest of her night alone in an empty apartment. With Linter, she found companionship—a balm to her ever growing sense of isolation.

Gia Carangi FactsGetty Images

13. She Fell In Love

Gia and Linter loved one another deeply and while Linter has since admitted that it wasn't a "torrid love affair," these two girls certainly shared a special connection. They spent most of their time together. There were flowers, restaurants, and wild nights out at the clubs, but most importantly, there was the mutual feeling of being understood.

But this comfortable relationship was never destined for "happily ever after."

Long-Term Divorce factsPixabay

14. She Was Intensely Lonely

People described Gina as a loner, but those closest to her claimed the opposite was true. When it came to her relationship with Linter, Gia always wanted more—more stability, more affection, and more time. Unfortunately, Linter just wasn’t able to give her any of this, and was hesitant to put labels on their relationship. Slowly but surely, Gia's constant need for attention doused any hope of a long-term commitment.

Without Linter and with the constant pressures of the modelling industry, Gia sought out other—more dangerous—coping mechanisms.

Gia Carangi FactsGetty Images

15. She Was A Casual User

Partygoers of the decadent disco era were nose candy enthusiasts, and the powder was ubiquitous in the night club culture that Gia adored. The hotspot club Studio 54 was a notorious place for using substances, and bumping lines off the closest mirror was commonplace with the party people crowd Gia ran with. This was a slippery slope, and Gia dove down it—head first.

Gia Carangi FactsGetty Images

16. She Was Oblivious

Of course, this underworld had sinister consequences. It was almost too easy for an unsuspecting user to snort a different substance by mistake...like say, if the substance was a white powder. Gia, like many others at the time, was sorely misinformed about it and believed that you couldn't get addicted unless under certain circumstances. As she soon learned, it was far more dangerous than she ever expected.

Gia Carangi FactsGia (1998), HBO

14.  She Hit Her Peak

Amid the temptations of New York's nightlife, Gia was at the top of her game. To her delight, she participated in a rite of passage for A-list models, making a guest appearance in a music video. The band was Blondie, and as a huge fan, Gia cut across the dance floor, bobbing her head to the song "Atomic." With the music video and her unparalleled success, everything was going according to plan...

...But just as she was taking off, a tragedy struck.

Debbie Harry FactsWikipedia

15. She Lost Her Mentor

When Gia learned that her mentor Wilhelmina had been diagnosed with lung cancer, she felt her world crumbling around her. This powerful woman had acted as her center—her maternal figure and guiding light. At the tragically young age of 40, Wilhelmina succumbed to her illness, leaving Gia all alone. Devastated and grieving, the young model made a terrible mistake.

Gia Carangi FactsGetty Images

16. She Couldn't Keep It Together

With only two years of industry experience, Gia immediately began to falter without Wilhelmina's strong guidance and encouragement. Her depression drove her to self-medicate with the many subtances available to her and it wasn't long before she disappeared into the grip of addiction. Of course, this self-destructive behavior didn't bode well for her blossoming career.

Gia Carangi FactsGia (1998), HBO

17. She Was A Diva

Even before her troubles with addiction began to have an impact on her work, Gia was a total diva. Her high-maintenance behavior was part and parcel of her edgy style that made her unique. But there was only so much people were willing to tolerate. She was notoriously hard to work with. And as her use only escalated, so did her difficult antics...

Gia Carangi FactsGetty Images

18. She Lost Control

Before substances, it wasn’t uncommon for Gia to wander off and ghost a set, or cancel work over a bad haircut, but under the influence, it only got worse. While on set, she started pulling vicious temper tantrums, and sometimes, she'd even abandon a job just to seek out a score.At an extremely low point, her overwhelming exhaustion had her falling asleep in front of the cameras. But that wasn't all.

Gia Carangi FactsGia (1998), HBO

19. She Became An Addict

Gia's addiction became so bad that in one of her datebooks she made it a top priority, scrawling the words, "Get heroine." Ugh! The grim misspelling is so multilayered. Gia, instead of continuing to be the hero of her own story became hopelessly enthralled by the narcotic that would doom her. As her addiction spiralled out of control, her peers and few friends began to see that Gia was on a crash course for disaster.

