The second episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story begins in 1994, three years before the fashion designer was murdered by Andrew Cunanan. As portrayed in this episode of the FX miniseries, Versace is being treated for HIV. This is two years before lifesaving treatment came along (in 1996), and Versace seems very ill.
In real life, though, his health problems at that time were attributed to an inner-ear cancer, not HIV. In fact, as Vanity Fair reports, the Versace family has long denied that the fashion icon had HIV. So why did the TV series pursue the HIV storyline?
It’s based on a book by Maureen Orth titled Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History. Orth says she spoke with a detective who saw Versace’s autopsy report.
Tom Rob Smith, a writer for the TV show, tells Vanity Fair that he confirmed Versace’s HIV status with off-the-record sources. “We weren’t approaching it as a piece of salacious gossip, nor was Maureen Orth,” he says. “She has no agenda or reason to push any point of view. She was interested in unpacking 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.”
(As ABC reported in 2014, FBI documents claim that before killing five people in four states in 1997, Cunanan had expressed fears that he had AIDS—and that he was out for revenge on anyone who might have been the source of his HIV. However, according to the same report, Cunanan had never been tested for the virus.)
The TV series and book offer several reasons why the family might have wanted to keep an HIV diagnosis a secret. Besides the obvious discrimination, stigma and homophobia, there was the fact that Versace was about to take his company public. Since he was its head and namesake, the company might have been valued at less if everyone thought he had a life-threatening illness.
As Orth pointed out in her book, it seems particularly tragic that, thanks to the advent of modern HIV meds in 1996, Versace survived a terrible sickness in 1994 and 1995 only to be murdered in 1997.
“I think the Versaces will like some of what we do,” the show’s producer Ryan Murphy told journalists in a report in New York Magazine’s Vulture.com. “I think it’s moving and powerful, and I don’t think there should be any shame associated with HIV.”