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Gia Carangi: Bowie kid
April 2002's Special Feature was an extract from the book Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia by Stephen Fried (1993). Gia Carangi was one of the top US models of the late 1970s starring on the covers of both Cosmopolitan and Vogue, amongst many other fashion magazines. Unfortunately she was also a heroin addict and became one of the first women in the US to die of AIDS in 1986. In the early seventies, Gia became fascinated with David Bowie and became at the time - a "Bowie kid". Stephen Fried's excellent biography documents just what it was like at that time to be a "Bowie kid".
....One day Karen [Karuza] was walking out of a classroom when she encountered a vision as startling as herself. It was a girl her age [Gia Carangi at 14 years old], but taller, wearing a quilted red satin jumpsuit and shiny red boots with black platforms. She wore her thick hair cropped short and shaggy in the back. It looked like a coon-skin cap had been glued to her scalp. The girl made eye contact and awkwardly approached her...[and] shoved an envelope into Karen's hand and galloped away. In the envelope was a picture postcard of David Bowie. Scrawled on the reverse side was "because you remind me of Angie" - which any fan would recognise as a reference to Bowie's wife. The next day the tall girl was waiting outside Karen's classroom again. And she continued to come back every day after that. Before long the two were friends, and their relationship - and outfits - were topics of constant comment and speculation among the students at Lincoln. They were women who fell to earth.
...By 1973 being a "Bowie kid" was an act of individual rebellion complete with its own thriving subcultural support group. The club of trailblazers had already been formed, the glittery dress code had been established and the "outrageousness is next to godliness" ethos was set in stone. Bowie's 1972 concept album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (and the ensuring US Tour and Rolling Stone cover story) had made him an international phenomenon. But he had been recording in England since 1966, and he had been wearing dresses on album covers and publicity declaring his bi-or-homo-sexuality (depending on how the presence of his wife Angie was interpreted) since 1971.
Ziggy was simply the most successful packaging of twenty-six year olds Bowie's basic themes: alienation, androgyny, otherworldliness, production values. And his highly theatrical act was the perfect innovation in a rock concert business where demand for showmanship was outpacing supply.
There were Bowie kids all over America and England. In every municipality and suburb, a certain number of people heard Bowie - or his character Ziggy - speaking to whatever it was that made them feel different: their sexuality, their intellectual aspiration, their dissatisfaction, their rebelliousness. It was mass marketing to those who wanted to be separate from the masses. And since Philadelphia had been among the first American cities to embrace the bisexual Barnum of rock, his cult of personality had grown particularly strong in the Delaware valley. His fall 1972 shows were such a huge success that when he returned in February of 1973, local promoters were able to sell out seven nights at the Tower Theatre, where audiences showed up in outfits that rivaled those worn by Bowie and his band, turning the whole scene into a rock n roll performance art piece with a 3,072 member cast. When Bowie then announced his retirement from performance in July of that year, his marketed mystique was solidified.
"He was a genuine guru, a rock star who seemed to hold some secrets in a way that nobody really expected, of say the Beatles, recalled Matt Damasker, Philadelphia's reigning rock critic at the time. "Everybody was so caught up in the shared moment, and Bowie represented someone so mysterious and so calculatedly brilliant. There was a power to his very best music that suggested a lot of withheld information: it seemed that if you got close to him, he might dispense it to you. He seemed to have a political and metaphysical program in mind. These weren't stupid kids. They weren't into Bowie just because they were bored with everything else. They were caught up in something that was pretty broad in its implications."
Bowie himself would recall of the time, "I never ever thought my songs would help anybody think or know anything. Yet it did seem at that time there were an awful lot of people who were feeling a similar way. They were starting to feel alienated from society, especially the breakdown of the family as we'd known it in the forties, fifties and especially the sixties, when it really started crumbling. Then, in the seventies, people my age group felt disinclined to be a part of society. It was really hard to convince oneself that you were a part of society. The feeling was here we are, without our families, totally out of our heads, and we don't know where on earth we are. That was the feeling of the early seventies - nobody knew where they were."
For Gia, Bowie and adolescence would be interchangeable. Her first haircut since the age of eight - and the first time she ever chose her own hairstyle - was the bushy Bowie cut. It was executed by Nadine at Bonwit Tellers, almost perfectly replicating Bowie's look on the PinUps (1973) cover photograph. "She went from this beautiful long hair to this Bowie hairdo, Kathleen recalled. "I couldn't stand it. I avoided seeing her for two weeks."
