A young Angelina Jolie played Carangi in the 1998 HBO biopic "Gia." (HBO/Alamy)

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For a moment, one of the biggest fashion models in America was a hoagie maker’s daughter from Northeast Philly.

But in the mid-80s her life was cut short by a new and horrifying disease.

In 1993, the Philadelphia Daily News highlighted a new book telling her story in an article headlined “The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia.”

Philadelphia Daily News

Gia Carangi was born in 1960 and grew up in the Torresdale section of Northeast Philly.

Her dad ran a local chain called Hoagie City and she went to Lincoln High School.

At Lincoln she became a “David Bowie” kid, embracing the androgyny and flamboyance of the glam rock era.

Carangi’s transformation from NE Philly “Bowie” kid to model was sudden.

A local fashion photographer named Maurice Tannenbaum recommended Carangi to Wilhelmina Cooper.

Cooper — a model turned agent — was immediately struck by Carangi.

At 17, Carangi moved to NYC.

Wilhelmina Cooper

Gia wasn’t living in New York long before her career blew up. In 1978 — at 18 — she did a provocative shoot for one of the industry’s top photographers. By 1979 she was on the cover of British Vogue.

American and Paris Vogue soon followed, along with ads for major luxury brands.

Carangi had what biographer Stephen Fried called a “boy-girl” look that many fashion editors craved. She was also, per several accounts, openly queer, at a time when that was unusual.

According to DIVA magazine, Gia spearheaded a new wave that “redefined the notion of beauty.”

Gia seemed destined for stardom. She’s often referred to as one of the first “supermodels.”

But when her mentor, Wilhelmina Cooper, died in 1980, Carangi’s drug use accelerated and her behavior became more erratic.

By the early 1980s, Gia Carangi’s modeling career was essentially over.

She returned to the Philadelphia area where she worked a carousel of jobs, including as a store clerk and a cafeteria worker. In 1984, Gia checked herself into a drug treatment program in Eagleville.

A year later — in December of 1985 — Carangi checked into the hospital again. This time she had pneumonia. The root cause soon became clear:

Carangi had AIDS.

In December of 1986, Gia Carangi died at Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia. She was 26.

Despite her one-time celebrity in the fashion world, Carangi’s death received almost no media coverage. It’s hard to find even *one* story about her passing — only a couple of standard death notices (one in The Inquirer and one in the Press of Atlantic City).

Only in later years did Carangi’s life and death receive more mainstream media coverage.

In 1993, investigative journalist and magazine writer Stephen Fried released a biography called “Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia.”

In 1998, Carangi’s story reached its widest audience yet with an HBO biopic called “Gia.”

The film starred Faye Dunaway as Wilhelmina Cooper.

Young Gia was played by a child actor named Mila Kunis.

And adult Gia? That role would go to an actress who was just emerging as a star.

Her name: Angelina Jolie.

Jolie would win a Golden Globe for the performance

Much of this article is based on reporting in Stephen Fried’s biography of Gia Carangi. If you’re interested in learning more about her life and childhood, check out that book.

Originally tweeted by Avi Wolfman-Arent (@Avi_WA) on April 13, 2023.

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Avi Wolfman-Arent

Avi Wolfman-Arent is co-host of Studio 2 and a broadcast anchor on 90.9 FM. He was previously an education reporter with WHYY, where he's worked since 2014. Prior to that he covered nonprofits for the...