The Versace family has long denied that Gianni, the original visionary behind the Italian fashion house, was HIV positive when he was murdered in 1997. So it seems like a bold choice for American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace to open its second episode, “Manhunt,” with a scene in which Gianni is treated for the virus—especially given that there have been no major developments about his supposed status since Vanity Fair contributor Maureen Orth first reported Gianni had HIV, citing lead Miami Beach detective Paul Scrimshaw, who had seen Gianni’s autopsy results, as her source. So why did the series tackle such a prickly subject so directly?
“We weren’t approaching it as a piece of salacious gossip, nor was Maureen Orth, in all honesty,” explains American Crime Story writer Tom Rob Smith, who says that he also spoke with sources off-the-record who claim Versace had HIV.
“She has no agenda or reason to push any point of view,” he continues. “She was interested in unpicking some of the myths around the murder, such as that Andrew had AIDS and was killing because of it. In fact, Andrew, this destroyer of life, did not have AIDS, and the person who did have HIV was this great creator and celebrator of life.”
In investigating Versace’s health for her book Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History—the basis for the FX series—Orth explained why an HIV diagnosis “at the time, this news could have been a threat to the company if it was true.”
The diagnosis would not have been a threat because of any stigma associated with HIV, per se, but because before Gianni’s murder, the family had considered taking the company public—even signing with Morgan Stanley to manage the initial public offering. Announcing that its namesake visionary had a life-threatening illness would deflate the company’s value.
Orth also reported other details suggesting that Versace could have contracted HIV. Among them, she noted that even though Versace was in a long-term relationship with Antonio D'Amico, he and Antonio had a nightclub doorman procure sexual partners for them in the early 90s. After the designer fell seriously ill in 1994 and 1995, according to Orth, “Gianni's health improved in the last six months before his death—at a time when many people with HIV were experiencing similar results with new, life-saving medications.” And after the murder, she wrote, Versace’s family “wished to rush the cremation and get the ashes out of the country as soon as possible.”
In “Manhunt,” the Ronnie character, played by New Girl star Max Greenfield, offers up another side of the same story. Based on a real-life Miami hustler Orth spoke with for her book, Ronnie is a survivor of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and this aspect, rather than a detailed biographical sketch of the real man, is what Greenfield tells Vanity Fair’sStill Watching: Versace podcast he decided to focus on:
It was 1997—probably a year and a half maybe two years out from when they had figured out the correct medication to give to patients with HIV. That transition was so intense to those who had it and to those around the people who had it because for 15 years you were watching people die from this disease there didn’t seem to be a cure for. Then all of the sudden people who were very sick, within 30 days, were getting better. These people who lived through that—Ronnie was one of those people—you have this feeling, I would assume, of being the leftovers. ‘I lived my life certain that I was going to die and now I’m confused by the fact that I’m still here.’ Contextually it was such an odd, odd, confusing, emotional time for the LGBT community.
When faced with criticism from the real Versace family over including an HIV/AIDS storyline for Gianni in American Crime Story, executive producer Ryan Murphysaid: “I think it's moving and powerful and I don't think there should be any shame associated with HIV.” Greenfield—who assiduously researched this time period—agrees: “I’m sure I’ll misquote him but there was an activist during the ACT UP movement, Bob Rafsky—he was in the How to Survive a Plague documentary. What he would say about being punished—what I mean by ‘punished’ is the neglect of the government and the neglect of the media and just the overall neglect in addressing the AIDS issue—to be ‘punished’ for being human. For someone who had gotten the disease where it was sexually transmitted—how do we blame somebody for being human? It’s a part of life. It’s a part of what we all do. To be dismissed or to think that this is a death sentence that is deserved was such an insane idea to me. So no I don’t think it should ever be something that’s looked on in a negative way at all.”
After Orth’s book was published, the Versace family issued a statement decrying it, saying that they “deplore this mercenary invasion of their privacy and the scurrilous assault on the reputation of someone who was the victim of a horrible crime.”
Smith doesn’t see it that way. “Even if it was not HIV that Versace had,” he says, “even if it was a form of cancer that he overcame, the fact is that Versace, this great creator and great life force, overcame sickness. And during that sickness, he faced an enormous psychological burden—knowing that getting sick not only has health implications, but could ruin everything that you live for and have built for yourself and your family.”
Including that detail in the show was a vital thematic move, one that contrasted Versace against his murderer: while the designer persevered to overcome great obstacles, “Andrew was defeated by them,” says Smith. “Versace had many obstacles too. He became a great success, and a great employer, and a great uncle to his nephews and nieces. Versace overcame death, and then for death to come out of nowhere. . . that is heartbreaking.”
The season’s main thesis, Smith says, is this: “if you can’t communicate to the world through creation, you communicate it through destruction.” That’s how Cunanan, “a genuinely clever young man who had never hurt anyone, ended up doing this horrific, horrific thing.”
Donatella Versace, meanwhile, has maintained for decades that her brother was felled by ear cancer, not HIV. She told New York Magazine in 2006 that the reason her brother retreated from public view during 1994 and 1995 was “because his ear was so big,” claiming that because of the position of the cancer, it was inoperable. Miraculously, she added, “it was declared cured six months before he was murdered. We celebrated; we drink champagne and everything. Six months later, he was killed.”
To find out more about the true Versace story, the series itself, and everything between the two, subscribe to Still Watching: Versace on Apple Podcasts or your podcast app of choice. New episodes, including behind-the-scenes interviews, air every Wednesday.
Get Vanity Fair’s HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Julie MillerJulie Miller is a Senior Hollywood writer for Vanity Fair’s website.Joanna RobinsonJoanna Robinson is a Hollywood writer covering TV and film for VanityFair.com.