Angelina Jolie's 'Gia' Turns 25: Behind the Death of the Italian-American Model Who Inspired Movie

Considered by many to be the first supermodel, Gia Carangi was only 26 years old when she died of AIDS-related complications in 1986

Model Gia Carangi (Photo by Laurie Sagalyn/WWD/Penske Media via Getty Images); Editorial use only. No book cover usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Eric Liebowitz/Citadel Ent/Kobal/Shutterstock (5880251f) Angelina Jolie Gia - 1998 Citadel Ent USA Television
Gia Carangi (L); Angelina Jolie in Gia (1998). Photo: Laurie Sagalyn/WWD/Penske Media via Getty; Eric Liebowitz/Citadel Ent/Kobal/Shutterstock

It's been 25 years since Angelina Jolie starred as Gia Carangi in Gia.

The 1998 HBO television film featured a then-22-year-old Jolie as the real-life Carangi, who was considered by many the world's first supermodel. She died in 1986 at age 26 of AIDS-related complications, at just 26 years old.

Mila Kunis also appeared in Gia as a younger version of Carangi, in one of her first-ever film roles, while additional cast members included Faye Dunaway, Mercedes Ruehl, Elizabeth Mitchell and Scott Cohen.

Directed by Michael Cristofer (Mr. Robot) and co-written by Cristofer, 78, and Jay McInerney, Gia is about "the life of Gia Carangi, a top fashion model from the late 1970s, from her meteoric rise to the forefront of the modeling industry, to her untimely death," according to a synopsis from IMDb.

Read on to learn more about Carangi, from her early life to her tragic death.

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Full-length portrait of American fashion model Gia Carangi (1960 - 1986) as she poses in a semi-transparant, floor-length dress, from a Vogue magazine photoshoot, late 70s or early 80s. (Photo by Andrea Blanch/Getty Images)
Gia Carangi. Andrea Blanch/Getty

Carangi was born Gia Marie Carangi in Philadelphia on Jan. 29, 1960, into a working-class family that included two older brothers. Her father Joseph Carangi, who was Italian, owned a restaurant, while her mother, Kathleen Carangi (née Adams), was a homemaker.

In the late 1970s, Carangi was discovered on the dance floor by a local photographer. Her first modeling gig for a major advertisement was with Versace, and she had become a well-known figure at Wilhelmina Models in New York City by 1980, according to The New York Times.

But throughout her catapult to fame, Carangi — who was one of the first openly gay models, Dazed reported — struggled with addiction and substance abuse, including of cocaine and heroin.

Back in 2020, makeup artist Sandy Linter recalled to The Hollywood Reporter that she and Carangi had a romance in the late 1970s that "was never a torrid sexual affair but we did love each other."

"I was just as shocked as anybody that she became an addict," Linter said. "She thought she was stronger than the drugs. One morning, as she was getting dressed to leave my apartment she asked, 'What happened to my natural energy?' She didn't have the energy to get dressed at 20 years old. The drugs took everything."

Model Gia Carangi (Photo by Dustin Pittman/WWD/Penske Media via Getty Images)
Gia Carangi. Dustin Pittman/WWD/Penske Media via Getty

According to Dazed, Carangi attempted several times to get clean, including going to rehab, but it never stuck. She was diagnosed with AIDS in December 1985, and died of related complications the following November.

Linter told THR that the last time she saw Carangi was in 1983 or 1984, when the model rang her doorbell, then "sat down on my couch with me, put her head on my shoulder and cried."

"It was the end of our 'romance.' I knew it and she knew it. Because she looked so good, I had been tricked into thinking that she was on the road to recovery," Linter said. "I never knew she had AIDS until later. After maybe 30 minutes, she looked out the window, nodded to someone in the street and left. I would never see her again."

More than 35 years after Carangi's death, Gia is still beloved by fans, holding a Rotten Tomatoes score of 93%, with an Audience Score of 82%.

Ahead of the movie's release, Jolie, now 47, told The New York Times in 1997 that she initially "hated" Carangi while doing research about her, based on a 20/20 interview the model once did — but eventually changed her tune and thought, "I'd like to date Gia. I'd want to be her lover.''

Editorial use only. No book cover usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Larry Watson/Citadel Ent/Kobal/Shutterstock (5880251l) Elizabeth Mitchell, Angelina Jolie, Mercedes Ruehl Gia - 1998 Citadel Ent USA Television
Angelina Jolie (center) in Gia (1998). Larry Watson/Citadel Ent/Kobal/Shutterstock

The actress also told Entertainment Weekly at the time of her role that she "definitely needed to learn the lessons Gia needed to learn."

"Especially feeling that the physical is more important than anything else, or that you're only as smart and good as somebody thinks you are," she said. "It's been really important for me to look at myself in the mirror, and realize that I can't let myself go down like she did."

Jolie — who went on to win an Oscar for her performances in the following year's Girl, Interrupted alongside Winona Ryder — also said she wanted the audience "to identify with Gia and see her as being just a regular girl."

"No matter how together or perfect some people may appear, they have their share of pain and a deep-down need for love — the same as everyone else," the actress added.

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