Part of the intrigue of The Assassination of Gianni Versace is you’re never quite sure what is fact and what is fiction.
It’s this dynamic that looms over the second episode, Manhunter, where we see Versace being treated for the HIV virus – despite his family long having denied the fashion visionary was HIV positive when he was murdered in 1997.
You can’t deny it’s an interesting – if not daring – move to open the episode with Gianni being treated for the disease.
Even more so since the Versace family released a pair of statements denouncing the show as “sad and reprehensible”, taking issue with the depiction of the “medical condition”.
The source material for the series was taken from the book Vulgar Favours, by Vanity Fair journalist Maureen Orth, where she claims Versace was HIV Positive when he died.
She quotes lead detective Paul Scrimshaw, who had seen the autopsy results as her source.
Since Gianni’s death there have been no new developments, or evidence, that this was the case.
So why do people think he was HIV positive?
Gianni Versace was gunned down by a serial killer
"After everything he survived… to be killed like this?" Donatella says after we’re shown flashbacks of Versace in hospital, hiding behind shades until she’s told “there are no journalists here.”
The words HIV and AIDS are never uttered, but the implication is there. He is ill and he wants to keep it secret.
The scene may be a dramatic interpretation of what happened, but Gianni did disappear from the public eye in 1994 and 1995 just before his death.
Orth, in her book, puts across the case for the reason being HIV, though the family deny this.
Writer of the series, Tom Rob Smith, has said the choice to show the scenes wasn’t born from an attempt to try and bend facts. In fact, he says he’s spoken to sources off the record who also claim the designer had HIV.
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“We weren’t approaching it as a piece of salacious gossip, nor was Maureen Orth, in all honesty,” he told Vanity Fair .
In his eyes Orth has no agenda to push and no reason to lie. She was simply trying to piece together what happened.
Her aim was to break apart the myths surrounding the murder – one myth being Andrew Cunanan, who murdered Versace, had AIDs.
In truth, he didn’t have the disease, but the person who did, based off her sources, was Versace.
At the time, Versace being HIV positive “could have been a threat to the company if it was true” Orth believes.
In the early 90s the actual diagnosis may not have been the issue, but instead it was the business implications.
Before Gianni’s murder the family had thought about taking the company public – it was a family business – and breaking the news that the main visionary was suffering from a life-threatening disease would not have helped the company’s image or value.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace
Who killed Gianni Versace?
Cast vs real-life counterparts
Did he know his killer?
Did Gianni Versace have HIV?
How did Gianni Versace die?
Inside Versace’s mansion
Andrew Cunanan’s victims
The boyfriend – Antonio D’Amico
Orth built up a case, which, in her eyes, showed Gianni could have contracted HIV.
While the designer was in a long-term relationship with Antonio D’Amico, they also had sex with other partners.
In the second episode of ACS we see the tension between Donatella and Antonio come to a head.
“You’ve given him nothing,” she says. While she doesn’t say it outright, it’s clear she blames Antonio for Gianni’s illness, mainly down to their lifestyle.
It was known that a doorman would procure sexual partners for the pair in the early 90s, a fact that the series nods to in the first episode as Antonio (Ricky Martin) describes their relationship.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story
Gianni fell seriously ill in 1994 and then in 1995, but his health looked like it was improving at a time when people with HIV were showing similar results.
According to Orth, there were “new, life-saving medications” that were showing results in the last six months before his death.
Then after the murder, Orth says, Versace’s family “wished to rush the cremation and get the ashes out of the country as soon as possible.”
We’re also introduced to Ronnie, a Miami local played by New Girl’s Max Greenfield.
Ronnie is key to Cunanan’s story, but he also gives us insight into Gianni’s potential HIV battle.
Andrew Cunanan in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story
His real story is an example of the same recovery Orth argues Gianni showed.
Ronnie is based on a real life Miami man whom Orth interviewed for her book.
He survived the HIV/AIDs epidemic at a time people had watched as people who had the disease wither away – there seemed to be no cure. Then that all changed.
Those who had been failing and dying before their eyes were getting better. Did this hint at the recovery Gianni seemingly had? We’ll never know.
- How did Gianni Versace die? The shocking moment serial killer Andrew Cunanan brutal murdered fashion icon recreated on American Crime Story
Versace’s family denial – was it ear cancer?
The show’s team has not shied away from the controversy around Gianni and the question of his HIV status.
Even faced with criticism by Versace’s family, executive producer Ryan Murphy told Vulture: “I think [the show] is moving and powerful, and I don’t think there should be any shame associated with H.I.V.”
Versace’s family may feel differently.
When Orth’s book was released the family came out and published a statement denying the HIV claims.
They said they all “deplore this mercenary invasion of their privacy and the scurrilous assault on the reputation of someone who was the victim of a horrible crime.”
Sister Donatella, who took over his business, has said for years that Gianni was actually ill with ear cancer.
Speaking in 2006, she said her brother had stepped away from the public domain in 1994 and 1995 “because his ear was so big”.
She told the New York Magazine the positioning of the cancer meant it was inoperable.
“Gianni was sure he was going to die,” she told the magazine. “He was sick with cancer in his ear before he was murdered. The last two years of his life, Gianni was hiding, hiding up in his apartment in Via Gesú, because his ear was so big.
"It was impossible to do a surgery because of the position, because to do a surgery, part of his face was supposed to drop.
“That’s why the Will and everything was done, and I knew everything about, because he thought he was going to die.”
It was somewhat of a miracle, she added, that it was then declared cured.
“We celebrated; we drink champagne and everything. Six months later, he was killed.”
Cunanan shoots down Gianni Versace
Why was it included?
The idea Gianni had HIV is a thematic part of the show. Overcoming death only to be struck down is even more heartbreaking, so it’s easy to see why the show included it.
“Versace had many obstacles.” Smith told Vanity Fair. “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 Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story aired on BBC 2 in the UK last year, and has now dropped on Netflix.
This article first appeared on Mirror Online on March 6, 2018.