Bela Lugosi factsShutterstock

20. She Didn’t Have A Lot Of Friends

During this time, one of the few friends Gia had left was her ex-girlfriend Sandy Linter. Linter herself was no stranger to using in nightclubs, and at the time, had no idea how destructive it could be. But witnessing Gia's descent into addiction changed all that. She was shocked to discover that, at the vibrant age of 20, Gia had so little energy she could barely dress herself.

But the side effects of addiction didn't end there...

Gia Carangi FactsGia (1998), HBO

21. She Had Surgery

It’s fair to say that a model’s face and body is their brand and their product, and Gia certainly wasn’t careful with the merchandise. As she constantly shot up in the same spot, her habit caused an abscess and infection that damaged a vein and required her to undergo surgery. Still, the surgery didn't fix the problem, and soon, the constant injections became an even bigger issue.

Nancy Cunard FactsPixabay

22. She Had One Supporter

To her dismay, Gia's track marks soon became too noticeable to ignore. The scars and bruises marred her photos, and soon barely anybody wanted to work with her. Only one fashion photographer kept coming back to Gia. Francesco Scavullo, who had met Gia when she was just a teenager, stood by her. He had seen her potential from the get-go and supported her every step of the way.

But during a photoshoot in the Caribbean, even Scavullo couldn't deny that Gia needed some serious help.

Gia Carangi FactsGetty Images

23. She Needed Help

While shooting with Scavullo on location, Gia had a total breakdown. She couldn’t find any scores, and became tearful and unstable. Luckily, Scavullo stepped in like a guardian angel and calmed her down, forcing her to go to bed for some much-needed rest. Gia was circling the drain—rock bottom was just around the corner.

Paranormal Mysteries FactsUnsplash

24. She Became A Terrible Client

During one of her last shoots for American Vogue, Gia’s track marks were highly noticeable. So visible, in fact, that they can be seen in the final pictures. No amount of airbrushing could conceal the unsightly scars and bruises. This damage coupled with her lax professionalism endangered her career, and Gia was steps away from being blacklisted.

Gia Carangi FactsGia (1998), HBO

25. She Jumped Ship

Wilhelmina as a company meant nothing to Gia without Cooper at the helm, and she left the agency to sign with competitor Ford Models. But her plan went horribly wrong. Ford Models dropped her almost immediately, and from there, Gia’s career quickly went downhill. But the fashion companies weren't the only ones to steer clear of Gia, and soon she found herself more alone than ever.

Joan Bennett FactsShutterstock

26. She Had Nobody

As her work dried up, her fashion industry “friends” scattered like rats from a sinking ship, and even by some accounts her old bestie Sandy Linter wouldn’t talk to her anymore. She became so toxic that no one wanted her rep to rub off on them by association. Jobless, friendless, and completely consumed by her addiction—Gia knew it was time for a change.

Gia Carangi FactsGia (1998), HBO

27. She Upped And Left

Gia desperately needed a break to find some clarity and came up with a strategy to get her life back on track. She made a drastic decision and abandoned the temptations of New York, returning home to Philadelphia to stay with her mother and stepfather. More than anything, she wanted to get clean, and decided to try a 21-day detox program. Perhaps this was the answer to all her problems...

Gia Carangi FactsWikimedia Commons

28. She Tried To Get Clean

After the detox program, Gia's sobriety seemed hopeful. But to everyone's dismay, the detox program didn't yield any long-lasting results. Not long after finishing the program, she relapsed...and relapsed hard. In fact, she landed in some serious trouble. On one memorable occasion she incited a car chase with the authorities where she sped recklessly through the suburbs.

Gia Carangi FactsGia (1998), HBO

29. She Crashed And Burned

Just like her attempt at rehabilitation, her car chase antics ended in disappointment. She crashed into a fence and was taken into custody. There, they determined that she was indeed, extremely intoxicated and high as a kite. Resigned to her own dependencies, Gia tried to look for more work. But more than anything, she just wanted her old life back.

