Los Angeles Blade
When Versace raised money for AIDS
January 11, 2018 at 9:27 am PST | by Karen Ocamb
The family of murdered fashion designer Gianni Versace is not happy with gay producer Ryan Murphy’s latest endeavor, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,” a 9-episode anthology that premiers Wednesday, Jan. 17 on FX. In particular, they are angry that the series suggests Versace was HIV-positive when he was murdered by gay hustler Andrew Cunanan on the steps of his South Miami Beach mansion on July 15, 1997.
The family says that they had no involvement with the series and consider it a “work of fiction,” adding that Maureen Orth’s 452-page book upon which the series is based (“Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History”) ”is full of gossip and speculation” and “second-hand hearsay that is full of contradictions.”
One example: “Orth makes assertions about Gianni Versace’s medical condition based on a person who claims he reviewed a post-mortem test result, but she admits it would have been illegal for the person to have reviewed the report in the first place (if it existed at all),” the family says.
“In making her lurid claims, she ignores contrary information provided by members of Mr. Versace’s family, who lived and worked closely with him and were in the best position to know the facts of his life.”
Orth says she conducted 400 interviews, including with Miami Detective Paul Scrimshaw who told the Vanity Fair contributor that he reviewed Versace’s autopsy results. “I had to know whether Gianni Versace was HIV-positive or not, and I was able to find out from autopsy results that he had tested positive for HIV,” Scrimshaw told Orth.
Orth writes that Versace kept his HIV status secret to not endanger a proposed public offering of stock in his fashion empire, estimated at $1.4 billion. Versace signed an agreement with Morgan Stanley to manage the initial offering in the United States on July 10, 1997. He was murdered five days later. “The consequences to his business would be incalculable. Certainly the public offering would be jeopardized,” she writes.
Murphy defended his series to Entertainment Weekly.
“The Versace family has said it’s a work of fiction — it is not a work of fiction,” Murphy says, adding that the book “has been discussed and dissected and vetted for close to 20 years.” Orth “is an impeccable reporter and we stand by her reporting. Our show is based on her reporting so, in that way, it is not a work of fiction, it’s a work of non-fiction obviously with docudrama elements. We’re not making a documentary.”
But both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times book reviewers reported that Orth was wrong about Versace’s HIV status.
In an April 11, 1999 review for the New York Times, then-Washington correspondent Frank Bruni writes that “the breadth and thoroughness of Orth’s research are often staggering,” but “Orth often loses her footing.”
“When Cunanan was found on a houseboat there, dead from a gunshot to his head, just eight days after Versace’s murder, the case was pretty much closed. An autopsy showed that Cunanan had not contracted H.I.V., disproving some speculation about what triggered his spree,” Bruni writes.
In her March 24, 1999 column, the L.A. Times senior fashion writer Valli Herman-Cohen notes that Orth is a fourth-generation Californian married to ‘Meet the Press’ moderator Tim Russert. “Her book claims that Versace was HIV positive, which the Versace family has repeatedly denied. During the manhunt, police were testing a theory that Cunanan killed Versace in revenge for transmitting AIDS to him….But as it turned out, according to the medical examiner, Cunanan was HIV negative.
Apparently rumors had circulated in South Beach that Versace had AIDS when he appeared gaunt, weak and emaciated in 1995. A Versace associate told Orth that by the end of that year, the designer “could barely walk half a block.” But his health improved six months before his murder, Orth writes, because he was taking the miracle new AIDS medication.
“My time with Gianni which was well over a year,” Michael Anketell tells the Los Angeles Blade. Anketell founded the California Fashion Industry Friends of People Living with AIDS benefit that honored Versace in 1991 at the Century Plaza Hotel. “I saw him with great stamina when in the throws of his work, but when I visited him in Milano he seemed quite tired and frail. Just my observation. We had great talks about LA and my coming of age in La La Land. He was fascinated by the famous people I had come to know and how serendipitous life can be.”
Anketell and a steering committee launched the fashion show fundraisers in 1987 to benefit AIDS Project Los Angeles. Even though designer Perry Ellis had died of AIDS, it was hard to get people to turn out. With a few exceptions such as Elizabeth Taylor and Bette Midler, “Hollywood was as squeamish about the whole issue of AIDS as was the rest of the country,” Anketell writes in his book “Heavenly Bodies: Remembering Hollywood and Fashion’s Favorite AIDS Benefit.” “Finally, because fashion and entertainment are so integrally part of people’s lives, it can also be easy to forget that, first and foremost, they are industries and, like businesses, do not want to be associated with any issue that might offend any segment of their potential customer base.”
The Versace show was the fifth benefit for APLA and by 1991, Hollywood had stepped up. But this was the “first full blown retrospective of his career,” Anketell says. “It was a big deal. People flew in from all over the world” to honor the designer who dressed and was close friends with Princess Diana, Elton John, Cher, George Michael and created that famous red jacket Michael Jackson wore in “Thriller.”
Since this was to benefit people with HIV/AIDS, the designers were responsible for 50% of the budget and the whole look of the show. Versace’s team designed the entire ballroom, flying in a backdrop from the La Scala opera house that looked like an Italian garden, using Versace fabric for tablecloths and lampshades. Elizabeth Taylor dropped by during rehearsals and walked out with an armful of clothes, Anketell says.
“Gianni’s brother Santo told me not to worry about money. They would pay for everything,” he says. That included flying in the Fab Five top supermodels—Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, and Claudia Schiffer—all of whom donated their time.
There were hitches, of course. When it was announced that Versace would be the honoree, Cher’s manager called Anketell to say she wanted to be a presenter. However Cher had stiffed Anketell in 1989 in the show honoring Bob Mackie. Though there was a whole segment devoted to the singer’s Mackie outfits, Cher failed to show up until the middle of the benefit when she came in a motorcycle jacket and torn jeans to underscore a tiff.
Anketell nervously agreed to have Cher present Versace at the tribute. “We were getting ready for her to go out and she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and she thought she looked fat. She refused to go out,” he recalls.
Anketell quickly resorted to Plan B, made his way through his bodyguards to get to Sylvester Stallone and asked him to introduce his close friend Versace. But by the time they got backstage, Cher changed her mind and decided to go on after all. “They got into a tiff, she pushed him and he fell over. He isn’t a tall man and he wore lifts,” Anketell says. But he got up, brushed himself off, cast aside the remarks prepared for Cher and winged it.
“Gianni was like a brother to him—this Italian brotherhood,” says Anketell. “To hear Stallone talk from his heart—he always plays the macho man and here he was at an AIDS benefit introducing one of his closest friends. It was quite moving.”
“Gianni could never understand why we chose him to be honored instead of Armani,” says Anketell. “It was because of his grace and how open he was about being gay.”
Anketell says he was devastated to hear about Versace’s murder. “I can’t explain how much grief I felt. I worked with Gianni for over a year on the show. I was a guest in his house,” says Anketell, who is now battling cancer. “And when someone you know dies so unexpectedly—this unpreparedness washes over you. I couldn’t talk for a couple of days. It was just such a shock.”
“Young people don’t understand what it was like for us during those days” Anketell says. He hopes Ryan Murphy’s series will get people interested in the Gianni Versace he knew.