Read an Excerpt
“They’ve Shot Gianni”
It was midafternoon on July 15, 1997, and a breathless heat had settled on Rome, making the Eternal City so hot that stiletto heels sank slightly into the melting asphalt, leaving pockmarks on the sidewalk. Piazza di Spagna, with its undulating, double-helix staircase, was a hive of activity. Early that morning, police had cleared the cream-colored marble steps, shooing away the penny-ante artists and the slick Romeos who chatted up pretty tourists, so that television crews could mount bulky cameras and lights onto two makeshift towers.
The crews were setting up for the next evening’s broadcast of Donna sotto le stelle, or Woman Under the Stars. Donna sotto le stelle was the sort of eye candy that had become a staple of Italian television in the 1980s. Eighteen fashion houses, including Valentino and Fendi, would send their most fabulous evening gowns sashaying down the floodlit Spanish Steps, with the balmy backdrop of Rome adding to the festive air. To add a pinch of drama, the organizers of the show always chose one designer to honor. This year, they’d picked Gianni Versace.
Gianni’s sister, Donatella, had arrived the evening before at the Hotel De La Ville, a seventeenth-century palazzo turned hotel perched at the top of the steps. As usual, she stayed in the best room—a deluxe eighth-floor penthouse with a wraparound terrace that offered postcard views stretching from the cupola of the Vatican to the Colosseum. The suite boasted a white baby grand piano, bequeathed to the hotel by composer Leonard Bernstein, who had once lived there for six months. Santo, the elder brother of Donatella and Gianni, hated fancy suites and had unpacked his bags in a more modest room at the same hotel.
That morning, each house had had an hour-long slot to rehearse its models on the Spanish Steps, the trickiest of catwalks, with 135 marble stairs, many worn slippery smooth from centuries of tourist traffic. Dozens of models gingerly tested their descents in the stilettos they would wear the next day. Donatella had the first slot for the rehearsal that morning. The producers knew the ratings dropped soon after the start of the show, as a marathon of pretty models in pretty clothes tired viewers quickly, so they had scheduled the most important designers first. This year, Versace was to open the show. Due to the unwieldy number of designers, the show’s organizers had set a limit of no more than fifteen dresses each. Donatella had ignored the quota and brought thirty-five, confident that the house’s signature glitz would be irresistible to the show’s producers and that no one would complain.
Moreover, she was bringing Naomi Campbell, the star of supermodels, famous for her perfect body, her showmanship, and her ability to work a dress with grace and swagger. Naomi was too important to attend that morning’s run-through, so another girl had stood in for her. Naomi had arrived in Italy a few days before to take in a quick holiday on the Amalfi coast, and a chauffeured car was ferrying her to Rome for the evening dress rehearsal. Even in a world crowded with million-dollar egos, Naomi was the ultimate diva, thanks as much to her personal antics as to her lithe body. The twenty-seven-year-old superstar’s appetite for gorgeous men, fast cars, and copious amounts of cocaine provided endless fodder for gossip columns. Naomi’s tantrums were legendary: She would throw such a violent fit over lost luggage in London that police officers had to drag her kicking and screaming from the plane. Another time, she threw a cell phone at her maid, leaving a gash that required stitches.
But with Gianni, Naomi was a different, more tractable creature. She had long been his favorite model—the woman he often had in mind when he designed his gowns. She showed off his frocks in their full glamour, her feline grace a perfect foil for his lissome dresses. Versace had brought her fame as one of the original supermodels, the group of exquisite girls Gianni had launched. He also played the role of the protective big brother, a salve to her skittish, high-strung character. Cementing her bond with the clan, Naomi had become fast friends with Donatella, who often invited her for weekends at the Versace mansion on Lake Como.
As Naomi made her way to Rome, two conference rooms on the first floor of the Hotel De La Ville had been transformed into a makeshift backstage, overflowing with pre-fashion-show detritus, as makeup artists, hairdressers, and seamstresses wrangled the girls into the highly polished, über-sexy Versace look for the dress rehearsal. Dressed in skinny jeans and devoid of makeup, the girls sat giggling and gossiping, sipping on cans of Diet Coke and chatting as they waited their turns. Some were as young as fourteen and still had prepubescent, almost boyish figures. Indeed, aside from the supermodels, many models are surprisingly plain without makeup. They are chameleons that designers can transform into the type of women they want to project that season.
Against one wall stood a line of vanity tables, outfitted with bright klieg lights and littered with bottles, tubes, and hairpieces. Makeup artists held the girls’ chins firmly, turning their heads left and right to get a good look at their work. The room grew stifling with the sickly smell of hair spray, cigarette smoke, and espresso vapors. Because the show was just a one-night stand and not part of a fashion marathon, the hair and makeup people had a relatively easy time of it. During fashion week, when the girls scurry from show to show, the hair and makeup artists have to rush to remove the fake nails, elaborate hairdos, or full-body bronzing gel that the last designer demanded. A model who works the whole five-week runway season will find her skin, hair, and nails wrecked by the relentless grooming.
Once made up, the bare-breasted models stripped down to just heels and tiny G-strings, their Brazilian bikini waxes on full display, and waited for dressers to help them wiggle into the clothes without smudging their makeup or leaving stains on the dresses from the greasy lotion they’d applied to their legs to make them shine under the lights. Models often crash-dieted or downed laxatives before a big show, so Versace’s motherly seamstresses, pins hanging from their mouths, stood ready to nip and tuck dresses to make them fit again. Double-sided tape was strapped to the models’ breasts to keep them from popping out of Versace’s signature plunging necklines on stage. Trays of food sat untouched.
Donatella’s assistants then took Polaroid shots of each woman in her assigned dress, complete with any jewelry and handbags she would wear for the show. The photos were then taped to a rack holding the entire outfit, so that the models wouldn’t forget anything. Donatella was watching a seamstress fit a model into a dress, mulling some last-minute changes to the lineup, when her cell phone rang. Of course, it was Gianni, calling from Miami Beach to pepper her with questions.