on gia carangi's iconoclastic, bad girl spirit

For novelist Porochista Khakpour, no one embodied beauty — and all the complications that come with it — like fashion's doomed first supermodel, Gia Carangi.

by Porochista Khakpour
17 December 2015, 3:40pm

The first-born immigrant child is the good one, they say. In a sense, I was: I steered clear of the disapproval of my parents, aristocrats of pre-revolutionary Iran who had settled in Pasadena, California and who were mainly learning about American life through me.

But I was not the least bit interested in being good. I preferred toy guns and cowboys hats to dresses. I'd draw elaborate tattoos on my skin and scheme about piercings. I'd play-smoke crayons. Before I was a teenager and I could earn it even, my mother dubbed me Wild Horse.

My father banned fashion magazines from our house and so I made my own: I sketched dresses, pretending I was a fashion designer with an unlimited budget, the only profession I dreamed of other than writer. Friends' homes were where I first read Vogue — and it was in some old 1980s issue that I landed on Gia.

She had a small face with large, heavily fringed eyes, lush lips, and abundant curly brown hair. She was what I — always a bit confused around femininity, even then — imagined beautiful women to be like. I cut out every image of her I could find.

I remember one particular Irving Penn photo of her in a very sensible lavender knit top with silver earrings that my mother would have worn — but her hair makes the shot, a sort of haphazard pompadour. The night before the shoot she'd burned off a chunk of hair lighting a cigarette from a stove burner.

Looking at myself in the mirror, I prayed long and hard that the scrawny, awkward girl there would become someone, anyone, else. It wasn't that I cared about being beautiful — my own mother was beautiful enough after all. What I wanted was the complicated life that I was sure came with being beautiful.

New York City was my goal and a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence would be my ticket. I was going to abandon my small-town suburban-California innocence and become the wild-child I had sealed up within me. I arrived in trashed Pumas and jean cutoffs to a school where the students were draped in designers — but I ended up very much a part of it all. Not only did I learn my high fashion, I also discovered a certain high debauchery. I drank and smoked to excess; I sought any and every drug experience. I extended my education by going to downtown Manhattan, where I'd lose myself in a club and miss the last Metro-North back to Bronxville.

"You are a bad girl, I can tell," a professor once told me, and I also heard that from a stylist who employed me as his assistant and fit model:"my little bad girl." And it also came to me on that island, that spring break, struggling with my rapist whose name I never learned: "bad, bad, bad girl you like being a bad girl don't you." Instead of processing the debacles in my life, I galloped through them — Wild Horse! — ignoring every injury. Until one particular evening, in the dorm room of a friend of mine, I had something between an overdose and a panic attack.

Days later a new friend, a wholesome freshman from the Northwest, dragged me to the library to watch a movie. She was disturbed by my zombie-like state, how deeply invested I'd become in my nap schedule and chain-smoking regimen. I found college and even life worthless.

She chose an HBO movie she had thought would be fun — she called it campy: Gia. It was Angelina Jolie before I knew her name, and I watched mesmerized as this tale of the HIV-infected, drug-addicted supermodel of the 70s and 80s unspooled. Gia was far from great cinema, but Jolie was magnetic and it had a certain unforgettable allure.

Very casually the next day, I used my friend's hiccupping dial-up to search for Gia Carangi.

And there was her face looking back at me, that odd, familiar face, the one I'd cut out as a child. The recognition was almost mystical — if only I was a girl who believed in signs from above.

I slowly got to know her. Gia Carangi had been a tomboy too, inspired by art and punk rock, and like me she'd first come to New York City at the age of 17. Within a year she was established as a model, shot by everyone from Francesco Scavullo to Arthur Elgort to Richard Avedon. She made the cover of Vogue UK twice, in April 1979 and August 1980, then Vogue Paris, American Vogue, and Vogue Italia. She shot major ad campaigns for Armani, Christian Dior, Versace, and Yves Saint Laurent. I never cared much for who made what, it was what her wearing did to the clothes — how a plunging neckline and wild metallics suddenly fell to staples and neutrals on her; power suits and overcoats and pumps took on a subversive cast; and the most expensive inaccessible couture could somehow look so fallible and approachable, like something almost any girl could wear. Almost.

But hers was ultimately a cautionary tale: the fall of the Bad Girl. By the time she went from cocaine as recreation to heroin as a lifestyle, she was already at the end of her career. She died at the age of 26, on November 18, 1986, in a hospital back home in Philadelphia, from complications relating to AIDS; I was eight, a decade before I would leave home and put the Bad Girl in me to test.

But for me, Gia's beginning — and my beginning with her — defines her much more than her end does. It's the spirit that propelled her to star-power: the Bad Girl who is the iconoclast, the Bad Girl who perpetually inhabits fringes and outsides, the Bad Girl that refuses to believe what goes up must come down, even if it must.

We'll be rolling out stories by our favorite writers on their personal style icons all week. Read them all here. Who's yours?


Text Porochista Khakpour
Photography Stan Malinowski

Style icons
Porochista Khakpour
my i-con
gia carangi