Airport X-Ray FactsShutterstock

30. She Put On A Brave Face

In 1981, Gia had her first and only television appearance. Her 20/20 interview on ABC highlighted the darker side of the modelling world, but also gave Gia the chance to set the record straight. She hoped to show the world that she'd overcome her many demons, and was ready for a comeback. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Issa Rae FactsShutterstock

31. She Lied On Television

Throughout the interview, Gia claimed that her life of using was over, and that she was completely clean. But her glazed look throughout the segment only proved that she was still using. Her empty claims had her lying through her teeth—so desperate was she for the industry to give her another chance. Then, later that year, something promising happened.

Gia Carangi Facts20/20, ABC

32. She Attempted A Comeback

In late 1981, Elite Model Management decided to give Gia the benefit of the doubt and signed her. But even then, finding work was a struggle. Because of her tarnished reputation, many companies refused to even consider working with her. No matter how hard she tried to leverage her past status, her comeback soon proved futile.

To add insult to injury, her very last photoshoot sadly mirrored the success of her first one—they were both infamous–but for very different reasons...

Grace Jones FactsShutterstock

33. Her Photoshoot Was A Disaster

Gia's last magazine cover shoot was for Cosmopolitan in 1982. Behind the camera was none other than her tried and true friend—Francesco Scavullo. But not even his comforting presence could make this last project a success. One of Scavullo's assistants later reflected on Gia's dwindling health: "I could see the change in her beauty. There was an emptiness in her eyes."

Unsurprisingly, the photoshoot was a disaster.

Gia Carangi FactsGia (1998), HBO

34. She Hid Her Scars

The Cosmopolitan cover featured Gia with both her arms hidden by the full skirt of her dress. The awkward pose was the only solution to cover up how disfigured Gia's arms had become from her continued use of needles. After this disastrous shoot, Gia had no choice but to resort to modelling for department stores and catalogs. But even then, fate offered her another shot at redemption...

Gia Carangi FactsShutterstock

35. She Had One Last Chance

Despite her notoriously bad behavior, Gia was given one last miraculous chance. While doing mostly catalog work, she landed a gig with famed fashion photographer, Richard Avedon. But this wasn't just any gig—it was a campaign for the fashion house of Versace. For once in her life, this was one gig Gia couldn't afford to mess up.

Gia Carangi FactsGetty Images

36. She Played Hooky

After a hard night of partying, Sandy Linter remembers Gia in the morning light, sitting in the kitchen with the phone pressed to her ear. When Gia asked her whether she should go into work or not, Linter immediately responded with "Not if you feel the way I do!" In retrospect this was a huge mistake. When she found out what it cost Gia to skip out on work, she wished she could take it all back.

Gia Carangi FactsGia (1998), HBO

37. She Missed Out

As a supermodel, missing one day of work means sacrificing a lot. When Gia took Lister's advice and played hooky, she missed out on a $5000 payoff and so much more. When she didn't show, the model Rosie Vela took her coveted position. She had effectively blown her very last chance in the modelling industry—and it was a very high price to pay.

Gia Carangi Facts[/media-credit] Rosie VelaGetty Images Rosie Vela

38. She Hit Rock Bottom

After this debacle, Gia was effectively blacklisted: She was no longer able to book work with any major agency, and went at whiplash speed from a hot commodity to a pariah.  Her job prospects dwindled down to nothing, and it was about to get very, very desperate. In her darkest hour, she had no choice but to scrape the very bottom of the barrel.

Gia Carangi FactsGia (1998), HBO

39. She Couldn't Keep A Job

Gia began her illustrious career posing for ads in her hometown paper, and things came full circle when she found herself doing catalog work for an obscure German mail-order company. But even that job was too much for her to manage. Gia used on set and, unwilling to tolerate this behavior, the company fired Gia and sent her home. But while this seemed like the end, the nightmare was only just beginning.

Blink 182 factsShutterstock

40. She Was Destitute

Gia's glamorous life in New York had come to an end, and having spent all her money, she was essentially homeless. She began dividing her time between her hometown of Philadelphia and Atlantic City, New Jersey while couch surfing among a handful of lovers, friends, and family members. After one last stab at rehab, she swallowed her pride and tried to find employment.

