By Christopher Turner
One of the crowning achievements of any model’s career is securing a spot on the cover of a fashion magazine, and during the late 1970s and ’80s, Cosmopolitan was one of the most coveted gigs for any top model. The late supermodel Gia appeared on the cover of not just one but five different issues of Cosmopolitan’s US edition.
Gia Marie Carangi was born in Philadelphia on January 29, 1960, moved to New York City at the age of 17 and instantly took the fashion industry by storm. When she arrived in the city, Gia met with Wilhelmina Cooper, who immediately signed her to the prestigious modelling agency Wilhelmina Models.
During her meteoric rise to the top, Gia redefined the standard of beauty – her dark features disrupted an industry that was dominated by tall, blonde, blue-eyed models. She worked with the biggest brands (including Diane von Fürstenberg, Christian Dior, Armani and Versace) and with legendary photographers (including Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon and Arthur Elgort), and even starred in the iconic music video for Blondie’s 1980 hit “Atomic,” where she appears jumping and dancing. By the time Gia was 18, she was making over $100K annually, which made her the highest-paid model at the time…the reason why many in the fashion industry consider her the world’s first supermodel.
Sadly, after Gia became addicted to heroin, her fashion career rapidly declined. She later became infected with HIV and died in Philadelphia on November 18, 1986, of AIDS-related complications. She was 26 years old.
Throughout her short career, she appeared in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and countless other fashion magazines, on the covers of the Italian, British and French editions of Vogue, and even the cover of the all-important, career-defining American Vogue. But her most important covers are her Cosmopolitan covers, each shot by famed photographer Francesco Scavullo (1921–2004), who exclusively shot the magazine covers for more than 30 years. Scavullo considered Gia a muse and featured her on five different Cosmopolitan covers between 1979 and 1982. She was, for a time, the ultimate Cosmo girl.
Gia first met Scavullo through makeup artist Way Bandy, who helped get her first test shoot with the photographer. Scavullo was quite taken with Gia: she didn’t fit into any of the usual model categories. The session went well, and Scavullo booked her again two weeks later for a cover try. That session also went well, and the pictures had a good chance of being used. She got a voucher for the standard cover fee, which was $100.
“I was mad about her,” Scavullo recalled. “She was very candid in front of the camera. She wasn’t stylized, she didn’t pose. She was like an actress in front of the camera. You got a million pictures that had her head in them. She had her own little way of modelling. She jumped around; you couldn’t set your lights and you couldn’t hold her still. You had to let her go, you couldn’t direct her.”
But all that didn’t matter, given what Gia brought to the shoot. “With most models who move around, you get bad stuff,” Scavullo continued. “With her, you got wonderful stuff.… It was like you got candid pictures of her and they were divine. There is something she had…no other girl has got it. I’ve never met a girl who had it. She had the perfect body for modelling; perfect eyes, mouth, hair. And, to me, the perfect attitude.”
Here’s a look back at each of Gia’s covers for Cosmo.
Gia’s first appearance on the cover of Cosmopolitan was the April 1979 cover, which featured a shot of the supermodel wearing a Lycra bodysuit. Editor Helen Gurley Brown normally preferred that Scavullo shoot 12 different models each year, but after seeing the results of this shoot, she immediately ordered another Gia cover.
The Cosmo cover was actually Gia’s first major cover. A few weeks earlier, she had appeared on the April 1979 cover of the British edition of Vogue. Her first Cosmo cover sold spectacularly, as did the brown Norma Kamali unitard in which she appeared.
Gia’s second Cosmopolitan cover was the July 1979 issue. Again shot by Scavullo, the memorable cover featured a sultry Gia wearing a yellow gravity-defying swimsuit.
In late December 1979, Gia appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan wearing a purple cardigan that revealed much of Gia’s “bosom” – as Scavullo would say. That same month, Gia also got her first magazine profile when she appeared on the cover of Philadelphia magazine’s annual “Hot People To Watch” issue. “Meet Gia,” the headline said. She was on her way to becoming a household name.
Gia’s career was at its peak at the beginning of 1980, but when her confidant and agent Wilhelmina Cooper died from lung cancer in March 1980, a devastated Gia began abusing drugs and developed an addiction to heroin. Scavullo remembered a session with her in the Caribbean when “she was crying, she couldn’t find her drugs. I literally had to lay her down on her bed until she fell asleep.” The Scavullo image of Gia wearing a brown swimsuit, used for the July 1980 cover of Cosmo, had been shot before Gia’s drug habit began spiralling.
Gia’s last official appearance on the cover of Cosmopolitan – and what would be her last cover appearance for an American magazine – was the April 1982 issue of Cosmo. The cover was a gift from Scavullo in an attempt to help her jump-start her modelling comeback after a 21-day detox program, and a run-in with the police in March 1981. Unfortunately, her sobriety was short-lived. “He did that because he was a very kind man and he felt sorry for her,” recalled Harry King, Gia’s hairstylist on the shoot. “Scavullo had had people very close to him be involved with drugs before.”
For the shoot, Gia wore a strapless Fabrice party dress, and posed with her hands tucked behind her. The camera angle was meant to minimize the bloating caused by the methadone Gia was taking to help treat her addiction to heroin and the weight gain from the sweets she was craving (makeup artist Way Bandy did what he could, too). The pose was designed to cover the gory abscess on her hand and it’s also widely believed that Gia’s arms were placed behind her to hide her track marks, though Scavullo maintained it was because Gia had put on weight and the pose made her look thinner.
Scavullo convinced Cosmo to use the shot of Gia for the cover of the 1982 issue. She was also interviewed inside for the magazine’s “This Month’s Cosmo Girl” feature, which had recently been created to respond to the public’s growing interest in fashion models.
Gia could never completely kick her habit, and her modelling work eventually fizzled out altogether. She was briefly clean, and worked jobs selling jeans in a shopping mall in Pennsylvania and at a nursing home as a cafeteria checkout clerk, sleeping on friends’ and lovers’ sofas. In December 1985, though, she was diagnosed with AIDS and the following year, she passed away on November 18, 1986.
No one in the fashion world, including Scavullo, knew of her death at the time, and so none of her colleagues or collaborators attended her funeral in Pennsylvania. When Scavullo heard the news weeks later, he sent a Mass card to her family. “ We were hysterical crying in the studio when we heard,” he later recalled.