Gia's first experimentation with makeup were definitely not done to make her look more womanly. She and her Aunt Nancy spent an afternoon singing along to Bowie records and perfecting a red lightning bolt from Gia's hairline to her cheek, like the one on the cover of the just-released Aladdin Sane (1973). Among her first clothes Gia bought for herself by herself were red platform boots, a white shirt decorated with black hands that appeared to be wrapped around her upper body, and a feather boa. The red satin jumpsuit had been handmade by her mother as a gesture to befriend this gawky space creature that had once been her adoring daughter. She began dotting her i's with circles and signing her notes and letters "Love on Ya!" It was the same way Bowie had scrawled his hand-written liner notes on PinUps (1973).
To her parents, Gia seemed to have been transformed overnight after attending a Bowie show. "She got involved with rock concerts, okay?" her step-father, Henry Sperr, recalled "And a bunch of people who went to rock concerts. They weren't from around here. She got a Bowie haircut and that changed her personality completely. She seemed like a sweet, young kid before, and then afterward ... well, you know it probably had something to do with the drugs. She would be disrespectful, she would be constantly fighting, just over nothing. And she'd be very rebellious. You'd say "Be home at ten o'clock", and she'd come home the next day."
But that was the way it was for many of the kids caught up in the glitter crowd, some of whom had yet to actually see this creature David Bowie perform. They viewed Bowie - not just his records and his image but the whole scene he was musically documenting - as the doorkeeper to a new world that really was brave.
Joe McDevit was converted at The Tunnel at Cottermann and Bustleon, where teen dances were held on Saturday nights. it was there that the blond, broad-shouldered forklift operator - a seventeen year old Catholic school dropout - was first inspired by a friend with a Bowie-do and a rhinestone shirt.
"Next thing I knew, I shave my eyebrows off, hit the sewing machine to make glitter clothes and found out about this man in Hialeah, Florida, who made custom platform shoes," McDevit recalled. "I sent him a tracing of my foot and ordered a pair with eleven-inch heels and eight-inch platforms, navy blue with silver lightning bolts drawn down the side. They came in the mail, a hundred and five dollars - I had to work for two weeks to pay for them. In a matter of weeks I went from a normal kid who played baseball at the local field to parading around in full drag. Suddenly, I was bisexual. I had a steady girlfriend, and my boyfriends were all neighborhood kids who played on the baseball team."
McDevits first Bowie concert was also his debut to the Delaware Valley's David Bowie throng as a fanatic to be reckoned with. "We camped out for weeks for tickets," McDevit recalled. "And I had a friend of mine whip up a silver lame space suit, with a blue lame jock strap attached to the jacket. I remember waiting for Bowie to come on stage for my entrance. I felt so special. He was on stage singing and I walked down the aisle. They put the spotlight on me and I started throwing kisses." On that night, Jo McDevit became Joey Bowie."
For others, the evolution was less theatrical. "The way I remember it", recalled one friend of Gia's, "I was a little kid watching the Brady Bunch one day and the next day I was in a bar with a Quaalude, even though I was only fourteen. It was just a very crazy time to be in high school. I remember staying out all night on a weeknight and then hailing a cab to take me straight to school from the clubs."
The Bowie crowd at Lincoln, though small, quickly developed its own hierarchy and heroes. Although it was mostly girls - a male took a much higher risk coming to school wearing makeup - the leader of the pack was Ronnie Johnson, a sixteen year old dead-ringer for Bowie. Ronnie wasn't so much the ultimate David Bowie fanatic. Ronnie Johnson was David Bowie - or as close as you could get and still have a locker at Lincoln. He designed and sewed his own Bowie-inspired clothes: did his own embroidery, affixed his own sequins. He combed the high fashion magazine for the latest trends in hair, makeup and clothing. He understood that Bowie's outfits, extraterrestrial to girls who shopped in malls, were merely the most futuristic designs of top European and Oriental dressmakers.
Ronnie and Gia immediately hit it off. When they saw each other, Gia made it a point to bite Ronnie, as a sign of playfully outrageous affection. Besides Bowie, they shared the bond of emotional, broken homes....And Ronnie and Gia had something else in common. The Bowie kids did a lot of sexual posturing. Bowie was a bisexual so, at least in theory, they were too: they cross-dressed, they cross-flirted. In practice, however, few of them did in private what they claimed to do in public. And some of them didn't do anything at all. All of which made life that much more confusing for people like Gia and Ronnie, who deep inside, suspected that they really were gay, and wanted to do something about it.
...A well informed Bowie kid needed a lot of information, and it wasn't available in mainstream newspapers, magazines or TV news reports. To these media, rock music was still basically for children. So the musical minutiae had to be gleaned from the pages of "alternative" publications. There were rock tabloids like Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy and the local Drummer, and magazines like Creem and Circus, which at least attempted to employ journalistic techniques in covering pop culture. And there were glossy magazines like Hit Parade, which like most fanzines, were mostly pictures to be cut out and affixed to bedroom walls and notebooks. While schoolbooks held little interest for her, Gia pored over these publications for details.