Pete Davidson FactsShutterstock

41. She Took A Job In The Real World

Gia tried her hand at a number of jobs. First she tried retail, and when that didn't work, she became a checkout clerk. She even tried working at a nursing home cafeteria. But none of these occupations ever stuck. By 1985, Gia started using again, but this time she had no safety net—no second chances. With nowhere to go, her life took a dark and dangerous turn.

Awkward Job Interviews FactsFlickr, Amtec Photos

42. She Became A Night Worker

In lieu of unemployment, Gia resorted to selling more than just her image, but also her body. Compounded with her spiralling addiction, this was a recipe for disaster. In December 1985, she was admitted to a hospital in Pennsylvania. She was extremely ill and doctors diagnosed her with bilateral pneumonia. But little did Gia know, she wasn't out of the woods yet.

James Brown FactsShutterstock

43. She Had A Devastating Diagnosis

A few days later, doctors revealed another, more terrifying diagnosis: Gia had AIDS-related complex. Gia was diagnosed with AIDS at a time when doctors knew very little about the disease, and there was precious little that could be done to save her. In the fall of the next year, Gia was in hospital once again—and this time, she was in much worse condition.

Charlie Sheen factsShutterstock

44. She Was One Of The First

In 1986, Gia faced a horrific ordeal—she was beaten and raped and left out on the street. On October 18, her health took a severe nosedive, and she found herself hospitalized for the final time. With so little known about her disease, doctors treated her as though she was highly infectious. They rigorously wiped down every surface she touched, and anyone attending her wore full protective gear.

Gia Carangi FactsGia (1998), HBO

45. She Had Regrets

Although the end was near, Gia didn’t find much solace in her brief life or career path. Shortly before her passing, Gia had a casual conversation with one of her nurses. Oblivious to Gia's past, the nurse told her about a photographer who wanted to take  pictures of her daughter. Gia's response was absolutely tragic: "Don't do it. 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."

Gia Carangi FactsShutterstock

46. She Had A Tragic End

On November 18, 1986, Gia Carangi passed away from AIDS-related complications. She was only 26 years old. In fact, she was one of the first famous women to ever succumb to the disease. Her family held a small service in her hometown of Philadelphia. Having been such an icon in the modelling world, one might expect Gia's funeral to be attended by a great number of old coworkers and friends...But this just wasn't the case...

Gia Carangi FactsGia (1998), HBO

47. They Forgot Her

When her long-time supporter and collaborator, Francesco Scavullo, heard the tragic news, he sent his sympathies and a Catholic Prayer card to her family. However, not one single person or any of her so-called friends from the fashion world attended the service.  The world had already moved on from Gia Carangi, and her replacement was rearing to go.

Merle Oberon FactsPxfuel

48. They Replaced Her

After Gia stepped onto the modelling scene, her signature tomboy look became highly sought after. After she disappeared from the scene, agents worked quickly to find a new model to carry the torch and fill the void left in Gia's wake. Fashion experts soon shopped around a new young model and even dubbed her “Baby Gia.” Who was this young model? None other than Cindy Crawford.

Cindy Crawford FactsGetty Images

49. She Has A Biopic

In 1998, Angelina Jolie starred in the HBO made-for-TV biopic, Gia. Jolie had really interesting, albeit bizarre things to say about portraying Gia. Among the least weird was, “I’d like to date Gia. I’d want to be her lover.” Which is one thing, until you remember Jolie was playing her. But no matter her comments, it's safe to say that this film keeps people coming back to Gia's story time and time again.

Angelina Jolie factsGetty Images

50. She Lives On

One fitting and sombre tribute to Gia is her square on the AIDS Memorial quilt. The NAMES Project created the folk-art quilt that weighs over 50 tons, and in 1989 they were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Gia’s square reads, “You know what I think? I think there’s a reason for everything. God has a big plan for me. Just not in this life.”

Gia Carangi FactsWikimedia Commons

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12,

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