Appreciating Bowie meant more than memorizing lyrics, liner notes and David-news flashes. You had to understand the world he had packaged for mass consumption to speak the language. You had to know about Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, the first rock band ever to sing about homosexuals and heroin, and you had to know about pop artist Andy Warhol, who made the Velvets the toast of a downtown Manhattan club you had to know about called Max's Kansas City. You had to know about the rivalry between Bowie and Marc Bolan of T.Rex, and how Bowie had rescued Mott the Hoople from obscurity by giving them his song - "All the Young Dudes." And you had to know about the Rolling Stones - not because of their venerated position in the history of rock but because Bowie had recorded their "Lets Spend the Night Together." And the Stone's recent number one single "Angie" was supposedly a love song from Mick Jagger to Bowie's wife - or to Bowie himself.
...When the announcement came over WMMR-FM, word spread through the Bowie community like a batch of bad hair dye. The T.Rex concert scheduled for the Tower Theater was cancelled. Ticket holders could get a refund at the box office, or for an extra dollar, could trade in the tickets for the same seats to see David Bowie who was coming out of retirement to support a new record.
Diamond Dogs was to be the turning point in Bowie's career. Renaming 1974 "The Year of the Diamond Dogs" was part of the campaign by Bowie's management to explain his formative year away from performing and to sell his new image. Bowie wasn't going to be Ziggy Stardust anymore. He was going to throw a wrench into the time honored machinery of pop stardom by splitting with his past image and repositioning himself as a musical chameleon, a pretentious changeling with no real identity beyond the parts he played and the costumes he wore. The futuristic hell portrayed in the lyrics and on the album cover suggested a reason for throwing Ziggy to the dogs: the decadent life of rock stardom had destroyed his sensibilities. Luckily the album Diamond Dogs had a few catchy tunes among the dystopian posturing: "Rebel Rebel" was Bowie most radio-ready hit yet.
Bowie was now big enough to play to sold-out stadiums under normal circumstances, he would have been expected to play the cavernous Spectrum. But as a gesture to his Philadelphia fans, he had instead decided to play the smaller Tower Theatre for as many nights as he could sell out.
...As the second half of the show came to a close, Bowie shocked the crowd by doing an encore, something he generally avoided: the hardcore Bowie fans took it as a personal gift, something they had willed by their own enthusiasm. About halfway through the song, Gia grabbed Karen's hand and dragged her out the side exit of the theater and around back. As Bowie shuffled out the stage door and slid into his waiting limo, Gia vaulted over the yellow police barricade and leaped onto the hood of the car, face against the windshield. Bowie slunk down into the back seat as Karen waved to him from the sidelines. And when it became clear that the driver wasn't going to stop, Gia rolled off the hood, victoriously brushing off her hands. "Jeez, we just wanted to say hi", she said.
It was the beginning of a week of Bowie madness, with Gia meeting and making a reputation for herself amongst the older Bowie kids...the hardcore fans found out what rooms the Bowie entourage had commandeered in the Bellevue Startford Hotel and they staked out his floor.
...One afternoon, Gia actually managed to wedge herself into Bowie's elevator before the door closed. Realizing that he'd been caught, he leaned against the wood-paneled elevator wall and closed his eyes. Gia just stood there and stared at him, too stunned to act. She finally managed to say hello, introduce herself and even shake his hand before he got off. She was left dumbfounded. A few days later she wrote about it in a letter to Ellen Moon - who spent summers with her parents in the Poconos.
"Howdy Ellen...I got to shake hands with Bowie Friday night because me and my mummy followed his limo. His arms feel really nice. He's one nice piece of ass...I've done a couple of 7-14's [Quaaludes]. I'll try and get you two. They make me too horny and tired. There's lots of reds going around here...My mother got her hair cut into a Bowie. Ha! Ha! I think she's a bit nuts. When you do come back to old Philadelphia if you want to you can take some coke! Take care..see you later alligator...Bowie is the most beautiful person! Don't cry like me, Love, Gia"..........................
The author: Stephen Fried is a Senior Writer at Philadelphia Magazine. His work has also appeared in Vanity Fair, GQ and the Washington Post magazine. A winner of a 1993 National Magazine Award, the Distinguished Service Award for Magazine Reporting from the Professional Journalists, and the Clarion Award from Women in Communications, he lives in Philadelphia with his wife Diane Ayres, a fiction writer.
---This page last modified: 14 Jul 2002---